A second life: In North Downtown, old materials make an all-new house

Debra Weiss on the porch of the guesthouse behind her North Downtown home. Photo: Andrea Hubbell Debra Weiss on the porch of the guesthouse behind her North Downtown home. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

It was supposed to be a small project. Debra Weiss had owned her North Downtown house for seven years when, in 2003, a city ordinance changed to allow homeowners to build detached rental properties. She was ready with what she thought was a simple, low-key idea: Turn her 400-square-foot garage into a tiny rental cottage.

Rather than a full-time residence, she said, “I thought a vacation rental would be good because it would be a lighter footprint in my neighborhood. I could get a higher per-night price and less wear and tear on the property.”

She talked to a number of builders and architects about the renovation, but they were uninterested in taking on such a small project. Finally, an acquaintance, Scott Robinson—an artist and longtime restaurant worker who also had some construction experience—agreed to tackle it, and a partnership was born.

Somehow, by the time they broke ground in 2007, the concept had grown. A lot. “I specialize in vintage materials and old materials,” said Robinson. Weiss had begun to think that the converted garage would just be too small, and Robinson was interested in salvaging enough material to build a two-story house.

“It morphed into [incorporating] as many recycled materials as we could put in it,” explained Weiss. “It became the Recycled House. The idea was to give materials a second life. Including the original garage—it’s still here.”

Rather than tearing it down, Robinson carefully deconstructed it and saved its corrugated metal walls and other materials.

Building affordably was another major goal. Now nearly finished, the Recycled House is a testament to creativity, thrift, and persistence. And it forms a living catalog of clever ways to get house parts on the cheap—then use them with flair.

Ultimate “design-build”
The creation of such a house is, by nature, a long and winding road, requiring a flexible design process. “I am enamored of the Arts and Crafts style,” said Robinson. He came up with an initial plan that combined elements of that tradition with an urban loft feel that would make good use of salvaged stuff, especially materials from industrial buildings. Like, for example, the steel I-beam he bought when it was taken out of an old VDOT garage on River Road.

A find like that makes its own rules. “It took us some doing to get it in here,” said Weiss. The beam had concrete still fused to it, and had to be loaded into the construction site with a trackhoe. Now it runs most of the length of the first-floor ceiling, lending patina and weight. It cost $25—and that was with 11 windows and a second beam thrown in. A comparable new steel beam, Robinson said, would probably cost about $1,500.

“It’s always been a process of finding materials and seeing if they’ll work,” he said—and of adapting the design around the best finds.

Normally, as Weiss said, one designs a kitchen and then chooses cabinets to fit the space. In this case, it happened the other way around. “We were at the Habitat Store one day and they brought in all these kitchen cabinets,” she remembered. The pair bought them on the spot. “Then we made a kitchen work around the cabinets we have.”

A playful aesthetic helps. In the kitchen, for example, the white cabinets (topped with soapstone countertops from UVA chemistry labs) contrast with a dark cherry-wood island, a Habitat find from a different day. “We couldn’t pass it up,” said Weiss. “We said ‘We’ll make it work.’”

They scored windows at cut-rate prices from various sources, mostly ones that had been ordered by other customers but not purchased. “We have Pella, Lincoln, Marvin, and Andersen all in one room,” said Robinson. “We tried to unify them with trim,” despite different finishes on their frames.

“These old materials have this soul about them,” said Weiss. “They just sing. When you walk around and see them working together, it’s so satisfying.”.

“Even the daylilies are recycled”
The list of sources for Recycled House materials is long and colorful, like an index of local landmarks, personalities and suppliers. The former home of wine maven Felicia Rogan, torn down after she sold it in 2008, yielded doors and flooring. The Gleason building, while being remade into loft apartments, supplied oak planks with original saw marks, at no cost. There’s foundation brick from the NGIC building, columns from a Lynchburg cotton mill, and a wooden beam from a Gordonsville mansion.

It all seems to have flowed toward the Recycled House because of Weiss’ and Robinson’s willingness to ask questions, be a little nosy, and act on impulse. “Even the daylilies are recycled,” laughed Weiss. While driving past a construction site, “Scott sees them about to be bulldozed and jumps out of the truck.” Now they line the walkway to the alley.

The pair have tricks up their sleeves when shopping retail, too. “At Lowe’s or Best Buy, they have the scratch-and-dent stuff—if you ask,” said Weiss. “They don’t have it out.” The Recycled House contains many off-price appliances, like the Tulikivi stove (a half-price floor model) and the Bosch cooktop from a Lowe’s demonstration kitchen.

Weiss and Robinson also found $6 gallons of paint in the Lowe’s mis-tint aisle (where you can browse paint that’s been returned), tile from Wainwright’s remnant room, and Trex decking from a “cull sale” at Blue Ridge Builders Supply. And here’s a bit of advice from Weiss: “In almost every furniture place, you can negotiate.”

Finally, timing can be key. “We took full advantage of the housing bubble—there was so much material left over from people speculating on houses,” said Robinson. “A lot of building companies had surplus materials.”

The look of the house is cheerful and eclectic. Outside, several types of siding (including corrugated metal from the original garage) contrast in color and texture, with purples and reds offset by green. Inside, there’s everything from brand-new bamboo flooring to metal posts carrying decades of history.

“We have about every varietal of wood in here,” said Robinson. He cut stair treads from huge slabs of salvaged birch, turned a teak futon frame into balusters, and topped off the staircase with handrails made from sassafras and sycamore limbs.

“I’m a big fan of asymmetry, mixing things up,” said Robinson. “Serendipity’s a big deal.” So is inventiveness: making a trellis from a wire shelf that had been thrown away by a Barracks Road store, or turning old chicken feeders into porch lights. (“You can make a pendant out of anything!” Weiss said.)

Here and there, things get downright whimsical. Croquet balls decorate the stair rail, and in the master bathroom, tiles salvaged from a public swimming pool read “11 FT,” “10 FT,” and “NO DIVING.”

Clearly, Weiss and Robinson—amidst five years of hard work—have had tons of fun. Pride and satisfaction shines through when Weiss talks about the salvaged brick that went into her chimney and foundation.

“Did I have to pay someone to clean up the brick?” she asked. “Yes. But should it have gone to the landfill? No. Will it live here another 100 years? Yes. I feel really good about that.”

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