Home Front Build carpenters are seen here framing a new house using old-growth Douglas fir they recovered from a 1905 home that would have otherwise been leveled and carted to the dump.
Steve Pallrand is the owner of Home Front Build, a full-service remodeling and custom home building firm in Los Angeles, with 30 employees on staff. He likes what he does. It gives him a chance to use his hands and keep a relatively predictable schedule for his family. It also helps him save the world—our words, not his.
Pallrand is a reclamation expert. He salvages building materials—a lot of them. It cuts his operational costs considerably, he says, saving on framing lumber, interior doors, cladding, plumbing fixtures, and more—savings he passes on to his clients.
“Just the other day I wrote a discount for around $20K to a client on whose house we used reclaimed framing lumber,” he says, explaining the discount as a calculation of the $20K he was paid for the demo, plus what new lumber would have cost, minus the cost of his crew’s time to salvage the material. The materials themselves, at least the ones not behind the walls, are popular among homeowners not just because of the savings, but because they have an aged look manufacturers today are trying to replicate in new products across multiple categories.
But while the discounts and style may be to Pallrand’s benefit, it is not the primary reason he uses salvaged materials. He does it because it combats climate change—“the number one issue of our time,” he says.
Pallrand used to build sets for Hollywood, where work came in waves and he was forever navigating strikes. “It’s a good industry for a young man,” he says. “But not when you have a family.” Pallrand has a background in architectural history and art, and had worked for both an architect and a contractor in college, so when his flexible schedule gave way to family responsibilities, transitioning into remodeling and custom home building felt like a natural fit.
His business started as a personal home restoration project—one not focused on reducing the home’s carbon footprint. He’d discovered an old, untouched Craftsman in central LA and decided it was worth the effort to revive it. “The home had an old gas lighting system I was able to restore,” he says. “That’s where the interest in salvaging really came from.” Seeing what he was able to accomplish, onlookers started making requests.
In LA’s inner city, surrounded by old bungalows, Pallrand was in his element. “There are a lot of old Craftsman and Victorian homes in LA, and when a big commercial development comes in, they tear them down to make room,” he says. “In the beginning, we would just go and ask to salvage the whole thing.” Sometimes they’d say yes, and sometimes they wouldn’t. He now has a demo license and will get paid to take apart a house (sometimes as much as $30K), during which time he’ll also salvage materials. He admits it extends the demo timeline, and may push back any subsequent construction as a result, but it can also save him and his clients thousands in materials while helping the environment.
Finding the right stuff
Pallrand’s is a scenario you could see playing out in most metropolitan areas. Across the nation, more than half of all homes (74.8 million) were built before 1980—40 million of those were built before 1960, and 9.5 million before 1919, according to data from the latest American Housing Survey. Among all housing stock, 13 million are currently vacant, and every year hundreds of thousands are demolished, making way for newer homes and bigger developments.
The materials from those demolished homes mostly end up in landfills. Home Front Build’s internal research revealed in a case study that 48% of wood waste from demolitions was recoverable.
Some things, of course, you can’t salvage. “We ignore exterior windows and doors,” Pallrand says. “They’re too undependable.” Cabinets and countertops are also tough to salvage, because of the unique dimensions—and well-kept stone is tough to find. Tile breaks too easily. Toilets are typically too wasteful. “Roof shingles can be saved but they’re often too weathered to reuse.”
But a lot you can salvage.
Masonry, such as broken-up concrete driveways (i.e., essentially urbanite) and sidewalks as well as intact bricks, are an easy save and a great finish paving material—and are also some of the most environmentally taxing materials to produce. “I have saved thousands of bricks for patios, planter beds, as a veneer material, and for retention walls in landscaping,” Pallrand says.
A lot of exterior products are also prime targets for reclamation. “Siding, cladding, subflooring, any kind of board and batten, shiplap, or beveled siding from, say, an old Victorian—those hold up very well and are great for salvaging.” He saves metal roofing sheets, interior doors, their hardware, cabinet hardware, sinks, and cast-iron tubs when he can find them. The big prize, though, is framing—both because it’s economical and sustainable, but also because it provides potential access to highly sought-after, rare woods, like redwood and Douglas fir. It’s especially appealing, he says, if you do a lot of additions—which the latest data from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies says are up 4% since 2015.
“A lot of places, like Starbucks, will take beautiful framing lumber, mill it, and then use it as a finish material that will be thrown out in 10 or 20 years,” Pallrand says. “We’re upstreaming it—reusing the framing as framing.” He can do it because framing lumber is incredibly durable. “Lumber lifespan is generally limited to the lifespan of the building, as it’s usually ruined in the demo.” Properly treated lumber, he says, can potentially last hundreds of years—a point proven in old, still-standing, still-sturdy structures the world over. To find the best lumber, he says to look for dense, old-growth wood, which can be spotted by its especially tight grain pattern. “The really old, dense stuff—it’s better than any modern 2-bys.”
The hurdle in salvaging framing lumber yourself—depending on the code requirements in your area—is it needs to be re-graded, or graded for the first time if it was installed prior to grading standards. Graded wood will have been stamped. “You can have a grader come out for a full day for a couple hundred dollars, so you need to have enough reclaimed lumber to make it worth it,” Pallrand, who has a grader on staff, says. He keeps his materials in stored, organized stockpiles to streamline the grading. “He’ll go from one stack to the next, one after the other—we can grade thousands of dollars’ worth of lumber in a day.”
A Mission of Sustainability
Climate change is a big concern for Pallrand, and the link between building and climate change is well established. The U.S. Green Building Council reports that 39% of all carbon dioxide emissions come from buildings, and it’s expected to be the fastest growing sector for CO2 emissions over the next 25 years.
“We bring a consciousness to every project we do,” Pallrand says. “Reclaiming materials is only part of it, but it’s a big part.” In upstreaming materials, effectively extending their lifespan, Home Front Build is eliminating the energy required to both produce and transport new materials. “Materials have to be harvested, produced, shipped—it’s all adding to your carbon footprint,” he says. Using reclaimed materials, even if sourced at local reclaimed materials shops—which are growing in popularity—eliminates the production and at least some of the transportation emissions.
“A lot of tile comes from China, the Middle East—places that require long transports and have loose, if any, pollution controls,” he says. “You can’t reclaim tile in any big, effective way, but you can at least source it locally.”
In an attempt to redefine what green building can accomplish, and as a lesson to other remodelers and custom builders (which came in the form of a publicly available, post-construction case study), Pallrand and his company built a new home using primarily materials reclaimed from locally demoed houses. The remainder was all high-efficiency, low-impact materials and products, some of which have yet to become mainstream, like a countertop that mimics stone but is made out of recycled paper.
To further impart his lessons and make efficient building easier—not only in production but in the explaining of benefits to clients—Home Front Build recently launched the website CarbonShack.com. It includes the case study, along with energy and construction calculators that provide performance analysis on a home. Other tools include a comparative materials database to clarify the sustainability of new materials, and a building checklist with best-suggested efficiency specs relative to ZIP code.
Pallrand doesn’t expect every remodeler to adopt his mindset or his practices, but he’s doing his best to spread his message, techniques, and materials. “This isn’t something that we can wait around to do. No one is telling me to do this,” he says, lamenting the slow pace of adoption and government action. “But we have to do it.”