Property: The original sin - developers who rip off the past

DOCTOR ON THE HOUSE; Those antique building materials aren't `reclaimed' but taken from their rightful homes, warns Jeff Howell
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IF YOU'RE doing up an old house, you'll want to use second-hand materials to match the period feel of the original, right?

Well, wrong, actually, according to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. The SPAB is very keen for period features to be retained and restored - but preferably in the properties in which they were originally used. It believes that using materials salvaged from one old house to restore another actually encourages demolition and, more depressingly, theft.

There is no doubt that there is a thriving trade in reclaimed materials and fixtures - from fireplaces and floorboards to bricks, chimney pots and even complete staircases. And when free trade detects a demand, there will always be a supply - legal or otherwise. The illegal end of the market is clearly encouraged by the premium on easily shifted items like fireplaces; a mid-Victorian marble surround can be removed in minutes and fetch an easy pounds 500. At the legal end, a builder or property developer can remove and sell antique bricks or roof tiles for a pound apiece, and replace them with modern factory-made ones costing 25 pence; if the building is unlisted, it's perfectly legal.

So the SPAB's view is that if the trade in second-hand building materials were outlawed, these items would cease to have a monetary value and would have more chance of staying in their original homes. You may find this view simplistic. What about an old building, say, that has to be demolished anyway to make way for a new airport (yuck - OK, hospital then)? Is it not A Good Thing that the materials should be re-used to give a fresh lease of life to other old buildings - just like organ transplants? A tricky one, that. But when you think about it, any such dispensation would leave a loophole for the unscrupulous. Conservation officers have to cope with this every day from contractors who "accidentally" knock down old buildings and trees by backing trucks into them.

But if the salvage trade was stopped, where would you go for replacement bricks and tiles to match your existing ones? Simple, says the SPAB: if the demand is there, people will go back to making materials using the old methods. At present, hand-made bricks and tiles are dearer than second- hand ones, but if demand rose then unit costs should fall; and we would be encouraging people to take up these dying skills, recreating local jobs.

And what about the new materials standing out visually against the weather- beaten originals? Well, if they were made using traditional materials and methods then they should soon blend in. Furthermore, says the SPAB, the repair would be more architecturally and historically honest than one using cannibalised bits from other buildings.

This is an interesting debate, and one that deserves more attention. Our building heritage is under threat as it is, from pebble-dashers and double-glazers. So it is a sobering thought that even people who thought they were safeguarding old buildings by using salvaged materials may unwittingly have made things worse.

Have you ever seen those bonfires of elephant tusks, aimed at wiping out the ivory trade? Perhaps a few public crushings of Suffolk pantiles would have a similar effect on the trade in stolen building materials.

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail: