ONARCHITECTURE- This old wood: Recipe for destruction or sustainability?

Willie Drake, founder of the Mountain Lumber Company in Ruckersville, has been scouring the planet for old pieces of wood and the stories they tell since the 1970s.

In the mid-1970s, long before using reclaimed wood became so fashionably green, Willie Drake was scouring the back woods of West Virginia for old barns, farmhouses, and piles of antique wood. Initially, it was a mission to find antique wood for his own new house, but as he noticed the abundance of dilapidated old structures, a light bulb went off. 

Over 30 years later, Drake's Ruckersville company, Mountain Lumber, has grown into one of the world's leading purveyors of reclaimed lumber, and Drake's scouring has sent him far beyond West Virginia. For instance, the company's Guinness oak flooring comes from the original Guinness beer vats in Dublin, Ireland, and the ancient Chinese elm comes from Chinese structures built during the Ming Dynasty.

"If it weren't for reclaimed wood companies, the materials from these structures would be discarded, and the stories would end there," says Drake. "Instead, we preserve the wood and pass the stories on to our customers." 

Indeed, it's remarkable the stories that wood can tell. For instance, the company's "country estate" flooring– which came from a textile mill in Lindale, Georgia, to find a home in Monticello's new visitor's center– tells a nearly karmic tale. At one time, the Georgia mill's agent was Henry "Captain" Parrish Meikleham, a great-great grandson of Thomas Jefferson. 

According to Drake, Meikleham shared his forebear's talent for innovation. He organized workers at the mill into baseball teams, marching bands, and scout troops. He planted trees and had ice delivered to each street. He required inoculations, provided corporate medical and dental offices, and built churches– as well as a school, an indoor swimming pool, a movie theater, and a social complex. Appropriately enough, Meikleham is buried in the family cemetery at Monticello.

And sometimes, says Drake, the wood itself contains pieces of history. 

"In one of our heart pine beams we found a bullet from one of the first repeating rifles," Drake says, "which would place it in the latter half of the 19th century."

Only about five percent of the buildings they dismantle yield large heart pine timbers in their original pristine condition from a hundred years ago, says Drake. The company also researches the building history to make sure no harmful chemicals were ever used in the vicinity. 

In addition, the process of dismantling the building is painstakingly slow and often dangerous. 

"Rather than simply demolishing the building, we remove material bit by bit to avoid damaging the wood," he says.

Though Drake may not have called himself "green" when he started out– back then it was called being being frugal, going without certain comforts, and not throwing things away– he certainly embraces the cause now. And it's about saving trees. Reclamation is now the only way to obtain certain woods, he says. Due to blight, large quantities of American chestnut, for example, do not exist anymore, and in the case of longleaf yellow pine, the trees available today are nothing like the towering trees of the past. 

"Now that consumers are embracing green, it seems trees are no longer cut. They're selectively harvested," says Drake. "Call it what you will, the end result is still a tree being removed from its rightful place." Even after they die, Drake explains, trees are a contributing part of a forest's nutrient cycle, so removing them disrupts the cycle.

For some preservationists, however, reclamation can be problematic.

Says architectural historian Aaron Wunsch, "To me, the real question is were these buildings slated to come down anyway, or did their materials-value hasten their demise?"

Wunsch says a 19th-century mill in the middle of Gordonsville is in precisely this predicament. The City has made plans to acquire and demolish the building, which he says has given the current owner a conscience pause.

"Still, he feels the project will be redeemed by reuse of the lumber," says Wunsch.

"Frankly," says Wunsch, "I'm amazed what people can get away with now under the 'green' rubric. I'm inclined to think it's 90 percent scam, both from an environmental and a historic-preservation perspective."

For his part, Drake says he buys wood only from structures already demolished or slated for demolition.

"Truth be told, this makes the process even harder because we have only a limited amount of time to find and inspect buildings before they're demolished," Drake says.

"If the building is slated to come down anyway, then there's generally not much concern," says Brian Broadus, president of Preservation Piedmont. "As for historic mills or buildings in historic districts, they're usually more valuable developed as an office, or a museum– such as the Prizery in Danville– than say, torn down for the wood."

As far as "green" goes, says Broadus, "reclaimed wood is so expensive that you seldom get to use a lot of it. In addition, it may be a recycled material, but it's been reprocessed in a big way. You could use bamboo, spend the same amount, get the rapidly renewable materials credit, and buy a lot more floor. "

Indeed, while some wood at Mountain Lumber can go for as little as $3.95 a square foot, the Guinness oak fetches $28.50 a square foot. Drake says that most of the company's products are in the $10/square-foot range. 

As for bamboo flooring, he says, "It isn't as durable as some types of solid wood."

In the end, however, buying reclaimed wood, for many customers, probably isn't about saving a building or the planet– it's about the character of wood with 100-year-old growth rings, original saw marks, hand-carved wedges, nail holes created with hand tools– and, yes, even the occasional bullet hole.