Housing Is a Verb: In Twelve Cobbled-Together Parts Print

recycled_house(San Diego Reader November 18, 1999)


If you cross into Mexico at Otay Mesa, continue south on Calle Mazatlan and cut over to Boulevard Insurgentes, you'll eventually dip down to the Tijuana River which winds through the vast and growing working-class colonias of east Tijuana. Here lives, in congested communities, tens of thousands of residents, most recent arrivals usually from the northern part of the country. Not long ago, some of these people lived in quick-built dwellings alongside the river. But because a hard rain falls every six or seven years, the river floods and people have to move, on top of the mesas or partway up the gently sloping ravines. The newly risen colonias have colorful names—El Florido, El Pipila, Ejido Mariano Matamoros. People have moved in because of the flooding, but they've also come because of the new economic opportunities in northern Baja. Before 1993 these neighborhoods were not here. Then came Nafta and the promise of factory work at the maquiladoras. A visit today reveals that those soccer-stadium-sized American-owned plants continue to thrive.

Nafta and the new laissez-faire climate have attracted thousands who, like Okies from the undeveloped interior, trekked north, arriving in cars and trucks piled toppeldy high with dressers, beds and stoves. Wherever they stopped, exhausted, they built homes, shack after shack, a town made of shanties. The government, wisely (and for a small fee), let them stay. Today, TJ's official population is 1.5 million. But most count it two million. The census swells nearly 6 percent a year, which means 300 people arrive—and remain—everyday.

Rivaling the magnetizing maquiladoras has been the other great resettler—the Tijuana River floods of 1993. As newcomers arrived, they often squatted alongside a stream bed, poured footings in an arroyo or wash, then used corrugated metal and discarded boards to improvise a family dwelling or choza. When the rains came, the washout was unsparing—30 people died, 10,000 were homeless, and TJ was overwhelmed with the sudden displacement. The only solution to people returning in that dry season to their low-lying settlements was for government officials to offer free or reduced-cost land: A new parcel of earth, but this time, higher up. The shanties and communities rose again.

Since 1993 Tijuana has raced eastward—paving a few dirt roads, moving its bottom-dwellers, attempting a scant infrastructure of drainage control—onto mesas and hillsides. The flurry has resulted in a brawny car-centered metropolis. Services have piggybacked on the new colonias: mercados with Laundromats and video stores, flea markets, tacquerias, U.S. franchises like Carl's Jr., corner Pemex gas stations with mini-marts inside, stoplights, stop signs. These new communities continue to draw Mexicans for factory jobs; people also cross the U.S.-Mexican border—legally and illegally—to work. The more Tijuana's fringes grow, the more people risk running the divide. Today, despite the fisticuffs of Operation Gatekeeper, larger numbers than ever come across. Twenty-four million people a year go back and forth at the Port of Entry, creating the greatest supranational exchange in the world.

Fifteen miles southeast of downtown Tijuana is the fraccionamiento (subdivision) of Valle Verde, whose population has jumped from a handful to 8,000 in five years. This plateau community consists of dusty, dry, rutted streets and, at least by U.S. standards, very small 20-foot by 20-foot homes. The basic: two bedrooms, one kitchen, and a dirt floor. Most are added onto with Friday's paycheck by the jack-of-all-trade families who live there. In the 180-acre plot of Valle Verde, there's electricity, a tiny police station, a shadeless, fenced park with a stuccoed church at its center, a soccer field, a school, a day care center—and road after road of crammed-together chozas. At first glance, they seem made the old-fashioned way: Concrete block and rebar walls cemented without an ounce of give. But look closer and something else appears, something familiar. Though each house is unique because of its blocky add-ons, though the patio is lined with a fresh stack of grey blocks lying in wait, you've seen these materials before.

Suddenly you recognize it: Valle Verde is constructed almost entirely from used materials. And most of these materials are American discards, trucked in by the ton or the featherweight. Fences, walls and roofs are made from pallets or used garage doors, both single- and two-car size. Crosshatch, square-and-rectangle and other modern designs are dead giveaways: These garage doors, taken from remodeled U.S. homes, sell now for $30 apiece in Mexico. Some pallets and garage doors are left exposed; others are plastered. Plywood and warped one-by-tens or one-by-twelves combine into Mondrian-like grids. Some are painted, some are embrowned from age, some are tar-papered or cinched with chicken wire. Additions rise with old Douglas fir two-by-fours—fully two inches by four inches—salvaged from California houses built three generations ago. The outhouses, often placed in front of the home, are cobbled together with particle board or laminated wood. The doors and the door hardware are U.S.; the ceiling joists and the rafters are U.S.; the windows, the sliding aluminum kind that Mexicans prefer, are U.S. It's all U.S.

There it is—as backdrop, against the scrawny sniff-snooping dogs, the piles of community trash, the women lugging plastic bags and leading small children, the shuttle vans, the smoke and din of a Friday afternoon—discards of America's plenty. The over in our overproduction. One man's trash equals another man's treasure. Our mania to make "this old house" new again has a flipside: Our building remains can stay Green, undumped and reused. But be careful southeast of Otay Mesa. Calling such material our "remains" is misleading. Such discards and teardowns have secured another country's shelter. Indeed, the story of our excess, of Southern California salvage, begins in the endlessness of Tijuana's booming colonias where the salvaged building material of the American dream is, literally, the home of the Mexican family.


My guide to Valle Verde is reuse specialist Ted Reiff. Reiff is a lean near-sixty, energetic and knowledgeable, an amalgam of Green principles and Libertarian politics. But he's not your ordinary can collector; he's had a good deal to do with east TJ's reconstruction. Originally an investment banker, Reiff helped create mergers in the electronics business in the early '80s. In the late '80s, when credit dried up, he sold his business and moved to Tijuana, where things were booming. He wanted to bring foreign companies into TJ and engineer joint ventures. But before that gathered steam, the Mexican peso collapsed, and so Reiff searched out a new option. It was 1994 when, with partner Judy Bishop, he used his marketing talents to create Building Materials Distributors, which he's renamed, TRP—The Reuse People.

Perhaps the most generous San Diego response to help flood victims in the winter of 1992-93 was Judy Bishop's "materials"-drive. Bishop organized 130 volunteers who delivered on 27 tractor-trailers 400 tons of used building materials, valued at $2 million. From Bishop's altruistic seed—with Reiff as partner—a transnational business was born: the nonprofit salvaging of used materials, mostly residential construction lumber, doors, aluminum windows and fixtures, carefully disassembled, then wholesaled or given to Mexicans to use in building their homes.

What makes selling used building materials advantageous, Reiff says, is that Mexicans are desperate for lumber. "If you buy a piece of plywood from Home Depot for ten dollars, that's going to cost you twelve-fifty to thirteen dollars in Tijuana. If it's used [from the U.S.], the same piece of plywood will cost seven dollars."

Reiff is nonprofit for several reasons, none of which seems idealistic. He wanted to be for profit but, he says, the reuse business is "too avant-garde. You can't get decent equity financing—forget whether it's decent or not, you can't get it." Reiff instead became nonprofit, hoping to get donated materials, so the cost of his inventory would be eliminated. Has it worked? Yes and no. His overhead is lower but he can't get enough donations or teardowns at cheap prices. U.S. and Mexico border economies complement each other with their boom-and-bust cycles, and the result for Reiff is an unevenly profitable business. Selling reused building materials was far tougher and much less competitive than he imagined.

"Most used material can't be reused in the United States," he tells me, "and that's because of building code." If you're caught creating structures with used lumber, the city inspector will cancel your permit and fine you severely. In Mexico codes for building with quality materials do exist but they're seldom enforced. Driving by miles of unfinished concrete block construction in TJ will remind you how loose the restrictions are. Reiff says that government officials have no interest in the practices of the small builder. Why? "Number one, there's bigger fish to fry. Number two, even if they find that someone is in violation, so what. They've got to have a place to live. At least the government is that smart. And number three, if he [the inspector] gets too heavy-handed, he may not come back."

Before going to Valle Verde and still on the U.S. side, we first bump onto Pogo Road (Reiff says it's not on the map) and come to Carl Hanson's yard, Wholesale Lumber, abutting Brown Field. Hanson is a softspoken, measured man, with a stubby beard, orange-tint glasses and (like Reiff) a mix of housing philosophy and practical business skills. He stands before his office hut which, in turn, is dwarfed by thirty-foot-high stacks of used lumber and structural steel. Reiff introduces us, and Hanson begins pointing to pallet loads of aging lumber. "I buy things," Hanson says, "that have either sat too long or have some minor defects and are deemed unusable by the American building industry." By defective, Hanson means boards that are blue-stained from sitting in water too long at paper mills or what is called "downfall," twisted lumber that's tossed off a construction site.

Hanson says Tijuanans are his buyers because Mexico is not "burdened" by the building codes that we have. Behind us is the grating sound of a forklift, loading lumber onto a tractor-trailer from TJ. There's nothing wrong with this lumber, Hanson says. It can be used structurally. But in the U.S.? "In Oklahoma, this lumber would be used. In California, nope." Different municipalities in California, he says, interpret building codes differently. Los Angeles has its own codes, which vary from San Diego's.

The major lumber recycler in the county, Hanson's is within San Diego's Recycling Market Development Zone. The RMDZ is a state-licensed designation created by the California Integrated Waste Management Board. The Waste Management Board enforces the state's 1989 law that requires cities and counties to divert their solid waste away from landfills. To encourage such diversion, the Development Zone will give businesses low-interest loans (currently at 5.6%) up to one million dollars as well as assistance with permits, application fees and the like. Reiff, Hanson and others have taken advantage of this program. And yet, despite the incentive, Reiff says that San Diego has yet to develop the "mindset," which northern California communities like Berkeley and Alameda have about reuse. Blame our later development. San Diego, which Reiff calls a "stucco and steel city," simply has fewer materials to salvage compared to gold-rush cities like San Francisco where lumber—and not rock 'n' roll, as Jefferson Starship once claimed—built that city.

We keep stepping back out of the way of the forklift; the roadways in Hanson's yard are all one lane. He points to a stack of forty-foot beams, which he calls the longest pieces of lumber that currently exist in San Diego county. These are from old-growth trees, harvested and planed during the early '40s. Although the yard seems full, Hanson says much of this will be gone in a week and replaced with new used lumber.

Today a major Mexican wholesaler, Jesus Alejo, is buying for his Madereria Miramar, a lumberyard in TJ. Hanson tells me that there's many like Alejo.  "[They] constitute the backbone of the Southern California building recycling industry. They are the retailers, they are the users, they are people who take it down, they are the people who truck most of it in. We are somewhere between recyclers and poverty-brokers, getting in the middle of the food chain.

"In terms of the flow of building materials," Hanson continues, "there's only one percent that Americans are interested in. That will change. There's getting to be a different consciousness. But typically it's the Mexicans that get it and use it. It doesn't have to be chic or beautiful, just usable. People who have less income than we do, which is about eighty percent of the planet, can get use out of it. But it's limited by transportation, and Tijuana's close. You can't send a used two-by-four to Bangladesh because it costs more to ship it there than it's worth when it gets there. And there's no cultural acceptance of it anyway. But almost any house in Tijuana you go into, there's used building materials."

Hanson translates (after first asking Alejo about answering a reporter's questions—he nods his approval). Alejo says that he sells "economical lumber" to Tijuanans. He is buying some No. 4- and No. 3-grade shelving material, which, sold in the United States, are inferior grades but still usable. At Home Depot it's a dollar a foot and at Hanson's it's 55 cents a foot. Alejo will take many kinds of used lumber, even from pipelines or concrete footings, and re-manufacture the wood into two-bys and four-bys. "Most of the Mexican lumber dealers," Hanson says, taking over, "will take a board and cut it down. American lumberyards typically don't do much re-manufacturing because of the differential labor costs." In other words, it's too expensive for Americans to hire someone to redo wood. We discard or sell it. South of the border, the labor costs are cheaper than the wood itself. "Competent sawyers," Hanson says, "are available in Tijuana at twenty dollars a day." In southern California it would be close to $100 a day.

Alejo runs off to direct the forklift; his tractor-trailer is half full at nine a.m. This constant moving of materials and the building activity in TJ never ends, Reiff says. One reason Mexicans need our stuff is that they can't go into a bank and borrow money—for anything. The risk is too great: How will they pay it back? No savings, no long-term jobs, no collateral. Most labor is temporary despite the boom in maquiladoras. Thus home improvement in TJ always appears in medias res—everywhere you look rebar prongs out of roofs or eaves, expectant, sinewy, awaiting the next phase of construction. Without financing, Tijuanans add-on as their jobs allow them to. "Out of their front pocket," Reiff calls it.

There are pre-fab houses in Mexico, some condos and tract homes being built. But, Hanson says, "that's not the main housing delivery system. The main delivery system is, you sell a lot to low-income people with a regular income and you have land payments to the state of twenty dollars a month, and then the people scrounge up the building materials. However," Hanson quotes a Third World housing professor and theorist in England named John Turner. "'In the Third World housing is not a noun, it's a verb.' That captures it. We see housing here [in the U.S.] or you buy housing, and it's done. People in Mexico—they do housing."


The word salvage is usually associated with the sea, the recovery of ships and their cargoes. The term has meant compensation ("The court awarded the divers a total salvage of $30,000 for the sailboat") or, more commonly, bringing up what's gone under ("Three battleships were sunk though all were subsequently salvaged"). Even purloin has its place ("If anyone asks, we'll tell them we're salvaging"). Salvage in its current lexical transformation has emerged as a byword for environmentally enhanced waste—any material, reclaimed and reused. The synonym tree for reuse is robustly Green as well: preserve, rescue, recover, redeem, remediate, recycle.

Recycle is now, post-1970s, an impossibly broad concept that runs the gamut from sis's hand-me-downs to the bin on Windows '98. Salvaged housing parts are recycled but there's very little conversion as material; boards are reused as boards, not as mulch; windows remain windows, not aluminum meltdown.

More lexicality. To describe a teardown, building people use demolition because its tactic is obvious, especially for the homeowner: "We'll demolish that outbuilding and have it out of your sight in a day." Whether it's a termite-ridden garage or an asbestos-ridden neighborhood, we must first consider that demolition democrat, the bulldozer. The Law of Conservation of Mass states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. We can, though, reduce it to itty-bitty pieces and pile it in a Debris Box. And yet the dozer, unable to pirouette between houses, is usually unsuited for such destruction. Many of us apply demolition to a hazardous or abandoned home or building. But the number of buildings that require demolition because they are unsafe is minuscule compared to the number of safe, beautiful, historic sites that come down everyday in America to erect high-rises for the many or estates for the few. See the latest dynamited hotel in Las Vegas or, closer to home, the nascent destruction of the East Village.

Ted Reiff's verb-of-choice is deconstruct. Aside from its tortuous use in psychoanalysis and literary criticism, the word accurately describes what reuse people do. They deconstruct a building very carefully—Reiff calls it "surgical removal"—taking it apart the reverse of the way it was put up. An example: In 1996, Reiff's crew deconstructed the 14,000 square-foot club house at the Coronado Municipal Golf Course in 15 days. According to TRP's report, the club house "yielded a 92% recovery of materials, or a disposal of less than 8%, [saving] the City of Coronado over $3,000 compared to the best machine-demolition bid received." Reiff, like other reusers, is proud of out-dueling the dozers. It may take a bit longer for his crew to finish, he says, but it's worth it. He estimated the materials from the club house provided over 30 houses for Tijuanans.


Ted Reiff's materials yard used to sit on a leased chunk of Hanson's space on Otay Mesa. But, because Hanson has had to move recently, Reiff now has joined forces with Karen Brooks's Choose To Reuse. Her site is located on Datsun Street, not far from Hanson's, in a twist and turn of auto parts and wrecking lots. Together, they refer to the space as an "aboveground landfill" that now bulges with the usual reusables—sinks, tubs, scrap metal, stoves, toilets, hot water heaters, and lots of aluminum windows.

A buoyant and wry-humored woman, Brooks works out of a trailer and is, like Reiff, similarly bewildered about how to succeed in this business. Originally she came to reuse via public health projects in Mexico. "We were going great guns until prop 187 hit. We had funding canceled left and right, and people became convinced that Mexicans were taking food right from our table." So Brooks took over the dormant Choose To Reuse and became with Reiff the only other nonprofit reuser in the county. "Nonprofits are always challenges," she says. "It's exotic compared to an office in Mission Valley." Apart, they wearied of maintaining temperamental trucks, liability policies, insurance, worker's comp, phones, faxes, and then competing for what few morsels there are. "Profit or nonprofit doesn't matter," Reiff says. "We haven't yet reached a critical mass." Brooks adds, "Everybody thinks people give us stuff because we're nonprofit, but we don't get nada, nothing from the government."

Brooks and Reiff get most material from people who hate throwing something away, for example, a perfectly good window after a remodel. Some builders (Brooks estimates twenty) regularly bring donations or call them for pickups. "The majority of contractors in San Diego, though," she says, "throw it in a bin. Whatever it is, they don't want to take the time or make the call." On top of that, sometimes the stuff is not worth the cost of making the pickup and keeping it in a yard for three to six months. People think nonprofits don't need money to operate. But they do. A less-taxed status has given them few advantages over more-taxed businesses. One of many recycling ironies.

In east TJ, in the fraccionamiento of Mariano Matamoros, Reiff shows me his small yard, stocked with doors, windows, cupboards, bathroom fixtures, items he sells for nominal amounts. It's an excellent location, he says—a main thoroughfare in a booming post-flood colonia. But to make it a go of it, Reiff had to bring in water, sewer, electricity, gravel and, because of theft, high fences and a guard dog. "We pay six hundred and sixty dollars a month for this little space. There's no telephone because that's a thousand a month. Way too expensive." Are the Mexican locals sticking it to the gringos? There's some of that, he says. But for such a good location the TJ landlords can get it from anyone.

He says the business is not doing well, and he may close it. In 1998, the market in TJ was stable; Reiff was moving lots of materials in and out. But finances in Mexico are suffering. In the past year Reiff says, "The peso's gone to hell in a hand basket." Why? "Because they're an oil-based economy." When Mexico's oil sells high, there's a boom and everyone gets in on it. Conversely, when prices dip and production is curbed, it spells hard times. He says sales from the yard pays the rent and the salary of an on-site manager, but nothing more. So Reiff loses money trucking down materials which costs him time and effort. And he's about had it with the site.

Which leads him to what he's really had it with—the illegal salvage business in San Diego.

Reiff estimates that of those who salvage residential properties in San Diego, half do so illegally, half legally. Illegal salvaging occurs when U.S. contractors hire Mexican laborers to tear down and haul away materials to Mexico. Legitimate salvaging is done by businesses like his, by for-profit deconstructors or by the bulldozers. The important thing for those who pay to have a teardown is that salvaging remain cheap. In the four years Reiff's been in the reuse business, he has seen rampant illegal salvaging. "I have nothing against competition," Reiff says, "but using illegals cuts into my ability to compete. It makes it totally unfair." He's so mad that's he's considered naming names. But he says it's distasteful to turn anyone in. His Libertarian side believes in a field free from regulations but his business-owner side wants a level field to play on.

Over quesadillas and carne asada at the open-air Tacos de Gordo, Reiff describes how the illegal operation occurs. For most building projects, an owner hires a general contractor who, in turn, hires different crews to complete the many different jobs. A good contractor bids low to get the job. One way to save money is to hire foremen who will find further ways of lowering costs. Contractors cannot cut too many corners. When building, they must use quality graded materials and skilled workmen because an inspector will not certify the work unless it's up to code. The contractor also must bond, license and insure skilled workmen; his workers' compensation alone may run from 20 to 100 percent of his payroll. One of the few corners to cut is for the contractor's foreman to skimp on the unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, hire crews for one job only, pay them cash and do not divulge it.

Thus, the contractor will, according to Reiff, hire individual foremen who, in turn, hire crews to do the teardown—roof, ceiling and floors, walls and fixtures, plus the concrete. And it's the foreman, Reiff says, who saves a bundle by hiring a Mexican day crew. The reasons make sense. The crews take it home as fast as they take it down. There are no costs for the crews' insurance. And the people of Tijuana desperately need housing materials. So for those bricks or ceiling joists or wall studs that can be extracted from Grandma's 1962 apartment in Pacific Beach, much of it will be thankfully taken in, in Mexico. No questions asked. There's duty at the border, which can be high. But it's a fraction of the costs to build with new materials.

So the owner, the general contractor and the foreman in the U.S. make money by spending less of it. The Mexican workers make a little money by reselling materials to their neighbors. Thus, the people of Tijuana have better homes than they otherwise would have had. And yet, as Reiff insists, the means by which American building materials are recycled—despite the current boom in deconstructing and remodeling old houses—still undercuts legitimate U.S. competition.


I put the question—Does an illegal salvage business exist in San Diego?—to Dan Cannon of Dirt Cheap Demolition. Cannon, a hustling red-haired go-getter in his late thirties with a small crew, is frank and open about illegalities: Yes, it exists, he says, and everybody knows it. While driving to his next bid, cellphone noise on high, he tells me that there's a vigorous underground salvage business between U.S. contractors and Mexican laborers. It's "technically illegal," he says, a "grey area" between what U.S. demo companies (Cannon prefers demo to Reiff's deconstruct) say they do and what actually happens.

There's usually a middle man, Cannon says, a U.S. citizen who uses Mexican laborers to take down a house, either for materials or at a much-reduced cost. They will come in and salvage what they know they can use in Mexico and leave the trash. No one pays taxes on the money earned (it's under the table—contract labor), and the crew works unbonded. Technically, Cannon says, if one of the "illegal" crew from TJ were hurt, then the contractor would be responsible: He's the one who's been hired to contract out the demolition. So it's his choice to save money on a demo job by hiring a foreman who hires Mexican workers. Were a lawsuit to occur, Cannon says, it's the contractor's liability.

While Reiff grouses about the increasing incidence and its unfairness, Cannon insists that illegal salvage is no different from North County flower pickers: Someone's got to do the work which most Americans won't. Philosophically, Cannon's not opposed to such labor. "There's plenty of work for both legals and illegals," he says, noting that his company is fully licensed and his workers are covered by workman's comp. He says it's a game that's played by the "control and command" generals of our economy. A contractor will low-ball bid a project and then to achieve his "savings" will hire Mexican workers to salvage for less. "Everyone turns their head," Cannon says. "I don't care that it goes on. Do you care?"

I ask him about demolishing downtown buildings for the Padres' ballpark, set to begin in 2000. Cannon is certain such low-ball bidding with Mexican laborers waiting in the wings will occur. It's how people save and make money, he says. He predicts "tons" of lumber to salvage. Even though the city will sign contracts that say they'll pay the prevailing wage to anyone who constructs or deconstructs, "the contractors won't," he says, "pay the prevailing wage to salvage a two-by-four." That will end up in the underground economy and, again, everyone will turn their heads. And why shouldn't they, Cannon says. They have far more to gain than to lose.

To see how his green-card Mexican crew crafts a demolition, I'm invited to watch a garage being "demo"ed behind a house on Curlew Street in Hillcrest. When I arrive at 7:30 a.m., Cannon's three red-helmeted workers are scurrying over the rooftop of a stand-alone garage, built in the '30s. Later the crew will tear down a sloppily built house-addition, then jackhammer and remove all the concrete footing. A five-day job. Keith Usry and his crew (Usry is the general contractor who has hired Cannon) will come in to complete the remodel. On the roof the crew is peeling off asphalt shingles. Inside, Cannon's foreman Roberto is hacking out the drywall.

"Normally, on a demo," Cannon says, watching the crew from a side yard, "there's the scrap wood, the roofing and the drywall for the trash." Otherwise they try to salvage as much as they can. In this case, even though the garage is old, the studs look promising as do the roof joists, the windows and the doors, maybe the wall insulation.

Cannon is proud of his crew's expert labor. "Disassembling lumber," Cannon says, "there's a skill involved. You need to take it apart correctly." With five-foot-long pry bars the crew pops off boards or else rakes the bead-covered tarry shingles, which fall and pile on the ground. There, another workman (the youngest) wheelbarrows it to the truck. When the pry bars start wrenching, squeak, squeak, separating the nail from its deadset home of 60 years, the boards loosen and bend outward. After roof boards come up, light begins to filter into the garage where dust and debris sprinkle down. The whole structure quakes as the men wrench it apart.

What is salvaged depends upon what comes off cleanly. Some boards split easily; others resist the fulcrum. The hardest to preserve is redwood siding. They'd love to save it because it's so expensive new. But the slightest over-force and it splinters like plywood. As they go, the crew discovers which boards are still solid, either free from dry rot or San Diego's greatest nemesis, the subterranean termite.

Of course, Cannon and crew get good pickings which they'll either sell or reuse on their own projects. I ask Cannon, who also lives in TJ, why the market for used materials is booming in Mexico. He notes two things—affordable land prices and low to moderate (more low than moderate) incomes. While Mexican manufacturers produce most building parts that their American counterparts make, in Mexico the same parts are far more expensive. A few Tijuanans shop at Home Depot, he says, where material is cheaper. Though some of the domestically produced new lumber in Mexico is as inexpensive as the used lumber in the U.S., Mexicans hunt for value. They avoid trash, he says. And they know good products at good prices. His crew members George, Filo and Pepine regularly take home materials they've purchased (dirt cheap—or free—from Dirt Cheap) and use them for home additions as their children marry and their families extend.

The next morning I return and the garage has vaporized. While Cannon's cradling the cellphone, the crew leader George shows me a pile of lumber along with a few windows they've saved. "People in Mexico a little poor," he says. "They not rich. No money to buy brand new house. It depends what kind of people. People like me, people like him," and he points to his co-worker. "So we use it again, twenty years more."

Keith Usry, the general contractor for this remodel, steps up, curious how long Cannon's crew will take. A few more days, Cannon reminds him. The concrete will be the toughest part. Usry, a skilled talker about construction (he's been at it for 15 years), is just as savvy about salvage. He describes a new roofing job a few streets over: He's been hired to take off the old Mission-style half-cylinder tile roof and put on a new one. "People supposedly," he says, "pay big dollars to patch their roofs with something that matches. I got a whole house full of [roof tile], and I can't get anyone who wants to buy it or take it. So all we can do is pull it off and throw it away. The labor [cost] to take it off carefully and stack it—you can't just pitch it, you've got to be delicate with it—would be a lot." Usry says each tile's single nail has to be removed, one by one. Otherwise it's much easier to pry large chunks off and throw it in a Debris Box. When I checked back with him, he still had no taker for the tiles. No doubt those chunks ended up in the vanishing arroyos at Miramar.


How big is the salvage business in San Diego and why is it growing so fast?

Answering the second question is easy: Environmental castor oil. In 1989 the State Legislature passed the California Integrated Waste Management Act, known as AB 939, which required cities and counties to divert 25% of their solid waste away from landfills by 1995, and 50% by 2000. Stephen Grealy, Recycling Program Supervisor for the City of San Diego Environmental Services Department, says that in 1995, the city beat the target by 9%, achieving a 34% diversion rate. His latest estimate for the year 2000 comes from 1997 and shows the city at 45%. The goal of 50%, he notes, must be accomplished during, not on New Year's Eve, 2000. If the city falls short, then the state can charge fines of $10,000 per day, although such penalties are always preceded by a warning and a grace period. Grealy doesn't foresee fines occurring for San Diego because the city is so close and has come so far in eleven years. With an earth-first law like AB 939, it didn't take long in the mid-'90s for earth-friendly go-getters like Ted Reiff, Karen Brooks and Judy Bishop to piggyback on the regulations and start their salvage businesses.

As to the size of salvage locally, it's hard to determine just how big it's become. What can be described is the amount and kinds of materials being recycled and a new mentality, pandemic with builders, that reusing is more profitable than dumping. For instance, among inert materials like soil, rock and asphalt, concrete is most recyclable once it is jack hammered into movable chunks. The cost of dumping concrete at the landfill is $41 a ton, an example of upping the tipping fee to promote reuse. (It's not lost on the city, either, that if you do choose to pay the fee and dump, they will oblige with space which, in turn, generates more for the city coffers.) But, if you take the concrete to a Santee or Lakeside crusher, they will sell the pulverized material as a new concrete base and charge you only $60 a ten-ton load.

Reusing most of our teardowns will extend, though briefly, the life of our landfills. AB 939 was created to recycle waste and to reverse the growth of dumps. Miramar Landfill in particular is filling at a slower rate, but Grealy projects that between 2007 and 2017 the dump will be full. He says it's possible that the Navy may allow the city to build the entire landfill ten feet higher, to increase capacity. But there are objections from environmentalists and flight-pattern surveyors within the Navy itself. Besides, building it higher will not significantly lengthen Miramar's life-span.

One way to slow dumping further is for the city to increase its recycling collection. Today only 83,000 of San Diego's 270,000 single-family homes have curbside recycling. The City Council continues to propose expanded recycling, but a full service does not guarantee the aggressive profits which recyclers need. The $134 million trash-recycling plant in San Marcos, a massive embarrassment for the county now being dismantled and shipped to Saudi Arabia, is proof that like all commercial enterprise in America, the waste stream is also market-driven.

Under the potential benefit ledger for salvagers is this: The city faces a new era (and the intelligence, one hopes, to go with it) of redevelopment. Union-Tribune architecture critic Roger M. Showley supports the San Diego Association of Governments' warning about the lack of undeveloped land left in our midst. Showley writes, "Raw, developable land in the county will be largely gone in a decade. Redevelopment and construction on infill lots will soon be the only choice for home builders and new-home buyers." Granted, there are grand vistas to pave with condos from Jamul to Potrero, Poway to Warner Springs. But, to sustain communities with infrastructure, schools, and services, it will be cheaper for San Diego to redevelop the land it has already colonized than to settle the county's untouched expanses. By 2010, Showley writes, building in San Diego will occur mostly where building already exists. The model (such as it is) may be the ballpark development, in which the Council exercises Eminent Domain and redevelops as it sees fit. Now that the East Village piper will inevitably play the deconstruction tune, live-work lofts, mom 'n' pop stores, warehouses, even single-family homes will be razed. If the local reuse people have a say, what does come down should end up rehousing and redecorating San Diego and Tijuana as well as giving the nonprofit salvagers like Reiff and Brooks a small treasure.

The best description of how big salvage in San Diego might be comes from John Theroux, Recycling Specialist for the City of San Diego Environmental Services Department and board member of "I Love a Clean San Diego." Theroux is advising the Navy about the impending NTC teardown, which will include razing or salvaging three-quarters of the site's 200 buildings. He has told me that there is no reason large contractors cannot achieve "ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven percent" reuse on teardowns like this one, although it appears the contractor, Corky McMillin, will guarantee only 70 to 75% reuse. Still, Theroux believes that the state's best environmental accomplishment so far is to have created "high-value waste streams that are now money makers." He foresees that the growth of salvage depends upon its economic value primed and pumped by either the legal mandate or the reuse ethic.

Finally, how does the illegal salvage business fit in? After Reiff's objections and Cannon's tolerance, many with whom I spoke were inclined to agree with Cannon that under-the-counter salvaging is not a big problem. It makes sense that in America there is overabundant material for reuse. But it also makes sense that Reiff, whose livelihood depends on getting the lowest bid he can, cannot work free.


In TJ builders and home repairers will use any bulk, preferably tall and wide and somewhat thick, to erect walls, ceilings and floors. Nothing goes to waste. In the U.S. it's just the opposite: tear down, throw away, produce the new. Such productivity continues unbridled largely because it's protected by the lumber and building trades lobbies as well as (love 'em or hate 'em) stiff housing codes. But, after a half-century of baby-boom production, we now have a surfeit of livable houses that need renovating.

The median age for an American home is 32 years old—half the homes in the country were built during or before 1967. Thirty-two years may not seem that old. But consider that a quarter of all American homes have 60 years of wear and tear and suddenly housing, in its American incarnation, starts sounding like a verb. To house is to change your residence into something that will have greater value, last longer, run smoother, be more beautiful and, if necessary, reuse better-made materials to give it a longer life. This phenomenon is occurring throughout San Diego, whether it's a renter fixing up a back porch or a homeowner redoing an entire house. For small projects, the least expensive and the most committed to the cause of reuse is the Home Depot for the needy, Habitat for Humanity's Restore.

Restore is on a wedge of land in Lemon Grove, adjacent to the Trolley tracks and just below Highway 94 where it begins to ramp up and over those tracks. The huge open warehouse has a back-lot quality, Hopperesque by night, beehive-active by day. This Building Materials Thrift Store, as it's called, was started by Lloyd Morris in October, 1997. Newest among a handful of local salvage businesses, Restore reflects his passion for ministering to the housing needs of low-income people.

Morris is as organized as a dozen bins of plumbing parts but far more interesting to talk to. He's six feet, athletic, a tilting frame like Ichabod Crane. His salt 'n' pepper beard minus the mustache gives him the look of a pious Iowa farmer. But Morris withholds nothing. He's an extrovert, knows exactly what he wants to do and how he wants to do it.

Having worked overseas improving slums and financing low-income housing, Morris is recently retired and now volunteers five days a week to run Restore. "It gets in your blood, like anybody's calling," he says. Morris began to plan the store in San Diego after Habitat's first store opened in Austin, Texas. He solicited loans and donations from area lenders, among them Union Bank and Northern Trust. With the money, they've bought trucks to pick up donations; they've also been given money and supplies outright. "A woman showed up one day and said 'I got a couple of doors here, would you like them?' 'Sure,' I said. So in the back of her caravan, we pulled out the doors and got to talking and she said, 'By the way, would you like the van?' And she gave that to us. I managed to sell that for three thousand dollars. So good people show up everywhere if you give them half a chance."

Made famous by Jimmy Carter's volunteerism, Habitat for Humanity is the home-building champion of low-cost housing for low-income people. The Restore provides some building parts for those homes or else they will (when practical) fix used, donated materials that are earmarked for such projects. The rest of its mission, Morris says, is threefold: "Raise money, sell the stuff cheap and protect the environment." He's also trying to encourage volunteerism. "To give people a chance to give a little of their time and discover they can enjoy it. Our principle here is we want you to give until it feels good. If it doesn't, then give a little bit more, then maybe it will."

Last January 130 people volunteered—"One day a month, that's all we ask. More are welcome but that's enough to be worth your time and ours." No payroll, no one makes a dime; their pressing need is for drivers to pick up donations. "The perks," Morris says, "are merits in Heaven. And we'll buy you a ninety-nine cent hamburger, if you don't bring your lunch. The soda's are half price."

The Restore is especially interested in matching building materials with people who can't pay for them but can volunteer time. He cites church groups who want to help a family build a house in Mexico, for example. Restore will supply the church volunteers with some materials in exchange for a youth group from Mexico who spends two Saturdays in the store.

The store is organized like any hardware store, in long aisles. These comprise carpeting, lighting fixtures, molding in barrels and bins, window frames, dusty hardware packaged or not, plumbing parts, kitchen cabinets (they're the fastest moving item) and one row of "tall, skinny stuff"—rain gutters, curtain rods and blinds, heating ducts. Refrigerators, washers, dryers, dishwashers, bathroom sinks, automatic garage door openers each have their nook, large or small. A volunteer, Suzanne has her "Paint Dept.," 5 gallons, $10.00, 1 gallon, $2.00. Small movable louvered doors, New $2.00, Used $1.00. Rite-Aid, when it bought out Thrifty, gave Morris almost two stores' worth of gondolas, or huge shelving units.

Morris shows me one of 550 wardrobes donated by a contractor who is remodeling the chief's quarters at the 32nd Street Naval Station. The wardrobes are in excellent condition with locking doors and large space for hanging clothes, and they're solidly constructed. Such reuse excites him because the contractor thought not to dispose of them in the landfill.

About 20% of their inventory is new, from manufacturers who are scrapping one model for another. Eighty percent is "used pullouts from homes," donated by interior decorators, remodeling contractors or individuals who are renovating. Morris got the message out recently by attending an Interior Design Expo. He told exhibitors to tell their clients, "Here's a better thing to do with what you remove." Morris says he's amazed how many and how few people in San Diego know that Restore accepts such donations. "The word is getting out. But it's not enough yet. The major builders like Fieldstone know about us. It's easier for the builder, the small builder especially, to call us and say, 'Can you pick it up?' At the very least he won't have to pay dump fees. We have many small contractors who finish a job, throw the stuff in the back of their truck and stop here on their way home and say, 'Hey, I've got a good dishwasher or here's kitchen cabinets.'"

I ask about the conscience of salvage and reuse, how widespread it's getting.

"We all turned Green about nineteen eighty-three, remember? Suddenly everything had to be Green. We had smaller packages for our detergent. We got the breakthrough, what was it, twenty-nine years ago, in 1970, the first Earth day. That's about what it takes, a generation for these kinds of social changes." Morris says that he'll offer a tax receipt for donors but they often say that a tax break isn't their primary motivation. They give because they hate the alternative—throwing stuff away.

Customers of the Restore are "handymen, do-it-yourselfers, apartment managers, people who can help a family in need." One man wanders by and asks a question about an item Morris doesn't carry. The man, though, is happy to find the store. "I manage apartments," he says, "and this is a wealth of bargains."

It's all reused, "down to the squeal," Morris laughs.

The man wanders away and Morris looks me in the eye, now with an Iowan's piety: "There are homeowners everywhere that live in poverty housing."


The fanatical home fixer-upper who can't stop thinking about used building parts often patrols alleys and dives the occasional dumpster, on rare occasion gets sliced by barbed wire or stares down a guard dog at a demo site. The sensible ones shop the Restore in Lemon Grove or comb through a good antique shop. Mr. and Ms. Used Connoisseur certainly have dropped a wad of cash at San Diego's two salvage mainstays—Ralph's Used Building Materials in the East Village and Architectural Salvage in Little Italy. Though these businesses share a similar inventory and clientele, they reflect old and new schools of merchandizing their products.

Elizabeth Scalice opened Architectural Salvage on India Street in Little Italy three years ago. In a long skirt, her hair tastefully bobbed, the vibrant fortysomething former real estate agent epitomizes the independent businesswoman of the '90s: Lives in Carlsbad in a house she's restoring; commutes twice a day through the Merge; is married to a professional in another field; meshes not well with husband's schedule; meshes especially not well since her big store days are on weekends. And, no surprise, because of her devotion to the business—vintage "house parts" from 1920 and after—she's booming.

Despite taking over the "funky deli" next door, Scalice says she needs more space to store and show everything she buys. Opening the shop, now chock full of door hardware, stained-glass windows and porcelain light fixtures, she steered with her heart. She believed the idea would work because others would catch her passion for salvage. "It was a serious gamble," she says about starting out. "My overhead was low and I hoped to break even. I was utterly amazed at the response."

Predating Scalice with a half-century of legend and lore is the grandad of San Diego salvage, Ralph Sarmiento. His selection of bargain materials is unequaled, an assertion with which every used-house-hound I spoke to agreed. Only problem is, you need Sarmiento or his wife Jeanne to help you find the stuff in their crammed-to-the-rafters site. Sarmiento knows every inch of their salvage yard. He should. He's been in the business for 53 years. In a Levi jacket, flannel shirt with a breast pocket bulge of pens and pads, Sarmiento is a burly 75-year-old war veteran, which he'll remind you of, oh, four or five times per visit. Thick patches of white hair poke out from beneath his cap, which exclaims World War II veteran. Being a veteran is the only clout he's had in fighting to maintain his business. It's a salvage yard inside the city limits in a city that continually wants to redefine itself as a progressive metropolis. That is, without salvage yards.

Sarmiento started in 1946 when he got out of the Army infantry, several years after the dogfight of Guadalcanal, in 1943. He learned his trade with John Hansen (not related to Carl Hanson), a legendary demo man and house mover whose business, once located across Island Avenue, opened in 1916. Jeanne is John Hansen's daughter. She owns their current business and employs her husband Ralph to run it.

"My dad was a general contractor," Jeanne says. "He would wreck the buildings and salvage everything. He was a house mover, also. He had cranes, he had dump trucks, he had bulldozers and he had a salvage yard." Jeanne seems comfortable wearing two flannel shirts, both buttoned at the wrist. On a chilly and overcast day, we move in and out of the elements: Half the yard is outside while the other half is underneath a twenty-foot-high lean-to. Jeanne and Ralph try not to push it. They're open only four days a week, six hours a day.

Are you more or less full right now?

"We're more full," Jeanne says.

"No," Sarmiento says. "Don't listen to her. She's the boss but women nowadays—they got them driving the battleships, and I'm not for that. I was in the service, Second World War and Korea—"

"Excuse me, Ralph," Jeanne says. "The poor gentleman here is writing a paper not on your naval and your army careers"—Sarmiento was in both divisions, successively not concurrently—"but on the salvage business."

"You don't know that," he corrects her and laughs like a devious Santa. "What can I do for you?"

I want his—their—history in the business. He obliges. Starting with John Hansen, he says, "I didn't know anything from shinola. The owner was a connoisseur of building materials. He would teach me when we went out to the sites. He'd never use a ruler, a yardstick or nothing. He'd pace the building because every step is three foot. So I learned just by watching him. I'm the type, I won't say anything. I watch and learn. He would salvage everything, down to the one brick. We'd be riding along and he'd see a brick in the street and he'd pull over, get out and pick it up. I'd look at him like he was crazy. He said, 'You wouldn't throw two pennies away, would you?' Two, three pennies was what they were worth then. We'd take the building apart. What was scrap, he'd run over and put on the dump trucks and take to the dump."

Sarmiento and John Hansen salvaged the Casa Loma Hotel, U-shaped bungalows that were abandoned because of the flight-path noise into Lindbergh Field. Over the years Sarmiento says he's torn apart half of downtown San Diego. Working with his father-in-law, "We picked up the trolley car tracks all the way up Park Boulevard. The car barns in Coronado, we demolished those. And the ones up in North Park. We moved [a] historic house from San Diego to Coronado Island on barges."

Back at Architectural Salvage, Scalice shares very little of Jeanne and Ralph's history, but that doesn't inhibit her learning about home restoration. She says it's extremely big right now, so she's catering to it. People are fixing up turn-of-the-century Victorians and the Craftsman-style homes of the early 1900s. (Of the latter style, the Marston House in Balboa Park is San Diego's most noted example.) Restoration, however, is not confined to fixing up old places. Scalice is outfitting her new home in Carlsbad with old parts. Her new-old bathroom, for example, has a '30s-style lavender pedestal sink and an even older claw-foot tub beside the modern low-flow toilet. She says many are into "combo-retro," old plus new. A small army of homeowners, hotel re-decorators, Gaslamp architects and weekend renovators follow her bliss.

Scalice says there are a surprising number of Victorian homeowners in San Diego and National City she can sell to. The major local style, though, is the Arts and Crafts-style homes, and it accounts for much of her trade. She also sells to those remodeling the '20s and '30s Spanish-cum-Hollywood-style house. She has trouble supplying materials for the "streamline homes," built during and after the war for the servicemen and their families as well as the boxy Clairemont houses of the '50s. Oddly, though, she sees people intent on rebuilding even the inelegant home with parts from earlier, sturdier and more decorative eras.

Ralph's and Elizabeth's (as their shops are commonly called) emphasize choice and value in their inventories. At Ralph's there's a clutter reminiscent of what you glimpse when people's garage doors stay open on a weekend. Much is lofted, hung from beams, raftered, or else it's boxed and out-of-the-way, boxes sagging on top of sagging boxes, wedged in behind stacks and displays. There are 15-inch-wide, single-file paths through Ralph's salvage maze, like foot trails in a Guatemalan jungle. His supply is organized but only because, as he says, "I know where I put my stuff."

At Elizabeth's everything is neatly hung on wall boards, invitingly displayed in bins, carefully set out in stalls where only parts of the same stripe dwell. One instance is her rows of escutcheons, decorative back plates for door knobs arrayed in rows on a giant pegboard. Escutcheons are made of brass, cast iron, bronze, copper, Bakelite. One row is Victorian Eastlake, intricate florid designs cast in bronze; another row is Art Deco with its long, sleek, uncluttered look. A third row is Craftsman, hammered designs with tasteful detail. She calls her nearby bins of crystal glass doorknobs and striker plates the "jewelry of the house." Her clients come in when they want to "change out" their old houses. "Say you have a 1915 bungalow in Mission Hills and somebody thought it good idea to go to Home Depot in 1983 and buy all new stuff." That somebody had changed the house out and you, the new owner, need to change it back out to its original detail.

While Scalice's prices are competitive, Ralph's overflows with bargains. He loves to knock the price down if he thinks you're the slightest bit interested. He knows he's got another truckload of doors coming this afternoon so suddenly there's a sale going on and you're the beneficiary. His loss, your gain.

Scalice's shop harbors the higher end. She branches out from quality architectural features only with good reusable appliances like stoves. She sells cast-iron stoves that she says were so well insulated when they were made—"you could actually set a temperature then turn the heat off"—that anything comparable today has to be top of the line. In certain appliances, the mass in mass-produced then was, for the most part, superior by today's standards. Refrigerators have improved environmentally so she won't carry the old ones which are terribly wasteful. "Some things improve with technology." She says she tries "not to run a museum," tries to keep her merchandise moving, but people do come to look, not always to buy.

Doors and windows are the big reusable items at Ralph's. People who are renovating want a solid door rather than a new hollow-core one from the lumber yard. French doors sell fast. "You go to Home Depot," Sarmiento says, standing before a wall of upright doors, "and for two doors plus the frame they want about nine hundred dollars. You can buy those for one-hundred-fifty here." He's got them in oak and mahogany, in three, four, five, up to 15 panels. He raps on a solid door—bum, bum—and says, "That door'll last you another fifty years." The wood windows, compared to the aluminum ones, will last a lifetime, he notes. Sash weights and pulleys for the old windows are a major request.

Perhaps the greatest divergence between the two proprietors is their reuse philosophy: Scalice anchors her business in the preservationist and environmental wing of restoration while Sarmiento is more the old-world saver and seller, less attached to a noble ideal. Scalice is nurturing a movement; Sarmiento is ready to retire, waiting for the ballpark reaper to buy him out.

Scalice describes at length her dream of influencing San Diego's future building. "I've got this contractor, artist, environmentalist, preservationist thing working together. My niche has fallen into an esthetic concentration, but I really support reusing materials. Not only are you saving the landfill, you're also not going through the production and all the environmental costs which that creates."

As her business thrives, she also recognizes a conundrum in what she's doing: Selling house parts means taking those parts out of old houses where she feels they should remain. "I would love to be out of business," she says, "and do something else entirely. It breaks my heart to see anybody take out the old parts. I have, over and over again, tried to talk people out of something they were trying to sell me. These old houses are beautiful. Once they're gone, they're gone. That's it. We're only beginning to value what treasures they are to us."

Scalice believes that San Diego has an "ever-developing esthetic sense and a more sophisticated view of what's important. A lot of people said when I opened the store, 'You should be in L.A.' or 'You should be in New York. San Diego won't support this.' But San Diego has embraced us. I'm a native, and I've been so proud of my city. It's amazing the diverse group of people who come through that door. There's a very strong core of preservationists here. Mind you, we have a long way to go. We're losing a big chunk of downtown with the ballpark. And that's a mixed thing. I've had an opportunity since I've had this business to be involved in the inner workings of the city. There is a big emphasis on keeping the historical flavor and at the same time bringing back to life some of these old neighborhoods. I know it's a quandary so I'm not going to take a stand.

"When I was growing up, you didn't go to downtown San Diego. Now I'm amazed how we have in recent years an ever-growing, vital downtown." Scalice says the most obvious cause for the restoration bug, and her piggybacking on top of it, is "our disastrous sprawl, this ever-spreading suburban nightmare. That's a strong term," she says, pulling back. "But the idea of a sustainable community, a sustainable city is something people don't even realize they can do. When they move into lofts downtown and these old neighborhoods, the quality of life is so much better."

According to Ralph and Jeanne the philosophy is this—produce what will last and never bury it in the dump. "I sell what people throw away," Sarmiento says flatly. "We're a land of waste, and that's sad. I grew up in the Depression: One pair of shoes, one pair of pants, and once you got home from school you took your shoes off and went around barefoot."

Ralph's Used Building Materials is a one-of-a-kind salvage yard and, like the circus, on the way out. "The old salvage yards," Sarmiento says, "are phasing out because the guys were old when they started and they all passed away." And, he's quick to add, the new players have not had to fight the city of San Diego as he and Jeanne have. San Diego has never been receptive to their business. "They frown on this kind of material because it's junk," he says. "They have a bad attitude. They're high-class people, who think junk yards are ugly." He says he had to fight the city to relocate their business, from Hansen's to its present site, in the mid-'80s. The plans got stalled in the city's bureaucracy, and it took two years for them to move to their new site. "'You guys are eating steak, I'm eating hamburgers. I got to eat, too,'" he told them on the phone. Then he went to the planning department in person and raised Cain. "'Hey, I'm a veteran of two wars. Don't I have any rights in San Diego? You want to put me on the street. I got rights. I fought for this country.' So they finally eased off and let us operate."

City regulations governing teardowns gets Jeanne fuming. "If we want to go out and demolish a building," she says, "we would have to get liability insurance of one million dollars. If anybody got hurt while we were doing it, the insurance would pay for it. Any little thing you do while you're demolishing, you have to have permits. They will let [people from] Tijuana come over here and just haul the stuff away for nothing. They don't have to have insurance. With him and me, we can't afford to demolish anymore."

Shades of Ted Reiff!

"The city hires [Tijuanans] to do it," she goes on. "And if the city says they don't, they are liars. It's okay for them to come over, but they should have the same rules over here that they put on us." It's politics, Ralph says. "The best of San Diego goes down to TJ," the best being the lumber.

I motion to go, but Jeanne wants to know if I've talked to that woman who runs Architectural Salvage.

Yes, I have.

She takes a few minutes to enumerate their similarities—the occasional antique, hardware for old pedestal sinks, claw-foot bathtubs, ornamental door plates, mortise locks and the like—stuff which sells for $200 in a finer store and which anyone can find at Ralph's for $25 or less. What Jeanne calls, "junkyard prices."

"When that woman, Elizabeth, started up, she bought a whole lot of material from us," Jeanne says. "She's just got a different name for it."


Twenty-Eighth and B streets in San Diego is the heart of Golden Hill. These days, the neighborhood feels rundown, a touch tawdry, one of those perennial in-repair communities where the buildings reflect some dereliction which we assume (falsely) also stalks the people. Blight is pervasive in Golden Hill, a legacy from the '70s when the modern, the energy-efficient, the mass-produced (a.k.a. ultra cheap) took over poorer areas like this one. Drugs and gangs have also run rampant in recent years, though the community has held on. In fact, there are signs of a turnaround. Since the recession of the early '90s, prices have fallen and attracted buyers, especially remodelers. It's become a multicultural community, too, with half Hispanic and half Other. Families are returning, with Proposition MM providing money for a new state-of-the-art elementary school. Indeed, to the real estate hopeful, Golden Hill is one of the city's best residential areas to restore. Just south of Balboa Park, this neighborhood may boom once the ballpark goes up next door. If the ballpark is successful, anything in the periphery, both east and west of I-5, should grow quickly in value. Golden Hill may be San Diego's next Hillcrest.

But for Golden Hill to make its there there, the long haul of restoration must begin. Three who've begun in earnest are Rob Fanella, Mike Kravcar and Rena Holford. The trio got started in the re-use field with their stove restoration business—RMR, the Ultimate Stove Restoration Company—in which they re-porcelain the surfaces and fix the inner plumbing of vintage stoves. They are also restoring houses. For close to two years, they've been changing a courtyard of five cottages and two duplexes near 28th and B Streets from shanties into rentals. They find much of their materials for restoration at Ralph's and Elizabeth's.

What was the property like when they bought it?

"In terrible distress," the stocky, energetic Kravcar tells me. "They needed new roofs, the insides were completely gutted. All the amenities that made them charming were taken out. None of this grass was here. There was a pile of garbage, an abandoned car, a lean-to against that building where people were living. It was totally overconcentrated with people. These are five hundred square-foot one-bedrooms, and we had a family of eight in one unit alone. It was very sad."

The trio inherited the tenants, and their problems—drug dealing, gang banging. It was, they agree, the worst place on the block. In four of the seven units they've finished renovating are new tenants, surrounded by a locked iron gate and elegant landscaping. The three first redid two cottages that were moved here in the late '20s.

Isn't it curious, I remark, that an individual in the old days would literally move his or her home instead of building a new one?

Kravcar points across B street: "It's funny but in this old neighborhood those two across the street were also moved here. There's an old Victorian and an old Gothic Revival. So if you want to talk about salvage, that's salvage in the biggest sense of the word. This is a salvaged neighborhood." The three have discovered old photographs of this block from the '30s in which those two houses do not appear. Those houses must have been moved there because they are much older than that time period. "We've seen pictures," Fanella says, "of houses on stilts all in a row with a sign that says, 'Will Sell and Move.'" Everyday housing, Fanella adds, "is recycling on the grandest scale. The only thing that gets bigger in San Diego is the El Cortez."

In the two cottages they renovated first, the three have added new-old stoves, tiled the kitchen walls and replaced the particle-board cabinets with real wood ones. Plus, Kravcar says, they went "junking" and found brightly colored awnings which add a touch of a Riviera beach villa to the red-and-yellow-trim units. That soft-edged stove we spy through the window is a Buck, Kravcar explains. "It's built like a tank. Literally, five elephants could stand on it and it wouldn't bend. Because of that, it's perfect for a rental." This stove was in another rental, he says, a ghetto apartment. The owner called RMR because he didn't want to pay the $20 the garbage collectors wanted to remove it. So the three took it for free and restored it.

"He [the present tenant] loves it," Kravcar says. "When he rented the place, he hugged that stove."

They show me another unit they're redoing, a small house built in the '60s. "We're trying to down-age this house," Kravcar says, "and we're going to make this a period home from the forties. Achieve an earlier look." Fanella adds, "If you look at it right now, what does it have? Nothing but sharp corners, square walls, concrete floor, nothing inviting. It isn't the kind of style I would feel comfortable calling home. If something is softer, a little more architectural, people tend to stay longer. As a landlord you want good tenants, someone who'll be proud to come home."

Another user-friendly salvage term is to down-age—rebuild the windows with new varnished redwood, add new redwood beams for that Craftsman look, rehang new-old refinished solid doors (gleaned from the local alleys), mount sconce lamps, lay quarry-style tile, stain the kitchen cabinets a rich cheery red, grind the old hardware and bake on a new coating for a bronze look and, finally, sandblast the wall heaters then paint them obvious colors rather than try to hide them. The three do their share of "dumpster diving" and rescue old wooden medicine cabinets which, simply because they've been painted, people toss out. Fanella mocks those who buy a new metal-and-plastic medicine cabinet from Dixieline, then watch the door rupture and bend, then throw it away as well. Holford, the woman between the two talkative men, says, "We're a throwaway society, which is why we like the old stuff. It lasts longer."

Kravcar, always on salvage alert, says that people everywhere buy charming old homes and gut them. "They will say, 'These places aren't charming because they don't look like Carmel Mountain Ranch' and they'll cut all the beautiful charm out of them and throw [the material] in a huge dumpster. Our job is to sneak over there and take some of that stuff."

One of their renovating joys is to take a beautiful old lamp, for example a '40s Heritage-style, copper light fixture, and then build the room around that style. Fanella says they try to choose a piece that "defines the style" they're after. Then, their search for salvage to match that style is a treasure hunt. If it can't be all true to a period style, they salvage and create as they go. Having found a pink claw-foot Kohler bathtub for under $100 at Ralph's (a new one, remade to look old, would cost $1,000), they made a bathroom in pink to match the tub. Pink tub means pink bathroom, and so on. In the end, Holford says she usually fulfills her desire—taking a bath in a tub she's restored.

Fanella says this neighborhood is on fire with real estate speculation. People off the street have asked to buy their property. "They say, 'I'll make you an offer,'" while they're in the midst of renovating. Kravcar describes their thinking. "On one block, you'll have a house go for three hundred thousand dollars and next door you still have an affordable fixer. Once you're done with it, you will have a house equivalent in value." It seems speculators want them to identify and begin restoring, then the speculators get very interested. The three started out buying a HUD repo and made a good profit on that. They believe they are filling a niche with social value—to supply affordable houses for lower-income people.

While showing me their stash of light fixtures and hardware, Fanella says that in San Diego there's been very little consciousness until recently about anything old. "Trace the history of our propositions, and you see the focus has been almost exclusively on new building and development." He believes that our dumps are filled with these treasures—the esthetically and functionally superior craftsmanship of old house parts. In contrast, he says, back east, as early as the '60s, there were attempts to preserve old homes and their materials. That's when many of the Victorians were saved. And today, restoration of old houses in small towns and urban neighborhoods is a huge business. Fanella thinks that many of the new arrivals to San Diego are from northern California where the sensitivity to heritage is strong. He praises what one generation of restorers has done with San Francisco's "painted ladies." The downside of such success is that people have been priced out of owning a "lady" and now are moving south to find affordable ones.

At the rear of the property, the three show me a stack of salvaged fireplace bricks which will soon become a walkway at the courtyard's entrance. Fanella says they want an "old city look" of brick paths, in lieu of cobblestone streets. These bricks are mostly chipped and broken, good enough for their purpose. At first the three tried to buy broken bricks from a brickyard, for less. But the owner wouldn't drop the price; he wanted the same price as new ones. Kravcar quotes the proprietor: "It's fifty-cents a brick, whether it's broken or not." Fanella asked what they did with the broken ones, that is, if they didn't sell. The owner said that they threw them away. Hmmm, thought the trio, later moving out with the night. If anyone asks, we'll just say we're salvaging.


Figures from the Census Bureau suggest that paying for a house and its accouterments is by far the single biggest cash cow in America. Two-thirds of U.S. houses are owner-occupied and these folks spend on average 50% of their incomes on housing—mortgage, insurance, taxes, utilities, maintenance and renovation. Mortgages (with insurance and taxes) average half that 50% or one-quarter of income. This figure has risen in the last twenty years in percentage terms along with the rise in home ownership to a new high of 66.8%. Because we are forever paying off the home, we may think expenditures to maintain it bring down the worry. This may be true for new houses whose pristine fresh-paint smell and glossy veneered cabinetry is yet unsoiled by human use. But an old house, changed out via someone's sweat equity, comes neither free from worry nor without expense. Whoever said the fixer-upper home was a way of saving money was not a fixer-upper. What's more, fixer-upping is really a way to express one's vanity with the home. Just one of many costs for the renovator is buying restoration products, for stripping, cleaning, sanding, wood-restoring, plastering, polishing and the like.

Locally the home restoring trend has grown a broad wing. San Diego's neighborhoods, where an old house can be bought and its contents "changed out" to match its architectural period, include Point Loma, Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Banker's Hill, most parts that border Balboa Park, Kensington, Talmedge, and Coronado. These neighborhoods feature Victorian, Mission, Mission Revival, Spanish Colonial, Spanish Colonial Revival, Spanish Pueblo, California Bungalow and Craftsman-style homes, in short, those built before World War II, sixty years and older. Restoring a Victorian or a Craftsman-style home is most common because the materials, old or made-new, are readily available. The curious thing about San Diego, though, is this mix of beautiful pre-war homes with the inelegant modern houses. It seems to be our tradition that city blocks rarely have the same homes from the same period.

All this, of course, is rooted in Bob Vila's "This Old House" program of the '80s, which implied that any restoration is doable because, thanks to Bob's video close-ups, here's how. Today's crafty Vilans, most in their forties, have earned a moniker: the Renovating Generation. They renovate their houses. Before and after work. On holidays. Weekend in and weekend out. And, it seems, once they start, they forget about ever finishing.

One couple who know the joy of never finishing is Tamela and David Bynon, home restorers and preservationists par excellence. Their 1936 Spanish Colonial Revival house sits on a high-trafficked residential street in Coronado. The block mixes modern and traditional homes alongside the battleship prows of new condominiums. Three new condos have docked onto their side of the block since they moved in. But the Bynons are undeterred. In the four years they've owned this home, they have transformed it from a termite-ridden trap to a showcase of renovation, salvaged and rebuilt, looking both new and old.

After buying the house in 1995, the couple researched its permit history at the Coronado Planning Office and spoke with neighbors about its owners and its passage via inheritance. Despite their poking around, they've discovered few hard facts about the house itself except that its past dwellers took poor care of it.

New to Coronado, the Bynons have three children, 9, 10 and 15, who are putting up with their parents' fixer zeal. Tamela is a pre-architecture student at Mesa College while her husband works in Sacramento during the week at an office that hunts down and prosecutes deadbeat parents. When I arrive, David, in ball cap and T-shirt, is on his knees in an alcove where the old stove will go once it's been "re-porcelained" by RMR. He shows me a picture of their "'57 Buick"—a Western Holly stove with four porcelain-topped burners and a griddle in the middle.

This old house, once owned by a Naval officer, had its kitchen set up as a service kitchen with a butler's pantry for their full-time maid. Tamela says Coronado was settled by elite Navy wives for whom the place became a "destination" unlike the "pass through" character of most Navy towns. Other than redoing the kitchen by enlarging it with an extended family room, the Bynons haven't changed the structure of the house at all. They are, though, redoing every room so that each is faithful to the style of its time—Art Deco fixtures with plank-and-peg wood floors, arched doorways, plastered walls, knotty pine or "pickled" wood bedroom paneling, and recessed windows. And that's just the inside. The outside is another tour.

The 1,950 square foot boxy house had, upon purchase, extreme termite damage and a leaky roof. All windows and doors had been "let go" to dry rot. The Bynons' single largest effort is to remake, literally, the windows and doors, either by fixing what they have or salvaging old ones from Ralph's or Elizabeth's. "You take the original window and door and you rebuild them in the same style if not the same construction," David says. Tamela adds, "We build from scratch to look old. Some windows we got out of the frames and [the frame] literally disintegrated." They show me a door frame which is original to the house; to remake it, they use an epoxy product that reconsolidates the wood fibers. They have salvaged door knobs, Bakelite escutcheons, handles, spring-loaded hinges with decorative butterflies on both sides for the inner screen doors (all the original French doors had matching inner screen doors). By the way, those spring-loaded hinges, if they haven't suffered too much metal fatigue, close the screen door shut with a thump-thump-thump-thump succession of sounds. This sound, Tamela announces, is "the soul of the house." With few things do they take "editorial liberties," says David. Anything they do change, they research in magazines of the time, then make the "appropriate" choice. New-old screen doors were made because the old ones were rotten.

Next, they show me the Mission-style red tile roof. The roof, with the new veranda on the second floor, now sticks out above most windows and doors and covers two patios in the front and rear of the house. On the roof are the old-style half-cylinder tiles; they have avoided the smooth ones, commonly seen in new construction throughout San Diego County. The Bynons' tiles are called scratched tiles because of their end-to-end surface striations. With the Renovating Generation wanting this look, U.S. Tile has started making them again.

Tamela and David "demo"ed the entire roof themselves. Plus the chimney: "David put a rope around it," Tamela says, "and convinced it to come down." The craftsman they hired for the roof was Ron Pribble, whom they describe as extremely possessive: "Don't you go up there and walk on my roof," he would tell them. They point to the concrete Pribble smushed under each tile. "That's a Mission-style roof," David says. "[The concrete and the tile] add more texture to the roof so it doesn't look brand new. Ron knew how to do it but he didn't want to do it. He argued with us for weeks. He wanted them down and tight." But Pribble did it their way. AYou could hear him up there," David continues, Agoing splat, squish, splat, squish, muttering, 'I'll do it but I don't like it.'" One hardcore demand for the restorer is, it has to look right, fit the period. "If you drive around Coronado," David says, "you'll see some of these original messy roofs, and they look great."

Upstairs, we step into the past—a new-old Art Deco bathroom. Art Deco may seem incompatible with Spanish Colonial but not to the Bynons. In 1936, the inside of their home was decorated in the streamlined geometric elegance of Art Deco which combined sophisticated chic with pricey fixtures. As David says, the inside of many Spanish-facade homes during the '30s were "Americanized in nature." Tamela opens to an article from Better Homes and Garden, May, 1937, featuring a sleek Art Deco bathroom as the old style and its late-Depression-era replacement, a practical, less adorned one. They've decided their home needs the old sleek look. Apropos, there's a gorgeous lime and yellow glass globe for the ceiling lamp; black lines etch each edge of three concentric spheres. Tamela terms its light, a "custardy glow."

Firmly ensconced in the corner is the original 550-pound cast-iron tub which David says "six men and a boy—literally" carried down the stairs, delivered to the Porcelain Works to be refinished, then hauled back up those same stairs. "I've never seen men sweat like that," Tamela adds. The floor tile comes from Tijuana. "It was very difficult to find the right yellow [for the tile]. The colors from the thirties were very pale pastels with a little bit of grey in them, pink and blue, yellow and that kind of apple or jade green." Shell-shaped shades for light sconces glow beside the vanity mirror. The commode is an antique. To prove it David lifts off the cistern lid and reads the date-stamp—May 15, 1945. Tamela says, "From Bathroom Machineries in northern California we ordered new guts for the flushing mechanism and that beautiful chrome spud," the S-shaped connector from cistern to bowl. To prove its superiority over current toilets, David announces, "This has got a great flush!" Whoosh, an industrial rush of water roars over our laughter.

David says that in four years of restoration work, they have hired only three contractors. "One to do the framing and the foundation [for an addition to the house], one to do the roof and one to do the stucco. Everything else we've done ourselves." Tamela adds, "We did all the prep work for these people and then they came in and did their trades. And when they finished their portion, we came back and did the finish work."

The toughest job? Stripping Latex paint off cabinets. "The heat gun, the spatula and I are dear friends," Tamela says. This reminds her that removing all of the '70s interior—that mod-looking vinyl tile and fake brick with dark brown grout—proved equally cumbersome. Beyond that, David says, "The number one enemy is time." Their time.

The Bynons believe that with their restoration the house should last for 100 years. I ask how they know this. David finger-motions me to the veranda at the front of the house. "One of the things they didn't have in terms of technology was metal flashing up against the stucco," David says. "So when we took the roof off, we beat the stucco out, pulled up the chicken wire and put this metal flashing in, then took the black paper and put it over that, then re-stuccoed. Now the water can't get in. Underneath that," he points to the flashing, "there's three layers of felt, black paper. No way will the water get in."

Looking at the veranda's floor, David says, "One of the last jobs we'll do, when we're done, is to retile all this—" there's an odd pause and I fill it, unable to halt my sarcasm, with "—when we're done?" and it gets a bigger laugh than I expect. David says every project is 98% done; the 2% he's saving for the final final round.

Do they salvage on their own?

It's a Coronado tradition to place discards (alas, when people are modernizing) in the alley where they're free for the taking. An "alley rat" herself, Tamela has seen or helped herself to old copper pipes, doors, window frames, lumber, toilets, marble vanities from bathrooms and more. She's glad the stuff "doesn't end up in the landfill."

I ask them why all this is important. They both respond, family. David tells me that he learned restoration from his dad who taught him after his retirement. His father restored parts of their Alpine home. From that was born a new career—remodeling kitchens in his neighborhood. Tamela is so clear about it that as she speaks her eyes give off a watery light.

"I originally fell in love with the house partly for its architecture. But a lot of it was because it was owned by one family. My father's family had a house like this in Salt Lake City; my grandfather built it. And my father's oldest brother lived in that house up until two years ago. And Uncle Jack decided that he was tired of the creek flowing behind it and keeping up with an old house. He'd lived in it forever; it had no value to him, so he had a developer come who just bulldozed the house. That was the heritage—for me, for my brothers and sisters, for my cousins, for my children. And it's gone. Nobody cared to preserve the heritage. I felt bad that this beautiful house—nobody wanted it. You don't even know what you're throwing away here. This house," and she seems to conflate the one in Salt Lake City with the one they're restoring now, "has such good bones, good history, and I couldn't bear to see it turned into two condos. I'd like to give my kids a family home."

What happens if a person buys or inherits a vintage house and doesn't take care of it? That's called "deferred maintenance," Tamela's term for sitting by and doing nothing, which obviously neither she nor her husband are guilty of. David says, "Our motto around here is 'Do it once, do it right, so we never have to do it again.' It's not so much the doing," he continues, "but the end result of the doing," that brings him and his wife their "emotional satisfaction." Which may, both admit, be mistaken at times for physical exhaustion.


The commodity with the highest resale value in the salvaged building parts trade is used lumber. The older the better, says Jeff Husted of Vintage Lumber, a five-year-old antique timber and millwork business cornered in a checkerboard mix of open-air used material lots in Vista. Husted and his partner, Dennis Roberts, with backgrounds as deconstructors, carpenters (frame and finish) and general contractors, buy and sell the best old wood they can find.

Inside a messy trailer office at the end of their lot, phone orders interrupt, new and old clients holler "Hello!" before the doorway and the jet-air buzz of a power saw echoes from the yard. I want to know why older is better. For one the wood's been "patiently waiting for us," Husted tells me, cellphone on one belt loop, measuring tape on the other: It's been aging and drying inside a building for seventy, eighty, ninety years. The wood they sell is also better because it won't change shape during construction. This is essential for builders. Husted explains that when wood is processed new, only the smaller pieces (not the huge eight-by-twelve beams and beyond) are kiln-dried. "When you do an open-beam application," he says, citing a typical new ceiling construction, "you put up your ridge and your rafters, you dap everything nice and tight, and it looks great. A year down the road, everything shrinks and twists and warps and the plaster cracks, then all of a sudden the builder's got to go back and fix it." With their wood for trusses and corbels, some of it nearing one hundred years old, it's as dry as a mummy: no shrink, no twist, no warp.

Otherwise, Husted says, "people are buying this wood because they have an environmental bent or because they're trying to create a look. The only way to create that look is by using used timbers." The esthetic they're looking for comes with the wood's patina, its color and texture. New wood has a blonde color and a smooth surface. Patina is the variegations of brown as well as the surface character of wood which has seen any age. Sometimes remnants of old paint and lacquers, after being subjected to grinding and hewing, remain and become part of the patina. If clients want a particular patina to the wood, Vintage can bring it out.

To prove it, Husted shows me his photo portfolio of glossies—immaculate homes with beautiful interior beams lofting over dining rooms, million-dollar porches with corbeled construction, the X-filing racks of a wine cellar, a porte-cochère or covered drive, trellis work, mantels, purlins, mortise-and-tenon joints, even a horse barn, a sort of half-timbered Ritz for thoroughbreds—each creation looking old-new, as if built by natives and overseen by friars in the heyday of the conquest, instead of just yesterday.

While much of their wood is from San Diego teardowns, in just five years of operation, they have gone worldwide, importing now from Australia. Roberts hands me a plank of black butt, a brick-hard Eucalyptus species taken from a turn-of-the-century wool factory. Made into flooring, the black butt will be as permanent as concrete, and prettier to look at. "I have never seen wood with this sort of character and grain pattern to it," Roberts says.

As for San Diego's supply of vintage timber, Roberts says that Southern California has some buildings from the early 1900s. "Back then, San Diego was still getting great lumber out of the sawmills. Once the milling of lumber became automated, all the high-grade material had a greater market overseas, so it went to Japan where people could afford to pay the premium." (Japan has much less land and even fewer forests to sustain its lumber needs and, thus, must buy abroad.) The pickings are better in Los Angeles, Roberts notes; large factories and warehouses, much of it late-Depression construction from the '30s, have abundant old wood to salvage. Locally, Husted says they get the "smaller dimension stuff, the two-by material, joisting material, two-by-six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen. The bigger beams we get further north." Both men maintain—in their dovetail partnership, each can finish the other's sentence—that there are "an incredible number" of beams to be had. Roberts calls the vintage lumber product a "forest in and of itself, clear-cut originally but now slated to come down. The good thing is we can put it back into service." And Husted one-putts the point: "What [the builders] did, they bought it, they used it, and they warehoused it for us."

Husted says that his time frame for the best vintage wood is pre-1940, "the old-growth forest product which is, generally, the first cut." This material has environmental import as well. "You're getting the highest quality material here and you're not having to cut down the virgin forest." The pair won't take wood soaked in preservatives or creosote, and they avoid all lumber with lead-based paint. Ninety-nine percent of their stock is Douglas fir. The hardest thing to find, Roberts says, are the twelve-by-twenty-four, twelve-by-twelve, eighteen-by-eighteen sixty-foot long timbers. Husted and Roberts try to bird-dog sites whenever possible, sniffing out desirable beams before they are pulled down, crushed, dumped, mulched or cut up for use in Mexico. Husted says that, apparently, many buildings at Camp Pendleton, whose lumber he'd loved to have had, were "crushed and sent to their [own] internal landfill." On the other hand, they've recently purchased fine old beams from the old Fornaca Bakery building in Hillcrest and the Goodwill Industries building at Fifth Avenue and J Street, both deconstructed properties.

Husted and Roberts describe the deconstruction business and its bidding as "close-mouthed." Roberts says it's only after a teardown is completed that they get a call: "Come pick it up, and bring a check." They avoid the bidding process, for it's out of their control. Asked about deconstruction of the East Village for the ballpark site (whose factories and warehouses they have bird-dogged already), the pair think some crews will recycle their teardowns while others will bulldoze and not even think about reusing the materials. Husted, though, does believe more people are environmentally conscious nowadays: When Vintage bought the lumber and the flooring from the Goodwill Industries building, they observed that Goodwill arranged to have everything recycled, including the brick and the concrete.

In the yard Husted shows me a stack of Douglas fir, the "rough stuff." Their clients buy it as is or Vintage will de-nail, hew and saw it for a specific project. One is flooring. "We'll slice this stuff in half on a re-saw," he says, "then run it to a mill around the corner where they'll put a T and G [tongue and groove] on the side and just kiss the face [with the saw] here, so it leaves the old patina and the old circular saw marks. It creates a really wonderful warm feel for a floor or a ceiling."

He shows me a stack of damaged wood from a "dropped" warehouse in Long Beach. "They were long buildings, about eighty feet wide and a couple of hundred feet long. [The beams] were on six-by-eight posts, about fifteen feet up, with a flat roof on top of that. They took out the lateral bracing and collapsed it, pushed it over." As a result, the wood has some scaring. Husted and Roberts wanted to dismantle the warehouse more carefully, which would have meant more profit for the seller. But, Husted says, the guy was "flat-out impatient. Money doesn't always talk."

On one side of the yard under a canvas tent, two laborers chip-chip with adzes, small short-handled broad-edged picks with which they hew a rough surface onto a beam. Adze workers chop with the grain, taking off paint and joinery damage. Beneath us is a pulpy floor of wood chips. Husted points to an old grey, bleached beam that he identifies as "Kentucky log cabin, circa Lincoln's presidency." This, he says pointing to the wood, was the way they housed themselves: "Cut down a tree close to their building site, then take an adze-ax and hack it flat."

Some clients want jacket-cut boards, that is, one-inch thick surface cuts off an old beam or joist. Saloons and seafood restaurants use these cuts for that funky barn-siding interior that makes for nostalgic, and dark, decors. Jacket cuts are made from beams on which Vintage puts a "resh face"for a client who wants the old wood but not the old surface. Husted and Roberts' power-saw crew pare the beams down to pre-determined size with a monster band saw.

In orange-tinted shades, Roberts joins us to talk about current projects with used timbers that, to no one's surprise, are built in the few ultra high-income neighborhoods. He describes contemporary Rancho Santa Fe where every couple of blocks one can see a home fitted with new-old wood. He laughs that he should publish a guide to these homes, as they do in Hollywood for the homes of the stars. "I'm impressed with the building people are doing on the golf course in Rancho," he says. "It takes a lot of creativity and finesse and patience," to build with antique lumber. "You can't just get your average framing crew in there and say, 'O.K., nail it together.'" He calls the end result, "finished rough. We cater to those builders building big houses with character and dimension."

Sitting on a semitrailer, parked at another Vintage lot nearby, is a colossal stack of brown-black beams. At thirty feet long, these are the most massive pieces they have. Here, at the end of each beam, is a lesson in wood density, the most salient feature they look for. "The further off the heart you get," Roberts says, "the denser the material gets. So the ones that are cut way off the heart—like these are—are spectacular." Heart refers to the middle of the tree, the oldest part, a radiating beacon of rings. To be cut as distant from the center as possible and still be within the tree is to be "free of heart," lumber's touchstone. It means the wood is the densest it can be. A free-of-heart cut has no circles, only broad arch patterns, if they're perceivable. "The bigger the timber, the higher the percentage is [that] they are cut from the center of the tree," Roberts says. "It takes an enormous tree to produce even a piece this big, in that length, free of heart." He believes these pieces are from a tree four-feet wide, "at a minimum," trees so fat and old they're nowadays illegal to harvest.

And, because free-of-heart beams are the most desirable and the most expensive, they are seen almost exclusively in the finest new-old homes money can build.


If you drive east from the Del Mar Fairgrounds on Via de la Valle, pass Morgan Run and the golf club at Fairbanks Ranch, pass the riding stables and the polo field, then bear left by several grapefruit groves, you'll end up in Rancho Santa Fe. There, you'll quickly drive through the single-architectural style village, with its half-cylinder red-earth roof tiles and its honey-mustard rough plaster finishes, the neo-Spanish Colonial style decreed by Lillian Rice, the town's original architect of the 1920s. Rice and others set up the Rancho Santa Fe Association to oversee all new construction in this private covenant community. To this day, an Art Jury approves new buildings or changes to old ones, from height rules for driveway lamps to low roofs which preserve the foresty view of the rampant eucalyptus trees. Rancho, as the contractors call it, may have the most tightly restricted rules in America to govern its 1,600 multi-million-dollar buildings.

Go straight through town and you'll come to the Rancho Santa Fe golf course. Turn right onto Avenida de Acacias—Watch Out for Golf Carts!—and there at number 17222, at the end of a clayey driveway, is a new home under construction: The framed house is up, huge palms sit in planked pots ready for planting, electrical cables and air ducts snake throughout the structure. Or, at least, it was under construction when I visited during the summer of 1999.

This single-storey single-family residence (not including the 1,000-square-foot guest house) is a sprawling 7,800 square feet and features five bedrooms, six bathrooms, six fireplaces, a dozen closets, a maid's (or grandma's) quarters, a scullery, a butler's pantry, a wine closet, a powder room, a library, a four-car garage, a pool, indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis—Shall I continue? The most distinctive element in every room, from the entrance hall to the gourmet kitchen and family rooms, to the library, the kids' and the maid's rooms (dubbed the children's wing), are the corbels and massive exposed-beam ceilings, all made from vintage timbers at least sixty years old. The home is being built on spec and will sell for $4 million. Or maybe higher. The maxim is that if you ever have trouble selling your new or used digs in Rancho Santa Fe, mark the price up, not down, and that'll make it more desirable. Already, so runs the rumor, Bill Gates is interested in this home because he loves playing golf here, and the course is, well, right out back door.

The developer is Bryant Morris, a Rancho Santa Fe resident and long-time San Diego builder. Morris's project manager of 20 years, Jim Jenkins, at 53 has a thick white moustache and an egg-shaped face under an immovable beige felt cowboy hat. Jenkins and Morris's most renowned collaboration, which also used salvaged lumber (jacket-cut planks as its surface material), is Seaport Village.

Jenkins is an ombudsman extradornaire. With a degree in art and much construction experience, he facilitates communication between all the players—developer (his boss), architect, general contractor, landscape architect, road grader and paver, carpenters and landscapers, the Rancho Association, public agencies like the building, fire, planning and sewer departments. So many puzzle pieces to pull together requires Jenkins be a man of patience and vision, one who's adept at compromise because he can see the rainbow at the end. He often refers to himself as "we," as in "we're not in this [business] for the ego. We're trying to build a real nice house that's attractive to a lot of people."

"But you're here to see the vintage stuff," he says, glad I think to get the focus off himself. He escorts me through, beginning with the foyer and admiring each of the main rooms. The main vintage elements are three—the corbels, the exposed beams, which are either the center length or the ribbed widths of each room's ceiling, and the rough two-by-sixteens which plank the ceilings themselves, all Douglas fir, purchased from Vintage Lumber.

Corbels are massive wood brackets that sit under the lintels and support an arch or a cornice. The corbels for this house were milled by Dixieline in National City and are cut in a scroll pattern, like a fiddlehead, with rolled ends. When corbels are set on placed on six-foot centers at the top of the home's long entrance hallway, the visual effect upon those who enter is similar to seeing an indoor temple, the majestic shapes running half the length of the house.

In the library, where beams cross perpendicularly on a flat ceiling, each crossing is made with a mortise-and-tenon joint. The ceilings themselves are made of used planks, two-by-sixteen. Jenkins says that Husted and Roberts told him that these rough ceiling boards are the newly salvaged floor joists of the old Chapman College Library in Orange, California, circa 1917. The kitchen and the family rooms carry huge beams, ten-by-sixteen inches wide and twenty-four feet long. The ceilings of these rooms vault slightly, that is, slant up toward the middle. They expose a lot of wood and, because of their height, add a grandeur to the house. Also, on several patios at several side and back entrances are huge thirty-foot vintage beams that cross the length of and provide support for the overhang. Rafter tails, their ends carved, jut out from above.

All vintage pieces in the house will be exposed. At the end of construction, when the roof is on and the walls are up and drywalled, a crew, headed by master carpenter Paul Campetello, may (if Jenkins, Morris and the architect agree) create one finish pattern for all the vintage wood. Either they will apply a clear sealer which will preserve the color or patina of the wood no matter what its surface character of stains, checks and cracks. Or they may choose to grind off, maybe sandblast, the timber's rougher quality, remove spots from water stains, rust stains from bridge washers (some of these beams were dismantled from old train bridges) or excess paint that forms an unattractive patina. Jenkins describes patina as "what any material gains with its age on the planet." Whatever final look for the vintage timber the builders desire, some of its original wear and tear via nature or builder—its age on the planet—will show through. As an interior that age will delight the owners with its warmth and familiarity in the same way that a well-stocked book shelf delights a reader.

In the children's wing and the maid's room, I am surprised that even here the vintage lumber, the main thematic idea for the whole house, continues. Couldn't they have saved money in this part or is saving money even a consideration?

Jenkins says, sure, they always want to save money. But to cut back on the vintage theme just because it's the children's wing? "You're saying we could have just put a drywall ceiling in here. But, on the other hand, I can remember as a little kid that I would have appreciated these beams, I mean, I loved to lie on the floor and look at my grandad's pine ceiling. All my life I watched it change colors. There's nothing wrong with introducing kids to the full effect."

Before leaving Rancho, Jenkins drives me to a beautiful new-old home where, in addition to the exposed beam ceilings, all the doors, the kitchen cabinets and the outdoor gates, are finished with Alaskan Yellow Cedar, salvaged from a football stadium in Eugene, Oregon, where Dan Fouts played his college ball. The used cedar came from bleacher seats which were erected in 1922 and then torn down recently to make way for new seats. When the owner of this house discovered just how rich the cedar's color was—it may as well be amber—he told his carpenters to finish the house's interior with it.

In a philosophical moment, Jenkins says as we are walking out, "Even today, houses are still one of the few things that are all handmade. You still take a pile of lumber and make a building out of it. You take a pile of sand and rock and make concrete." Nothing has changed.

Nor will it in the future. Soon after visiting Rancho Santa Fe, my son and I see Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. I'm aware that resolving conflicts between the heroic Jedi and the evil politicians of the Galactic Republic are important, as are the dizzle-dazzle of the digital imagery and the beating of my mythological heart for Anakin in the podrace. But, in the end, I am most delighted by Watto's Junkyard, and to know that there will always be planets on which a well-stocked salvage yard of good used parts is indispensable to even those who have the force.