For as long as humans have been quarrying stone and felling trees for construction they have understood the cost effectiveness of re-using stone and wood. From prehistory reclaiming building materials has occurred on a frequent basis from the basic level of monoliths used as gate posts by farmers to roman columns incorporated into prestigious gentrified and religious houses such those to be found in the crypt of Canterbury cathedral moved there from Reculver, Herne Bay, Kent in 1809.
There are a few notable occasions in history that have provided a glut of building materials, notably the dissolution in 1538. One of the projects we worked on is Abbeygate in Evesham, Worcs which was originally built in the early 1300’s as the gate house and a storage barn attached to Evesham Monastery. The Monastery was lost to raise revenue for Henry VIII treasury, sold to favoured gentry. In the early 1700’s the buildings were converted to form a grand town house with associated outbuildings. The changing use and fickle nature of fashions meant that when permission was finally granted in 2007 to restore the listed monument we were charged with sourcing four different roof tile types. We also had to match a stone that was only quarried in England from two seams, the local blue lias seam was commercially exhausted a generation ago. And finding a consistent batch of rare 2” tudor bricks to match the existing and gaining approval from not only the local conservation officer but also from English Heritage. Products spanning a 700 year timeline.
A century ago the confidence, ambition and ability to reclaim locally went as far as moving an entire timber framed barn from Offenham, Worcs some 10 miles to Stanton to become a private house. This was done using original horsepower and grit.
But this all happened for Economic or perhaps altruistic reasons for they were long before any mention of global warming, and this is still the main reason for reclaiming today. So in today’s greener and perhaps warmer climate it is worth setting out our eco-stall.
Reclaiming is a local thing; our long construction history has resulted in the majority of period homes being constructed in locally available raw materials. Our town centre’s may provide a homogenous shopping experience but look up and around to see the rich variety of construction materials and methods. It is this that now identifies our towns, cities and villages almost as surely as fingerprints. From our local honey on toast Cotswold stone to the dark, brooding sou’wester slate hats worn by Welsh cottages to the warm tactile terracotta clay tiles of the West Midlands. These materials are used and re-used mainly in the geographic location of their extraction or manufacture. This is rightly encouraged by conservation officers and planners because as Lutyns famously re-established it is this that roots a man-made structure into the surrounding landscape and makes it visually seamless. Using the wrong materials, natural or not jars and creates conflict in all but the most urban of environments. So the Carbon footprint associated with using reclaimed materials is low, lower still when you add in that when it was extracted or originally manufactured we were a man or horse powered economy rather than a petroleum powered.
As any dedicated reclaimer will know some of the best finds are discovered on skips. Many thousands of tones of ‘waste’ are rescued from bonfires and landfill sites every year.
We have an oak front door in our yard that is about to go to its third home, having already welcomed visitors to a local home for a generation and before that been a pub front door. How many modern doors will have this longevity? The materials to make solid wooden doors are available today but the skills required by a carpenter and blacksmith are not as readily available or affordable as two hundred years ago. Which I think is an integral part of reclaiming, we are not just saving bricks or tiles in doing so we are also saving the skills to use them.
We are surrounded by Cotswold stone and many local projects will be to extend stone houses. Brick layers are readily available and will provide competitive quotes for stone work, but an experienced stone layer will only hold a stone once before it has found its home and will efficiently work with all the stone with little or no waste. The economy is provided in the work and a false economy lies in the quote.
Much of what we do is not only re- using but also re-cycling. Many things in yards have finished their useful previous life and now with a fresh pair of eyes and a bit of imagination. Galvanized roof water tanks become excellent planters or water features or rainwater butts, old railway sleepers become retaining walls for raised beds, steps to informal areas of the garden or benches, cracked Belfast sinks make exciting and safe wildlife ponds or alpine gardens.
Many yards also so dislike the idea of wasting that ask nicely and they will point you in the direction of a pile of broken roof slate that is perfect for topping pots or a pile of broken tiles and brick which is an excellent hardcore base for a patio or path. But we are not perfect, many of us would like to improve on some things, the biggest bug bear I have is using cling film to wrap materials on pallets, if I could just find a biodegradable alternative I will be a very happy ( and a bit greener!) reclaimer.