The phrases “deconstruct” and “repurpose” might bring to mind the latest online video trend to try around the house, but for Re:Purpose Savannah, a women+ led 501(c)3 non-profit, establishing a sustainable future through the deconstruction, salvage, and reuse of historic buildings, these terms have become a way of life for their volunteers, their organization, and for Savannah’s preservation and continued history.
Mae Bowley, executive director of Re:Purpose Savannah, is originally from Jacksonville, Florida, and studied marketing and classical architecture when she was an undergraduate student. However, little did she know taking historic preservation classes would propel her to start the non-profit that has—gladly—taken her on a brand-new career path.
“I moved to Savannah about eight years ago and I just became obsessed with the city,” Bowley said. “I wanted to know more about the buildings and the architect, so I enrolled in the historic preservation program at Savannah Technical College.”
The class became her world.
“Did it eat my life?” she asked, laughing. “I mean, it ate my whole life in the best way you could possibly know. Talk about getting bitten by the old house bug. Anybody who is into old houses gets it.” And, before she knew it, she ended up in a leadership role for this non-profit.
“I came to Savannah not knowing the role I would play in this community.”
Bowley gave a bit of background to her group’s development. “Emergent Structures was a sustainability non-profit that operated in Savannah for about ten years,” Bowley began. “It was founded and led by Scott Boylston, who’s the chair of the Sustainability Department at Savannah College of Art and Design. They were an awareness-raising, education-focused group that worked on building materials. They were ready to wrap it up and were either going to shut it down or hand it off.”
Bowley was looking for a mock client project for her Savannah Tech class, she came up with the idea of building something from reclaimed materials. Yet, it became so much more.
“I started asking a lot of questions…and threw myself at the opportunity to transition this non-profit from an awareness-raising and education model into an actual service provider with industry solutions.”
“I don’t want to talk about things,” Bowley said, firmly. “I want to do them. So, I sort of stumbled into this by accident.”
Bowley’s idea of recycling moved to the idea of using entire buildings.
“I was obsessed with old buildings,” she admitted. “Once I became more intimate with the old buildings, I became obsessed with the materials they’re made from. At first, I didn’t know anything about the differences in materials, but there’s something special about historic building materials. The more I learned, the more I became absolutely devastated by the notion that these items are getting thrown in the trash.”
That was five years ago and that non-profit turned into today’s Re:Purpose Savannah. It has transitioned from an all-volunteer model to a mostly paid staff.
“We had a small grant from Gulfstream to help us start taking buildings apart,” Bowley said. “It went from there.”
As someone who always dreamed of owning an old building, Bowley now gets to work with an unlimited amount of them. And, she respects construction on a different level.
“I started to understand the real material differences between the materials you get today and those used in the building of now historic properties. We often give credit to the craftsmanship, but that is only half the story. The other half of that equation is the quality of the materials they’re working with.”
Bowley said buildings are getting demolished with these old materials going to the landfills. Watching something like that happen, she stated, “is like seeing all that pure gold disappear knowing we’ll never get it back. It’s a finite resource, just like oil. Sadly,” she said, “there’s more old-growth timber left in historic buildings now than what is left in the forests.”
Construction demolition generates more waste than all municipal solid waste combined, according to Bowley’s research. “What that means is if you were to take all the garbage generated by every city and town in America per year and put it in a pile, it would be half the size of what is generated by construction and demolition in that same year.”
“In many of these historical homes, there’s a lot of carbon that’s been sequestered in the lumber. Then, we put it in landfills and it escapes and contributes to the acceleration of climate change. Not only are these repurposed materials of great quality and beauty, but they also don’t deserve to go in the garbage, just on their own merits, we can do better by our planet by recycling them and keeping that carbon locked up rather than letting it decompose and escape,” she stated.
The organization now has a staff of ten women and Bowley said they expect to have an operating budget in the new year of a million dollars.
“We are mostly self-supporting through work income that comes in two revenue streams: contracts to remove a building where you hire us instead of a demo company, and the other is, of course, sales of those materials out of our lumber yard.”
Located in the former spot of Daniel Lumber at 2302 East Gwinnett Street, the marsh front property is the optimum spot to showcase the non-profit’s efforts to the community and it is also where all of the deconstruction happens.
The deconstruction is the “sexy part of the work,” according to Bowley. The lumber yard is the hub where all the materials come. They get “spa service,” as she joked, where nails get pulled, ends trimmed, and then a cleaning with a wire brush. “We make the materials look as good as we can so people can see the beauty and wonder of these materials.”
“We put tons of effort into this, but it’s a critical stage for everything available for purchase. We’ve got great stuff, a great deal of volume, but we always need more customers.” Bowley stated, “There’s quite a huge inventory from your typical architectural structures to salvages of mantels, columns, etc. The majority of what we have is the structural timbers, the historic lumber.”
Bowley said it’s “super cool” to watch the process at the lumber yard. “However, it’s not enough to simply save the materials. If we brought everything to our lumber yard and it stayed there, all we’ve done is create a really organized landfill, right? The harder part is getting those materials back out into people’s homes—rehoming it.”
The success of Re:Purpose Savannah and its effect around town can be seen by perusing their website (repurposesavannah.org) to read about successful projects and see detailed, historical information attached to each venture.
Bowley stated they “believe research and documentation should be a fundamental and necessary part of the removal of any historic structure anywhere, anyplace, anytime.” Continuing, she stressed, “If [a structure] is going away, the research and documentation—such a critical part—absolutely has to be done.”
The organization has materials in the yard as young as the 1950s, but they also have items dating back to the early 1800s—some questionably from the late 1700s, although they can’t quite confirm yet.
“We work at having the provenance of what we’re working on. If you’re looking at our website, you’re seeing the extent of research on properties and projects. It is super important to us that research is attached to every piece of lumber so when you walk through our lumber yard, you will know where it came from and all of the proper research behind the property.”
In addition to their valued team members, Bowley also praised the work of their volunteers and community partners, Habitat for Humanity and the Metro Savannah Rotary.
“We work with a ton of volunteers and are extremely grateful for their help,” the executive director said. “A significant volunteer relationship we have is with Habitat for Humanity. At first, we had a hard time organizing volunteers with so much work, but no one to coordinate it. We already had a connection to Habitat because we donated our more modern materials to them. They have all these volunteers and not enough work, while we had the opposite challenge. So, we chatted with them and decided to work together. Every week, we get volunteers through Habitat through their volunteer mechanism who come straight to the yard and get right to work.”
Additionally, Jasmine Mills, president of the Metro Savannah Rotary, is excited for her club to be working with Re:Purpose Savannah as their current annual service provider.
“Every year, the Metro Savannah Rotary puts out a yearly request for proposals where local non-profits can apply for a $10,000 grant. Our fundraisers we do throughout that year go to the organization chosen that year to be our annual service partner. It’s an internal process where our club members make nominations of worthy organizations.”
“We just started our year-long partnership (which goes through June 30, 2024) with Re:Purpose Savannah and are thrilled about it. We will work for them and with them. Because they already have an incredible system of training and utilizing volunteers, we just go in to roll up our sleeves and help out.”
Mills stressed how every year, one of the things Metro Rotary wants to ensure is their service partner supports one of Rotary’s seven areas of focus, one of which is protecting the environment.
“This is just a great partnership for us because of all Re:Purpose Savannah does not only for the community and Savannah’s history, but for the environment as well.”
As someone who enjoys walking around downtown Savannah admiring the architecture, Mills thinks twice now about how these buildings represent so much of the city’s history and culture.
“The buildings and materials here, as well as the families who have lived in them, have contributed to our city’s evolution and development…it’s so important to keep all of their history alive. These materials taken from demolitions are being repurposed and given new life. They’re not just being torn down and forgotten. Best of all, the history of the material Re:Purpose Savannah receives is shared with homeowners and contractors so those stories and buildings still live on, are told and passed down until they, too, now become part of the fabric of Savannah’s history.”
To help Re:Purpose Savannah’s efforts, both Bowley and Mills encourage folks to come out to the lumber yard and purchase something.
“Help us get this stuff back out into the community and then tell the stories about it to everybody who comes to your house. Participate in our fundraisers and sign up for our newsletter so you always know what’s going on. Also, following us on social media keeps you informed of events and volunteer opportunities,” Bowley said, proudly. “We need the whole community to help us if we want to continue to grow and save more buildings, and make this the normal way to handle a historic building in its decline instead of crushing it up and burying it forever.”
Re:Purpose Savannah is located at 2302 East Gwinnett Street and can be found online at repurposesavannah.org. The Metro Savannah Rotary can be found online at metrosavannahrotary.org with both websites having information on fundraisers, events, and volunteer opportunities.