Reclaiming Old New York Lumber

RC1: Recycle Construction Waste
The NYC Green Codes Task Force, created at the request of Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn, deconstructed the cities building code, with the intent of retro-fitting it to a greener standard. In early 2010, the Task Force, led by the Urban Green Council, released 111 recommended green changes. The current scorecard has tallied 37 of the 111 as laws enacted or pending.1 ‘
The recommendations cover a wide range of building construction and deconstruction issues. Wood reclamation is addressed within the Resource Conservation (RC1-5) section, in the sub-chapter Construction Waste Recycling. The report doesn’t mince woods – It recommends mandatory recycling of large dimensional lumber.
3303.15.2 Salvaging large-dimension lumber. Any construction, alternation, partial demolition, or demolition of a building or space greater than 1,000 square feet (93 m2) shall comply with this Section 3303.15.2. All large-dimension lumber shall be separated from other waste at the construction site, stored in a dry location, and sent to a facility for reuse. Such materials shall not be commingled with dissimilar material during onsite storage or transportation. Such material shall not be cut except as necessary for removal and shall be maintained in as large a piece as feasible. Exception: Large-dimension lumber that has no reclaimed value due to damage by rot, dry rot, termites, splitting, fire, or other damage.
The details of the RC1 code recommendation are considered here in relation to the conditions and common practices of NYC wrecking and reclamation companies. The analysis is from the perspective of a reclamation company. It does not suggest any changes to the recommendation, but aims to be comprehensive and raise pertinent questions.

“large-dimension lumber” Defined as dimensional lumber of at least 2” x 8” x 8’. Salvaging smaller 2 x 4’s and 2 x 6’s is understood as cost prohibitive, with a limited end use market in the region. Larger sizes are generally easier to salvage and can be re-used for some heavy constructions applications and fine carpentry. The difficulty in salvaging 2” x 8” stock is that this dimensional size is primarily found in framed homes in the outer boroughs, where there is more room for mechanical dismantling, a method that often wrecks the lumber, and mixes it with other debris. The Task Force sets a lower project size threshold for separation of dimensional lumber than other materials, though requiring reclamation of 2” lumber in the single family homes would likely require more costly hand dismantling, and may result in strong objection from contractors and developers within this sector of the industry. Any multi-family (4 story tenement or larger) building in the city is likely to be framed with 3-4” x 8-12” joists that are more likely to be salvaged. The larger dimensional sizes generally withstand the demolition process in-tact, and the buildings are often in high density zones where hand dismantling is required. Nonetheless, mechanical means – excavators, backhoes and Bobcat’s with grapple attachments – are often used on the lower floors, resulting in damage to the lumber and commingling.

“a building or space greater than 1000sf”. This size of structure would include single family homes in the outer boroughs, and raise the same issues outlined in the size parameters – machine demolition destroying most of the lumber.

“separated from other waste at the construction site” Each demolition site has a different capacity for on-site storage, and this changes as a demolition project progress’. Requiring separation could affect costs and efficiency at a demolition site, but not significantly. How much lumber can be stored is also a factor, with limitations at many sites, which would require transporting lumber in partial container loads, with added costs.


“stored in a dry location” Related to the issue of separation, dry storage is often limited at the site, and not possible on the bottom floors. This is a good requirement for preserving the soundness of the wood, but is not critical for re-use. Antique and vintage lumber air dries for many decades, sometimes centuries in a building, but it is often exposed to some post-demolition moisture in the process of transport and yard storage. Reclaimed mills are prepared and kiln dry these woods as needed to stabilize the woods. But a ‘dry location‘ may also include keeping the wood under tarps and other temporary covers, a practice that would certainly be appreciated by reclaimed mills.

“sent to a facility for re-use” Demolition contractors may not object to transporting lumber to a facility since this would be done with waste disposal, unless the facility is outside of the more immediate area.

“not be commingled…during onsite storage or transportation.” The on-site storage and transport issues were discussed above.

“not be cut except as necessary for removal” Most lumber is generally removed in lengths that are sufficient for re-use. X-cutting lumber with a chain saw into smaller lengths is avoided, unless needed for removal. When x-cutting is required (more often on higher floors), the lengths are still sufficient for re-use (ie. 18-22’ joists x-cut to 9-11’ lengths). Longer lengths however, can preserve the highest possible value for the wood, especially for a less desirable species.

“Exception: dry rot, termites, splitting, fire or other damage” A relatively small percentage of lumber should fall within these categories (possibly under 2-3%). Lumber is generally dry within the structure of a building and free of termites or rot. Fire damage is not uncommon, but still rare. And a portion of this wood can often be salvaged, especially with higher valued species.

Each species has additional sub-categories that determine some potential re-uses, and as a result, marketability. A significant distinction is between “antique” and “vintage” woods. “Antique”, in the broadest sense of the term, applies to an object that is at least 100 years old. With antique woods, it more often relates to the quality of the grain, and it being distinguished as either “old growth” or “second growth”. The former represents woods that grew in America’s virgin forests, often for hundreds of years, within diverse ecosystems, producing an exceptionally dense grain and rich color. “Vintage” woods come from trees that replaced the original old growth forests. They grew faster (with access to more light and water in less dense forests) and were harvested in under fifty years. Both are found in New York City buildings. Antique woods frame pre-1910 buildings – generally; and vintage woods after this date, until steel began to replace lumber in framing larger commercial and multi-family buildings.

These distinctions are important in determining market value, ultimately affecting recycling rates. Antique woods are generally higher valued; desirable because of age, beauty, rarity (you can’t cut these trees down in U.S.), and/or other unique features. It is also an object that represents a previous era in New York City history. Antique and vintage quality woods are found within all three categories in the chart. Other factors that affect quality and value include size, condition, and level of contamination (nails, paint, etc.).

The three categories also represent a family of species within the group.

Mixed White Woods – Primarily refers to Spruce, but also includes smaller volumes of Hemlock and Eastern White Pine.

Pine – Primarily refers to Longleaf Pine (also called Heart, Southern or Pitch Pine), but also includes Loblolly, Short Leaf and Western Red species, with these generally having a broader grain and lower hardness rating – and were often harvested at a later date.
Douglas Fir – Most common as framing within mid-Century commercial buildings. As inter-continental transport improved through the 20th c. and Eastern and Southern forests were increasingly depleted, higher volumes of lumber were being moved cross country from the NorthWest. Douglas Fir, with it’s warm brownish-red grain, is also an exceptional framing lumber, with a high strength to weight ratio.

RC1 / S.W.O.T. Analysis
Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats.

– High density urban zones require hand dismantling of buildings, preserving sound lumber.
–  A high volume of pre-1930 NYC buildings, ensuring an ongoing supply of used lumber.
– A large and relatively affluent market, with an appreciation for locally reclaimed woods.

– A large volume of reclaimed lumber is of less desirable species, with fewer market options.
– Urban lumber can have a heavy nail pattern, with higher processing costs and pricing.
– A large volume of reclaimed woods now serve short-term, one-time heavy construction uses.

– An existing code recommendation makes higher reclamation rates a possibility.
– Ongoing growth and appreciation for sustainable and historic building materials.
– NYC government procurement (RC5) for city projects may boost reclamation.

– Limited resources available to monitor a lumber reclamation law across the city.
– Processing costs make it difficult to realize marketable price points for milled products.
– Architects, designers and others find the aesthetics of reclaimed woods difficult to incorporate.

Does the RC1 recommendation include a wood chipping or wood pellet facility as an acceptable recycling option for large dimensional lumber?
Can the lumber reclamation rate today be accurately estimated to determine the urgency for the law?




Reclaimed or antique lumber has been turned inside out from it’s early years from the more degraded category of ‘used or Second-hand lumber’, merely a cheaper building material option, as much passed over by ‘high end’ projects as it’s sought after today. Not unlike the progression of the junk yard to modern recycling facility, second hand clothes to vintage thrift, these material are on the upswing for their timeworn uniqueness – and for being green. Measured by reclamation rates, 19th c. New York was likely a far more sustainable city. Secondary markets were, if not literally in-house, closely integrated into new material business’. That’s especially true with lumber and other second-hand building items. The same can be said for developing countries across the globe today. But in New York and the industrialized world, mechanized production leading to general abundance of lower priced dry goods, along with a range of other factors, produced common dumps of solid waste. Used lumber became increasingly marginalized as an item for short-term re-use in heavy construction applications. Used lumber, for instance, lined the sewers and excavated foundation sites of late 19th and early 20th c. New York. But prior to that, nearly every lumber yard featured used and second-hand lumber among the offerings. This continued well into the 20th c., but as an increasingly small percentage of all lumber on the market. By the mid-20th c.,  just a handful of companies held onto the trade. Today, only one city location handles used lumber in large volume. Similar to the old days, the business is combined and to some extent, subsidized with new lumber. But once shunned qualities of old wood are now beloved. Orphaned scrap, like a character from a Dickens novel, has been plucked from the old buildings and refined as a gentleman or ladies, though it’s former self still apparent on close look. The collision of these two worlds, rough and refined, is at the heart of it’s appeal.

NY Directory, c. 1867. South Street Seaport Museum Library. New York, NY.