Furniture and Offcut Series 2012-2015

This is the story of our first project:

During 2011 and early 2012 whilst living in Grey Lynn in Auckland, New Zealand, I realised there was a considerable amount of reusable timber being thrown into skips in the area, particularly in relation to renovation and partial deconstruction of timber homes. I then visited the Waitakere Transfer Station and found a pile of mixed timbers, that had been picked through but still had plenty of reusable pine, ply, and other panel wood. 

This inspired the desire to show this timber as valuable; to expose it's remaining structural integrity and its cultural value. I felt this cultural value in the sense that the timber itself holds history - it has it's own story.  I also understood that the act of skillfully transforming this material through craft into new use would require an engagement with a breadth of traditional and local knowledge.

This excited me as an occupational therapist, having seen time and again the therapeutic rewards of practical work. And so I started to consider how I could accord the experience of transforming this material into new use with people who would benefit from it. 

So I designed this first style of chair, which later evolved. These are the first 2 prototypes:

Designing this chair involved working closely with 2 experienced wood-workers in Auckland, Louis Vickers and then Greg Reynolds.  I already had some woodworking experience but needed to learn more of their craft to understand how best we could harness the qualities of this timber. 

This collaborative process evolved a final design which became known as the Series I Chair. Our first customer was a co-working space The Kitchen in Auckland, they ordered chairs for their meeting room and tables for their work space. Also I hand cut them some signs from timber found at the Waitakere Transfer Station.

Image by Juliet Arnott

Then in May 2012 I was invited by Tim Bishop from the Sustainable Habitat Challenge (SHAC) to speak in Christchurch at a workshop at CPIT about reuse of materials from my perspective as an occupational therapist and artist. This return to Christchurch was my first since the earthquakes and my most significant visit since I had left there 12 years before to move overseas. Whilst back in the city, preparing to speak in this context, I found myself stunned by many things about the post-quake city. And given my involvement with timber, I was particularly struck by the degree of haste (and consequent waste) with which homes and other buildings in the city were being demolished. Most importantly, I observed the impact that hasty demolition was having in terms of compounding a massive sense of loss and distress for homeowners.

 

So I began to sense that perhaps the way we had started working with timber in Auckland could have a place in demonstrating the value in the material being lost to demolition in Christchurch. In some kind of small and symbolic way I hoped that even just making one piece of furniture, or anything lasting and beautiful, would be a mark of respect for the homes lost, for the lives lived in the homes and the livelihoods involved in building them years before. So it was then I decided after speaking to many supportive Christchurch people that I would relocate back to Christchurch to put time into this. This is also when I developed the concept for Whole House Reuse, which came to fruition after a lot of hard work in 2015.

So in August 2012, I moved back to Christchurch and began little by little to find the means to divert timber from under the teeth of the fast moving diggers. This was not an easy process, partly because I was naive and partly disbelieving with regards to the forces at play in the demolition industry at that time.  I was asked to write an essay about this: Why the big pile in the forest?: The question of demolition in post-quake Canterbury. This was written for the book Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch, which was published by Freerange Press in August 2014. This book offers the first substantial critique of the Government’s recovery plan for Christchurch and presents alternative approaches to city-building and archives a vital and extraordinary time. 

Once we had established a pathway by partnering with demolition companies and working closely with a specialist salvage company, we were able to divert a flow of timber from demolished homes away from the 'big pile' aka the Burwood Resource Recovery Park (BRRP). This is where most trucks go once they have been filled by the digger. The BRRP does recover scrap metal and some other materials but does not yet have a solution for the mixed, crushed mess of treated and untreated timber which makes up the majority of the pile. 

Establishing this pathway to divert timber from the 'pile' took over a year to consolidate, and occurred after much time spent learning about the demolition industry, getting to know the industry experts, the process of salvage and the costs involved. After trying a few different ways of collecting timber I realised the only solution was to be able to afford to pay for the salvage team ourselves, and to negotiate and demonstrate repeatedly to the demolition companies that we would not slow their digger schedule down. To afford to pay for the salvage meant we had to turn that timber into saleable products as soon as possible. As the project began with little to no capital we were always under pressure to raise funds to continue to enable the salvage, of course, this was very difficult to manage. In hindsight there are many things I would do differently, but at the time we did what we did to try and make change within a situation that felt so wrong. We created a range of carefully crafted furniture products, and smaller products with offcuts, to generate as much value as we could from each metre of timber so that we could keep paying for more salvage to save more timber from waste. This is a selection of some of those products:

Since June 2012 to June 2014 in Christchurch, our conservative estimate is that we enabled the salvage of 13,385 linear metres of timber from 33 homes, diverting this from waste (this is what we have on record but it is likely there were at least another 7-10,000 metres diverted prior to our regular data collection was established). This timber came from the Residential Red Zone, and were homes that would have definitely been mowed over by digger, and subsequently become landfill after sorting at the Burwood Resource Recovery Park. 

In 2014, as the scale of demolition across the city lessened, we started to notice a change in the market for the salvaged timber we were working with, and this was seen in other parties approaching the salvage team we worked with to seek this material. This was also evident in the rate per metre for this timber going up in price as the market became competitive again. This salvage company had re-established themselves in 2012 specifically due to our demand for timber, i.e. we were most often their main/only customer for this timber then, and if we hadn't been able to pay them they wouldn't have had a viable business. So to see that there was other demand was a very positive sign, and one that meant that deconstruction for this salvage company was increasingly viable and less dependent on us. This contributed strongly to our decision to cease this collection of products as we could no longer authentically say this material was waste, because there were now customers for it.

During this period we sold a minimum of 454 large furniture items, and 1293 small products made from offcuts. We also completed 2 full commercial interior fit-outs (Shop Eight café, and The Auricle wine bar) and 2 lots of furniture for hospitality businesses. 

We hosted 21 exhibitions for artists in New Regent Street since the street re-opened in April 2013. Between June 2013 and June 2014 we sold 41 art pieces, and more since.  We hosted a shared studio above Shop Eight on New Regent Street, which supported Shop Eight as a fledging business as well as the members of the studio at a time when there was little space open in the central city. There have been many other small projects too, and the biggest one of all Whole House Reuse. The most significant outcome for me, and the most difficult to quantify, is that this first project inspired people and was a positive force at an important time. It enhanced peoples awareness of the related issues and changed some perceptions about waste. 

Between June 2012 to mid-March 2014 we generated revenue of $310K. Unfortunately given the challenges of a lack of capital and experience in the business, and with compromised workshop facilities, structure and management, the cost profile for the furniture remained too high and we have completed this project with much to celebrate but with a remaining debt. This was and is frustrating (to say the least) given the blood, sweat and tears/years that went into this project, but it is the reality of the challenges faced at that time. We had an amazing team of generous and talented individuals, and much advice and support for which I am grateful but it wasn't enough to get the workshop through the tough times at this stage. Sadly most of this support fell away as the tough times persisted, and the tough times got tougher. But we/I made it out the other side, and now have more clarity about the challenges and requirements of social enterprise start-ups.

I often need to remind myself that working in response to such a large-scale problem in such unusual circumstances i.e. post-disaster, was hugely ambitious and uniquely challenging. There are so many things I wouldn't do again, and many I would, hindsight certainly is a wondrous thing.  I continue now to work towards other means of addressing wasted resources creatively, and I use the rich and sometimes painful learning I have experienced to date, to drive and check my work. I feel much gratitude to those who continue to support our work and who understand its place, and I am so excited to be moving forward into our fourth large project this year.

Juliet Arnott  - February 2016