Old and New Orleans

By Christina Lewellen
May 1, 2007
COLUMN : Talking to Dealers

There. I did it. I’ve been meaning to do it for a year or more but I finally got around to clicking my way through a series of reservations and itineraries. I’d like to think that my inspiration is more goodwill than sheer curiosity, but regardless of the motive—I’m going to tour New Orleans.

I want to know how business is going and how the rebuilding effort is progressing, and I’d like to see first-hand if the mainstream media is giving the nation, and our building products industry in particular, an accurate picture of the situation.

And, finally, I want to know how we can help.

Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many window and door manufacturers stepped up to the plate to donate products and time to the rebuilding effort. I don’t think that charitable push has ebbed. Just hours before I started writing this column, I read a story featuring C & S Doors, a Dothan, AL, manufacturer who handed 2,000 prehung doors over to the local Habitat for Humanity chapter for the storm rebuilding initiative. “We were trying to think of what we could do as a company to help people who lost their homes, and an employee came up with this idea,” says Bob Rein, general manager, in the Dothan Eagle newspaper.

What about dealers and distributors? How can general contractors and remodelers contribute?

In my trip planning and research, I stumbled upon a contact for, and subsequently had an animated conversation with, Jim Turner, a historic preservationist who specializes in the restoration of steel and wood windows. He told me a bit about how the rebuilding is going and specifically how things are shaping up regarding windows, doors and related building products. Many of his comments hit my “sheer curiosity” button, and a few of his opinions resonated with my “what can we do to help” initiative. His spiel, in a nutshell—1) there’s room for old and new windows in historic districts like those in New Orleans, and 2) society in general should consider deconstruction rather than demolition when it comes to building products.

There is demand in the market, he contends, for window retailers who offer new products as well as niche specialists like himself. As the owner of Detroit-based Turner Restoration, he’s made about eight trips to New Orleans since rebuilding began to work on clients’ windows. As we spoke, I could hear the clinking of tools and the buzz of a sander as he hunched over what I presumed to be yet another project. “Once we really take stock of the inventories in America, there is room for all of us,” he says of traditional window retailers and their brothers on the restoration side. “I’ve carved out my niche to do restorations. There are enough people doing new window installations, and this niche fits my personality and passion, so I have been extremely busy in it.”

So while I originally prepared myself to meet with a handful of Gulf Coast window dealers who would share with me stories of long waiting lists, insurance nightmares and labor shortages, my conversation with Turner opened my eyes to another rebuilding effort that pertains to fenestration—windows and doors in line for an extreme makeover. “I think there are a lot of people who are in historic neighborhoods that are waiting to get their windows restored,” he says. “Just the other day, I spoke to a woman who has been waiting almost a year to find someone who would come and restore her windows. She has double-hung sashes that are almost eight feet tall and [after the hurricane damage] all they really need is some new rails.”

So being my first “stop” in my upcoming tour d’New Orleans, I asked him what we could do to help.

Simply stated, he asks the country to give unwanted windows and doors up for adoption. Tired or broken glazing can be replaced, paint can be stripped, wood can be repaired and sanded. The rehabilitated units may not have a home in Suburban, America, but Turner is willing to bet that they would be a welcome addition to inner cities and perhaps storm-ravaged areas such as New Orleans and the surrounding cities on the Gulf Coast. “Even if you’re a contractor ripping windows out, look at finding a salvage organization or a restoration organization,” he says. “It’s deconstruction versus demolition. Give the non-profit, community development organizations the tools they need. They’re working on such a thin dime. If they had the products, they could use them to rebuild homes in their neighborhoods.”

And if those spearheading deconstruction take the time to remove the entire box, rather than just saving the sash, non-profit building products clearing houses can offer an even wider range of solutions, Turner points out. “There’s an opportunity for a layman or a handyman to measure their rough opening and go down and pick up a complete window unit that can be stripped and installed,” he says.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Or, more specifically, one man’s trip to the junkyard to dispose of old windows and doors could likely be another man’s find of the year at Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore (www.habitat.org/env/restores), or similar building products salvage operations.

I’ll let you know how my New Orleans trip goes. In the meantime, if you have stories to share about your trips or experiences in New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast region, feel free to contact me. Perhaps your answer to my “what can we do to help” question will be just the “treasure” for which another industry representative is looking. 

Contact Christina at clewellen@glass.org or 585/786-2493.