Preserving our heritage


by Jim Stinson, Proprietor of Somerset Woodworks and professor in the Heritage Trades

My grandmother was born in 1922. Understandably, her view on the world is different from that of my generation, or even previous generations. Having experienced the 1930’s as a young lady, she values and appreciates things like no one I’ve ever met. Growing up with her and visiting her turn-of-the-century farmhouse and barns instilled in me an appreciation for tradition and valuing that which we have. The advice she most ardently recites is that, “it isn’t what you earn, but what you save” that makes a difference.

Walking into a building such as the courthouse in Kemptville or the Oxford Mills Town Hall gives me the same feeling I have when I talk to my grandmother. I suppose you could say that I’m taken to another era. I could go on about the sentimental reasons for preserving old buildings, but I am neither a poet nor an author, and many readers may already share these feelings. I am a Heritage Carpenter, trained in traditional building methods and craftsmanship. Perhaps I may offer a view on the matter through a practical lens.

It is often said that “the greenest building is the one that is already built”. Many people associate this concept with material use. Why demolish and dispose of a building’s worth of materials, only to install another building’s worth of materials in its place? We can go further with this notion and look at all of the resources intrinsic to a building’s construction. Think of the labour required to quarry the stones used in the Town Hall. Consider all of the harvesting, processing and transportation that went into getting lumber to the courthouse, before the lumber could even be nailed in place. We call this concept “embodied energy” and it is often overlooked when weighing the pros and cons of building replacement. Examine every element and component of a building and imagine its journey from nature as a raw material to its destination as a finished product in the building, and you might see the case against repeating all of this work.

We must not lose sight of the big picture. Is it worth going to the trouble of recycling or developing new materials when the original material remains viable? In our scope of interest, let’s consider an original wooden window. Perhaps the greatest advantage these windows have over any other is their repairability. The wooden frame may be rotting; the sash may be loose or stuck shut; the glass might be cracked, leaking or missing; and the paint might be peeling or absent from years of sun and elemental exposure. All of these issues can be addressed with a patch, a new pane of glass, some new or reused hardware or a fresh treatment of paint.

I think it would be appropriate to employ some of today’s products in the restoration of these beautiful, traditional windows. Low-emission, sealed thermal glazing units can be used in place of the original single panes of glass to improve energy retention.

Weatherstripping can be installed or upgraded to minimize air leakage. Lead-free, low-VOC paint can be applied to protect the original wood. All of this work can be done without compromising the traditional aesthetic of the original window, which is the only window that will look appropriate in its setting in the building.

A misconception exists that wood is an inferior building product. We have been made to believe that synthetic materials will outlive wooden components, and I believe that this notion exists for two main reasons. Firstly, the wood we work with today is not the same as the wood our carpenter forefathers used. It may be the same species, the same cut, and harvested from the same region, but it is “new growth” wood. When settlers arrived hundreds of years ago, they were presented with virgin forests, filled with trees that had been allowed to grow at their own pace for centuries. These growing conditions resulted in a wood that is inherently superior at a cellular level to the wood that grows today. Today’s trees have been mass-planted to replenish the virgin forests we destroyed and have been conditioned to grow much quicker than their predecessors. The result is that the wood we use today is not as strong, straight, stable or resistant to rot and insects as old-growth wood.

Secondly, wood is a superior material to synthetics because it can –and should – be maintained. I understand that the notion of maintenance-free living has been promoted and seems like a good idea. The reality of this situation is that maintenance is a valuable necessity. What thing in life do any of us use as frequently as a building that does not require some degree of maintenance? We mow our lawns, change the oil in our cars, and clean our homes, dishes and clothes. We may not enjoy all aspects of regular maintenance, but we do so with the understanding that it is necessary to prolong the life of the things we consider valuable. This longevity is thanks to the buildings’ original designs, which counted on future generations taking care of them. No building can be expected to last forever autonomously.

I applaud those who make efforts to preserve heritage buildings. Through the respectful use of modern materials and techniques in conjunction with appropriate utilization of existing structure and finishes, buildings such as the Oxford Mills Town Hall and Kemptville’s courthouse can be effectively preserved and adaptively re-used to suit the needs of today. There are numerous arguments to be made for saving these buildings, from sentimental to social, from environmental to economic, but perhaps the most basic argument is that these buildings have already been built and paid for. At a point in North Grenville’s history, the decision was made to dedicate public funds to the erection of these sites. I hardly think today’s residents would take kindly to future generations demolishing anything we build today. Who are we to throw away the efforts and funds of earlier generations?

What are we trying to create? Would we rather live in a society of quality, long-lasting establishment, or a cycle of demolition and rebuilding, with wasted time, money and effort at every round? I don’t know when a cycle such as the latter would end, but I do know that we have an opportunity now to establish the mentality of the former.

I urge people to think carefully before removing any piece of built heritage. After all, to paraphrase my grandmother, it isn’t what we build, but what we save.


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