Industry sector: Retail and wholesale

Architectural salvage: Sector trends


There was once a time when every other builder's skip seemed to be filled with potentially reclaimable salvage - no-one wanted it. Bit by bit though people became aware that, instead of throwing all the old things out when a building is renovated, it's often possible to save money by reclaiming some of the fixtures, fittings and even materials. The old items are often better made - and more attractive - than their modern counterparts too.

The last decade or so has seen interest in architectural salvage increase hugely. Popular television programmes like Changing Rooms, The Reclaimers and Salvage Hunters opened people's eyes to the wealth of interesting architectural heritage available in yards throughout the country - often just for a few pounds. People have also become more interested in preserving and restoring the original features of period homes and buildings, often going to considerable expense to source appropriate fixtures and materials. Now almost every home owner seems to be out hunting for that elusive bargain, and architectural salvage has grown into a billion pound industry. Of course, while this increase in demand has benefited the industry, it also has a down-side - good quality architectural salvage is now harder for dealers to come by and more costly too.

As demand for salvage increased, some dealers moved upmarket and exchanged their old, rather disorganised yards for smarter premises with showroom facilities.

Unfortunately, as the industry's grown up it has attracted some cowboys and a few downright dishonest individuals. Criminals have woken up to the value of reclaimed salvage and turned their attention to high value items that are easy to steal. Some salvage dealers have unwittingly ended up buying stolen goods, while others have been accused of turning a blind eye to their dodgy provenance.

To protect the customer and the honest dealer, the trade organisation Salvo drew up a voluntary code for architectural salvage dealers. The code covers things like checking a seller's identity and never knowingly buying stolen items. There's also a register of stolen items available so that dealers can check up on whether an item is known to have been stolen. The mid 2000s saw the introduction of new legislation aimed specifically at preventing people from dealing dishonestly in 'tainted' goods like architectural salvage.

Although buying and selling old salvaged building materials is a fairly low-tech and traditional business, it hasn't been unaffected by important changes like the huge rise of ecommerce. Many people now search online for the things they want to buy and use the web to locate specific items of interest - sometimes internationally. So it has become common for dealers to advertise and sell stock online using their own websites, online classifieds, or eBay.

The economy took a sharp downturn at the end of the 2000s and remained very shaky during the early 2010s. People were forced to cut right back on their spending - and unfortunately non-essentials like decorative artefacts were among the first things that people cut back on. A very weak housing market during this period also hit spending on interior and exterior decor and renovations. Dealers who could get hold of the right items and sell them on at the right price generally managed to find a ready market for good quality salvaged goods, but conditions were nevertheless tough for many. Things did start to improve though during 2013, and by the end of the year it seemed that the housing market was really starting to recover at last. 2014 was a much better year for the housing market and for the economy in general. House prices continued to rise and they increased by more than 6 per cent in 2015. Unfortunately the economy began to weaken in 2016 and remained lacklustre during 2017. The housing market took a downturn too and most economic commentators consider that both the economy and the property market will see only very modest growth over the next couple of years. This may mean there's less demand for architectural salvage businesses.

Keeping up with developments

It's important to keep an eye on trends in home improvement and landscaping. Home improvement programmes and magazines have led to people (particularly younger people) wanting more minimalist décor and modern furniture. Designs will often, however, feature period items within a modern setting, such as cast iron radiators or an antique bath with a period tap set.

Landscape gardening programmes and magazines can also be very influential in setting trends. Use of things like old paving slabs to construct a terrace, Victorian edging stones, ornamental wells, and other garden ornaments can lead to an increased demand for these items.

The trade organisation Salvo has a huge amount of information and news on its website, including current news items, a forum and information about upcoming fairs and demolitions. Some of the content is available to everyone and other information is only available to members.

Going out and about to salvage fairs and industry events is an excellent way of meeting other members of the trade and finding out what's happening around the country. The Salvo website has an events calendar on it. Trade and professional periodicals like Architects' Journal (AJ) can be useful for keeping up to date with things too. The Exhibitions website includes details of trade shows that may be of interest to you.