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All Kinds of Value in Salvage

Community Forklift transforms building waste and builders’ lives

In a cavernous, dusty warehouse in Prince George’s County last weekend, Christmas lights twinkled and shoppers in winter coats and hats sipped hot cider alongside plumbing parts, door handles, and cabinet sets.  Kids waited to take photos with a jolly Santa, wearing a tool belt, whose stiff felt beard hung like a bib from his face. Near the loading dock, a local woodworker was giving lessons on carving spoons from old logs.

A family of seven from Silver Spring hung out among assorted pieces of turned wood. They are putting in a bathroom and want it to look as if it belongs in their older house. Along with a used sink, toilet, and tub, “We’re looking at the console legs there, which are very expensive if you buy them new because they’re kind of trendy,” said Jessica Brown. These old but sturdy and attractive ones were only $15.

The checkout desk decked out for the holidays. 

Next to the displays of locally made upcycled gift items, two middle-aged men serve themselves coffee in flimsy paper cups. One is wearing a baseball cap boldly proclaiming, “I ‘heart’ Jesus Christ.” They’re both local ministers. Apostle Ellis Melvin, in the baseball cap, explains that he came to look for used carpet for his church sanctuary.  Since he runs a non-profit, Community Forklift gave him a $100 credit to spend on whatever the church needs.

This holiday scene couldn’t be more different from that at a brightly lit Home Depot, Walmart or Best Buy. At those stores, as in most businesses today, shiny new goods produced from recently mined or harvested materials are ordered in enormous quantities and sold at prices carefully calibrated to what the market will bear. Often, neither the manufacturer nor consumer considers a product’s longevity. When the product is no longer wanted, it will usually end up in a landfill. Regardless of the store’s image or culture, in the end, the customers are the source of profit and the employees are a cost.

Community Forklift represents a radically different economic model, one that places value on the objects we normally discard as well as on the health and well-being of the employees, customers, local workforce, and environment.

An outlet for surplus and salvaged building materials, Community Forklift aims to reduce the need to harvest or mine resources for building supplies, while keeping reusable materials out of landfills. (35-50% of our nation’s solid waste stream is made up of debris from construction and demolition.) Just as importantly, Community Forklift works to lift up communities by making low-cost building materials available to those in need while creating jobs at the Forklift itself and in both construction and “deconstruction.”

Julie Lee is tearing down the rambling Fairfax, VA house she inherited from her parents, in order to build an updated home. To get a permit to remove the old structure, the county required her to salvage the house’s historical elements. Here, items awaiting donation to Community Forklift.

Founded in 2005, this business is the main project of the nonprofit Sustainable Community Initiatives (SCI). Both were the brainchild of Jim Schulman, an architect by training and an activist by vocation. A loyal customer of the project, he and his wife are in the middle of a kitchen remodel in their townhouse near Union Station, using materials from the Forklift. The 1950’s-era metal kitchen cabinets, re-painted in a funky lime green/avocado combo, look gorgeously retro-modern.

David Bernhardt of Northeast Washington, DC is building a new deck

out of lumber from Community Forklift.

Sitting at their new zinc counter, Jim recounts the Forklift’s birth.  One of the first things SCI did was run an EPA-funded job training program in deconstruction. Eight low-income residents of Northeast DC got eleven weeks of training on how to take apart all sorts of buildings. “What’s beautiful about deconstruction job training is that in general it’s in reverse order of how you build a building, so you’re getting a sense of how buildings go together and you’re getting basic skills that can be used to get a job in construction—how to use hand tools, how to be safe, how to work as a team.” Among the buildings they deconstructed was a World-War II era public housing project with beautiful beech wood floors. Beech flooring is in such demand that every square foot of it—multiple flatbed trucks worth—was pre-sold. They made enough money to completely fund the training program.

“And that’s when the lightbulb went off in my head that there was money in them hills,” Jim explains theatrically. “That abandoned buildings weren’t the liabilities that most people think they are, that if you have to take a building down, by taking it apart carefully you can actually recover a lot of money, give a tax deduction to the owner if the materials are donated to a non-profit, and employ a lot of people. So it’s a win-win-win.” He adds, “And it’s environmentally friendly. I would argue that reusing a two-by-four is about the greenest thing that you can do.”

(L) The Forklift receives donations from commercial and public structures as well as private homes.  The lines on this basketball court flooring will appeal to homeowners and designers with a funky sense of style.

The dock where Community Forklift’s donation trucks are unloaded.  “Deconstructing,” or carefully taking apart an old house, diverts thousands of tons from the solid waste stream. However, it is slightly more expensive than demolition and takes several times as long.

SCI went on to run seven similar training programs. In the meantime, Jim and his fellow organizers worked to create a marketplace for the type of material that was coming out of these buildings. They looked for warehouse space nearby, but it was all taken up by federal agencies.

Happily, the town of Edmonston, MD, just over the DC line, had some empty warehouse space. It was also home to a blossoming community development movement with a focus on sustainability. At the time, then Governor Parris Glendening was pushing one of the country’s first “smart growth” initiatives, and the Mayor of Edmonston, Adam Ortiz (now the Acting Director of Environmental Resources for Prince George’s County), couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. Along with the towns of Bladensburg, Colmar Manor, and Cottage City, Edmonston also benefited from the activism and leadership of the Port Towns Community Development Corporation (Port Towns CDC). These forces, plus a remarkable grassroots activist base, led to the creation in Edmonston of “the greenest street on the East Coast.” It boasts permeable pavement, energy-efficient street lamps, bike lanes, and more. The town is also home to Eco-City Farms, an urban educational farm.

As large as Community Forklift’s rented warehouse is, it can’t accept some bigger commercial donations. The business is hoping to expand into the space next door.

Even so, Edmonston and its sister towns do not fit the stereotype of eco-enthusiastic communities that the satirical show “Portlandia” mocks. Edmonston is a working-class community evenly split among blacks, whites, and Latinos. Denise Hamler, an activist at the national level through Green America (formerly Coop America) and at the local level in Cottage City and the Port Towns CDC, points out, “Everyone cares about the same things. Everyone cares about having a healthy future for their families.” She goes on to explain that the work is about discovering “how do you revitalize communities, make them more livable for everyone. Because we will not be successful if we gentrify ourselves out of our neighborhoods.”

So the newly incorporated Community Forklift found fertile ground in Edmonston. It took months of work, but in the end the Forklift got a zero-interest long-term loan to move into their warehouse, and the area gained a valuable source of jobs and low-cost building materials.

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A homeowner and his pup are on the hunt for cabinet pulls.

The Forklift’s customer base is remarkably diverse in terms of race, class, and motivation. Over the holiday shopping weekend there is a steady trickle of shoppers seeking to restore their period homes with antique fireplace mantles, ornate trim, and stained glass windows. More typical, though, are handy homeowners from both poor neighborhoods and rich who come in looking for basic building supplies like lumber and pipe. Jerry Paris, an electrical engineer, came in to get some electrical parts to pull power to his garage. For a do-it-yourself guy, he says, the prices at the Forklift are a big draw, as well as the way things are sold. “For instance,” he says, picking up a 2 foot piece of PVC pipe, “if I had a job that needed that much pipe, and I hire somebody, he’s going to have to buy twelve feet of this to get me my little piece like this here.”

In fact, though, plenty of  Forklift’s shoppers are contractors. Cecilia Moore, a 50-year old contractor, comes into the Forklift one to three times a month looking for materials for renovation jobs. “You’re not going to renovate an old house and use shiny new cheap stuff,” she scoffs. “A lot of the pieces and parts, they just don’t make ‘em anymore, or if they do make them, they’re poor quality.” Recently she made a beautiful room out of the attic of an old Cape Cod house in Upper Maryland. The homeowner wanted a second access door to match one on the other side of the room. “Well, look,” she said to the client, “at Community Forklift I can match your door and save you a little money.” She found a near-exact match to the lovely solid wood panel door for only $10. “At Home Depot, the cheapest doors are $20,” she adds. After several trips she also found matching brass hinges, handle, and lock. The customer was thrilled.

A local contractor manages to find a near exact match to another fixture for a renovation.

The Forklift always has hundreds of classic solid wood panel doors in stock.

Some contractors provide estimates based on Forklift prices and get jobs homeowners otherwise couldn’t afford to undertake. Vintage solid wood cabinet sets, needing an update in hardware or paint, can be thousands of dollars cheaper than they would be new.  In this way the lives of low-income residents are improved, value is added to housing stock in low-income neighborhoods, and small contractors get much needed work for themselves and their employees. (And, of course, the donor of the materials gets a tax break.)

Conceptual artist Steven M. Cummings comes to the Forklift often to get materials for his constantly-developing studio near H St. NE. It’s a funky space decorated with old bicycles, a collection of antique cameras, and creepy objects such as an iron mold to make doll heads. Among many improvements, Cummings built a loft for the space out of Forklift lumber and a skylight-trap door to the roof from a plexiglas window he found there. A seven foot-high stack of wooden frames created from Forklift plywood sits in a corner.

Steven Cummings' loft, created with Forklift lumber.

On the day I meet Cummings, though, he’s looking at a space heater. He decides not to buy it when the staff determines that it’s meant for a commercial electrical system. “If you come here looking for something you’ll never find it,” Cummings says a little ruefully. “But on the other hand, you’ll often find something you never thought to look for.”

Few customers mention being eco-friendly as a motivation for coming to the Forklift. Those who do are generally college educated and relatively well-off. That’s okay, says Denise Hamler. “It is green, but we don’t have to call it that!” she laughs. However, Veronica Edwards, assistant sales manager, takes it farther, reflecting on the culture she grew up in. “I see green right now as a movement, but it’s always been part of the African-American life. We just like to try to use everything we could to get the full extent of the life of it. And we never really had the option to throw away things that were still usable or still viable. You know, if we didn’t have use for it, we’d pass it on to a neighbor or a family member or a friend. So this is not new to me, it’s just re-branded, so to speak.” She adds, however, that “this particular idea of having it under one roof is new to me, as opposed to just passing it on from individual to individual. It’s actually a place you can come and bring your own things and purchase others. I like that idea.”

The Forklift warehouse features many touches of unexpected whimsy.

This exemplifies the ethos that excites Nancy Meyer, the Forklift’s CEO, although she talks about it as if it’s a radical new idea—which it is, to most people. She sits behind her desk at the back of the building and waits for a deafening train to go by before beginning to speak. Holding up a tape measure, she explains, “There’s raw materials in here, and there’s design in here that’s human made, and there’s human labor in here—but it’s invisible, because you just don’t think about it…What makes up this commodity is labor and materials. So when you don’t just dump it in a landfill, at some level you’re re-valuing the human labor and the raw materials that went in here.” To the suggestion that maybe the laborer would prefer she did throw the tape measure away, so that he or she could be paid to make a new one, she responds, “Maybe we should be paying people to do things that are more valuable than making more stuff. Maybe we should be paying people to re-process and make the stuff we have already valuable.”

Jeff Godfrey loading lumber donated to Community Forklift

from a deconstruction in Falls Church. 

So far, this concept is working. Nancy pulls out a hand-written, taped-together chart of the company’s income and sales. Since the store’s founding 8 years ago, the Forklift’s staff has grown to about 45 full and part time workers, and sales have grown to a projected $1.5 million for 2013. Between 2011 and 2012, revenue increased by a whopping 46%. Because this a completely local business and the enterprise of a non-profit, almost all the profit returns immediately to the surrounding community. The Forklift also runs a sizeable donation program; in 2012, the value of material donated to people in need and non-profits came to nearly $50,000. Nancy points out that the actual value of the goods donated is about twice that, since prices are kept artificially low.

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Specialty items like crystal doorknobs are sold at close to their actual value

to subsidize low prices on basic building materials.

Given the money to be made in the industry, Nancy worries that the for-profit world will catch on. “My worry down the road—and this happened with recycling—is that rather than using re-use to build the local economy and provide good jobs for people, that a big company or a multinational will come in here and take over, and that whatever profit they can extract from this process they will. So my hope is that we can build stuff like this that forever stays controlled by communities.”

For now, though, Community Forklift’s radical business model is enriching not a multi-national corporation, but a diverse network of local people from all walks of life and ideologies. On Sunday, at the He Restore My Soul Church of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, mismatched carpet covers the sub-floor, which is waiting to be finished. Apostle Ellis gives a shout-out to the Forklift from the lectern. “I went back to Community Forklift the other day. And did you see the paint when you came in, that new brown paint in the entryway, they donated that, Amen. I’m gonna give God some praise.”

Susannah Stevens, December 2013

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