Dave Chalmers points out a piece of timber lattice work taken from an old building in Calgary and draws attention to the nails attached to it.
They’re square, he says, smiling. That means they are handmade – and confirms that this piece of decorative woodwork dates back to about 1885, before the railway came to Calgary, bringing with it a ready supply of mass-produced round nails, the kind with which we are familiar today.
The lattice work itself would have been hand cut, not machine cut and speaks to the craftsmanship used to create this decoration. Mr. Chalmers, owner of Chalmers Heritage Conservation Ltd., also shows off old windows being lovingly and accurately restored.
His passion for preserving these old pieces, along with the skills needed to restore and rebuild heritage homes, is clear. “It’s always a treat to work with original materials, with older material, with wood.”
He established his conservation company about five years ago and it has now grown to a workforce of 16. About 80 per cent of their work is commercial and the rest is residential.
This day in his 5,500-square-foot Calgary workshop is not the best day for people who preserve historic buildings. The international news has been focused on the flames engulfing the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, which had been undergoing renovations.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking. … First and foremost, someone has lost their church. Secondly, you’ve also lost a real asset to Paris. You’ve lost an asset to the French people,” he says. He predicts it will be tough to rebuild the medieval cathedral.
Saving historic buildings, homes as well as larger structures, is important for communities, he says, even somewhere as seemingly new as Calgary.
“I think we always need to have a reminder of where we came from. This city wasn’t just dropped off of a spaceship one day. It [conservation] tells a story of the people that settled here and, whether that story was good or bad, it tells a story of our history and maybe provides some direction to the future,” he says.
Despite his love of things from the past, Mr. Chalmers also has one foot rooted firmly in the present. Restoring old homes often means using the latest technology.
As excited as he is about handmade square nails, he is equally enthusiastic about the all-natural paint he uses, which fuses traditional materials and modern processes.
“The paint comes from Sweden. Our paint is linseed oil. It’s straight, boiled, pressed, purified linseed oil and it will have natural pigments in it. Natural pigments are very colourfast, they’re an earth pigment, they’re not modern glycol or synthetic pigments,” he says.
“It’s vegetable oil. A lot of our product when you’re done with it is biodegradable. We’ve taken the lead out of the paint, obviously, we’ve taken a lot of the solvents out. Science has helped us out in really good ways to help us dry the vegetable oil, the linseed oil, and what we’re left with from this company is a very resilient, very sustainable painting system, that’s also a very traditional painting system.”
The same environmental approach is used with his lumber, all of which is certified Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as being sustainably sourced.
Environmental concerns underscore much of the work Mr. Chalmers does. Conservation is the concept of reduce, reuse and recycle applied to entire buildings, rather than small pieces of plastic or bundles of paper.
Rather than tearing down an old home and building a new one, restoring the old building means a lot less material ends up in the landfill and a lot fewer resources are used to create new materials.
Mr. Chalmers has worked on buildings from the 1880s, from the early 20th century and, recently, on historically significant homes from the mid-20th century.
“One of our most recent projects was the Trend House on Elbow Drive,” he says.
It was one of 11 houses built across Canada in the 1950s to showcase the use of West Coast lumber, so there was a great deal of wood panelling and wood elements used to showcase the versatility of using wood in your home. The Calgary home is one of the last remaining examples of a Trend House.
He has also worked on the Blum residence in Calgary’s Shawnessy neighbourhood. “It’s a fantastic piece of Expressionist mid-century modern architecture,” he says. When built in 1963, it used thin-shell concrete technology to allow for large unobstructed spaces inside the home. It has been designated by the City of Calgary as a municipal historic resource.
Part of the satisfaction of restoring an old home is knowing that it can last another century – longer than many newly built homes – if properly maintained.
Unfortunately, we seem to be living in a maintenance-free, throwaway culture, Mr. Chalmers says. “If something is maintenance free, that’s another word for disposable. Every now and then you’ve got to roll your sleeves up and do a bit of work. We’re clever enough people we can fly to the moon, right, but we can’t develop a roof that lasts longer than 18 years? We’re still using asphalt up on our roofs?”
Mr. Chalmers says Calgary is getting better at preservation. There was a time when this city had a reputation for tearing down rather than restoring, but there are some great grassroots initiatives where people are getting together to save things.
Marilyn Williams, a Calgary heritage-management consultant, says more needs to be done to encourage restoration. The city earned a reputation for not saving older architecture and, while there may be many people who want to do better, she feels local authorities need to do more to help.
“We are just missing some key tools to protect places. We make it very easy to tear down places and very tough to protect them. It’s sad,” says Ms. Wilson, a member of the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals (CAHP).
There is still a chance that homes from the past can have a bright future, “but certainly not if we maintain status quo. We really need more policy and legislative tools. I think the biggest bang for the buck is implementing heritage districts.”
Heritage districts can be used to provide a range of protections. For example, they can impose rules that protect neighbourhoods by maintaining the depth of front yards, mature trees and plants or building heights, or they can be used to protect specific buildings from demolition or inappropriate alteration.
Is it worth saving these heritage homes?
The answer for Ms. Williams is a definite yes. She rattles off the benefits: “There are economic benefits, like increased property values, increased tourism, and local job creation. … They are meaningful and beautiful and that brings social benefits like improved quality of life. Environmentally, reusing and adapting them, reduces landfill waste, it reduces the energy you need to produce new materials for new construction.”
There’s also the benefit that comes from living in a home with soul, she says.
“For me, there is no other way. I worked for three years in France … and we lived in a beautiful, traditional village. After experiencing that beauty and layered, rich culture, I knew when I went back to Calgary I would have to find a century home in a heritage neighbourhood that had large trees.”
That’s why for 18 years she has lived in a 1912, 21/2 storey foursquare home in the Cliff Bungalow community – and couldn’t be happier about doing her part to keep history alive.
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