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Comments on the state of the Architectural Salvage Industry in Canada

By: Sven Kraumanis - owner/operator Legacy Vintage Building Materials & Antiques

The “Voyage of the Beagle” chronicled Charles Darwin’s trip to Tierra del Fuego at the southern extremity of continental South America. I have a 30 year-old recollection of a note in his diary that well-meaning missionaries who preceded his visit had not only brought salvation to the naked savages of this remote peninsula but had also clad them with woolens to protect them from the incessant rain storms indigenous to the area. As a consequence of this latter largesse the natives’ bodies did not rapidly dry between the storms resulting in rampant pneumonia and several deaths. I cannot recall what the natives had for shelters but presumably the missionaries failed to share clothesline specifications with the natives. Darwin could have admonished the missionaries with an observation that “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” However, he was apparently preoccupied with other thoughts, so bear with me and consider a parallel situation.

Twenty years ago well-meaning builders responded to our perpetual energy crisis by insulating draughty new and old buildings to the maximum thereafter cladding their exteriors with wind-proof wraps and lining their interiors with vapour-proof barriers. The result in many cases was a rotting structure providing a moldy environment for its inhabitants. In damp climates like the lower mainland of B.C. some new homes required rebuilding after four years. Proper venting and air exchange systems have now solved the problems stemming from such energy efficient construction.

I bet Darwin wishes he had coined the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” as a restatement of his notion that weakness leads to extinction, and his theory of evolution popularly summarized as the “survival of the fittest.”

What is Architectural Salvage?

For ten millennia civilizations all over the globe have re-invented shelters for themselves in the most extreme living conditions imaginable. Architectural salvage is not a new concept. In the New World settlers were known to burn down their houses when moving to better farmlands in order to reclaim the hand-made nails and hardware needed for their next project. Today, barns and basements everywhere contain stuff diverted from the dustbin “just because…” All but the most callous of demolition companies recognize and put aside remarkable building materials and items exhibiting meritorious workmanship. Every demolition project attracts onlookers and during the execution of their Kevorkian task, demolishers are frequently interrupted by passers-by or “pickers” attempting to salvage bits and pieces from the demolition sites. To be sure there have been architectural artifacts in antique stores as long as there have been antique stores. In the United States it seems that everyone who is not an antique dealer is at least a collector and architectural salvage booths and specialty stores number in the hundreds. This is especially so in Great Britain which boasts centuries of built history. There is one salvage emporium in the England’s north country that actually charges shoppers an admission fee. At the top of the food chain is the Clignancourt Market in Paris where a vast sector of the city opens every weekend as a worldwide architectural flea market. Expect to shop alongside the world’s wealthiest people when you attend.

What about Canada’s built heritage; Is there an Architectural Salvage Industry?

Heritage Canada, provincial architectural conservancies and LACAC groups, to name a few, are organizations mandated to raise Canada’s collective consciousness in connection with our built heritage. It’s only in the last thirty years that the random acts of architectural salvage outlined above have galvanized into a Canadian architectural salvage industry. What do I mean by an industry? Economic theory (read Revenue Canada) dictates that when demand and supply mate in the marketplace their offspring is an adventure in the nature of trade. Furthermore, when interdependent parties establish a course of dealing forming a vertical infrastructure capped by a merchant who retails the public, the resulting commerce is an industry. We all know of designated buildings and indeed whole villages that are preserved as museums. This effort alone does not an industry make. Likewise, demolition companies’ primary earnings flow from their demolition contracts and comprise only another component of the industry. On the other hand, an architectural salvager’s raison d’etre is the acquisition and sale of architectural artifacts. Additionally, the salvager must provide a safe harbour for these artifacts, be they building materials, building parts or entire buildings. He is not just a broker. His inventory must be resilient enough to withstand the rigors of deconstruction, the ravages of time, and the biggest enemy of all…society’s indifference.
Why did it take so long to establish an industry? The average Canadian’s indifference to our architectural heritage is understandable in the context of a culture and economy based on the concept of Progress. Our society believes that material possessions and spatial environments, if rebuilt more efficiently and inexpensively, can provide universal comfort and abundance resulting in increased happiness. We desire “a chicken in every pot”. Progress has brought us particle board, drywall, MDF, OSB, Glu-lams, laminates, vinyl, plastics, steel studs, appliqués, alloys, and composites of all types forming labour saving components of mass produced products serving the underlying theme of planned obsolescence. Many of these materials can be recycled, creating another fledgling industry, but is it any wonder that construction and demolition detritus now comprise eighty percent of landfill debris. New and improved products constantly trade economy for durability and quantity for longevity. Replacement is easier than repair. Heirlooms have become relatively scarce and their values continue to astonish people on the Antiques Road Show. Articles built with great care from enduring and base materials have become increasingly pricey since the industrial revolution. Production now owes far more to science than it does to the arts. Constantly new and improved products employ pervasive marketing and merchandising techniques to introduce a stream of updated fashion trends. Magazines covers at checkout counters compete with each other by touting lists of these trends and “ how to” articles on how to achieve them. Consider “Twenty Ways to Spruce Up Your Entry Hall”. Styles in our New World order are defined by decades such as the “20’s look” or the “60’s look”. In the Old World reference was to “periods” tied to the reign of the Royals, each usually spanning several decades (Georgian,Victorian,Louis XV). Antiquities from prehistoric times are identified by even longer time frames called Ages (Stone, Iron, Bronze). In Europe, although the concept of Progress is hardly rejected, the need for change somehow shows more respect for the past- perhaps because there is a lot more of it. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

What’s in store for Architectural Salvage?

Architectural salvagers have finally become a marginally recognized force across Canada. Although Yellow Pages have not yet dedicated column space to reclaimed artifacts salvagers can be found under the misnomers “Buildings Materials- Used” and “Antiques”. Set dressers in the movie industry and home designers in the know compile their own lists of resources. The media has picked up the theme: mainstream newspapers feature intermittent (real estate) articles touching on the novelty of salvager’s inventories; home improvement magazines pander to the latest fashions (retro, shabby chic); coffee table books depicting adaptations of flea market finds are plentiful; TV channels dedicated to professional and DIY home improvement projects occasionally trumpet their discovery of a cache of artifacts; even Big Box stores now carry antique styled plumbing and light fixtures, hardware and real wooden doors and a copy cat retail chain (Restoration Hardware) is capitalizing on the demand for trendy old-style stuff.

Appreciation for architectural salvage has only recently made the industry commercially viable in Canada. If the door for the industry’s genesis was opened by a flight from the post war-euphoria of chrome sets, wurlitzers and fast food on roller skates, a growing weariness of our “use and toss” society will push sophisticated consumers through to a refuge filled with true durables designed with classic panache. As a purveyor of artifacts and self appointed industry scribe I offer up a mission statement that has served me well.

The Architectural Salvage Industry exists:

  • To stimulate and inspire home store and set decorators,
  • To encourage and inform heritage minded environmentalists, and
  • To support and indulge artistic and cultural pursuits by providing fundamental to frivolous architectural salvage meticulously organized in its “Imagination Markets”

Continued industry growth is contingent on wider acceptance of the cost of bringing remarkable products to the marketplace. Artifacts from remote corners of the continent and all points of the globe attract international attention and cost accordingly. The internet has of course opened up an enormous marketplace. If the sophisticated Canadian consumer’s resolve weakens to the point where particleboard with a picture of wood glued to its surface presents a viable alternative to actual floorboards, furniture or fancy trims the industry’s message has failed: Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten. Darwin almost got it right - only the fittest artifacts will survive.

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