If you drove by the old Stanard School at E. 55th Street and St. Clair Avenue, it didn’t look like much. Just another old building lost to years of neglect and probably a frequent site for illicit activity. When the city slated it for demolition in 2007, the four guys at A Piece of Cleveland (APOC) were on alert. They knew that within the rubble of framing lumber, busted bricks, nicked doors, and scuffed wood floors destined for landfill were treasures to be mined.
The piles of maple flooring and old growth pine werewoodworkers’ gold, the kind of material readily found when the homes were built 100 years ago, but rarely available today.
In the maple they envisioned the beautiful blond wood chairs that today sit in their downtown studio. They saw cutting boards and chopping blocks that in the past year became a local culinary gift sensation, particularly on the bridal shower circuit. In old-growth pine, with its tightly wound concentric rings, they saw the contemporary pattern perfect for the countertops now installed in a customer’s home.
Every year in Cleveland, a thousand homes are demolished to make way for parking lots, businesses, and new homes, or to remove blighted remnants of the foreclosure crisis.
During the demolition process, most items such as concrete, brick, and wood are recycled – crushed and ground for other uses. But that process still brings it one step closer to the landfill because that material cannot be recycled yet again.
APOC takes the two-by-fours, framing lumber, doors, and wooden floors of those wood-frame homes and buildings and gives them new life – as chairs, lamps, tables, bookcases, cutting boards, countertops, and conference tables.
The wood that held up houses for generations will have new purpose that will last generations longer. This is “upcycling,” a term coined by designers William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book, “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.”
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It was a shared penchant for sustainability, history, and good design that brought APOC partners – furnituremaker P.J. Doran, carpenter Aaron Gogolin, housing development manager Chris Kious, and furniture designer Ezra Taxel – together last year in their upcycling business.
Their first venture was chopping blocks and cutting boards made of rescued wood. But it was the tag each item carried – with a researched story of where this “piece of Cleveland” came from – that caused them to sell out immediately. Inspired by the response, and realizing the market potential, they turned their attention to finding more raw materials for their products.
Most of the housing stock in the Cleveland area is made of wood, providing a ready supply. But they wanted to offer something a little bit more than another wooden chair or end table.
“The materials deserved the chance to have new life,” says Mr. Kious, “but their stories also deserved to be retold.”
“Anyone who builds green wants to tell people why it’s green,” says Mr. Taxel.
Using public records, APOC tracks a home’s ownership, square footage, year built, style, and other attributes. But some of the richest findings for the “rebirth certificates” that accompany each piece come from the stories of people in the neighborhoods where the deconstructions are taking place.
For example, In 2007, the City of Cleveland was tearing down a home on Cleveland’s near West Side to make way for a parking lot to accommodate off-street parking for the nearby commercial district.
Through A public records search at the county auditor’s office, APOC learned that the home was built in 1915 and owned by multiple members and possibly generations of the Zarrelli family.
In the process of recovering the old-growth pine wall studs and flooring, they talked with neighbors who shared stories about the Zarrelli family’s front porch spaghetti parties.
Today, those wood pieces are joined, butcher-block style and highly polished, in a 20-foot-by-6-foot conference table in the offices of Cleveland-based marketing and Web development firm, Thunder::Tech.
The firm was seeking a table that would suit its large conference room and creative culture. Rather choosing the typical cherry wood “boardroom” table, the firm, which was helping APOC launch its marketing, turned to them for a custom table.
“They were looking for a big custom project and we liked what they had to say about their company,” says Kristin Hall, operations and human resource administrator for Thunder::Tech. “We are big fans of Cleveland, and sustainability is an important value to our company,” she explains.
Working with Taxel, they came up with the design for table created with the Zarrelli family home’s floor joists and with I-beams from the old Tyler Village industrial complex on Cleveland’s East Side.
“I tell clients and visitors that someone walked on our conference table before it became a table,” says Ms. Hull.
Kious believes that when companies like Thunder::Tech – and Tremont neighborhood restaurant Fahrenheit, for which APOC made its dining room tables – commit to having APOC’s custom work in their businesses, “it says something about the values and interests of the company.”
“People are not just looking for objects, but ... for objects that say something about them and who they are,” says Taxel. “As a designer, I’m interested in creating a personal connection with an object.” It’s akin to wearing your grandfather’s watch, or using your great-grandmother’s cookbooks, he says.
“The beauty of what we do is that there’s no single thing people respond to,” explains Taxel. Some respond to contemporary quality or craftsmanship, others to the green aspect or historical preservation. “Any one of those would stand on its own, but our pieces bring all these elements together in a unique way,” he says.
APOC is now forming its own green deconstruction company – Urban Lumberjacks of Cleveland – to find its raw materials.
“There’s no shortage of opportunities for getting materials,” explains Kious. Even older suburbs are contacting APOC about deconstruction. It’s an opportunity built out of the devastation of foreclosures that have hit the Cleveland area. Communities want to remove magnets of blight.
But it’s expensive to pay for the more exacting nature of deconstruction. Kious says the difference – on a typical single-family house – can be as extreme as $18,000 for deconstruction versus $8,000 for demolition.
“We need to learn best practices to bring those costs more in line so that cities can afford deconstruction as an alternative,” Kious says.
APOC creates value for materials not wanted for reuse in the same way. While certain metals and brick can be reused in building, wood can’t because it no longer meets code for building material quality. If the wood were not rescued, it would be headed for the landfill.
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“We’re a town where things get made and they have taken something really sad in the loss of homes and have turned it into something beautiful,” says Ward 13 Councilman Joe Cimperman. To date, he notes, not one brick of the Stanard School deconstruction has gone into the landfill. The site will be transformed into Cleveland’s first zoned urban farm.
The added cost comes only in that it takes longer to deconstruct than to demolish. But Mr. Cimperman believes APOC is ahead of the curve. He believes that the market demand and cost of transporting to landfills necessarily will lead to more opportunities for deconstruction.
While the model for rescuing materials and upcycling them using good design can be replicated anywhere, Taxel suggests that APOC has touched something deeper in customers:“Clevelanders tend to be very proud of where they are from and like to get their hands on a piece of home.