20th Century Design

Green Goes Upscale: The Art of Upcycling

By Iyna Bort Caruso

I n India, a patchwork of salvaged wooden doors forms a home’s facade. Cabins in Sweden use old greenhouse glass as part of their construction. And in small-town America, the walls of a family home consist of corrugated-metal grain silos.  

These luxury residences are shining examples of upcycling – using reclaimed materials in smart ways to optimise daily life from a personal, ecological and aesthetic perspective.  

Popularised by green design pioneer William McDonough and environmental thinker Michael Braungart in their breakthrough 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, upcycling has made countless converts. “Upcycling makes your life better and healthier, and it makes the world healthier and more beautiful,” says McDonough, the principal of architectural firm William McDonough + Partners in Charlottesville, Virginia. “The juxtaposition of old and new  can be as intellectually stimulating as a work of art,” he adds, and in different settings, repurposed materials gain new meaning and value. 

The concept guided the creation of a 5,000-square-foot retreat on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, where floorboards come from a 125-year-old barn, and beams and fireplace mantels are made from salvaged wood. “Anything rustic and reclaimed goes beautifully in this setting,” notes Debbie Elliott-Sexton of Alliance Sotheby’s International Realty in Knoxville. Adds listing agent Jenny Snodgrass, “It gives a new home character and patina that normally take years to develop.” 

Upcycling can also create an enduring legacy. It’s “the idea of designing for future generations while designing for this one,” McDonough explains; “Making your world better for your children and for your grandchildren.”


Ontario, Canada

Meticulously crafted by Irish settlers in the mid-19th century, Stonecroft has been responsibly restored using a unique fusion of new and reimagined materials. Original stone exterior walls have been turned into magnificent interior walls that showcase the intricacy of the 150-year-old masonry. Throughout the home are hand-hewn Douglas fir beams that were salvaged from a 100-year-old barn.

$5,999,900 CAD | Property ID: 85EZW2
Sotheby’s International Realty Canada
Janice Williams +1 877 960 9995


Townsend, Tennessee

This private mountain home is located in a gated community on more than eleven acres in the Great Smoky Mountains. It offers stunning, unobstructed 360-degree mountain views. The interior features board-and-batten, tongue-and-groove and large-log walls made from the original log cabin around which the home was built.
The wide-plank wood floors were repurposed from a 125-year-old barn, and chestnut beams run throughout the rafters.

$1,899,000 | Property ID: JM4TWX
Alliance Sotheby’s International Realty
Jenny Snodgrass +1 865 256 2726


Rye, New Hampshire

The Elijah Locke House, an aristocratic Colonial home built circa 1739, is now part of the National Register of Historic Places. In 2002, the property was restored and renovated by architect Reed Stewart to include a modern, two-bedroom carriage house. The addition harmonises with the original home’sauthentic charm and includes a renovated foyer and kitchen that incorporate beams from the historic house.

$1,095,000 | Property ID: K25FZ6
Anne Erwin Sotheby’s International Realty
+1 207 363 6640


Kirkland, Washington

Built on land that was once home to a 1918 farmhouse and tulip farm, Juanita Farmhouse Cottages is the first Five-Star Built Green™ Community in Kirkland. This boutique development of eight single-family homes features original farmhouse pieces that have been refurbished and placed in each cottage. Repurposed items include a front door, a porch swing, a claw-foot tub and a weathervane, as well as shutters and banisters.

In addition, wood from trees that had to be taken down to accommodate the residences were incorporated into each home.

$937,000 | Property ID: 4Y4WDM
Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty
Val Burmester +1 425 652 2335
Kemper Dougan +1 425 246 1155


Barcelona, Spain

A jewel of modern Barcelona architecture conceived by Jeroni Granell i Manresa, Villa Paula stands out majestically against Barcelona’s skyline.
After the delicate process of restoration, including new, sophisticated interior design and upgraded amenities, the residence has been returned to its early-20th-century splendour. Behind the facade covered in classic modernist mosaic are four floors where restored hydraulic tiles, original French windows, wrought-iron details and carpentry have all been preserved.

€7,900,000 | Property ID: ELM7LP
Barcelona & Costa Brava Sotheby’s International Realty
Christoph Toelle +34 93 467 58 10


New York-based writer Iyna Bort Caruso has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others.




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