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Architectural Salvage & Antique Building Materials

Antique architectural elements frequently have better workmanship and materials than modern reproductions -- and thus are often used as dramatic accent pieces. In addition, employing recycled building materials is a very earth-friendly activity.

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By Hadiya Strasberg

Always popular for restoration projects, architectural antiques are now just as likely to be procured for new construction. In these cases, however, special consideration must go into the selection of antique elements in order to integrate old and new seamlessly. Multiple issues -- primarily period and style but also size, weight, material, orientation and installation -- must be addressed to achieve the correct look.

Clients often prefer architectural antiques in prominent locations because the quality of the work and materials is usually superior to architectural elements manufactured today. Frequently, clients turn to the antique route after being shown samples of newly manufactured components that clearly are of inferior quality.

START EARLY. Architects, builders and interior designers should be involved with antique element selection from the very beginning of the project to facilitate the design process. When antique elements are selected early, the architect can design around the dimensions and look of the antiques. If designer and client wait until the very end to hunt for just the right antique element, the choice may be limited because all critical dimensions in the building have already been fixed. For example, the sales manager at Architectural Accents, Atlanta, GA, points out that if he sees clients at the design stage, he can offer them 30 appropriate mantels or more. But when the room has already been built, the client usually is restricted to just a few choices.

It's important that the client communicate his or her interest in incorporating architectural antiques at the outset -- even if the elements aren't yet picked out. Armed with this knowledge, the architect may be able to design with some leeway so that a number of different choices would fit in later on.

Some experts say it's better to buy elements early even if you're not 100% sure they can be used. Because architectural antiques hold their value, if there are a few items that don't get used, they can be sold back. More time and money would be spent later looking for items to fit into a structure that is already built or far along.

THE BENEFIT OF DRAWINGS. Some dealers of antiques who are accustomed to working with architects, interior designers and builders will provide dimensional drawings of antique elements so designers can make adequate allowances in the layout of the home or commercial interior. Drawings are especially useful when the design professional is not able to visit the dealer's showroom. Alternately, the client can take photos and measurements to guide the designer later.

Weight can also be an issue. For example, antique doors are taller and heavier than standard doors today. Thus framing and hardware have to anticipate the greater size and load.

TO CUT OR NOT TO CUT. Dealers differ in their attitudes towards modifying the dimensions of authentic architectural antiques. For example, if a door or mantel is too tall, some dealers offer custom services to modify the antique for its specific location. Other dealers refuse to make changes that would compromise the structural or visual integrity of the item, declaring: "Change the house before changing the antique!"

Of course, sometimes the client or builder will have an on-site carpenter make modifications to an antique piece. This can be a risky process, however, if the craftsperson doesn't have an understanding of how old things work. On-site alterations can make an antique structurally unsound or ruin the proportions.

Many dealers will prepare the antique for installation. For an antique door, for example, this prepping process might involve stripping old paint down to the wood, building a jamb, replacing the old glass with tempered glass to meet building codes, doing the hinge work and matching hardware to the door.

LONG-RANGE PURCHASING. Although many architectural antiques are purchased locally, your search does not have to be geographically restricted. A few years ago, for example, property owners in Arizona made a preliminary selection of a number of antique elements from the website of Philadelpia-based Architectural Antiques Exchange and flew to the store with their designer. At the shop, they took photos and purchased some of the items they had chosen from the website, as well as some additional items. The items were shipped immediately, and the whole process was completed in a matter of days.

DOING A WHOLE HOUSE. Sometimes a client goes whole hog with architectural antiques. Patrick Mizelle of Architectural Accents tells this story. After a new house north of Atlanta was about 75% complete, the owners realized that it was not living up to the French Country style they wanted. So they brought their dilemma to Architectural Accents. The company, which has an architect on staff, ended up restyling the entire house. They corrected the pitch of the roof and redid everything from the kitchen to the bedrooms so the home had an authentic French flavor. Architectural Accents supplied correctly proportioned windows, mantels, garage and entry doors, carved lintels above the windows, roof dormers and many other antique elements to complete the house. Rescue missions like this are rare, but they show what's possible.

Click here for a list of companies specializing in salvaged materials