Transformed by FIRE
After a catastrophic fire destroyed this 75 year old Austin, Texas lumberyard, owner Laura Culin decided that her rebuilt business would be a showcase for green building.
When the phone rang at Laura Culin's house that night, she was expecting the caller to wish her a Happy New Year. Unfortunately, it was the fire department giving her some very grim news: her family's business, Austin Lumber, was going up in flames. As Culin raced to the site, the fire was visible from blocks away. The lumber had been ignited by neighborhood kids who were celebrating the holiday by shooting off bottle rockets.
The next morning – Saturday, January 1, 2005 – Culin visited the ruins of her business and discovered 3 buildings were gone, including the hardware store and the mill. Clean up and restoration began almost immediately. “A lot of people in the neighborhood helped out,” Culin related. “Some of the contractors helped me clean up, and because our fire was so massive the whole episode became a training film for the Austin Fire Department.”
Laura set up shop in one of the two buildings unaffected by the fire with a phone and a computer and opened for business at 7:30 Monday morning. Many owners would have taken the insurance money and closed the business, but that wasn't an option for Culin. Austin Lumber was uninsured. “In East Austin, with this being an old building, I could not get insurance, so we had minimal coverage on everything,” she lamented.
To add insult to injury, Austin Lumber faced a $100,000 lawsuit from a next door neighbor who claimed the fire had caused her mental anguish. “She said the paper wrap on our lumber contributed to the fire,” said Culin. “We did studies to prove that could not be true, but it cost about $60,000 to defend myself from her after I had just lost everything. Meanwhile, the city wouldn't let me rebuild because there was a pending lawsuit.” The lawsuit was dropped after police determined that 2 of the woman's grandchildren were actually involved in starting the fire.
As Austin Lumber rebuilt, Culin focused on sustainability. She had already been taking classes in green building, but she hesitated on moving the company, which she had purchased from her father in 1998, in that direction. “If the fire hadn't happened, I probably wouldn't have gotten into green building, because I was holding onto the old way of doing things out of respect for my father. The fire
washed that away. I had a 4,000 square foot mill, and I lost all my machines and equipment. I lost my trucks, my forklift, and I really had to start over from zero.”
Not surprisingly, sustainable and fire-proof go hand in hand here. “We have five buildings now, and they're all metal and concrete, which are harder to burn,” Culin chuckles. The main structure is clad with Hardie Plus Siding, in part because it does not require paint, but largely because it is fire resistant. “And of course we use Ultra Touch cotton insulation throughout, and it certainly is fire rated,” she notes. “I was able to reclaim a lot of the original long-leaf pine studs and to use them again, and we also used FSC lumber.”
When Culin's grandfather started the company in the 1920s, this East Austin, Texas, neighborhood was an industrial/warehouse district with blue-collar residents. Over the years, other businesses moved out and the community itself took on an Hispanic flavor. Now the neighborhood is changing again as its vintage warehouses are going condo. A building directly across the street from Austin Lumber is subdividing into 800-square-foot units priced to sell in the $300,000s.
While much of Culin's business is commercial, she felt it was important to satisfy the needs of her changing community. So a key aspect of the rebuilding was a 2,500 square foot street level retail hardware store, with the commercial product showroom upstairs. Warehouse space for the lumber, insulation, and related building materials is maintained in the reconstructed outbuildings. “There are no other hardware stores around here, and if you're going to emphasize sustainability, you'd rather have people walk to your store instead of driving out to a box store,” she said. And people even bring their dogs with them. “We're dog friendly; that's probably an Austin thing. We have two upstairs who greet everyone in the showroom. Keep Austin weird, that's us,” she jokes.
The staff of seven includes some true industry veterans as well as interns drawn from community education programs. “I work with the American Youth Works, an organization that helps train students in construction, and we offer an internship here for the women that graduate from the program.” Culin also helps train youths from the Construction Gateway Program. “Those kids get some knowledge here, beyond what they learned from books or the classroom, and that helps them get jobs in the local construction industry.”
But Austin Lumber also has some steady industry veterans. Katie Kendrick has a 25 year background in concrete and plastering, but lately her enthusiasm is directed towards selling the company's recycled cotton insulation and composite lumber lines. In the mill, Jim O'Hare has been with the company for 15 years. Operations Manager Manny Estrada grew up in the neighborhood, and is a big part of Austin Lumber's customer service reputation.
While Culin never intended to work in the family business, her background turns out to be a perfect fit. Before joining Austin Lumber in the '90s, Laura earned a degree in marketing, and added coursework in drafting, blueprint reading, and estimating. She spent a few years at the draftboard routing underground cable, partnered in an interior design company, and raised 3 sons. But when she went to work here for her dad, he started her out digging postholes for chain link fence, then working her way up in the mill where she learned how to do all the pattern stocks.
Culin is an enthusiastic booster of the National Association of Women in Construction. “I wanted to succeed in business because I was good at it, not because this company was woman owned or disadvantaged in some way,” she insists. “But that drove me to help other small businesses get started.” As a result, Austin Lumber now offers space to a small electrical firm, a masonry/stonework company, and a painting contractor.
FSC certified wood is at the heart of Austin Lumber's shift to green. “I've been told that we are the only retail lumber store in Texas that is Chain of Custody Certified,” she noted. Oddly enough, the recession has helped a bit. In earlier years, Culin had partnered with Austin Hardwoods to win some military bids. But after new owner BlueLinx closed it down, Culin began stocking FSC hardwood for cabinet shops and started supplying some military bases directly. “All the military bases in the country are going FSC, and when those guys need cabinets, some of them are calling me now,” she stated.
Of course, there's a downside to FSC's growing popularity, too. Culin is concerned that some non-COC lumber yards claim to be selling FSC wood. “There's so much greenwashing going on, and that worries me now,” she said. “I pay for an audit every year by FSC, but they only check on you if you're certified and legit.” Competitors who try to ‘cheat' in that way may save a few dollars in expenses, but the developer will be unable to claim LEED credits because there is no chain of custody. Buyer beware!
Although Austin is known for its ‘outlaw' music culture, Culin has had better luck with Hollywood. “We've supplied a bunch of material to the film industry - Friday Night Lights, several of the independent film studios,” she told us. “I'm trying to promote our UltraTouch cotton insulation to our music industry here because it's a natural sound barrier. If we can get it into more of these places, it will helps us hold onto our live music scene.”
Thanks to those legendary Texas summers, the City of Austin requires radiant barrier sheathing on the roof, and Culin supplies an FSC radiant barrier from Roy L Martin. Austin Lumber is quite serious about roofing materials, and sells FSC Certified cedar shake, metal roofing from McElroy Metal, as well as copper shingles.
Despite Austin's progressive reputation, Culin tends to sell more FSC lumber to the City of San Antonio than to the City of Austin. “Actually, we sell FSC all over the U.S.,” said Laura. “We just shipped a bunch of it to NASA in Florida, and that was pretty awesome.”
Of course, you'd have a hard time finding someone more credible on fire treated wood. “That's one thing I pride myself on, and The City of Austin has sent several people to me because I really know what I'm talking about,” Laura declared. “We live and breathe it here, and I'm honored that the City of Austin's Homebuilders Association asked me to teach at their Materials & Resources sessions.”
Austin Lumber tends to promote products it believes in. “I am very impressed with Green E-Board, and we used it here in our office,” said Laura. “It's waterproof with one side smooth and the other side textured. It is more costly, but think of all the applications you can use it for. Other people who carry it are selling it for about $30 per square foot, because here in Austin everyone wants to go high end and mark up green products so much. Well, I have a problem with that, because I think everyone should afford to go green. So we're selling it for around $18 to $20.”
Correct Deck has also earned a lot of affection here. “It took me 8 years before I would even carry composite decking, because I wasn't comfortable with it,” Laura admitted. But not long ago, she was fighting to win a bid for 2x6 composite boards that would be used for the exterior walls on a downtown parking garage, and she needed double sided – which Correct didn't make. “But the people at their plant were sitting around eating pizza one night when someone figured out how to do it, and they called me up and told me they'd run a 2-sided 2x6 just for me,” she said. “They really went above and beyond.”
Since Austin has become a competitive market – like everywhere else – Culin has looked for products she can offer as options to commodity brands. For instance, Greenguard House Wrap has turned out to be a very workable alternative to Tyvek. “I'm getting a lot of people change from Tyvek when they see Greenguard and find out it's cheaper,” she said. “We were really impressed when we used it here ourselves; it didn't seem to get holes or tear up as much.”
Austin Lumber continues selling a product mix that's comparable to what you'd find at other lumber and building material dealers, but with a couple surprising twists… such as pink or blue handled tools. “I carry Tomboy Tools, because I see a lot of women on the jobsites, even on commercial jobs. Other tools are too big,” said Culin. “These are good tools that are made for women's hands and for the smaller hands of some Hispanics. It's a safety issue too, but I have one humongous GC superintendent who uses my pink tools because he can spot them wherever he is on the site.”
In ordinary times, things would be looking up, but this is no ordinary year. “Last July was probably the biggest month we ever had, but right now we're having the worst month ever,” said Culin. “I survived my dad dying, the fire, and the lawsuit, but this economy is hitting me harder than those past disasters.
“But I'm too mean to quit,” she jokes. “What keeps me going is that I really love what I do.”

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