Every structure has a story. That’s the foundation of Refab, a local nonprofit that rescues deconstructed building materials from the landfill to be used anew in another “chapter.”
Refab, located in St. Louis’ Benton Park West neighborhood, is the brainchild of Eric Schwarz, a local architecture, design and sustainability expert who worked at Habitat for Humanity St. Louis before setting his sights on starting his own charitable organization. “I saw needs in the community not being filled,” Schwarz says.
Local contractors and farmers had buildings set for demolition, but they also wanted the reusable materials saved rather than seeing them go to a landfill. In the same vein, on the consumer side, local residents and homeowners were looking for reclaimed wood to support home remodels and new builds.
So, in 2012, Schwarz founded Refab to disassemble structures, from historic buildings to barns more than a century old to newer homes, as well as to “upcycle” salvaged materials – that is, to recycle them in such a fashion that the value of what remains exceeds that of the original item. Such “new” products then go on sale in the company’s Refab Lab at its Reclaimed Resale store, located at 3130 Gravois Ave.
“We’re the biggest salvage shop in the St. Louis metro [area] with a 40,000-square-foot warehouse,” Schwarz notes, adding that customers can shop approximately 180 years of area history in the store, including reclaimed doors, windows, light fixtures, cabinets, hardwood flooring and more.
“It can be hard to describe exactly what we do because we do a lot! Our deconstruction team takes apart old buildings; our resale team finds new homes for the reclaimed materials; and our Refab Lab crew turns some of those materials into high-quality home furnishings. On top of all that, we provide training and reemployment opportunities to recently homeless men.”
The process begins when local government officials, contractors or homeowners reach out to Refab. “People call us about a house they have, or the local government says they have this historic building to be disassembled – and we help tell the story of it before the building goes away,” Schwarz explains, noting that preserving the story is the most important part of the process. “The more we can tell people stories of where pieces come from, the more emotional connection they have to them and the less they’ll see goods as disposable.”
Among the nonprofit’s historic deconstruction projects are a Frontenac home owned by the family behind the area’s beloved Switzer Candy Company; the Southern Funeral Home, a 1929 St. Louis art nouveau building; and a St. Louis warehouse built with 1904 World’s Fair materials.
Refab has grown to a team of 20, with an extensive list of deconstruction jobs – from disassembling barns across the area to vacant housing on the city’s North Side to houses in Ladue, Clayton, Creve Coeur and Des Peres for residents looking to clear the land before building new residences. “Although we charge for the [deconstruction] service, homeowners and farmers get a generous tax write-off because we take all those home and barn materials as donations,” Schwarz says.
As its name implies, the Refab Lab takes some of the salvaged building materials and refabricates them – making the deconstructed products into desirable new pieces to sell at its store, which recently launched with five new items. The reclaimed pieces include custom tables, joist shelves, butcher-block island countertops, barn-beam mantels and barn-wall paneling made from various woods – from maple, hickory, sycamore, ash and longleaf yellow pine to red oak and white oak.
“We want people to have a local option to buy reclaimed wood creations,” Schwarz says. “People buy reclaimed because it’s green – they’re not cutting down trees to make furniture, they’re supporting a nonprofit, and they’re getting something with character.”
Each renewed item’s story is perpetuated, promoting the idea that “old is beautiful,” Schwarz says. “The story is a lot of what makes a piece and half of what sells it. We like to tell people where the wood came from that made their table.”
Beyond residential uses, upcycled creations also have found new life in local businesses. “We are working with local restaurants, making tables, bars and more,” Schwarz says, mentioning Refab planters at Little Fox (a new restaurant in St. Louis’ Fox Park neighborhood) and longleaf yellow pine café tables inside Road Crew Coffee & Cycles near St. Louis’ Tower Grove Park.
Refab offers other services, including custom reclaimed product packages for new home builds, home remodel material salvaging and donations pickup.
As its next step, the nonprofit will open space in the Refab Lab to local makers, Schwarz says. The latest project, which he estimates to be two more years in the making, aims to reduce the barrier to reuse. “Lots of people would love to reuse but don’t have the equipment or know-how,” Schwarz says. “Makers will take courses on how to use our equipment, as well as classes, such as making a cutting board, and our staff will be on hand to help them with their designs and give direction on which materials and equipment to use.”
Refab is having a hand in rebuilding a better metro area, Schwarz says. “We want to see more deconstruction and not as much demolition … to save more products and keep more materials out of the landfill,” he notes. “We’re on the verge of really changing an industry.”
Refab, 3130 Gravois Ave., St. Louis, 314-357-1392, refabstl.org