salvage yard; photo by joshua coleman via unsplash

From Salvage Yard to Bespoke Furniture: EcoFAB Turns Waste into Wonder

January 25, 2021

Professor and architect Julee Herdt has been green since before green was anything but a color. Which is to say, she’s been designing and creating with environmentally friendly materials, processes, and finishes for a long time. In fact, she holds the first two patents ever issued to a faculty member at the College of Architecture and Planning for her bio-based construction materials BioSIPs and has a CU Denver-spinoff materials company. And she passes on her eco-conscious techniques to students in her EcoFAB green-build class.

Revampt in Cherry Creek Sells Architecture Students Work

Last week, Herdt’s fall semester students met with Daniel Louis, a Denver native with a background in fine art who owns Revampt, a gallery that focuses on eco-friendly products. Located in Cherry Creek North, Revampt has been selling sustainable products for almost 10 years. Louis was at CU Denver to meet Herdt’s students—and see their work. He chooses a few pieces every semester for Revampt. “I love Julee’s class, and I’ve always tried to participate in any way I can,” he said. “We’ve sold some pretty extravagant pieces that the students have made.” 

coffee table by CAP student Lema Alali
Coffee table by undergraduate architecture student Lema Alali

The first object that caught Louis’ attention was a coffee table fabricated by Lema Alali, an undergraduate student studying architecture. The table features a beautifully twisted section of tree trunk. The tangled monolith came from her family’s cabin in Bailey, Colorado. “The tree right next to the house got struck by lightning,” Alali said. “It was too cool, so we kept it.” After two years, she finally got to put the material to good use. “I literally registered for this course to do something with that tree,” she said.  

desk by CAP graduate student Matt Milne
Desk by graduate architecture student Matt Milne

Louis also explained why he liked a desk created by Joseph Rutledge, a graduate architecture student. “The piece of wood on this is awesome—all this feathering grain,” Louis said. It’s also a perfect piece of furniture for the current time. “Everyone needs a desk right now,” Louis said. But Rutledge might not be able to part with his desk.

bench by CAP student Joseph Rutledge
Bench by graduate architecture student Joseph Rutledge

He might consider giving up a bench he also designed, a sinuous sweep of live-edge wood on triangular legs. “The leg design is really unique,” Louis said. “It creates a fun shadow or fun negative space.” Rutledge pictures the bench in a bedroom at the foot of the bed. “I envision it as a place to sit down and put on your shoes,” he said. “Maybe in a laundry room. Basically, wherever you put your shoes on.” 

The Salvage Hunt

Herdt walked around the pieces her students had made, excited by their creations. She spends a lot of time in class encouraging students to ask questions and make mistakes. For many of the architecture students, EcoFAB is their first venture into fabrication of designs that they create themselves. “It’s all about learning and getting over the fear of asking questions—like what’s the difference between a nail and a bolt,” she said. “The mistakes are often the best investigation or the best discovery.”

old tractor parts in field
Herdt has taken her EcoFAB classes on many field trips throughout the years, including to scrap yards and auto graveyards.

Graduate student Matt Milne sourced part of his steel by dumpster-diving in RiNo (with permission). “They had a lot of scraps,” he said. But scavenging is actually becoming challenging now that more people are thinking about sustainably sourced materials. “It’s become harder to find unique materials,” Herdt said. “But I still have my secret places.”

“Too much pollution is coming from the design world.”

– Professor Julee Herdt, College of Architecture and Planning

When Herdt started her class 25 years ago, she called it Green Tech, because “the words weren’t even there.” The course grew in popularity as the green building movement became more mainstream. “At most construction sites, everything ends up in a landfill,” Herdt explained. “Too much pollution is coming from the design world.”

EcoFAB is doing its part to change the idea that to construct well you need new materials. “We make a lot of waste,” Rutledge said. “If we can reuse someone else’s waste, then we’re doing something good.” Herdt thinks EcoFAB is just a small part of a growing movement.

collage of bespoke furniture made from salvage
Work by current and former EcoFAB students: mining bar cart, end table, and bookends.

“The world of salvage building is really changing; I would say in about 10 years, it’s going to be very organized,” Herdt said. “We’re coming up with ways to organize scrap since building deconstruction is required in some cities; every city needs different warehouses where you shop for salvage the same way you would at a big box store. It’s so important that as designers we don’t automatically shop and specify ‘new.’ There are eco-advantages and quality in the old materials that often aren’t available in new products,” she added.

At CU Denver’s architecture building in downtown Denver, Herdt and her students take their salvaged materials up the elevator and stairwells to a studio on the seventh floor, which holds everything from semi-truck flooring and a dismantled 1940s piano to old automobile pieces and abandoned airplane parts. “It’s a wonderland up there,” Herdt said.