RECYCLING: A Barn Reborn

Every morning, John High climbs into his pickup truck and drives to job sites in Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Delaware to save doomed barns from the landfill. His motto: To save every barn he possibly can.

As part of the Barn Saver Project he started in 1990, High uses crowbars and hammers to dismantle barns that are destined for demolition. Typically, barns are demolished with heavy machinery and sent to landfills. But recognizing the value in every piece of the old structures, High left his job at an excavating company — where he bulldozed old houses and barns to make room for development — and began disassembling old barns piece by piece to save the flooring, siding, windows, doors, roofing, beams, joists, hardware and even the contents, such as lightning rods and pig troughs.

In the 10 years that the Barn Saver Project has been in operation, more than 200 barns and houses have been salvaged. Between 90 percent and 100 percent of every barn is saved, High says.

This has earned the project recognition in the environmental community. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Harrisburg, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association, Lemoyne, Pa., and Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania, Bellwood, Pa., recently awarded High with the 2001 Pennsylvania Waste Watcher Award. The project has also been featured on several television programs, including Green-works for Pennsylvania, a project of the Environmental Fund for Pennsylvania. And the project was the subject of the 1999 children's book, “Barn Savers,” written by High's wife, Linda Oatman High.

High uses the accolades, plus magazine and newspaper articles, and the Internet, to educate the public about recycling and deconstruction. The publicity has also helped High gain clients — from private individuals repairing their barns or houses to wholesalers who repair buildings — willing to reuse the dismantled materials.

Barns often are rebuilt in the southern states, where High has a few regular customers. If a barn is not structurally suitable for reconstruction, its materials are used for repair parts, new construction, siding, flooring or structural or decorative beams. High creates a blueprint and uses it to number each piece of wood so that it is easier to rebuild barns.

“It's a good feeling to know that I'm preserving part of our heritage,” he says. “These buildings are our history. Someone worked very hard to build these barns.”

The fee to dismantle the barns depends on the value of the materials and how much labor is involved in cleanup. If materials are in good shape and valuable, High says the dismantling is free of charge because of the materials' high resale value. Parts are then sold directly from the barn's original location.

A network of contractors, such as Hometown Carpentry, a Boyertown, Pa., company that specializes in barn restoration, helps to find dismantled barn buyers. For instance, when Hometown Carpentry owner Jim Slabonik is looking for a particular kind of material to restore a historic barn, he lets High know. Conversely, after dismantling a barn, High will let Slabonik and other contractors know what materials he has salvaged.

“It's a growing industry and there are a lot of people utilizing these old materials,” Slabonik says. “People who have old barns want to keep them looking like they did 150 or 200 years ago.”

Deconstruction can take weeks to complete — usually longer than the standard one- to five-day demolition job. However, deconstruction costs a fraction of demolition on average, High notes.

The Barn Saver project not only reduces waste being disposed of, it also helps to protect wildlife. During barn deconstruction, High says he will remove birds' nests from the structures and move them to nearby trees, where eggs have successfully hatched. Beekeepers have also been called in to remove beehives from barns slated for dismantling.

As part of his next rescue project, High is searching for a barn to serve as a permanent gallery for artwork created from deconstructed barns. The Barn Saver Art Barn also may display art from the Dumpster Divers, a group of Philadelphia artists that use recycled materials in their work.