It's early in the morning, but the mill saws are already buzzing inside Southern Pine Company's sprawling compound on a sleepy stretch of East Broad Street.
The crisp smell of freshly-sheared wood permeates the air. Denim-clad laborers — some actually whistling as they work — carry molasses-hued planks through the cavernous, sunlit warehouse. The bustle is at once industrial and industrious, a Platonic ideal of productive enterprise.
"Watch your step!" calls out 19-year-old Justin Frazier as he guides a two-by-four along a maze of piled beams.
Some of the cut timber could end up as a fence or paneling for a kitchen remodel across town; other chunks may find their way across the room to Southern Pine Co.'s furniture building studio. One thing is for sure, however: Every piece of wood stacked inside this building originally started out as something else.
"All of this is reclaimed from construction sites or it was abandoned. It's perfectly good; why should it go in a landfill?" asks Ramsey Khalidi, Southern Pine's bespectacled owner and energetic visionary.
He and his wife, Pam, rescued the building itself from demolition in the early 2000s, when it was still known by its original incarnation, Star Laundry.
The Khalidis' commitment to the reincarnation of found materials is rigorous to the point of obsession: Shattered windows encased in protective coating become tabletops affixed to rust-worn machine parts. Driveways are laid with the remains of a crumbling brick house. Even the discarded pointed ends of ancient pylons excavated from the Savannah River find new life as lamps and decorative fencing.
The term "sustainability" means the responsible management of resources in the interest of long-term survival, and while the term often elicits criticism for its liberal overuse, Ramsey illustrates its real-world application in terms of actual resources — both material and human.
"Sustainability and design are the underpinnings of an evolving planet," he proclaims, demonstrating how massive windows have been turned into shoji-like sliding doors in his office.
"There are toxins in breast milk and PCBs in polar bears' bloodstreams. How do we not understand that everything needs to be reclaimed and re-used?"
For those who would dismiss that as flower child rhetoric, take note that revenue from the green construction industry rose 18.3 percent in 2012 and is expected to increase to more than $245 billion by 2016, according to a recent report by market research firm IBISWorld.
The Khalidis didn't know that back in 2008, when the real estate market tanked and their current holdings got shaky. Though Ramsey had always had a passion for reclamation, sourcing valuable old wood became a way to make up some of the losses.
"We've always reused stuff, but we were just doing our thing," remembers Pam. "We weren't really trying to be inspirational."
As environmental concerns and rising energy costs began driving a new design aesthetic, the Khalidis positioned their company in front of the rocketing local and regional demand for reclaimed materials. In addition to furnishing countless homes and small businesses in Chatham County, Southern Pine has also supplied the world's first LEED-certified McDonald's (located in Abercorn Walk shopping center) and the new Cotton Sail Hotel on Bay Street as well as several large-scale projects of its own.
But repurposed wood is just one wedge in Southern Pine's complete role in the local economic community, green or otherwise. In addition to providing paychecks to around 25 full-time employees, the Khalidis also lease a franchise of the national staffing agency Labor Ready out of the building, which draws day laborers from the surrounding neighborhood.
The 32,000 square-foot property also serves as an artistic and community gathering space, hosting all-age musical extravaganzas like Graveface Fest and No Control as well as the recent craft showcase Savannah Bazaar in its brick courtyard (laid with bricks reclaimed from a demolished city building, naturally.)
The local food movement has also found a nest here: An 18-foot tall greenhouse is under construction in the back corner, the brainchild of Design for Sustainability MFA and former Southern Pine intern Meagan Hodge. The New Orleans native conceived the indoor garden as her final thesis while working with high-functioning special needs students from Savannah High.
"These kids are allowed to train during school hours, and we brought them out to help clear the site. We grew microgreens in old bathtubs, but I saw how much students loved being exposed to the deconstruction industry," Hodge recalls.
She came up with a conceptual design for a structural oasis of fresh produce for the neighborhood that also provides green job training. But the project found real footing when her professor and Emergent Structures founder Scott Boylston encouraged her to actually build it.
"The challenge of reclaimed materials is that you have to go backwards and actually find them first, then design around it," says Hodge.
Fortunately, she had a warehouse of used wood nearby and quickly launched a non-profit, Design for Ability, to organize her student trainees. (Justin Frazier, the happy woodshop worker, has since been hired on permanently at Southern Pine as a denailer.)
As the greenhouse approaches completion, Hodge has partnered with carpenter and Oxform director Ben Mattern (formerly of Wooden Sheep, another Southern Pine alum) to help Design for Ability repurpose wood for picture frames and dining tables to raise funds. In another circular stroke of local sustainability, several of those tables are being put to use in the eating area of the new Whole Foods. (There's a chance to win one of these covetable 3'x6' farm tables at a fundraiser featuring music by City Hotel, the Accomplices, Lovely Locks and KidSyc this Sunday, Oct. 6.)
Thus job training, social action, urban gardening and historic preservation swirl together in the former factory setting on East Broad and 34th streets. Hodge calls the combined powers the result of "Hurricane Ramsey."
To the force that bringing it all together, it simply adds up to a sensible and innovative way to transform unused industrial sites.
"What I'm trying to do is form a model for urban development that combines job creation with community relationships and artistic support," describes Ramsey.
That may have sounded like a preposterous notion a generation ago, but creative economic collaborations are gaining traction in cities like Detroit and Cleveland. Growing green jobs from within urban centers was a hot topic at last week's Georgia Green Economy Summit, and as far as Summit founder Albert George is concerned, a national priority.
"How do we deal with urban blight and systemic unemployment? We engage people in the surrounding community," says George, who advocated for high-tech solutions to local energy and water supply challenges at this year's summit, hosted at Savannah State University and themed "What Will it Take to Make the Coastal Empire the Silicone Marsh?"
George, a Savannah native and Yale-educated marine biologist, is a great admirer of the Khalidis. He invited Ramsey to speak at the summit along with SCAD professor of Design for Sustainability Boylston, Laura Lee Bocade of Savannah-based modular interior manufacturers DIRTT Environmental Solutions and ecology advocate and media scion Laura Turner Seydel. The opening reception, held in the Southern Pine courtyard, hummed with the electrical charge of innovative ideas.
"If you had told me I would have seen this type of place — in this part of town! — 20 years ago, I would have laughed you under the table," says George, shaking his head. "Now I think there should be one in every city."
Not surprisingly, Southern Pine Co. has become a beacon for other consciously-minded local ventures. Print and design firm STEAM rents space here, and Gullah chef and cookbook author Sallie Ann Robinson is drawing up plans for a restaurant and cooking school, likely sourcing herbs and produce from the aforementioned greenhouse. Proprietors often strike up in-kind trades with each other, bartering for goods and services in a friendly economic loop.
Ramsey views these small business owners as partners who share the overall value of making the world a cleaner, better connected place.
"These businesses seem unrelated, but they're all green in purpose and operation," he surmises. "It's an entrepreneurial alliance, if you will."
The most recent cohort in this intriguing collective is PERC Coffee, a local roasting company that started as owner Philip Brown's one-man show in 2010 and has grown to a staff of six to keep up with weighing, labeling and deliveries.
Emphasizing education and training on how to make the best cup of java, PERC serves 70-80 local restaurants and hotels and is the exclusive coffee provider for Foxy Loxy and its downtown sister shop, the Coffee Fox (both studded with reclaimed materials, go figure.)
PERC's new 2,300 square-foot space opens into the brick courtyard and is stocked with reclaimed salvaged wood tables, custom-built bathrooms and a giant new roaster that will triple the company's output to 2,000 pounds of coffee a week. It's not a full-service café, though Brown is planning coffee tastings and classes and the occasional brewed cup for fellow Southern Pine dwellers.
Previously working out of a 450 square-foot shop in the Starland District, Brown inquired about the corner building at the end of the Southern Pine property several times before Ramsey would negotiate.
"I think he really wanted to make sure it was a good fit," laughs Brown.
Brown translates his commitment to sustainability to conscious waste management and the personal relationships he has cultivated with the coffee farmers in Nicaragua, Ethiopia and Brazil.
"When you put a face on the people who make your product, you can see its value," he says, drawing comparisons between fairly-traded coffee beans and the craftsmanship of the materials salvaged by the Khalidis.
Will the aroma of roasted coffee blended pleasantly with the scent of cut pine replace the "smell of money" from Savannah's established (and polluting) industries?
That depends on whether there is an official push to mandate reclamation in construction. When developers are forced to reuse perfectly good materials, that's when Ramsey says we will "reverse the process of stealing from the planet."
For now, Southern Pine Co. serves as a nexus for an environmentally conscious economic model that's creating real jobs and an engaged community.
Though Ramsey confesses, "I never could have designed this on purpose. It grew from the mother of invention."