Reclaimed, Restored, Repurposed
Eco Relics brings fresh vision and new life to salvaged materials
In 2014, a shared love of authentically restoring old houses led Michael and Annie Murphy to found Eco Relics in Jacksonville, Florida. The company offers a vast number of services, including “deconstruction-light”—strip-out services—and the sale and refurbishment of reclaimed building materials.
“The idea stemmed from our desire to prevent usable construction supplies from entering landfills, while simultaneously preserving as many architectural relics as possible,” Michael says. “I have had numerous businesses throughout my life. This one is a mixture of everything that I love, including woodworking, antiques, refurbishing houses and recycling and reuse.”
“My background is totally different,” Annie says. “I came from the software industry. I was traveling all the time. It was getting to be too much, so that also led us to start Eco Relics.”
Once Annie and Michael decided to put their green ethos into action, they purchased and repurposed a historic brick freight depot to house their new business. It took them a year to renovate this 50,000-square-foot structure. In addition, they now have 100,000 square feet of space in other warehouses where they can store materials.
“The depot was built in 1927, so it wasn’t air-conditioned,” Annie says. “We put in giant fans to move air during the summer. We used salvaged materials and chose energy-efficient options wherever possible.”
They also distinguished Eco Relics from other salvage companies by opening a retail store. “When we go in, we take things out in such a way that what we salvage is worth something—it can be sold in our store and reused,” Annie explains. “For example, we deconstructed a gym floor at a local high school. It was painstaking work, but the maple wood is beautiful. We stored the reclaimed wood in our warehouse and about half of it sold right away.”
Building a Sustainable Network
So, what happens to things that the company can’t store and sell? Since Michael and Annie strive to reduce the amount of waste flowing to overburdened landfills, they pass some items on to others.
“We work with organizations such as HabiJax, the local branch of Habitat for Humanity,” Annie says. “If we can’t take something, but HabiJax can use it, we’ll give it to them at no cost. We also feed things to businesses like Urban Mining, a local company that accepts electronics and recycles the metal.”
Eco Relics has also developed symbiotic relationships with local contractors. Its crews pick up and reuse materials from job sites that would otherwise be thrown into dumpsters, saving contractors cleanup and disposal costs.
“Some contractors know what we like and that we will pay for what they bring us, too,” Annie says. “We have good relationships with the city of Jacksonville and local tree services. We have an 86-inch, horizontal bandsaw sawmill so we can saw trees into slabs that we then use for different projects.”
Over the past five years, Eco Relics has become the largest architectural salvage company in the southeastern United States, with 20 employees. As the company became known for salvage, an interesting array of historic and vintage items began to flow its way. So many, in fact, that Eco Relics is now one of the largest antique stores in Jacksonville, with the ability to reach customers around the globe via its online eBay Store.
“Usually, when people hear ‘architectural salvage,’ they think about something that is 200 years old,” Annie says. “While we love seeing those old artifacts and we will take them from a site, we aren’t averse to taking a 1970s avocado-green bathroom set.” In fact, she adds, “We sold that set to a guy who drove up from Orlando because it was exactly what his wife wanted.”
Setting up Shop
In the same way it was natural for Eco Relics to add antiques and vintage items to its inventory, the need for a wood shop grew organically from customers asking one employee, in particular, to build custom furniture from wood they were purchasing.
“Billy Leeka, who was working in the warehouse, also happened to be a woodworker,” Annie says. “He kept getting requests to make primitive farm tables. Our need for a wood shop grew out of that. While we still build the farm tables, the work has elevated itself as our woodworkers have come into their own.”
Billy, who is now the wood shop manager, recalls one of the many custom projects he has completed. “I had a customer from a construction company come in needing a conference table…a 23 ½-foot live-edge wood table with a steel base,” he says. Billy also had to figure out how to move this huge piece of furniture into a room on the 22nd floor of a building: “The best way I could do it was to make three five-foot-by-eight-foot pieces and put it together on-site.”
Annie jokes that she often refers to her employees as “art advisers and project therapists” because customers are constantly asking questions, proposing ideas and seeking their advice.
The staff at Eco Relics is happy to oblige.
“One of the beauties of my employees is that every single one of them wants to be here,” Annie says, “If you polled them, I think they would all say they like coming to work—in part because they never know what is going to happen. They may open a box and find something really cool from the 1800s.”
Michael agrees. “Every day is like an Easter egg hunt,” he says. “I am always looking for that weird piece that I have never seen—something that will excite our customers and keep them coming back for more. Our highly creative team of woodworkers loves nothing more than tackling unusual projects. For instance, we just did the complete set for Tim Tebow’s wedding engagement photo shoot. I could not ask for a better group of dedicated employees.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Working at Eco Relics is like no other job I’ve ever had,” Billy says. “I could go anywhere in town and build boxes and typical cabinetry…but there is no place in town where I can go and build the eclectic pieces that I build here. The people that I work for and with are some of the best that I’ve come across.”
Tiny House, Big Vision
To date, one of the most ambitious community outreach efforts Eco Relics has undertaken is to envision and help construct “LEEDing Tiny”—a LEED Platinum-certified, 198-square-foot tiny house built atop an 18-foot trailer. Homes that are part of the tiny house movement are typically less than 400 square feet in size.
According to Annie, LEEDing Tiny is the first LEED-certified tiny house in the world. She proposed this project during her first meeting as a new member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Florida’s board of directors. “I said I wanted to do a tiny house project to demonstrate how beautiful reclaimed materials are,” she says. “We provided almost all the interior materials. We hit an 89 percent reclaimed marker inside.”
Sarah Boren, director of market transformation and development for USGBC Florida, says it took “tremendous teamwork” to accomplish these goals. “With LEED v4, the size adjuster and all the materials points, we reached a high gold point total,” she explains. “It was the location and linkages to many community resources and existing infrastructure that led to us achieving platinum-level certification and being the highest-scoring Single Family Housing (SFH) LEED for Homes project certified under LEED v4, to date.”
From there, the team’s vision expanded to include creating a tiny house veterans village where once-homeless vets could build their own homes, then use the skills they acquired to build tiny houses for others. According to Annie, it took her and Sarah a year to find a partner for the veterans village. “A chance meeting with Michelle Paul, a member of the Clara White Mission’s board of directors, started our partnership,” she says.
Michelle still marvels as she recalls that meeting. “I had bought a new home and wanted to find some really cool doors for the pantry I was planning to build. Eco Relics has aisles and aisles of old doors.”
In the midst of her search, Michelle heard the friend who was shopping with her exclaim. “She had found these old doors that looked like they’d been through a war,” Michelle says. “They were the original doors to Brewster Hospital, the first African-American Hospital in the country. So, these doors were part of history—and they had the exact measurements of the doors I needed, which were an odd size! When I talked to Billy in the wood shop, he estimated it would cost about $4,000 to restore and refinish them. So, I asked who I should talk to if I wanted to get the doors for a little bit cheaper. He said: ‘Annie.’ I told her what I was doing…and that I didn’t know if I would use the doors or donate them to the Clara White Mission. I explained that I’m on the board there and Eartha White, who was the daughter of Clara, was instrumental in starting Brewster Hospital.”
This prompted Annie to ask if the Mission did anything for veterans. “I told her we’d just renovated a building to create apartments and a clinic for homeless veterans,” Michelle continues. “Annie’s eyes lit up and she said: ‘You’re here for a reason. I have this vision for building tiny houses for veterans and don’t know what to do next.’”
On her way home, Michelle says she called Ju’Coby Pittman, the CEO and President of the Clara White Mission, to tell her this story. A week later, Annie, Michelle, Ju’Coby and Sarah met to brainstorm. Since then, the core committee has been meeting regularly to develop plans, work on infrastructure costs, establish a budget and build a base of volunteers and support for the project.
The curiosity, delight in discovery and the spirit of bricolage—the desire to create something from whatever is available—aren’t limited to those who work for and with Eco Relics. These characteristics describe the company’s customers, too.
“People have told me we should charge admission,” Annie says lightheartedly. “The average, first-time visitor usually spends two and a half to three hours shopping. We want customers to have fun.”
Michelle knows what that feels like. “I literally could go there on a Friday and not come out until Monday,” she says. “It’s just amazing.”
“As they say, ‘Do what you love and the money will follow,’ “ Michael adds. “I am still waiting for the money to follow, but we have been in business five years and have no intention of doing anything else.”