There's a lot of valuable and useful stuff in old houses and buildings.
So when they're scheduled for demolition, architectural salvagers remove anything
that can be reused. This is also the case when someone renovates their house
-- there's a lot of stuff that's still useful and valuable to other homeowners.
"What we do is get the salvage rights to properties that are scheduled
for demolition, or dilapidated or even fire properties," says Matt White.
He's the owner of an architectural salvage company in New Jersey. "We purchase
the salvage rights and just go in and dismantle the property and resell the
The buyers of those items include homeowners, restaurant owners and architects.
"It's all about recycling in one fashion or another," says White.
People who own old houses often don't want to put modern stuff into their
house. It doesn't look right. And some owners of modern houses like the look
of older sinks, tubs, doors, locks and so on.
"People, when they're restoring an old home, don't like to put new things
into it," says Roy Clifford. "The new things just don't seem to fit into an
Clifford has been in the architectural salvage business for nearly 20 years.
He owns a salvage business. Clifford got into architectural salvage after
working as a renovator, restoring old homes. That led to a job working for
an architectural salvage company.
"We have a lot of people rebuilding houses and things like that who come
to us, and we've got a lot of people who are building new and adding the old
stuff in," says Clifford. "That's the trend these days."
Architectural salvage companies are mostly found in older cities. This
makes sense, since they get most of their inventory from older houses in the
community. For example, Alison Philbey is the manager of a renovation company's
retail store in an old city. Most houses there are between 50 and 200 years
Philbey's company sees a wide range of customers. "It can be anywhere from
people actually requiring specific goods for remodeling a house, or adding
an addition to a home they want to keep in period," says Philbey.
"There are customers that like adding architectural salvage -- something
old to new construction," says Philbey. "There are customers that like pieces
made from architectural salvage, so they're not necessarily looking to dress
the home or redo their house, they're just looking for something to put on
the mantle or put in the corner."
Philbey says architectural salvage probably isn't a path to riches. But
it's a very interesting and rewarding type of work.
"It's very satisfying," says Philbey. "It's always different -- you never
know what you're going to see, every building is different than the next building.
"We're certainly saving things from the landfill, we are certainly trying
to promote that kind of lifestyle," Philbey adds. "It is a labor of love,
a lot of times."
Philbey spends a lot of time educating customers. "It is hard to explain
to a customer that using salvaged materials might be environmentally friendly,
but it's not necessarily cheaper."
For example, let's say a customer is looking for reclaimed flooring. "By
the time you tear it up and you de-nail it and transport it to the retail
store and bundle it into nice little bundles, and you take it out to their
car and they take it home and then they lay it and they have to re-sand it
and re-finish it, it probably would be a lot cheaper to go buy some sort of
laminate floor," says Philbey. "But it wouldn't match what they may have as
existing flooring, and old flooring has boards that are usually four to 12
feet long, a rarity in newer flooring," says Philbey.
Demand for various kinds of items goes up and down over time.
"That kind of goes by trend," says White. "Right now post-industrial items
are in demand -- anything to do with old factories. What's also in demand...
is old farm sinks, good doors, stained glass."
Some salvage companies don't just sell stuff -- they might rent it too.
For example, a sideline business for Clifford is renting props for television
and movie sets.
"They come to us mostly for hardware, to begin with, and then we rent them
just about anything else," says Clifford. "They always want their sets to
be authentic, so they come to us for the vintage hardware, and then we rent
them... all sorts of different things."
Salvage companies benefit from the green movement. People feel good about
using stuff that might otherwise end up in a landfill.
"I'd say people are becoming more aware, more green, so it is helping our
industry," says Clifford.
"The recycling industry as a whole is still in its infancy, and it's just
going to get bigger and bigger and bigger," says White.
Charities offer competition to architectural salvage companies. A big one
is Habitat for Humanity, which collects and sells architectural salvage items
in their ReStores.
Young people wanting to start their own architectural salvage company should
get some construction experience. Learning how to put things together is the
best way to learn how to take them apart. You can also try to get on the "call
list" for a salvage company. When jobs come up, you'll be part of a crew that
goes in and salvages everything of value.
Salvage companies tend to have few full-time employees. This is because
workflow is unpredictable. For this reason they tend to hire salvage crews
on an "as needed" basis.
"I could not get a call to have a house salvaged in a month, and then I
could have three in a week," says Philbey. "It's hard to hire full-time employees
just for salvaging because it's truly job-by-job based.
"We have a combination (of full- and part-time employees)," Philbey adds.
"We have full-time employees that do salvaging for us [and] I have a number
of people that may only work one afternoon a week on a variety of projects,
but if there was a salvage job that was three days straight, I could have
them for three days straight."
Those salvage crewmembers need some skills.
"You can't hire a person off the street to salvage," says Philbey. "It's
a real talent. It's almost like having to put something together backwards,
so you have to understand the principles of construction... You have to understand
how to take apart a slate mantelpiece from a fireplace without destroying
it, you have to understand the best way to remove doors or windows or trim.
Flooring doesn't come up with a crowbar -- so there are a lot of different
tools that my staff use to get things out."
Philbey offers this advice for young people wanting to get into the salvage
business: "The best thing they could do is apprentice with a crew," she says.
"They'd start at the bottom, so they'd do a lot of carrying, but you can't
help but learn if you go on a salvage job. The nice thing about salvage jobs
is usually they're pretty all-encompassing, so you'd see doors coming off
and mantels and trim and fireplaces, and so it's not just one thing. You'd
get pretty good after a few houses."
Salvage crewmembers are paid by the hour. "It could be anywhere from $11.50
for just a general laborer up to $20," says Philbey. "It's probably no different
than being in construction."
Earnings for owners of architectural salvage companies, like with all types
of businesses, vary and fluctuate widely. But architectural salvage companies
have a big advantage over most other businesses -- a slower economy can actually
be a good thing in this industry.
"We've always been an industry that does well during a recession because
instead of going on holidays people work on their homes -- they invest in
their biggest investment and stay home and work on it," says Clifford. "So
we see an increase in sales when it gets slower in the [economy]."
The easy part of running a salvage company is selling the items in your
retail space. The hard part is getting those items.
"It's hard, it's precise, it takes some skill level to do it -- you can't
just send anybody out with a crowbar," says Philbey. "A lot of it's very heavy.
Doors are about the lightest thing we get -- there are a lot of things like
cast iron bathtubs, and radiators.
"You have to not only be talented but also have some muscle behind you,"
Philbey adds. "It's often long hours because they don't usually allow salvage
companies oodles of time to salvage from their property. They're sitting there
with a wrecking ball waiting or a construction crew waiting, so ... it's not
an easy job to be a salvager. But it is a rewarding one!"
It might not be easy, but if you've got a strong back, a knack for taking
things apart, and the desire for a recession-proof career, you just might
feel at home in architectural salvage.
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