Company repurposes other firms’ garbage into practical commodities

Wine, tote and other bags started out as banners for the Marin County Fair. (Image: Steffen Kuehr)

When Steffen Kuehr looks at discarded fire hoses, he envisions belts, dog leashes and drink coasters.

When he looks at vinyl event banners and all those billboards along highways, he sees totes, wine carriers and messenger bags.

Kuehr, through his Santa Rosa company TekTailor, takes other people’s garbage and repurposes it into functional items. It’s called upcycling—the transformation of waste into a product people want.

Among his most ambitious undertakings was to look at what might be done with thousands of pounds of fire hose from the 2019 Kincade Fire that burned in northern Sonoma County and the 2020 Glass Fire that ravaged parts of Napa and Sonoma counties. Once a hose has been damaged it cannot be used for another fire.

“The fire hose was not easy to work with because it’s thick and hard,” Kuehr, 46, said. “We have to create products around the characteristics of the material. With the fire hose we soak it in a tub with natural cleaning liquid, power wash it, and hang it to dry.”

Each TekTailor product has a tag explaining what the original product was. In this case the drink coasters were once hoses used to fight fires in Northern California. (Image: Steffen Kuehr)

The company had 4,700 pounds of hose from the Glass Fire and another 2,500 from the Kincade Fire. The width and pattern in the hose help determine what it will be in its next life. During the holidays the biggest seller for TekTailor was the coasters made from the fire hose. A set of six costs $20. They are still available; with more than 700 having been sold.

Recology Sonoma Marin was the waste company responsible for disposing of those fire hoses.

“Steffen opened my eyes to all the reuses instead of burying (the hoses). It has awesome markings. He has made it into floor mats, into belts, dog leashes and wallets,” General Manager Fred Stemmler said.

The primary reason Recology wanted to partner with TekTailor was to keep the hose out the landfill. A bonus was not having to pay $560 to get rid of the material.

“Our company’s focus is on zero waste even though we are a garbage company,” Stemmler added. “I wish more people were thinking like (Kuehr) and making goods with resources that we think of as trash today.”

Kuehr doesn’t pay for the material he receives from a company. He makes his money by reselling the new products via the retail store in Santa Rosa and on the company’s website, as well as selling product back to the companies which gave him the reusable goods.

He shies away from putting products in other stores because at some point they cannot be reordered. That’s the nature of a constantly changing supply chain. Is the business financially successful?

“With regards to company revenue, I’d rather leave that information out. Not big enough yet to brag about it unfortunately,” Kuehr said. Plus, he is also into philanthropy, with some of the proceeds from fire hose sales being given to a nonprofit that benefits firefighters.

Steffen Kuehr of TekTailor is alwasy looking for new material to upcycle. (Image: Joseph Kenney)

Kuehr admits what he needs to do is better tell his story and that of the products.

“Every project, every material, every banner has a cool story. That is what gets people’s attention,” he said.

To help tell that story most of the end products come with a tag showing what the original discarded item looked like and the company it came from.

For now, most of what TekTailor works on is from the North Bay. Kuehr would be willing to expand his territory if the business with the goods paid for the shipping. He also needs to know he can do something with the product and then sell it. He doesn’t want a lot of material hanging around either to be made into something or ready to be bought.

He is willing to experiment. Kuehr took a roll of artificial turf from Sonoma Raceway and didn’t ask for more. “It was so dirty there was not much we could do with it.”

TekTailor’s 12 employees have access to more than 60 industrial sewing machines in the 20,000-square-foot Sonoma County warehouse.

“We have a lot of different machines here,” Kuehr explained. “We have machines to set snaps and grommets on products. We have a heat stamping machine so we can do leather labels with embossed logos.”

Kuehr took over the company in 2010 from his in-laws.

Billboards, burlap sacks, vinyl banners, old linens and more are all products the seamstresses and tailors at TekTailor work with.

“Billboards tell part of the marketing story of a company,” Kuehr said. His background is in marketing so his creativity comes from that standpoint, not as someone who sews.

Clover has bought some of the mini-shopping bags made with its billboards as gifts for employees. The general public has access to the product via TekTailor’s website.

Burlap bags once full of coffee beans are now pillows. (Image: Steffen Kuehr)

“His stuff is a much higher quality and has unique design features to it. It is generally in line with what we paid before, but much higher quality and cooler options,” Kristel Corson, chief revenue officer with Clover Sonoma, said. “The larger billboard tote bags are incredible in durability. They are far stronger than the typical Trader Joe’s shopping bag.”

Kuehr approached the Petaluma-based dairy company a couple years ago about repurposing the vinyl material on its billboards; something Clover had not realized was a possibility. The company has eight billboards throughout the Bay Area that are changed out quarterly.

When it is held, those who attend the Marin County Fair are able to buy products made from the banners used at previous fairs.

“The messenger bags are always popular, as are the tote bags, and the wine carriers,” Libby Garrison with the fair said. “During the holiday boutique the single bottle and double bottle wine carriers were really popular. I like the clutch purse. It’s a makeup case with a zipper pocket.”

In three years the fair has kept 258 yards of vinyl fabric from going to a landfill. This is from the pole and street banners used in 2017, 2018 and 2019 fairs.

“The advantage to working with Steffen and TekTailor is he picks up banners, cleans them, and remakes them and sells them through his website. The organization gets a percentage of sales so it’s a win-win all around,” Garrison said.

Weaver’s Coffee & Tea in San Rafael has given TekTailor burlap sacks from around the world that originally had more than 100 pounds of coffee beans in them. Some bags are more colorful than others, and the burlap is not all the same.

Alvarado Street Bakery in Petaluma has provided bags from wheat berries. Bags are 4 square feet in size, as well as 4 feet high when full of product.

At the fine linen rental company La Tavola in Napa decommissioned table clothes and other linens have been upcycled by TekTailor. Once the material is stained it is taken out of circulation and then repurposed by Kuehr’s people. Mostly the linens become tote bags. Some of the tablecloths are sold as fabric in TekTailor’s store. Custom napkins were created for one customer.

“We have made one-off products. A little architecture firm had three little pull out banners that we turned into six or seven tote bags that they bought for their team,” Kuehr said.

Sonoma Raceway has been a partner with TekTailor since May 2016 when it comes to signs at the track. Vinyl banners, which are not biodegradable, are what get repurposed. The best seller from the raceway has been the 50th anniversary banner from 2019.

Steve Page, who retired last year as the raceway’s general manager and president, initiated the relationship with TekTailor.

“It dawned on me we were sending a lot of material to the landfill when we were changing out the corporate banners,” Page said. “We have huge walls that face the track; I would say dozens. Some are more than 100 feet long. They are designed for the TV viewer from a distance.

“It’s an ingenious initiative on Steffen’s part. It’s wonderful for us to know we are not dumping all of this into the landfill and there are cool products on the market.”

Page has as an iPad case and a couple wine carriers from those banners. The track has given out wine carriers filled with wine to drivers, team owners and others.

“Our goal is to work with more big businesses to turn them into more meaningful corporate gifts, to move away from the old random swag. We can turn their banners into unique products that let their story live on,” Kuehr said.

A lifetime of memories slowly finding their way to a landfill


This once-beloved childhood outfit is so inappropriate today. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

How many containers does one need that say memorabilia or keepsakes?

I’m down to two and still whittling away at what goes and what stays. Yes, it would have been more prudent to have done this before I moved it, but that didn’t happen.

I did purge quite a bit when I sold my house in Lake Tahoe three-plus years ago and put everything in storage. Unpacking I realized I regretted the thoroughness of the process. I thought I had kept my Harry Potter books. Nope. They are replaceable. My childhood teddy bear—gone. That made me sad and mad. Bad decision.

A few important headlines in the last 40-plus years that are being kept. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Why would I keep my Brownie uniform and frayed jacket from my swim team—both from elementary school age—and not my panda bears? I had two. I have a thing for pandas, which dates back to living near Washington, D.C., when they were first brought to the United States from China.

Speaking of that era, what I still have is the invitation to the 1973 inauguration of President Richard Nixon. My parents had kept their residency in South Dakota and were able to secure tickets for the six of us. I was in second grade, but still remember parts of it.

President Richard Nixon’s 1973 inaugural invite. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

I also have the newspaper from when he resigned. I have several newspapers and other publications with significant headlines. I have other publications with my byline that I can’t find online. Like when the mayor of South Lake Tahoe was arrested.

I sent an unopened Disney publication to my friend Denise. A San Francisco Examiner sports section went to Karen. I thought they’d both appreciate them more than me.

I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day examining why people keep and toss certain items.

Diaries/journals still need to be read to decide what’s worth keeping. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

My goal is to not move “crap” again or have to have someone go through it when I’m gone. I know if I put it in a bin and toss it on a shelf it will sit there. That’s why they are in an inconvenient place for me in the garage—so I’ll do something about them. And I am, but it’s a slow process.

The Brownie dress and swim jacket are landfill-bound. So is this outfit that I absolutely adored. I think I practically lived in it. My mom made it for me. It was two pieces. Purple was the dominate color. The print, oh, my, so inappropriate today. It was a panda in a rickshaw being pushed by a caricature of a Chinese man. Yes, I loved, loved, loved that outfit.

I have a stack of diaries/journals on my desk. Some I’ve gone through and tossed. A couple from travels I’ll keep. The rest will make for what I expect to be uninteresting reading one day. I’d rather go through them than leave them behind for others to discover. Of course I don’t know what’s in them anymore. I’m sure they would make for good fire starter.

The jacket is history, but the award is still in a box until its fate is decided. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

A few things I don’t know what to do with. Keep or ditch the high school diploma? Keep or ditch some awards that meant something to me in the moment but are nothing I would put on a wall today? And those letters from family, friends and exes … do I read them all to decide what to keep? I haven’t kept every correspondence, but I have a lot.

Then there are all my baby teeth. So gross. I really thought I had ditched them in Tahoe and was disgusted to see I still had them. Trying to wrack my brain why I thought this was a good idea.

Pieces of the Berlin Wall that I actually hammered off—definite keepers.

Array of buttons represent decades of memories


A mass of buttons from events and locations from throughout the world. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Nearly a lifetime of memories is pinned to a wall in my garage.

Since I was a kid I have been collecting buttons. Not the kind found on clothes, but the ones that say something. Historical, political, special events, business promotions, sports, travel and so much more are represented in this collage. Some are images, some are words, some are a combo of the two.

I haven’t counted them, but certainly they number in the hundreds if not four digits worth of these mostly round trinkets of sorts.

I don’t know how it started or where or why. It was probably when I had a knit cap for skiing. The bottom of it was adorned with pins from every resort I skied.

In high school I was part of an honor society called Senior Women. We wore a hat on meeting days. It too was covered with a variety of buttons; many with sayings on them or touting a band I liked. I thought I was such a rebel with the button: “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck.” Stiff is a record label that meant nothing to me. I still have the button.

This grew into collecting buttons from places I would travel to; something I still do.

When I first lived in Lake Tahoe in the late 1980s many of the casino workers would wear promotional buttons as part of their uniform. I coaxed several of them to part ways with them. I would unabashedly ask strangers in any setting if I could have their button. This, along with friends being on the lookout for ones, is how so many came into my possession.

Joy Rothschild mostly collected political buttons. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

My favorite ensemble of buttons from a friend came via Joy after she died. She had a felt wall hanging with an assortment of political buttons, all liberal, many with a San Francisco Bay Area connection. They hang as she had them next to my two flags full of buttons.

Looking at Joy’s buttons you definitely know her political bent—far left. Looking at mine it would be hard to know. I just want buttons.

I don’t have a favorite, though one I really like is from the Library of Congress in Washington. It represents the actual building so well; and that is one of favorite places in our nation’s capital.

One day when I have nothing better to do I may organize my buttons by category. For the most part they are haphazardly placed, though the San Francisco Giants ones are mostly together.

Unfortunately, it’s getting harder to find buttons when I’m visiting someplace new, and more expensive. But they are great souvenirs. It’s not like a T-shirt that eventually will be discarded or some other trinket that ends up in a cupboard never to be seen again.

Though, there was a time when all these buttons of mine were in a box. I decided I either needed to do something with them or at least stop accumulating more. Finally, they ended up on a California flag. That got full so I started filling up a San Francisco Giants flag. Both are hanging in my garage. While this is not a prominent place, it is something I can see every day, and, well, that really is all that matters for something like this. And I have plenty of room to keep collecting before I would need another flag.

15 cents an hour — that’s all some Californians are making

Unlike the majority of employees in California there is no minimum wage for some disabled workers.

There are those who believe this is a social injustice. Others contend rules allowing workers to make much less per hour is the only way they will ever receive a paycheck.

“Every single person who works deserves to be treated with dignity and that begins with being paid at least the legal minimum wage,” state Sen. María Elena Durazo, D-LA, said.

Typically, the work being done for less money is unskilled labor, like stuffing envelopes. Usually, the work is contracted between a nonprofit advocacy group and a client.

“The fact that it is legal to pay those with a disability less than minimum wage is disgraceful and a blatant violation of their civil rights. This is the year we end this outdated and unjust practice in California,” Durazo said.

She introduced a bill that would mandate disabled persons be paid the state minimum wage, reversing a federal law that established the practice in 1938. The bill, if it becomes law, would end the pay disparity provision in California on Jan. 1, 2025.

The bill states, “… there are over 5,000 Californians with disabilities who do work and are doing so in segregated settings, and are paid sometimes as low as 15 cents an hour for their work. This leads to continued poverty and dependence throughout their working years and once they are of retirement age. In 2019, the poverty rate of Californians with disabilities was 18.4 percent and 11 percent for Californians with no disabilities.”

To allow workers to be paid below the $14 an hour minimum wage, companies must obtain a federal 14(c) wage certificate. The U.S. Department of Labor’s website lists 1,298 employers with 14(c) certificates. More than 70 are in California.

“It’s kind of a controversial, heated topic in the disability field,” Jeremy Hogan, disabilities services program director for California Human Development in Santa Rosa, said of wage 14(c). “Admittedly it is antiquated model. It’s a huge part of what we have done in the past. The people we support actually enjoy it, their families enjoy it … to stay busy and be productive. Even if they are making very little, they are excited to receive their check. They feel like they are giving back, contributing. For them, it’s one of their few options.”

The work they do can be assembly type jobs or other repetitive work like shredding documents. The agency has a contract with the employer and pays the individuals directly.

These jobs usually make less than minimum wage. It is up to the agency to determine what their clients make.

The other popular work category is competitive wage employment, where a client works for a company and gets paid by that business just like anyone else would; with minimum wage being the starting pay. A job coach employed by the nonprofit agency is able to help the worker and employer resolve issues. These are often things those without a disability might take for granted like understanding how to request time off.

A wealth of companies in the North Bay offer this type of work—from a Safeway in Lake County, to Amy’s Kitchen and Oliver’s Market, both in Sonoma County.

Hogan’s agency is on the path to eliminate 14(c), though no set time line has been instituted to do so. He also admits not everyone is cut out to work in a competitive environment, acknowledging the state legislation could impact some people by eliminating their job because the agency will not be able to make up the salary difference in the contract work.

“For us, it’s all about the individuals we serve. That is who we should be asking about this type of stuff. They should be driving it,” Hogan said.

Dana Lewis, executive director of People Services in Lakeport, is apprehensive and angry about the proposed state law.

“What ruffles my feathers is people think we are making money as service providers on the backs of people with disabilities. That’s not true,” Lewis said. “The wage they are earning is meaningful to them. Who are we to propose that wage is not meaningful or deserveable?”

Lewis believes the one-size fits all approach to employment that the proposed bill tends to promote is not beneficial to all of her clients.

“If 14(c) went away, they would not just go into competitive employment. There is not enough work to go around,” Lewis said. “I think one of the biggest things with the bill is that it seems to be tunnel vision in the fact that everyone deserves to earn minimum wage or above without looking at the bigger picture like folks who don’t choose to do that.”

Being in a remote, rural county means the variety of jobs for anyone is more limited.Lewis is disappointed there is nothing in the legislation to provide customized employment for those with disabilities.

The Sonoma County Office of Education’s Transition Program is designed to teach independent living and vocational skills to students ages 18-22 who are receiving special education services.

The office has set a goal of getting rid of the policy allowing participants to receive less than the state minimum wage by the 2022-23 school year.

“SCOE’s Transition Program has been working for the last three years to eliminate use of the sub-minimum wage waiver because we think that’s the right thing to do for our students. However, there is a small group of students we serve who are unable to perform work,” Mandy Corbin, assistant superintendent of Special Education, said. “Currently, we are able to connect these students with opportunities where they can experience the workplace and receive sub-minimum wage compensation for their time. Once this rule change goes into effect, we will lose that flexibility for those students because they won’t be able to perform work that makes them eligible for minimum wage. We will work to provide them with work-like experience, but it won’t be the real thing or come with a paycheck, unfortunately.”

Today, there are 24 people affiliated with county education office who would be affected by the state law.

When the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 it was considered landmark civil rights legislation for worker protections. Fearful those with mental and physical disabilities would be eliminated from payrolls, section 14(c) was added to allow employers to pay these workers less than the federal minimum wage. The desire then was to help this segment of the population, not hurt them.

The state through the years has strengthened the rights of workers with disabilities. In 1969, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed legislation declaring people with developmental disabilities have the same legal rights and responsibilities guaranteed everyone else. In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill codifying the state’s Employment First Policy which called for integrated, competitive employment for workers with developmental disabilities.

In 2017, California mandated agencies with a 14(c) certificate must offer annual career counseling to clients. The state gives a presentation to workers about job possibilities and explains the competitive job concept, which is where they would work on-site at a business.

Anyone younger than 24 must discuss their options with the state Department of Rehabilitation before accepting a sub-minimum wage job to ensure they understand their rights. They, like all employees, are entitled to breaks and rules guided by federal and state labor laws.

Agencies with a 14(c) certificate have to revisit what they pay workers every six months. The goal is to increase worker productivity, which will then increase wages.

The state mandates disabled individuals be timed by the agency to determine how long it takes them to do a task compared to a non-disabled worker doing the same job. Their rate of pay is prorated accordingly.

For example, if a disabled person can stuff 10 envelopes in an hour and someone without a disability can stuff 100 in that same hour, the disabled worker might make 10 percent of the hourly wage of the other worker. The pay would be $1.40 an hour compared to $14 hour if California’s minimum wage were the base rate.

On May 3 the state Senate bill was placed on the Assembly Appropriations Committee’s suspense file. All bills in this file are heard at once after the state budget is prepared. The Legislature has until June 15 to pass the budget; with the fiscal year beginning July 1.

SB639 has already passed through the Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee, Senate Human Services Committee, and Senate Appropriations Committee.

The federal Raise the Wage Act of 2021, which is stalled in the House of Representatives, would gradually eliminate 14(c) at the federal level. Starting in 2022 it would set a $5 an hour minimum wage for disabled workers, with increases each year until 2025 when this group would make $15 an hour, the same as other workers.

One North Bay agency has already made the transition to having all of its clients make minimum wage.

“People with disabilities deserve real rages for real work” is why Becoming Independent in Santa Rosa stopped being a 14(c) certified organization in 2018, according to CEO Luana Vaetoe.

The agency has in house work programs for clients that pay at least minimum wage. Work done for outside organizations is through a contract with Becoming Independent with the nonprofit writing the checks to the workers. There are 160 people in this program.

Since the agency moved away from sub-minimum wages “we didn’t lose any of those contracts,” Vaetoe said. However, the employers did not incur the entire increase in wages.

“Those contracts were never designed to make any money. They were pursued to have activities for people. The bonus was they could make some money while doing them,” Vaetoe explained.

Aldo Quezada, chief operating officer with No. 8 Lighting in Cotati, was fine with paying a higher contract rate to Becoming Independent. The company provides Becoming Independent workers the appropriate tools to assemble non-complicated components of light fixtures at the agency’s office.

“It is still beneficial for us because they are good at what they do. They train their people really well. They do quality work and they are on time,” Quezada said.

For the manufacturing company it’s like having a second assembly line when things are busy. It means not having to hire more full time or temporary workers or paying overtime to the four full-timers who make between $18 and $25 an hour.

“They are integral to what we do,” Quezada said of the Becoming Independent workers. “There are people in our facility who have people with disabilities in their family and we want to help. I think what is important though in all of this is the fact they do good work. At the end of the day it is a business and you want to feel good, but you want good work.”

This story first ran in the North Bay Business Journal.

Lumber, appliance price inflation driving up construction costs

Building material costs, with lumber alone up by 180 percent, may not drop to pre-pandemic levels soon, even when mills return to full staffing and overseas factories fully recover, according to some suppliers and contractors.

“This price spike has caused the price of an average new single-family home to increase by more than $24,000 since April 17, 2020,” stated the National Association of Home Builders, which reported lumber spiking 180% since the spring 2020.

At Healdsburg Lumber Company, half-inch plywood off the shelf sold for $19.93 a sheet on Feb. 4, 2020, while on April 1, 2021, the price was more than triple at $60 a sheet.

“Six months ago I would have told you it will come down at any moment. Now people say there is no end in sight,” said Ryan Arata, general manager for the Sonoma County lumber yard. “You can’t just fix the supply overnight. If tomorrow COVID ended and everyone was back working 24/7, they would still only have X number of plywood plants in the U.S. and you can only work so fast. So, it’s going to take months or years to build up stock.”

New building and remodels are costing more because lumber prices continue to escalate. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Rick Wells, CEO of Marin Builders Association, said these prices may be here to stay for a while.

“They may swing and drop in small amounts, but don’t expect to see a return to pre-COVID prices. What we are going to see is a new floor,” Wells said.

The association has 565 members all over the North Bay, but primarily in Marin County; representing every kind of contractor as well as folks who do business with contractors.

Those in the construction-building-design business mostly point to the pandemic for the reason why the prices have skyrocketed and why the supply of goods is out of whack.

When the country and world started to shut down in March 2020 so did lumber mills, as did factories making appliances, and other related sectors. Like many industries, when work resumed, protocols were in place to keep employees safely distanced. A full complement of workers did not return. This meant the production lines were putting out less than they did before the pandemic.

Healdsburg Lumber said vendors used to deliver product in two days with 98 percent of the order. Now it takes four weeks, with a fill rate of 60 percent.

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted shipping times, too, with some of the material coming from overseas.

“We order garage doors when we start the foundation and they generally don’t go in until after the dry wall,” said Keith Christopherson with Christopherson Properties in Santa Rosa.

Today, it’s necessary to provide at least a 12-week lead time for ordering those same doors. A year ago it was not a problem to get them in three weeks.

Christopherson uses KitchenAid appliances, which are made in the United States. Even without an ocean liner needed for shipping, delays and price increases are the norm.

“I think the issue is with the labor force,” Christopherson said. “People are getting unemployment checks so they are not coming back to work. It’s really pushed the cost of building way up. It’s making it difficult to build houses at reasonable prices. The market has never seen anything quite like it.”

Whirlpool Corp., which makes Whirlpool, KitchenAid, Amana, Maytag, JennAir and other brands of appliances, has 15,000 employees at its nine plants in the United States.

It is taking months to get appliances for new and remodeled homes. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

“Our plants have experienced a few brief interruptions in production related to the pandemic, including component shortages, but as a whole have remained up and running throughout this challenging time,” spokesman Chad Parks said. “Implementing steps to make our plants COVID-safe can impact manufacturing lines and production rates. These adjustments, including social distancing, have impacted most manufacturers across many industries, including many of our suppliers and other appliance manufacturers.”

Victoria Reschke, category business manager with Napa-based Central Valley Lumber, believes the pandemic is the reason for the market being off kilter. With people’s work spaces now in their home, along with kids still going to school virtually, renovations are the norm as is moving because many people can work from anywhere.

“People want to move to the suburbs where they have land and more space in their home,” she said. “People want an office, a kids’ room where they don’t just sleep. In California I think that demand is here to stay.”

All those remodels and building of larger homes would stress a normal supply chain, but these are abnormal times.

“We have had trouble with refrigerators. It’s much, much worse because what happened when COVID struck is people bought a second refrigerator for the garage so that wiped out the refrigerator supply,” Linda Nave with Sandra Bird Designs Inc. in Kentfield said. “In addition, the supply chain was broken because of shipping, then factories closed down until they could operate COVID-friendly. Some refrigerators are delayed six months.”

Sandy Bird, who owns the company and has been in business for 40 years, was one of the first women to get a contractor’s licenses in Marin County. She has seen the ebbs and flows of the remodel business through the decades, with what’s happening now being off the charts.

Windows and doors are taking longer to arrive. Engineered flooring mostly comes from China and is being impacted by tariffs. Sheet rock and concrete all cost more than a year ago. Prices are easily 20 percent higher than in early 2020, Bird said.

A consequence of haphazard arrival times for goods is the lack of space to store all the inventory. Contractors are used to product arriving as it’s needed. Bird is asking clients to store goods until it can be used because she doesn’t have the space to keep it.

Another factor slowing down the process for Sandra Bird Designs is the amount of time it takes to get a building permit.

“For a bathroom remodel we did in Corte Madera it took eight to 10 weeks to get the permit when normally I would get it right at the counter,” Nave said. Municipal government offices are still operating in COVID mode, thus adding constraints to the building industry and others.

The solar industry is also hurting from escalating prices from suppliers, with copper wiring being the main commodity.

People working from home now want to remodel. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Beginning in January 2020, California mandated all new home construction come with solar.

“The copper value in January compared to now has tripled,” said Ben Goldberg of Simply Solar California. The Petaluma-based company has 90 employees who work throughout the Bay Area. “It’s the large commercial projects where it’s adding tens of thousands of dollars to a half-a-million-dollar project.”

A quote Goldberg did recently in McKinleyville in Humboldt County for a 40,000-square-foot project is $30,000 more than it would have been late last year.

For now, residential solar projects are less impacted because the square footage is not as great. Prices there might be up about $100 compared to six months ago.

Goldberg blames the pandemic for the cost increase as well as the North Bay fires over the last few years for adding to the demand in solar on new-home construction.

“First of all the lumber thing is just ridiculous. If we are able to get lumber, it is so far out in the stratosphere. It is not remotely close to anything I’ve seen,” Christopherson with Christopherson Properties said. He’s been in the home building business for 42 years, with most of the work in the greater North Bay.

On April 24, 2020, he paid $364 per thousand board feet. On Nov. 20, 2020, it was $651, on Jan. 22, 2021, $898, and on March 26, $1,096.

While he acknowledges closure of the mills starting last spring brought the supply chain to a halt, Christopherson is not convinced that is the only factor affecting lumber prices.

“It is a commodity, so I smell Wall Street buying futures,” he said. “But that is a hunch.”

Mark Labourdette, owner of Design/Build Specialists Inc. in Novato, worries that an economic bubble may be forming.

“It’s everything — stock market is out of whack, the supply chain is out of whack, tariffs are out of whack, shadow banking industry is out of whack,” he said. “It’s like everything is on a tilt at the same time. And the government is pouring trillions of dollars into the economy. My gut is (the downturn) could be as severe as 2008-09, and I’m an optimist.”

His firm that combines architectural and building services is focused mostly on remodels.

“We are doing kitchen remodels for $300,000. The days of a $75,000 kitchen remodel is now $150,000; the days of a $20,000 bathroom are now $50,000,” Labourdette said. “Not a single person is batting an eye about anything. People have been living in their home and staying in their home for the last year. They know what needs to be done.”

Christopherson gets his lumber from Central Valley Lumber, which has seven locations mostly in the North Bay. That company also expects prices to remain high.

“We are reforecasting to August for when we see prices coming down, but I don’t think it will be a huge swing — maybe a few hundred dollars per thousand,” Reschke with Central Valley Lumber said. “I think what will bring a big change is bigger than the industry. Something will happen nationwide, something in the economy.”

Arata at Healdsburg Lumber said, “It’s one thing when prices go up five, 10 bucks a thousand board-feet. But now it’s adding $50,000 to $70,000 to a house.”

Lumber prices affect more than framing for house construction. It’s roofs, decks and fencing.

“One of the things that is really hard to get is the trusses for the roofing,” said Jose Jimenez, owner Jimenez Construction in Rohnert Park. “You have to order them like six months before you start. Two or three years ago you ordered them when you started the job and it arrived right on time.”

Goldberg with Simply Solar California is also in the roofing business.

“On the roofing side the biggest thing is lumber itself has gone up, but plywood has tripled in less than six months. That is literally one of the biggest expenses for us,” he said. “We are almost installing roofs at margin. We are barely breaking even.”

A standard 1,800-square-foot home would have about a 22-square-foot roof. Today just for the plywood Goldberg would need to charge $4,200, while last fall and the end of summer it was $2,000.

The added expenses are making home projects less affordable for many.

“A homeowner who just wants to redo a fence it was $1,200 last year and now all of sudden due to lumber and even the labor aspect of it could be five or six times that price,” Arata said. “It affects the middle and lower classes much more than the higher classes.”

Note: This article first ran in the North Bay Business Journal.

Being immersed in the world of materialism


Personalizing my office with things that mean something to me. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

We live in a material world. The more space, the more we fill it with.

I understand the minimalist mentality. That less is more. I’m just not embracing that concept right now.

Sure, I could live with the kitchen table that seats two that my mom bought for an 800-plus-square-foot apartment. It looked great there. It worked there. Even though we are using it, we have a larger dining table on order, along with chairs that will belly up to the island. It will be better for the larger space we have. It will be better for entertaining.

We could also make do with her love seat. We could also put guests on a blow up mattress. Instead, we have a queen sofa-sleeper with upgraded mattress on order. The love seat will complement it, so it is staying in the house.

Yes, it’s materialism. It’s also having the comforts of home. Yes, these are wants and not needs. So be it.

I had gotten rid of a good deal of my furniture when I sold my house in Tahoe three years ago. I knew I would be getting new things when the time came. The first things I bought were a mattress and bed. Beyond sleeping, I love to read and work in bed. That is one piece of furniture I did not want to skimp on. I laid on quite a few mattresses before picking the one that is right for me. I love that the frame raises from the head and foot so I don’t have be propped up with pillows.

I can say I have a Mollenhauer in my home. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The good thing is these big purchases have been at stores in Chico. Some are chains, some are locally owned. They all employ locals, the city gets to collect the sales tax. That part of all of this buying makes me feel good. I’m helping the local economy.

We’ve also gotten rid of a few things that didn’t work in our home. Two pieces of furniture were sold through a Facebook page and the other ended up at a nonprofit.

I’ve also spent money on getting a couple items framed. This was accomplished at another local shop. I wanted quality, not something I would do myself. However, I do want to frame some photos; still need to figure out which ones.

There’s something to be said about surrounding yourself with your things. For three years I had stuff in storage. I kept a few things out that went to Mexico, but nothing substantive. I’m even regretting how well I purged in Tahoe; I wish I had a few things that just can’t be replaced. C’est la vie.

I’m still going through some boxes. How long do I hold onto my letter jacket from high school? Mom thinks I should use it next winter to work in the yard and then get rid of it when it’s worn out. What is the point of keeping clips from reporting jobs when I was in my 20s? Well, for one, it proves there has been an improvement in my writing. But they also aren’t online, so if I toss them, I can’t ever get them back. I might find a service to scan them so I have them in digital form. It’s not like I look at them, so I don’t really know if there is a reason to keep them in any form. Decisions, decisions.

I just want to be able to park the Jeep in the garage and having all this stuff that I don’t know if I want or what to do with is preventing that from happening. That’s a downside to materialism—the stuff we collect and can’t seem to part with becomes clutter. And, yet, all of this are the pieces of my life.

While I am a huge advocate for experiences instead of buying things, there is something to be said about being comfortable in your surroundings. For me, that takes being a bit materialistic. I’m OK with that–at least for now.

Finding a new place to walk while ridding the trail of trash

Kae and Cleo with a bag full of trash collected near Little Chico Creek on April 24. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

How did a half dozen plastic hangers end up on a paved bike trail? Were these the remains of a shoplifting incident? Were they going to be used for an art project and fell out of a bag? I’m still curious.

They wound up in a garbage bag with lots of other debris collected along the two-mile Little Chico Creek Bike Path.

A chair still needs to be disposed of properly. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Mom and I spent the morning of April 24 scouring this area of Chico for litter. This was the first time the city sponsored the event. We were two of more than 400 people who signed up to help. Locations throughout town had people out in force on the blustery day.

We opted for something close to our neighborhood. The bonus was being on a trail neither of us had been on and logging almost 4 miles. It wasn’t until we were more than halfway up the trail that we finally saw two others doing the same thing—making Chico a little bit cleaner. They had “team leader” shirts on.

Some of the trash volunteers found in Chico. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

We learned from them the bulk of the volunteers were in the Chapman neighborhood. These two—appeared to be a dad and son—were actually in the creek where they found a bollard that maybe belonged to the city and maybe at one time had a function on the bike trail. A little downstream they could see a ratty chalkboard they wanted to haul out.

I told the “leader” there were more things in the creek if they chose to stay in and along the water’s edge.

A tarp and chair over the edge of the trail could have belonged to a homeless person. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Unfortunately, mom and I could not collect all the waste we saw. Either it was too heavy (a chair) or too hard to get to (a sock on a branch extended over the water’s edge). Then there were some suspicious baggies filled with a maroonish colored liquid, a cardboard box and some other unknowns. We just walked on by.

We stayed away from the tarps; remnants of the homeless. Who knows what may have been under them. We weren’t in a position to haul out big stuff.

The dark green in the middle is the trail Kae and Cleo cleaned. (Image: Google Maps)

At cleanup days in other towns there had always been people at the starting location. Not true with the Chico event. That was a little disconcerting. But we persevered—going up and down the path with gloves on and our bags. We filled a kitchen size trash bag on the first leg, and about a third of one coming back. That just proves you don’t see everything the first go-round and that some things can only be seen from one direction.

The other nice thing about having an official person to check in/check out with is to tell them where the junk is that you didn’t get. That didn’t happen with this cleanup day.

I’ve also been at cleanup days where you write down everything collected. Not this time. Mostly, though, it was food wrappers we found. What is being called pandemic trash—masks, wipes—were also on the ground. Scrap metal, glass, cigarette butts, clothes—they all ended up being properly disposed of.

Wall between U.S.-Mexico an inhumane barrier started by Clinton

The border wall is imposing as one drives to the crossing in Mexicali, Mexico. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Sitting for a couple hours at the Mexico-U.S. border it’s hard not to think about the imposing wall. Having the “right” passport got me to the States without a problem. But for many others, well, that wall must conjure up so many emotions.

Do those on the south side see a wall that represents hatred or opportunity? Do they see a barrier or an invitation? Do they believe it is necessary? Are they content to be on their side? Do they even notice it?

While the United States claims to be the land of the free, we all know that isn’t true based on how we treat our own citizens. Clearly, it’s not true based on how we treat people trying to get into the country whether it’s by legal or illegal means.

The steel wall separates the two countries, with barbed wire where cars approach immigration at Mexicali. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The southern U.S. border is just more than 1,954 miles, with the Rio Grande making a natural barrier for a significant portion. California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas are the states bordering Mexico. About 1,300 miles does not have a fence. Much of the 654 miles of wall was in place before the last president took office.

While Donald Trump made the border with Mexico a campaign issue and touted the building of miles of wall while he was in office, only 47 miles of new primary fencing were erected during his presidency.

A marker at the U.S. border in Calexico, Calif. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

It was Bill Clinton who as president in 1993 mandated the initial 13-mile wall between San Diego and Tijuana be erected. (Other, less permanent structures had been built in the 1800s in various border towns by both federal governments.)

Border issues, though, didn’t make significant headlines until after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. This, despite the fact the attack had nothing to do with that border or immigrants from Mexico or any Latin American country.

In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fences Act, which was to create a 700-mile barrier between the U.S. and Mexico. Five years later, the Department of Homeland Security had blockaded 649 miles; 350 miles were pedestrian fencing and 299 miles were vehicle barriers. This came under the purview of Bush and Barack Obama.

Some areas, like what one sees at the Mexicali-Calexico (Mexico/U.S.) border towns is steel beams more than 30 feet high. At the wall in Tecate plenty of graffiti is painted, giving people pause as they wait to go north. Other locations the fencing is less imposing and restrictive.

Before the pandemic hit there were tours of the border and wall prototypes available out of San Diego.

Graffiti on a section of the wall in Tecate. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

One thing the current U.S. president did on his first day in office was to suspend further construction of the border wall.

On April 7, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said,  “We don’t believe the wall is an answer. We’ve never believed the wall is an answer to addressing the challenges, the immigration challenges at the border. That’s why we’re proposing investments in smart security at the border, why we’re driving what we see as 21st century solutions for border management, and why we believe we should build a functioning immigration system.”

Walls or barriers of any kind are not the solution to people immigrating to the United States. They are not changing why people are seeking entry into the United States. It is not dealing with the horrid conditions in the countries they are leaving. The wall merely forces people to embark on horrific and often deadly paths to cross the border. There must be a more humane way to help our fellow human beings seek a better life.

Home ownership and a new roommate

I sit here in my office looking at blank walls. Decorating will happen soon. It’s still impossible to park either vehicle in the garage. But the kitchen is done, I have a brand new bed to sleep in that has a base that can make me into a Kae taco, and the back yard beckons with its garden that is also a delight to a plethora of songbirds.

Home. I have a rather permanent one after three years of being a bit of a nomad.

Chico is about 90 minutes north of Sacramento. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

I bought a house in Chico in March. My mom is my roommate. She’s 86, a survivor of the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018.

I’ve been visiting Chico since I was in fourth grade; so a really long time. That’s when my oldest sister, Jann, started college. She and her husband, Lester, moved back years ago and raised their three kids here. Another sister, Pam, also went to Chico State University, so the trips to this town as a kid just kept happening.

This city of more than 90,000 people has always been a place I’ve enjoyed visiting. Now I get to explore the area on a deeper level—something that hasn’t happened yet with all the boxes that came out of storage.

I love that it has a real downtown, stores/restaurants that are welcoming, road and mountain biking, and that famous brewery.

When things start to open up as the pandemic allows, being in a university town will be incredible because all that it will have to offer along with the energy of college students.

For now, I’m trying to figure out who to play tennis with, how to get the word out that I’ve started an outcall massage business, and generate some more freelance work.

Living with mom is the easy the part—so far. She’s agreed to dust; I’ve agreed to clean the floors. She’s agreed to take care of the plants; I’ve agreed to cook. The cost of TV service is hers; the hot tub care/expenses are all mine.

While Tahoe is no longer my address after nearly 19 years, it will always be part of me and someplace that I will visit often. Plus, I know there are a few more books in me with Tahoe themes—and Baja. For now, I am focusing on getting settled and seeing what this part of Northern California is all about.

Saying goodbye to friends, the mountains and desert

Sharing a final sunset on the beach in Todos Santos with Laurel, Kerrie and Jill. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

I’ve never said so many goodbyes in such a short amount of time.

While one friend appropriately described my leaving Baja as driving into my future, the other part of the sentiment is that I was leaving something behind.

This third time to leave Todos Santos was definitely more permanent. I’ll be back, but not for a winter, at least not anytime soon.

Lisa, counter clockwise from left, Jill and Kerrie allowed Kathryn to be their regular fourth for three winters. (Image: Scott Bosch)

I knew this saying goodbye thing was going to be difficult when I got teary-eyed telling Tony, the guy who delivered my pesos for writing for the Gringo Gazette, that I would not be coming back. He isn’t a friend, he’s not my editor, he’s just someone who always had a smile for me. Someone who was genuinely kind. Someone I will likely never see again in my entire life. He was also my first goodbye.

Tears fill my eyes now. The computer is a blur. I need a tissue.

The sadness is mixed with so much joy. The sadness isn’t just leaving Baja, my friends and the life I created there. I’m also leaving Tahoe. How often does one move entail leaving two places? Two sets of friends? Two ways of life?

Tahoe friends Joyce and Ron are now full-timers in Cabo San Lucas. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

I’m happy about the move I made; it was my idea after all. Those details will be in another story. This is about my goodbyes, which because of my decision to move means I brought all of this on myself. The sadness is also a testament to the importance the people and places are to me.

The last 10 days in Todos Santos the social calendar suddenly became full. We all knew I wasn’t just leaving for the summer. JR told me he hoped he’d see me on a court again as he walked me to the gate. I wanted to hug him goodbye. Hugs during a pandemic, though, are frowned upon. I spent a couple hours talking to him and his wife, Geri, after we played mixed doubles that Friday. It was normal and relaxed. I know we’ll find ourselves on another tennis court somewhere in the world.

Anne and Ray didn’t know I was in escrow on a house in Northern California when we met for our final breakfast. They became friends after staying as Airbnb guests at my sister’s place in Todos Santos the previous winter. I don’t know when our paths will cross. They are travelers, so perhaps their van will make it to my driveway.

Cocktails before dinner with Scott, Gail and Marilyn in Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Knowing March was going to be chaotic I asked some of my Tahoe tennis friends who I’d been Zooming with while in Baja if we could have another session before I headed north. I didn’t know when we would all be on the same screen again, let alone see one another in person. They will be easier to rendezvous with than my Baja friends just because of proximity. Our lives are already complicated with only one of the six actually in Tahoe for the winter. Still, I needed to see them together before I embarked on my next adventure.

Dinner at Tim and Susan’s was bittersweet. For two winters I lived across the street from them. This last winter I was with friends in Todos Santos instead of at my sister’s. I was so used to seeing Tim and Susan on a regular basis. This season we gathered twice. Damn COVID. They were the best neighbors I could have asked for; and friends who will be there when I return.

Tim and Susan are the best neighbors anyone could want. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Scott and Gail are two of the genuinely nicest people I’ve ever met. Something about tennis people, I guess. Libations and the sunset sinking over the Pacific, dinner and conversation, fire pit and more talk. I couldn’t answer when I’d return.

I don’t know—it’s what I kept saying when people asked when I would be back. As long as AJ is alive, I don’t expect to fly anywhere because I no longer want to leave her with anyone. As long as my mom is alive, I can’t imagine wintering again out of the country.

A trip to Cabo was made to say farewell to Joyce and Ron. Their Bella is aging just like AJ, so not sure we’ll be seeing our respective dogs again. But the humans, we are bound to rendezvous in Baja or Tahoe.

The hardest Baja goodbye was with Jill. She and Robert, along with their dogs Rubi and Pepper, opened their casita to me for more than four months. In that time we became even better friends. A big hug goodbye. Then tears filled my eyes and words were useless.

There were so many goodbyes on the tennis court—mostly in Baja, but one last day in Tahoe, too.

Jill and Kathryn spent many hours while walking dogs and drinking wine discussing serious and not so serious topics. (Image: Robert Bland)

With Carolyn and Bob now wintering in the Palm Springs area, I was able to see them outside of a Zoom call for lunch as I drove north.

I was in Tahoe less than a week before arriving at my final destination. Rosemary and I walked through her neighborhood trying to stay in the sun and keep me off the ice; Baja made me a little soft! Joyce was wonderful in arranging a few hours of tennis in the Carson Valley. I got a little front porch catch-up time in with Denise and Steve before the cold sent us in search of warmth. Sue, well, she again welcomed me and AJ into her warm home and hot tub, poured wine and put up with my scatteredness as I prepped for my transition.

So many friends have offered a place for me to stay when I visit. And I look forward to welcoming them to my new home as well as meeting someplace to share new experiences.

While you may not have been mentioned here, all of my friends mean the world to me. All of you are as vital to me as oxygen and water.

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