Waste becomes wealth in southwest Atlanta

Lifecycle Building Center fills an empty warehouse and void

On an industrial road along railroad tracks in southwest Atlanta, in a blighted area where three streets intersect and form what’s known as the Murphy Triangle, a massive, nearly 100-year-old warehouse sits silent, waiting to be filled to the brim with the things people don’t want.

Inside the 56,000-square-foot warehouse, pieces of sets from Atlanta film productions lean against the walls. Clerestory windows bathe the former sprocket manufacturing facility with light. Stacked outside are more than 100 high-grade plastic crates normally used in agricultural harvests, but which starred as a backdrop in the Hunger Games sequel shot at the nearby State Farmers Market. A reluctantly adopted mutt named Stinky stands guard. In an adjoining butler building are stored entire kitchen cabinet sets, mid-century mantelpieces, and maybe even a claw-foot bathtub.

The two buildings make up the Lifecycle Building Center, a 2-year-old nonprofit started by an architect and a green-construction expert that strips soon-to-be-razed buildings of valuable, high-quality materials and sells them at fire-sale prices. Everything here costs roughly one-third to half what you’d pay in a retail store. Window blinds run 25 cents. Plantation shutters cost $10 or $20 a pair. And a stove can start as low as $35.

The goal is simple: Connect people looking for a deal, or nonprofits in need, with perfectly reusable items that were otherwise headed to landfills. Last year, the nonprofit kept enough material out of the junkyard to fill 20 dump trucks and make a hill 34 feet tall and just as many wide. In addition to turning trash into treasure, the organization wants to help boost a long-overlooked Atlanta neighborhood.

The idea for the Lifecycle Building Center started nearly three years ago when Shannon Goodman, an architect with Perkins + Will, wondered if the extensive transformation of the design firm’s Midtown offices from ho-hum commercial space into an energy-efficient poster child could be more earth-friendly. She grimaced at the thought of perfectly reusable cabinets, sinks, and ceiling fans getting buried in landfills.

Steven Smith, an Environmental Protection Agency official who later became one of the LBC’s most dedicated volunteers, connected her with Adam Deck, a green-construction specialist. Deck had helped open several Habitat for Humanity ReStores in North Carolina, and spent seven years daydreaming of launching a reuse nonprofit. They struck a deal with the contractors to store the salvaged materials in Perkins + Will’s parking lot while construction work continued. It took four months to distribute the materials, but their efforts kept more than 60 tons out of landfills. In March 2010, the team formed the LBC. Deck would handle operations while Goodman focused on building talent and networking. In October 2011, the nonprofit signed a lease for the southwest Atlanta facility and started salvaging.

In a place like metro Atlanta, which for years was building and swinging the wrecking ball in equal measure, it’s important that not everything be tossed in landfills to decompose over hundreds of years if it can still serve a purpose. According to Deck and Goodman, every other major metropolitan area in the country boasts an operation like LBC: Phoenix has five. And they work. By reclaiming and reselling quality materials at a fraction of their retail price, reuse centers often become self-sustaining within three to five years.

On Tuesdays and Fridays, the center opens its doors to the public to browse historic woodwork, kitchen cabinet sets, water heaters, and other items pulled from buildings eyed for demolition. For the nonprofit’s first big salvage project, volunteers helped gut a decontaminated federal lab slated for demolition — they’re not supposed to say which one exactly — and left with 33 tons of materials, including carpet tiles, wall panels, and drawers labeled “e. coli.”

When the Decatur Preservation Alliance, the nonprofit caretaker of the Woodland Gardens, sought to obey the late property owners’ wishes and demolish a home on the land so the area would remain a nature preserve, it turned to LBC. Deck, Goodman, and volunteers walked away with nearly three tons of materials, including mid-century mantelpieces, hardwood floors, and antique light fixtures, among other items.

On a recent Saturday, Deck and a team of about eight volunteers painstakingly stripped a nearly 100-year-old bungalow in Lake Claire. Starting at 9 a.m., the team carefully removed antique glass from frames, pulled up floorboards, and unscrewed light fixtures. They even considered uprooting the hydrangeas, camellias, and butterfly bushes from the front yard.

Selling off the items helps the nonprofit pay the rent and four staffers, and fund the center’s expansion. The owners save cash by not paying someone to haul off debris, and gain some peace of mind knowing they helped the environment.

Since mid-2012, the nonprofit has also made inroads with film production companies shooting in and around Atlanta. Late last year, its biggest customer was “The Walking Dead.” When CL visited the center last week, a tractor-trailer filled with floor joists and set pieces from Last Vegas starring Robert DeNiro and Kevin Kline was waiting to be unloaded. The materials, some of which cost thousands of dollars to purchase, are ready-made for new sets.

“In California, reclaiming old sets has been well established,” Deck says. “But there’s nothing like that in Georgia.”

Demand for LBC’s services has increased so much that it now has to decline some salvage projects. Recently, someone who was about to demolish his home called and asked if LBC could pick up the materials. It was the first time Deck had to pass up an opportunity because the organization didn’t have the bandwidth to help.

Ask Deck and Goodman about their plans for the future, and the two partners’ eyes light up. He’s been working on building a database, website, and app, funded in part by the city’s Office of Sustainability, which allows people to scan QR codes to obtain real-time info on the availability and price of LBC’s inventory, in addition to collecting data about what people want. The programs will also track tonnage diverted from landfills and retail savings to the community. The pilot version launches online next week. The database would greatly help LEED architects and builders trying to find reclaimed materials and allow them to tap a hard-to-obtain credit for the green-building certification.

Once revenues are strong enough, the group wants to launch a loan program that helps people pay to make their homes more energy-efficient. Deck plans to provide fact sheets to educate visitors about green construction, start programs to install reclaimed solar panels in low-income neighborhoods, and spread the use of rain barrels, low-flow toilets, and native landscaping.

Deck would also love to talk with the city about picking up trees that fall on public property. They’d transport them to LBC’s 3.5 rented acres, where they’d be air-dried, cut up and then sold. The funds would then be deposited into the city’s fund to maintain Atlanta’s tree canopy.

Excess storage space at LBC’s southwest Atlanta headquarters could be used by other nonprofits to provide greater outreach about environmental and transportation issues to surrounding communities. Starting in March, the warehouse will be open on Saturdays. In five years, Goodman and Deck would like the LBC to support more than two full-time staffers and four part-time workers, and be filled with customers searching for products.

They also hope to make an impact on Murphy Avenue. The blighted area features scrap yards and vacant buildings, but also sits only a few blocks away from quaint bungalows, vibrant residential neighborhoods, and the Beltline. Residents have visions of the area one day becoming another one of Atlanta’s turnaround neighborhoods, similar to the Westside or Castleberry Hill. Or the center could serve as a smart-growth dream — a clean, light-industrial business alongside neighborhoods. Goodman would like to see a restaurant in the warehouse’s art deco front — “anything that creates the use of this site for a long period of time,” she says. In the next few months, a production company, working with the Goat Farm Arts Center, will stage an elaborate, seven-week run of “Moby Dick” in the massive warehouse.

“What they’re doing is a whole entirely different concept,” says Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd. “It’s going to be productive for the community. It’d be an uplift.”

Darin Bohm, past president of the Capitol View Neighborhood Association, says the difference between the LBC and other businesses that have come and gone in the community is “night and day.” He says it’s been an excellent addition to the Murphy Triangle.

“A lot of people first thought, ‘Oh we’ve got another scrap yard,’” he says. “There was a lot of outreach done, a lot of neighbors who have been highly engaged, and they’ve done a good job reaching out to the community.”

Deck’s not nervous about competitors coming along and mimicking the LBC’s business model. In fact, it’s something he encourages. He’s focused on developing a market for reuse materials. He thinks back to his days living in Raleigh, N.C., where, as a hobby, he made hand drums. If anyone wanted to learn how to create one, a long process that requires about 24 hours of work, he’d give them lessons.

“One day a guy said, ‘You’re going to flood the market with drums,’” Deck recalls. “And he thought, ‘Ohhhh. There’s going to be a lot more percussion going on.’ Yes! Let’s teach people how to do this.”