Story by Sheila Sarhangi
Photos by Olivier Koning
On a clear morning by Pier 1 off Ala Moana Boulevard, Re-use Hawai‘i’s gray warehouse has its doors rolled open. What’s inside looks out of place in the industrial Kaka‘ako district. The stylish reception area is floored with 1,200 square feet of maple, though few would recognize it as the former basketball court at Punahou School. In the midst of several plant boxes, each fashioned out of recycled wood, two green 1960s couches donated from Bank of Hawai‘i sandwich a coffee table displaying a book titled Unbuilding.
Here sits Selina Tarantino, demonstrating the opposite of “unbuilding.” She bends her fingers to shape a claw and moves her hand stiffly up and down to mimic demolition, the fast and brutal process by which a structure is typically taken down. “It’s pretty intense,” she says, half-smiling at her re-enactment. “In a single afternoon a machine just chops up a house into little pieces, wasting all of the materials and the energy that was used to grow them, harvest them and ship them here.” At Tarantino’s left a computer server sits on an acrylic cube that until recently housed an artifact at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The wall behind her is made from reclaimed interior doors.
The forty-year-old Tarantino co-founded the nonprofit Re-use Hawai‘i in October 2006 with a single aim: to keep reusable building material out of the landfill. The year before, Tarantino, a SoCal native who’s lived in Hawai‘i for twenty-three years, had been working as an interior designer for a sustainable architecture firm. One morning she caught herself repeatedly writing the word “demolition” on a blueprint.
“We were doing a project in a penthouse in downtown Honolulu, and each of the executive offices had this beautiful koa wood paneling and slate tile,” recalls Tarantino, all of which was destined for the landfill. “I got really hung up on it and started to do some research.” She discovered that more than 30 percent of Hawai‘i’s waste stream comes from construction and demolition materials, according to the state Department of Health’s Office of Solid Waste Management.
A couple of months later she heard about an EPA-sponsored sustainability conference in Atlanta. Tarantino, who’s lived in South Africa and Southern France and traveled solo across Indonesia, cashed in her airline miles and headed east on her 36th birthday. “It was all men and most were hippie crunchy granolas,” she laughs. “I was totally out of place.” On the conference agenda was a speaker named Quinn. “I couldn’t believe that I was staring at that name,” she says. “I had been saying ‘Quinn’ for six months.” Tarantino had been urging her sister to name her yet-to-be-born niece Quinn, and she took it as a sign.
The tall, humble and impossibly sincere 30-year-old Quinn Vittum spoke on the business of deconstruction. The better angel of demolition, deconstruction is the process by which a structure is taken apart by hand so its materials can be preserved and reused. The son of a builder, with a hammer in his hand at age 8, Vittum’s organization in Olympia, Washington was still in development. Tarantino convinced him to fly to Hawai‘i for a visit, and after they did a feasibility study, the duo partnered as co-executive directors of Re-use Hawai‘i, the first company in the state committed to recovering and redistributing building materials.
In fewer than three years, Re-use Hawai‘i has deconstructed more than ninety buildings on O‘ahu and kept more than1,000 tons of material out of a landfill in the Wai‘anae Mountains, where crushed-up construction and demolition materials—wreckage, really—on O‘ahu is trucked and dumped.
Re-use Hawai‘i gives those materials a second chance. Its 24,000-square-foot warehouse (within view of a former municipal landfill) houses goods headed back into the community even after decades of use. This is no Sanford and Son junkyard; it’s amazingly well organized. In one corner, 200-plus doors—iron, screen, wood—stand like a row of mismatched dominos. There are sections for sinks (stainless steel, concrete, ceramic), for lighting (chandeliers, glass globes, ceiling fixtures), for air conditioners, ovens, windows, bathtubs—just about anything that can be removed and resold. Bins of surplus goods over-ordered by contractors or discontinued (such as new tile, nails and screws) are also for the picking. Outside, salvaged lumber—their biggest seller—stands propped like tipis; there’s even a random hot tub. Everything costs half or less than new.
Everyday patrons include contractors, homeowners, woodworkers and artists, and because some items are so well crafted or vintage, it’s prompted a few regulars to treat the place like an antique store.
Louise Shinkoethe, a tan 20-something, just bought a $25 ceiling fan since hers broke, and now she’s perusing the aisles with no particular focus. “You can find some funky old school stuff in here,” she says. “You just have to get over the fact that things don’t need to be new.” (The fan does actually look brand new, to be fair.)
Matt Neal, an environmental scientist, has a large percentage of recycled materials woven into his two-story Palolo home, either from the warehouse or salvaged from his now deconstructed one-story plantation house, which was Re-use Hawai‘i’s first project in 2007. Take, for example, the rectangular glass louvers from his old windows. They’re now shower tile in his master bathroom. His shiny oak floor was yanked out of a house just two blocks away, and in his kitchen an old pew from a Makiki church makes for a casual, rustic seating area. “I think it’s kind of cool that the materials have all this character and life and experience,” he says, “but I also wanted a clean slate, too.” He had the house blessed before he settled in, just to play it safe.
“Last year we deconstructed a two-story house in Manoa that was built in 1909,” says Vittum. “We were able to save things that you would never see now.” That includes historic gems like a pedestal sink, glass doorknobs, etched sconces, cast-iron sinks and narrow interior doors—all now reincarnated inside other homes. It’s recycling at its best: Materials that already exist in Hawai‘i feed other projects around the Islands. “We get a lot of people from Moloka‘i,” says Tarantino. “They just put things on a pallet, and Young Brothers takes it over.”