Reduce, reuse, recycle - using recycled materials for your self-build project is not only environmentally sound and highly fashionable...
... it can often save money and create the kind of unique fixtures and finishes that give a house a certain wow factor.
Everything from garden gates to baths and sinks can be sourced from architectural salvage shops and reclamation yards. Bargains can often be picked up at house clearance auctions.
Salvaged items are frequently of superior quality to modern equivalents and can help achieve an instant aged or industrial look which no amount of ‘distressing’ can achieve. They are invaluable for renovation projects, especially if you need to match a damaged piece.
There is an almost endless source of both demolition and architectural salvage outlets, but it’s important to know exactly what you are buying and what to avoid – particularly if you’re considering spending a significant sum of your budget on large quantities of salvaged materials such as bricks or roof tiles.
Bricks and tiles are the most common reclaimed building materials, but usually require cleaning.
Even when they are sourced from far away, reclaimed materials are still the most environmentally friendly option for supplying materials to the building industry. Substitution of a few well-chosen, locally sourced reclaimed materials can significantly reduce the environmental impact and the embodied carbon of a project.
These savings can sometimes be achieved with little or no additional expense, making reclaimed items a cost-effective way of cutting carbon emissions. With imagination and creative design, the opportunities to incorporate reclaimed materials into building projects are limited only to your own imagination.
In fact, entire buildings have been constructed from rubbish, like BBM’s Waste House (see picture) in Brighton, where used carpet tiles clad walls that are insulated with junk, including floppy discs and toothbrushes.
Increasingly, companies are manufacturing products using recycled materials in innovative ways, such as UK Warm Floor, which sells underfloor heating made from recycled car tyres. The first ever commercial installation of PVC-U windows, manufactured from 98% recycled content, has been completed by the Epwin Group – a UK-based extruder and window fabricator – marking the beginning of a new era in PVC-U building product sustainability.
If you plan to use salvaged building materials it is essential to allow for them at an early stage in the design process because they don’t usually come in standard shapes or metric sizes.
The building often needs to be adapted to fit the salvage, rather than vice versa, and what may have been satisfactory in Victorian times might not be acceptable to Building Control or your warranty provider.
Staircases are a good example and may need to be altered to meet Building Regulations requirements for things such as the gap between treads or balusters. Most old doors won’t be exactly rectangular, so it’s important to measure all the sides carefully to check they will fit. It’s always better to buy one a little too large for the frame and then trim it to fit.
Reclamation yards can be an Aladdin’s cave for those looking for an instant period look for their homes.
Reclamation yards sell everything from period sanitaryware and chimney pots to church pews and door knobs. In the past such places offered bargains galore, but with a growing interest in architectural antiques, our national love of all things traditional, and a burgeoning awareness of just how much money such items can fetch, you may be shocked at some of the prices.
Reclamation yards stock both salvaged materials and architectural antiques, while architectural antiques yards may stock new replicas as well as cleaned-up salvage, for which you will pay a premium.
Architectural salvage (the antiques element of demolition salvage) is an evolving trade primarily concerned with interior fittings, joinery, reclaimed ironwork, glass, flooring and garden furniture.
Much of the reclamation industry is generally set up to meet the needs of homeowners and small- to medium-sized builders. To obtain large quantities of reclaimed materials for big projects can take months to build up stock. Some reclamation yards may be able to store the materials, others may not.
Traditionally, salvage yards deal in raw, recycled goods which usually need to be cleaned or repaired.
Prices are rarely displayed in reclamation yards, and it’s important to have a rough idea of an item’s value and be prepared to haggle.
Some companies specialise in particular items, and the internet is a good source of information. Materials such as reclaimed roof slates are often less expensive than new and are available from companies such as JJ Reclamation Ltd, while Reclaimed Bricks offers a free brick-matching service, ideal for those extending a period building. The Old Radiator Company will flush clean reclaimed radiators and can test and restore them using metric fittings compatible with modern pipework.
Newspapers, auctions and recycling centres or tips are also worth checking out, and eBay, Gumtree, Preloved and Facebook Marketplace are popular sources for second-hand items. Freecycle lists low-value and free items, and SalvoWeb is a comprehensive website run by the organisation Salvo, which has been providing information on antique and reclaimed materials since 1992, including demolition alerts.
With private sellers you often have no idea from where items originated and, although buying and selling salvage is protected by the Trade Descriptions Act, pursuing a refund may prove complex.
If you are aware of a building being demolished there’s no reason why you can’t approach the owner and try to negotiate a private deal. This can be an economical way to purchase large amounts of building materials like floorboards or stone.
Remember to add on the cost of arranging transport and allow time for cleaning and preparation, as well as a percentage of wastage for broken or substandard materials. It’s not a good idea to try to save money on delivery by using your own car for extremely heavy loads – the resulting hefty garage bill may be far higher than the cost of renting more suitable transport for half a day.
Cleaning old materials can be a time-consuming business and needs a degree of understanding. Stripping paint from old doors might seem a simple task, but lead paint can be potentially hazardous. Always wear suitable protective clothing and read the labels when applying paint strippers, primers, timber preservative or hydrochloric acid. And be prepared for some surprises when the paint is removed!
image: Roof trusses from a former agricultural building.
When buying period tiles make sure there are enough for the job and allow for breakages. Check for chips and cracks and that colours match. Tiles should be free from adhesive and grout, as removing this can cause damage.
Restoring and reusing original cast iron baths and sanitaryware is a popular method of adding some instant character to a bathroom, although builders often break up potentially valuable cast iron baths in situ because their weight makes them difficult to remove in one piece from buildings they are renovating.
Many companies offer a re-enamelling service, with roll-top baths ranging in price from a few hundred to several thousand pounds. Such baths are made from cast iron, so ensure your bathroom floor is reinforced to withstand the additional load and check that any sanitaryware will work with modern plumbing fittings. If not, it may be best to buy good-quality reproductions made to original casts.
Not all reclaimed building materials will be fit for purpose, and it’s important that they are assessed by a knowledgeable builder or architect who can evaluate their age and remaining lifespan to avoid expensive mistakes.
Old, single-glazed windows are unlikely to have the energy efficiency required in new homes, and convincing replicas are available.
image: A front door made from strips of reclaimed oak.
Some building companies and architects specialise in incorporating reclaimed building materials in house designs and will often undertake the legwork of sourcing materials on your behalf. Others are unhappy about the additional work involved in using irregularly shaped reclaimed materials, so it is important if you’re intending to build in this way that your builder is made aware of the fact from the outset and prices the work accordingly.
If you are using reclaimed materials for renovation work, then try to stick to traditional building methods and remember that if you use modern cement with reclaimed bricks you are effectively ending their life as they cannot easily be recycled again.
A wide range of reclaimed materials are suitable for use in the garden: brick, flagstone paths, railings and gates for boundaries and even old Belfast sinks as planters. Antique and salvaged garden statuary, such as sundials, garden seats and urns are also in plentiful supply – but take photographs of such objects and scratch your postcode on a hidden part or use an ultra-violet security pen, as thefts of garden items are rife.