Salvaged Homes: Renovating Old Buildings into Unique Houses in Reno, Nevada

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HabeRae outfits their homes with organic garden spaces—in this home, they reused all existing materials on the property for the landscape makeover.
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An Art Deco structure built in 1953, the former Reno fire station was converted to a homeless shelter before being abandoned for a number of years. Residence 9 includes a rollup wall of glass that once served as the fire truck door.
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HabeRae renovated the dilapidated structure, which is now home to a bagel shop, salon and nine residential units and is the cornerstone of a bustling new area of the city.
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The residences retain many of the building’s original structural details such as laddered sleeping lofts and polished concrete floors.
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HabeRae designs “small homes with big amenities.” This urban infill cottage and its neighbor—together known as 2 on Watt—include private backyards, community-building front porches, washer/dryer combos and abundant natural light.

In Reno, Nevada, HabeRae Homes is the brainchild of Kelly Rae and Pam Haberman, two home renovators and landlords who became fascinated with the idea of living better with fewer resources when they built a rural getaway home for themselves. “The impetus for building small and sustainable came to us when we bought a remote lot,” Rae says. “The builder who built our little cabin—we were living in New Mexico at the time, near Mammoth—said, ‘You have to go off the grid.’ I said, ‘What is that?’ This was in 1994.” Their builder, Don Berenati of Sweetwater Building, was experienced in off-the-grid, sustainable living, and he explained how the couple’s home could generate its own resources. “He said, ‘You can power it with solar panels; it works! And there’s a spring we can tap into with a line that goes to the cistern.’ So I said, ‘OK, I have to see that,’” Rae says.

Intrigued by the idea of a completely self-sufficient home, Haberman and Rae moved forward with plans to create the cabin. “We went back and forth with the fax—it was before Internet—and before I knew it, we had plans for a cabin that’s off the grid. Two years later, the house was built with an eight-panel solar system. We were amazed! All of our energy comes from these eight panels, and our water comes from a spring,” Rae says.

The cabin includes reclaimed materials, such as a salvaged wood floor from a warehouse in Oakland, California. “It was from a shipping warehouse from World War II,” Rae says. “It was called ‘the floor that won the war.’” Haberman and Rae had asked Berenati for a small space, and they were impressed with the efficiency he worked into their little cabin. “The spaces fill more than one purpose,” Haberman says. “We have window seats, and underneath are bookshelves. We can cram a lot into a small space, and then you can eliminate the need for a big house.”

As they became increasingly impressed by their sustainable cabin, Haberman and Rae became increasingly interested in integrating some of those techniques into the homes they renovated. “We thought, ‘If we can make housing better with better insulation and better materials for our own home, why can’t we do this for other people and really do things with value?’” Rae says.

The two decided to focus on sustainable homes and reclaimed building materials. They also started to notice all the abandoned, tiny spaces going to waste in their city. “Reno is a pretty place, but we started seeing all these cookie-cutter developments,” Haberman says. “We started looking in the urban core and seeing there were buildings we could use without going outside city limits and cutting into the hillsides and paving everything over.” Their results are wildly popular, efficient urban nests perfect for the city’s many college students and young urban professionals. Though they have won numerous awards for historic preservation and community development, the duo says it is most important that their projects demonstrate smart, invigorating reuse.

Houses with History 

Using inexpensive salvaged building materials allows HabeRae to offer a better home for less money. “If I can spend 25 cents on old metal for the ceiling, I don’t spend the money I would have spent on a newly made ceiling. And I don’t send what’s there to a landfill,” Rae says. “Then I can pass that savings on to my residents. Instead of $800, rent can be $700.” Thanks to those savings, HabeRae is able to create homes they call “economically efficient”—not cheap. Being a small company with low overhead and reasonable salaries doesn’t hurt, either. “We all have to make money, but why do you have to make $1 million on the project?” Rae says of her business philosophy. “Why not make $20,000 instead, as long as you have a roof over your head and a good meal on your plate? You don’t have to be a millionaire, just make a decent living and places people can afford.”

Finding old stuff is easy for HabeRae, and, though their residents appreciate the savings, they also just like the way old things make a home look and feel. “That old corrugated metal, there’s a plethora of it,” Rae says. “There’s always some guy on Craigslist that had it in a barn. We use it on ceilings and walls. We don’t touch it. It’s rusted and gnarly and knotty, and when people walk into a house and see it on the walls or the ceiling, they’re like, ‘Oh God, that’s cool.’”

The salvaged materials ensure no two HabeRae homes are identical. Reclaimed materials bring their own history and story to each project. Rae loves how using old buildings and old materials gives her projects a sense of history: “Buildings have history, and I believe they talk to us. They have the stories of all the people who lived there, and when a new owner comes in, they start their own story.” She references a renovation project where they uncovered parts of the region’s history: “Take the old farmhouse on Watt Street. We pulled Italian newspapers from 1902 out of those walls—they were used as insulation. All of that area used to be farmland, and Italian immigrants made their home in Reno to farm. That’s a story to be told, and from this point forward, the people in this building make their own history.”

From Houses to Homes 

HabeRae adds other touches to make their developments homes, not just houses. They incorporate garden spaces where tenants can grow their own food. “We provide the place, a drip system, everything,” Rae says. “It’s set up before they move in.” The homes also emphasize access to mass transit and car-free living. All of their projects are within five minutes by bicycle to downtown Reno or to the university, and they’re all on a bus line. HabeRae’s practices attract great residents, many of them young people who are drawn to the properties’ small size and historic feel, Haberman says. “We get much better tenants because they see that we care. I think what sets us apart in our city is that we know what counts to people,” Haberman says. “Our homes have a custom feel without costing a lot of money. We do a lot of unique, hip things. In one place, we took stucco off the walls and exposed the original brick. We reclaimed the flooring, taking off layer after layer of carpet, linoleum and adhesive to get to the original Douglas fir floors.”

Urban Restoration 

HabeRae brings new life to formerly blighted areas, and provides affordable homes residents are proud of. “We’re always working in the dead areas of town,” Haberman says. “We’re just attracted to them. The places everyone says you should stay out of, we’re the first ones there.” She loves how their projects become the spark that helps bring back life. “The next time people come, it’s a whole new area in what was just a blighted area of town. You clean it up, give it some attention, and it attracts people back.”

Rae and Haberman think the key to their business success is that, by reusing old spaces and providing smaller, easier-to-maintain housing, they appeal to people’s desires for a simpler life. “They’re putting a lot into their jobs and their education trying to make it in this society,” Rae says. “They don’t want to be bothered with a large house, a large payment, a large anything.” Haberman sees living in a smaller home as the first step toward valuing relationships over things. “I think everybody’s just tired of the pace of their lives, of the amount of hours they have to work and of being tied to a big house,” she says. “It makes you a slave to your house. Your kids are being cared for by someone else because you have to work so much to pay for your house.”

Mindset Makeover 

Replicating the HabeRae model makes sense for landowners and renovators—salvaging architectural materials enables a lower-cost overhaul. HabeRae uses its projects as a tool to propel its city forward. “It starts with local government,” Rae says. “We’ve really had to educate our community and the development section of the city of Reno.” She laments that often reuse seems to come with additional hurdles rather than aid: “It’s too bad there is no incentive to save old buildings. In fact, it’s the opposite. You have to have a passion for it. You have to have intestinal fortitude.” But Haberman and Rae have proven to the City of Reno that their developments work, and they’ve broken through many barriers with their innovative projects. “You have to show them examples. You can’t just tell them, ‘Believe what I say,’” Rae says. “You have to show them a better way. You have to be the leader for change.”

Excerpted from Housing Reclaimed by Jessica Kellner. Housing Reclaimed author and Natural Home & Garden editor Jessica Kellner is fascinated with the common-sense savings and community benefits we can achieve by reusing buildings and building materials.