In the work he does — disassembling homes nail by nail — Fred Gurley has yet to find any treasure squirreled away behind a wall.
But he is witness to the extremes in which people live. He just got done spending months taking apart a house near Lake Minnetonka whose owner had a separate home on the estate just for the cats, he said, that was as big as the grungy two-bedroom home he is currently taking apart in Roseville.
It’s roughly his 45th disassembly, but this one means a little more than most: It’s the means by which Roseville and its nonprofit partner hope to get the word out that recycling a house is better than demolishing it, with all the resulting garbage that leaves behind.
“There’s a hot market for even some boards like this,” said Nick Swaggert, vice president of business development and operations for Minneapolis nonprofit Better Futures Minnesota.
“This is rough-cut wood from a year-1900 home, with the sawmill marks still showing and a story behind it,” he said. “People are loving that these days — they want to know where their wood comes from. It’s something they didn’t just get at Menards.”
Heading off a shabby rental
In its eagerness to keep sagging neighborhoods from tipping over, Roseville keeps an eye out for properties worth less than the land they’re sitting on.
The small, aging home was a classic of its type. It sits opposite Lake McCarrons on S. McCarrons Boulevard, on a lovely, very deep lot with an zigzag outline resembling Harry Potter’s forehead scar.
If the lot is idyllic, the home was in poor shape and unlikely to be saved for resale once its elderly owner left, said Jeanne Kelsey, Roseville’s economic development program manager. The house could have turned into a shabby rental in a declining area the city is trying to rehab, said Roseville Economic Development Coordinator Joel Koepp.
In a move that’s becoming more common, especially on the coasts, Roseville turned to Better Futures for a disassembly that will cost the public $12,000. A bulldozer scrape-off would have cost $19,000, Kelsey said.
The savings come partly because the work is done by ex-inmates housed and guided by Better Futures. It shops the materials on Craigslist and in other ways, in an era when whole TV shows are devoted to the stripping and reuse of old barn wood from the same era. Things like garage doors from the Roseville house wind up back in use within days, said Better Futures CEO Thomas Adams.
Shingle by shingle
How does it work? Guys like Gurley come in and first pull out cabinets, lights and aging hardwood floors — the latter not so much to create someone’s new dining room in Lakeville, but as a likely match for existing wood on an antique floor needing a patch.
“You can’t buy stuff like this,” said Alex Baldwin, retail and donations manager for Better Futures, pointing to an ancient 15-foot, 2-by-6-inch plank with dark nail holes, possibly dating to Mark Twain’s day.
“It’s cool to say it’s from a 1900 house. And a lot of times new wood is pine or fir, while old is oak.”
Many times, reuse isn’t for anything banal but for something far more showy, Adams said, such as a tabletop with history and character, or a piece of art.
Meanwhile, the lot on which the house stands is destined for a much bigger contemporary home, a 1,900-square-foot house with an attached garage.
Better Futures has gotten financial help from Hennepin County to do this sort of work, and Ramsey County officials turned up Tuesday at the site for a tour and a pitch in hopes of getting that county on board as well.
The workers, meanwhile, shared photos and videos from a Long Lake mansion they recently worked on and still can’t believe. At 28,000 square feet and with 10 bathrooms, that job required three months.
“We took it apart shingle by shingle,” Gurley said.