Sunday, November 1, 2009

Toronto Star Trash T

Trash Talk: Loft reno represents extreme recycling
October 31, 2009 
Ellen Moorhouse
Special to the Star
Photo By: Geoff Lackner

Renovations invariably mean garbage and dumpsters, so it's heartening to know that building with recycled materials is getting some airtime. The Discovery Channel has just finished broadcasting the Toronto-made television show, Junk Raiders¸ but you can view the six episodes online at

In it, a team of seven people – two garbage scroungers, a designer, two builders, a labourer and electronics technician – were given a month-long challenge to renovate a 1,600-square-foot loft with 17-foot ceilings in an old industrial building, using materials from the trash.

They had to build, wire and furnish a live-work space, including bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living area which will appeal to young, hip IT executives with a taste for boutiquehotel living. Building owner Ron Smith coughed up $5,000 to cover what they couldn't find in the garbage.

(Team members guessed comparable renos would cost $150,000 to $300,000. Indeed, seven workers would gobble up $5,000 in no time.)

The show has a reality-TV tone, with artificial time pressure, Smith playing a hard-to-please client, general contractor Geoff Woodmansey acting the sergeant-major, and personal tensions manipulated by the producers for dramatic effect.

As designer Michelle Mawby, who runs Lucid Interior Design, describes it: "There were some times when we didn't like each other, and I think at the end, none of us ever wanted to see each other again."

But her design flare, the nifty ideas from the expert scroungers, the skills of the building crew and some serendipitous finds resulted in a great space with striking elements crafted from "repurposed" discards.

Leading the garbage-picking charge were diehard freecyclers Anthony D'Arcy, a property investment advisor and real estate agent (Right at Home Realty), who furnished his own house with castoffs, and Gordie Wornoff, a farm boy who learned carpentry from his dad and has been known to plunder Roncesvalles Ave. greenbins for edible produce. He calls his contracting business A Higher Plane, a playful allusion to notions of enlightenment and the reuse of old lumber.

So where did the team find stuff? Hanging out at the city's transfer station and asking drivers for materials (they also got paint free at the hazardous household waste depots), fishing in the Don River for old grocery carts, visiting house construction sites, cruising the streets on garbage day, lucking out with hotline calls after they posted flyers around town, checking out demolition at Pearson airport (this was 2008) and heading off to Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, which sells recycled materials, to supplement the free stuff.

A downtown church proved a saviour, with a treasure trove in the basement: old windows with divided panes, which Michelle used in the bathroom to striking effect to enclose the tub and shower area; church pews, which were transformed into an eight-foot table; an old oak office desk, which became a bathroom vanity, complete with handy drawers, and assorted other items.

A baby grand piano cover out of the trash became a coffee table, and an old cast iron tub, a couch (just like Audrey Hepburn's in Breakfast at Tiffany's); Anthony used weeping tile for a wine rack and paperbacks, stuffed into a wood frame, to make a chair. Gordie created a hanging light fixture with wood circles around orange shades. The team also turned old shopping carts into chairs, and Gordie used the wheels for a sliding barn door system. Technician Jean-Marc Haddad wired old TVs to create a display wall and built a bike-powered generator to power high-tech gadgetry.

The pièce de résistance, though, was the grill of a 1978 Chrysler New Yorker fronting the kitchen island. Over it is the car hood, with holes cut to accommodate some large bulbs found at the airport, while tail lights became wall sconces. A concrete counter, poured by builder Cam Pikul, was the perfect top.

What can be learned? There's an amazing amount of good stuff that's junked, but finding old wood like two by fours when you need it is a challenge, not to mention the grief of pulling nails and milling to size. But for sure, figuring out how to incorporate found items like old windows produces a satisfying "Eureka!" experience.

As well, a good coat of paint does wonders for beat-up chairs and dated kitchen cabinets. Michelle loved the loft's scarred wood floors, but to work in a living space they needed to be well varnished. "Even if you leave brick walls, you should still coat them so you don't get the residue on your hands," she says. On future projects, when interiors are being ripped out, she'll have clients call Habitat's ReStore, and she'll contact Gordie to see if he wants any of the old wood or other materials heading for the dump. As he said in the show when faced with making old wood usable: "I'd rather waste my time than a tree in the forest." (His email is

Trash Talk appears Saturdays in New in Homes & Condos. Send comments and questions to