By Sara G. Stephens
The tiny-house revolution has yet to take over Houston. Eager homeowners, keeping watchful eye on the Joneses, continue to empty their wallets to build (and sustain) status-boasting McMansions. Old, historic homes are deconstructed to make room for the mammoth residences. Literally tons of flooring, windows, and appliances are tossed into landfills—unless they’re salvaged and used as reclaimed materials in the construction of new homes.
Historic Houston (www.historichouston.org) aims to change all that.
Historic Houston is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving and promoting Houston’s historic architectural and cultural resources through scholarly research, education and advocacy of sustainable design. The organization’s website boasts that Historic Houston’s salvage program has diverted over one million cubic yards of building material from the landfill. But Executive Director Lynn Edmundson says the estimate is inaccurate.
“Funders kept asking us how much material we were diverting from landfills—if you ask for a grant, you’re going to need metrics,” Edmundson explains, “but I didn’t have a scale to weigh everything.” The number they arrived at was generated by going back through Historic Houston’s files. Edmundson says, in hindsight, she now estimates the actual amount of landfill-diverted materials to be four or five million tons. “In one house we deconstructed, the concrete alone was 473 tons,” she says.
In 2011, Historic Homes found itself cut short by the downturn in the economy, and was forced to close the doors to its salvage warehouse, much to the surprise of loyal patrons. What the public saw was that the warehouse had a lot of inventory, so it looked like business was doing great.
But most people didn’t understand that when the warehouse was backing up with inventory the organization’s cash flow was getting stifled—collateral damage from how the salvage program was initially set up. In 2003, the salvage program was created to encourage homeowners or builders to let Historic Houston reclaim what it could from a house scheduled for demolition. “They would donate the house to us and let us reclaim material, but at our cost,” Edmundson explains. “We had to have a crew, get the material to the warehouse, stock it there, and be open so people could come in and buy it.” The organization was only reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses once the salvaged materials were purchased by a customer. “We were always in arrears, always playing catch up,” Edmundson explains.
Sales from the warehouse covered all the program’s expenses—crews, trucks, insurance, staff, phones, and electricity. When the economy tanked and sales declined, Historic Houston still had obligations in the community, where they had made commitments to salvage houses. “We turned our cash into inventory,” Edmundson says. “At that point we couldn’t liquidate fast enough to recover the downward spiral.”
Historic Houston’s salvage warehouse has been closely identified with Houston for years. The project was dear to Edmundson and she had a hard time seeing it die. So she fought to keep it alive.
Now she’s back in business. In January 2012, Edmundson was approached by a group from California who suggested she operate using a different business model. She retooled the program, now asking donors to underwrite the organization’s costs, so she has no cash basis for getting material.
Someone donated a 20,000 square-foot warehouse space to Historic Homes in fall of 2012, so the organization has started again deconstructing houses and stocking the salvage. But the warehouse has no electricity, so it cannot be open to the public as often as it was before. Rather, Edmundson opens the warehouse on specific, publicized days to members of Historic Houston, so they can see the inventory. The public can join an email notification list on the group’s website to be notified of days when the warehouse will be open to either members, or occasionally to the general public (Edmundson expects to host another public warehouse opening near the end of April).
Membership in the organization costs $40 for an individual, $55 for a family, and it goes up from there. Membership gets you into the warehouse and also grants you a discount on purchases.
It’s been a Catch-22 for the organization. Edmundson would like to apply for grants and loans to open a new warehouse with electricity, so she can again open the doors to the public. But the first thing she’s asked is “How many members do you have?” Without being able to show people her vast inventory, it’s difficult to attract new members.
Edmundson has launched a fundraising drive, setting a capital gain goal of $350,000 to open a new warehouse. She has set up a form on the Historic Houston website where people can donate money toward the cause of permanently re-opening this beloved, historical Houston institution. Anyone interested in donating can do so at historichouston.org. There are other ways to help out, too. Edmundson says the organization could always use office help, answering phones, handling paperwork, etc., for one to two hours per week.
Whether you donate, volunteer, or buy, Edmundson wants everyone to know, it’s never too late to reclaim, reuse, and reduce.