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Stephen Denning (Bernard von Bieberstein/Bernard von Bieberstein)
Stephen Denning (Bernard von Bieberstein/Bernard von Bieberstein)


Reclaimed timber takes on environmental lustre Add to ...

Stephen Denning grew up on a farm in England where nothing was ever thrown out. That meant straightening bent nails and mending hand-me-down clothes. Mr. Denning applies the same principle at his Toronto-based company, ShelfLife Materials, which finds new life for previously used items, from industrial equipment to wooden beams.

Mr. Denning, 41, wasn't always devoted to recycling. There was a time when "my ideal was to make as much money as I could and start consuming along with everybody else." Before founding ShelfLife, Mr. Denning worked in commercial real estate, which allowed him to buy pretty much anything he wanted. But he wasn't happy.

"Inherent within the consumer and material culture, there is a need to consume the next new thing," he says. "Once you intellectualize that process, it's very difficult to continue to pursue that way of life."

In 2002, Mr. Denning, who had moved to Canada eight years earlier, left his field. He headed to Parry Sound to build a cottage and figure out his next professional move. Instead of ordering wood from a lumber yard, Mr. Denning built the cottage out of reclaimed timber. The experience inspired him to start a business focusing on reclaimed materials.

At ShelfLife's workshop in Toronto's Evergreen Brick Works - an appropriate home for the company as the Brick Works is a refurbished historic site - ShelfLife sells an assortment of reclaimed timber including elm, white pine, oak, mahogany and Douglas fir. The wood comes from soon-to-be or recently demolished buildings such as barns, factories, and warehouses across Ontario.

Each piece of reclaimed timber has a story. "You get a sense of history by reusing them," Mr. Denning says.

This table is made of elm and maple that came from two demolished barns.

Visitors to ShelfLife's workshop include architects, interior designers, artists and furniture makers. Its reclaimed wood has been used to build house frames, flooring and stairs. Commercial clients have used it to dress up interiors with wooden sculptures, one-of-a-kind walls and other striking accent pieces. For example, ShelfLife supplied the reclaimed wood that was used in the forest installation that welcomes visitors to the Toronto Congress Centre. Wood in that project came from a demolished Queen Street West live-work space for artists.

Reclaimed wood "is not a pure, clean aesthetic. It's something that's kind of richer and deeper," says wood sculptor and furniture designer Scott Eunson, who often works with reclaimed wood from ShelfLife. "Wood changes colour as it ages, so you have a natural oxidizing of the wood that gives it a deeper and richer colour. You've also got whatever other nails were driven into it and rusty bits staining it."

As old buildings are demolished, there is a risk that aged, beautiful pieces of timber will be destroyed. "Steve steps in at the right time and . . . co-ordinates the saving of this wood, which would be crushed to toothpicks by giant monster demolition machines if he didn't," Mr. Eunson says.

More Sustainability:

Over ShelfLife's nearly 10 years in business, the general public has become more aware of environmental issues, which has led to a greater appreciation for reclaimed wood, Mr. Denning says. "People are buying things made of reclaimed materials now and they think it's cool. They didn't before."

ShelfLife not only sells reclaimed wood, the company uses it to make custom furniture, from dining room tables to benches. On its own, ShelfLife, which has two full-time employees and hires others on a project-by-project basis, makes up to 24 custom pieces a year. More often, the company teams up with other woodworkers and designers, such Mr. Eunson or Toronto furniture designer Lubo Brezina. In collaboration with others, ShelfLife creates up to 40 custom-made pieces of furniture annually.

While much of ShelfLife's day-to-day operations revolve around reclaimed timber, most of the company's earnings come from another source - brokering the sale of used industrial equipment and infrastructure, byproducts of the demolition industry.

This wood sculpture by Scott Eunson is made of wood that was used to cover the excavation of a subway line in Toronto.

The company moved a steel warehouse from an auto plant in Oshawa to a horse riding arena in Uxbridge. It also found new homes at U.S. airports for loading bridges previously attached to Toronto Pearson International Airport's old Terminal One. And it brokered the sale of electricity-generating equipment from pulp and paper mills to companies in the biomass industry.

For larger items, ShelfLife sometimes works with brokers in other countries, which can result in trucking pieces of equipment or infrastructure from one country to another. As Mr. Denning points out, if the material was going to a dump, "the waste would have to be trucked anyway." At ShelfLife, "we are reusing what we are shipping."

Much of ShelfLife's business relies on networking. Over the years, Mr. Denning has cultivated connections in the demolition, renovation and construction industries, as well as among artisans, architects and artists who use reclaimed material in their projects.

"I'm constantly interested in meeting people who are like-minded," Mr. Denning says, "so that I can collaborate with them and continue to find more applications for the materials that would otherwise be going to waste."

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