Architectural Salvage Company

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 parts."

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 old home."

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 old.

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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