Green Carpenter “Turns Liabilities into Assets”
“If you’re building a LEED-certified house in Iowa, but you fly the bamboo flooring in from California or China, that’s not green,” says carpenter Roger Gwinnup. “On the other hand,” he points out, “you can pull up the oak flooring in an old house that’s being torn down, then drive across town and nail it in place in another house. That’s greener.
“Green building is supposed to be about lower energy use,” Gwinnup adds. And that includes the energy used to get the materials to the site. “You can have a quantitative measure of how green a building is by calculating the foot-pounds used in getting the materials to the site.”
Gwinnup should know. He’s been in the business of carpentry since 1973, and he lives his convictions. As a nearby city council debated what to do about houses condemned after last spring’s floods, Gwinnup approached them with an idea. “‘The top half of the buildings are still good,’ I told them. ‘Condemn the buildings you need to condemn, then use undamaged parts from the tops of those to repair the bottoms of the ones that can be saved.’” But the city council had other ideas. “Before I knew it, the houses were being torn down.”
It’s a disappointment Gwinnup takes to heart. His appreciation of the beautiful, old woodwork and his understanding of the craftsmanship and quality of historic homes are undeniable. What may have seemed expedient to the city council for reasons of their own is a needless waste in Gwinnup’s estimation.
“They have over 70 houses that they’re just crunching up and throwing away,” he says. “I saw truckloads of lap redwood siding laying by the road [for the landfill]. You can’t even get redwood siding anymore. Some people see these old homes as a liability instead of an asset. You can turn your liability into an asset by reusing it for a little bit longer time.”
As a visitor to the Gwinnup home, I was awed by the unique features this talented carpenter has added by converting other people’s liabilities into assets. Walking up to their house in rural Johnson County is akin to approaching a fairytale cottage in the woods.
When Roger’s wife, Donna, found a picture of an elegant Gothic-style arch from a Welsh monastery window, Roger sculpted it out of wood. With the ingeniousness of a master carpenter, he fashioned two identical pieces to overlay the glass on both sides. The wood on the inside is made from salvaged 1″ x 8″ yellow pine, shiplap sheeting boards. The glass is from an insulated picture window rescued from a house in Iowa City. The wood on the outside is cedar.
Along the back and sides of the house, he has duplicated a design from Russia, with row upon row of scalloped trim. “Whenever we had some scrap, we added it,” he says. And the result is magical.
Inside the house, glowing stained glass windows reflect Donna’s talent and current artistic passion. Other features proclaim the couple’s seriousness about reusing whatever they can in unique and interesting ways.
Every corner of the home holds another delightful surprise. And almost all of it was salvage. In fact, the Gwinnup home is a museum of architectural history: The floorboards, trim boards, doorknobs, radiators, lighting fixtures, faucets, mirrors, even a copper European-style toilet, are now assets that were once someone else’s liabilities.
The couple heats with an antique wood stove and passive solar. They added a loop of copper tubing along a kitchen wall to circulate heat from a second wood stove — another example of Gwinnup’s skill and innovation. The kitchen island is cleverly pieced together from many sources. In fact, nearly everything in the kitchen had a previous life.
The one-of-a-kind master bathroom shower is constructed from old bricks the city of Iowa City pulled up when repaving a street. Boards as wide as 21 inches provide a rich paneling in the bathroom. “You can’t get boards that wide anymore,” Gwinnup says. “They only cost me a couple of bucks. Someone was going to throw them away.”
Gwinnup is like any good carpenter. He loves the wood. He appreciates craftsmanship. But unlike those who prefer to buy new materials and scrap the old, he hates waste and does all he can to prevent used materials from going to the landfill. “It hurts to see a house thrown away like a Styrofoam cup. It just doesn’t make sense,” he says.
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