What can you do with architectural salvage?

Universal UclickDecember 27, 2013 

  • About the book

    Reclaiming Style: Using Salvaged Materials to Create an Elegant Home

    Maria Speake and Adam Hills

    Ryland, Peters & Small, 160 pages

As any creative remodeler in a big city can tell you, architectural salvage is nothing new. Even before the first-ever wrecking ball swung from the first crane, demolition contractors realized that at least some parts of the buildings they were dismantling had value left in them.

Maria Speake and Adam Hills own and operate Retrouvius, where repurposed and salvaged items are the core of a thriving architectural design business in a huge London warehouse. Much of their stock is centuries old, with a history and character no new materials can match, but that provenance doesn’t translate into salable goods unless other designers and builders can figure out how to reuse the materials and fixtures.

The sometimes elusive ability to see that potential is “the vision thing” that prompted Speake and Hills to write “Reclaiming Style: Using Salvaged Materials to Create an Elegant Home,” a book about the homes and spaces they’ve designed using salvaged or reclaimed stone, woodwork, lighting, furnishings and other materials.

Seeing real-life examples of salvage re-use, they recognize, makes the possibilities more real to others in the trade. Thanks to HGTV and various incarnations of the “shabby chic” design trend, most homeowners have seen plenty of clever tricks and techniques for using vintage or “re-purposed” items for remodeling projects. Speake and Hills take the craft to a different level.

They’re more organized and professional, for starters, but more important, they work with an eye toward honoring the legacy – both past and future – of the materials they use. Aside from the obvious virtues of environmental sustainability and the soulful nature of timeworn objects, this approach has taught them other lessons they now offer to readers.

Show some respect: “Good materials and well-made things are precious,” Speake says. “They have an intrinsic value that argues for them to be reconditioned and intelligently re-used.” This attitude underscores every use the couple finds for their inventory.

It’s not about saving money: Even when salvaged goods are cheap or “free” (and most are not), they often require a substantial investment in time and/or skill to extract, re-condition or modify for re-use. This might translate into cost savings for an ambitious DIY homeowner, but hiring the job out will likely mean paying skilled (read: well-paid) craftsmen for work that cannot be hurried.

Supply is finite: Even when big structures get salvaged and the material flow seems endless, the goods from that site eventually run out. This means purchasing what you can when you can, so you’ll be sure to have enough for your project.

We’re all just passing through: Working with centuries-old timbers and ancient stone tends to encourage the long view of life. Speake advises her clients that they should consider themselves temporary custodians or stewards of these enduring materials, not owners. When she re-uses something, she always considers the likelihood that it will be re-purposed again someday, so she restrains the impulse to cut up or modify materials too drastically.

Salvaged goods offer life lessons: The scars and wear that old materials show serve as a reminder to not sweat the small stuff of aging, to avoid the preoccupation with flawlessness that seems to inhabit some contemporary design. Like faded textiles, chipped stones or weathered wood, we all bear some evidence of our years, and we should wear it gracefully. Especially in older homes, designing with vintage materials makes renovating a process of graceful renewal rather than an ill-suited facelift.

Collectively, these lessons are just the underlying philosophy of the book, which spends most of its text and photographs highlighting homes and individual spaces that Speake and Hills have designed using items from their warehouse. Not only is it likely to inspire some unique renovations, but it teaches the value of rethinking our world and the things in it.

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