Sustainable and toxin-free living

Sustainable and toxin-free living

Sustainable Apartment Renovation: Build It Green! NYC a Must for Salvage Materials

Build It Green! NYC

In my last entry in my apartment renovation diaries, I showed you the aftermath of ripping out the entire apartment from corner to corner. Now comes the fun part: shopping.

The shopping part comes in stages, as I’ve learned. First I had to have the kitchen designed so I knew where the appliances would go and what size they would be so I could choose the appliances so my contractor knew how to set up the plumbing and gas lines. I also had to choose my bathroom fixtures so he knew how to do the plumbing in the bathroom. Other things like doors, baseboards, tiling, and flooring will come later.

But I still got sparkles in my eyes when I walked into Build It Green! NYC. BIG! is a salvage warehouse with two locations in Brooklyn (since 2011) and Queens (since 2005). All the materials are donated (hence, used and more eco-friendly), and BIG! funds its operations by reselling the items. It also donates materials to worthy local 501(c)3 organizations, like community gardens and schools.

Marble mantelpieces
Marble mantelpieces

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It just teems with interesting stuff, like a dog pound with mutts large and small begging for the right home. And like any vintage shopping experience, it takes some patience, vision and a little bit of muscle to nose through all the offering piled everywhere. It’s a hands-on experience–the website has just a nibble of all the things they have available.

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So what kind of things? Well, there are some beautiful, unique, grandiose old items, like carved mahogany double doors, and elaborate radiators fit for a museum. There’s also brand new items. “Sometimes people buy a new condo and they want to redo all the appliances, or they’re combining two apartments,” Jaclyn Jablkowski, BIG!’s communication director, told me on my tour. So you’ll be able to find things like a basin sink on a marble-topped vanity, full sets of custom kitchen cabinets, Viking stoves, and other discounted items to kit out your place. (Food Network has donated kitchen stage sets, fancy!) And if you’re creative or handy (or can hire someone who is) you can get reclaimed wood for a farm table, or just repaint a lovely old piece of furniture to make it like new. Not to mention the racks upon racks of doors in every size and kind, from brownstone doors to hollow core doors, and odds and ends from liquidated inventory, like bulbs and light switch covers.

Once you pick out your items, just grab an employee and walk around with them pointing to your choices, and they’ll slap a Sold sticker on there. You pay at the front, and have a week for you or your contractor to come back and pick the items up. In the Queens location, I picked out a brand new tub, a used vanity, a basin sink, and an old two-panel, solid-core door.

Say hi to the resident kitty at the Brooklyn location, who is very friendly and loves a scritch behind his ears.


At the last minute, I asked an employee if they had any bathroom faucets. He took me in the back and showed me an intimidatingly long shelf piled with boxes of all sizes. “A bathroom store went out of business. If you can find what you need in here, be my guest,” he said. It looked insane, but I went to work, picking through all the boxes until I found some amazing polished brass items: two drain plugs for the sink and bathtub, a bathtub faucet, a small towel ring, a towel rack, a hook, and a bathtub trim. I piled all this stuff on the counter, and the employee added it to all the larger items. My total for all of this? $550. I mean, just the polished brass towel rack retails for $220 by itself, and I got a whole brand new tub! #score

Jaclyn of Build It Green!
Jaclyn of Build It Green!

Since my tour of BIG! I’ve been back several times to poke around, looking for specific things, and here are my tips for shopping:

1. Plan ahead. Talk to your contractor or do the measuring yourself so that you know the exact dimensions of everything in your apartment. How much room do you have for a vanity? What size range do you need? What size radiators suit your apartment, both in style and in heating capacity? Make a long list of every little thing you need in this stage of your reno, plus measurements for it. Also discuss parameters and needs with your contractor. Ask him what you need to by that week, and what you should look for in terms of functionality, material and size.

2. Bring a measuring tape and rag. The measuring tape is so you can measure stuff on the fly in the warehouse. If you forget your measuring tape, you can borrow one, but you have to leave behind your ID or keys so you don’t walk off with it. I also recommend you bring a rag, because things get dusty in there, and a rag can help you determine whether it is just dirt you are seeing on that sink, or damage.

3.  … and maybe another person. This isn’t required (I’ve been going by myself) but it would be helpful. First of all because sometimes you need some extra muscle to pull a stack of doors to the side so you can examine one that looks like it might be perfect. And also, like vintage shopping, you need someone for crazy checks. “Is this vanity awesome or am I crazy?” “Does this look mid-century modern or 70s awful?” “Thoughts on changing the design scheme completely in the bedroom, because look at this amazing barn door!?” In fact, bring your contractor if you can so he/she can give you reality checks. “If you want that basin sink, you need a faucet coming straight from the wall, which requires different plumbing,” for example. And your designer, if you have one. If my mom had been with me, she could have pointed out that my beautiful polished brass tub faucet is no good, because it doesn’t have the little doohickey that turns on the shower. D’oh.

4. Be creative and flexible. Sure, you could get a $15,00 kitchen for $1,500, but you’ll have to figure out how to fit it in your kitchen space, not the one it was designed for. A healthy imagination and willingness to deviate from your Pinterest board are essential. Luckily the Queens location has a sawmill that can help you out in your quest for perfection.

5. Go back often. Things come and go quickly, so check in every week or two throughout your reno process to see what has shown up.

6. Donate your old stuff, too. Oh, you’re ripping out your apartment? Take pictures of everything in there and email it over to BIG! If it’s a big enough cache, they’ll come pick it up for you. If it’s not, you can opt to take it over or have your contractor take it over. You can get a tax deduction–just get it professionally appraised if the value is over $5,000.

Build It Green! has two locations, one off the F/G and R stops on 69 9th St in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, and one that is a long walk from the N/Q stop at 317 26th Ave in Astoria, Queens. 

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