Aug 12, 2010

United States of Walmart

I worked in small town USA for a number of years, digging in the dirt and showering at the local pool. Super Walmarts had just made their grand entrance at that time and everyone in town was flocking at all hours of the day to buy their groceries, toys for Christmas, renew their car insurance and get a perm. The ultimate one-stop shopping.

I returned every summer to work, and slowly I witnessed businesses closing in the downtown core and new houses and condos popping up around the Super Walmart - in essence shifting the downtown to the Walmart parking lot. The businesses that closed down just couldn't compete with the low prices. And residents couldn't justify spending significantly more just to support Joe's hardware store.

I now work in heritage throughout western Canada. Most of my firm's projects are in small towns in Alberta and BC. These small towns are dealing with exactly the same issues that hit the US 5 years ago; big box stores looming on the horizon, tempting residents with low prices and in-store Starbucks. And it's unavoidable. For those communities that resist, residents just leave to shop in a neighbouring big box friendly community.

Many municipalities in western Canada have started to adopt sustainable policies and frameworks, that trickle down into all future planning initiatives. At a basic level, local governments may initiate a recycling program, increase transit routes, or encourage residents to support local industries and businesses. We are beginning to work with communities that have adopted a sustainable planning framework.

I've been thinking a lot over the past while on how heritage can contribute to this sustainability movement, apart from the obvious - that a heritage buildings is inherently sustainable. In the heritage community we abide by Carl Elefante's famous statement that "the greenest building is the one already built"*

But how can a heritage building contribute to the sustainability of a community?

My firm is currently working on a Heritage Inventory for the Town of Lacombe in central Alberta. Lacombe's population is almost 12,000. They are undertaking a 2 year, phased program to add approximately 50 to 60 heritage sites (voluntary by owner) to their Inventory. After designation, these 50+ resources will not be permitted to be demolished and owners will work with the city on changes to be made to the exterior of their buildings through the application of Parks Canada's Standards & Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places. They will however, get access to grants to restore and will rest assured that the house remains historically intact long after they leave.

What this also means is that 50+ buildings in town will not be going to Home Depot to replace their windows, doors and siding. Instead, they will either have to learn to repair them themselves, or have a specialized trade do it for them.**

These building owners are then essentially switching from a culture of replacement to a culture of maintenance and repair. For those skilled local tradesman, repair and restoration of 50+ resources could potentially be big business. Restoration work is not materials based, like current construction practices, but labour based (as you're striving to restore original material). And because most of the houses are built with similar materials (brick, sandstone, wood, etc) in relatively the same time period (early 1900s to 1920s), a tradesman could easily become specialized in 'Lacombe heritage restoration'.

Now, for those downtown businesses that will inevitably feel the wrath of the big box, they should consider adopting what I'm going to call for the sake of this posting, the Lee Valley Business Model. Lee Valley is a specialized store for builders and gardeners. They have small stores across Canada and a thriving catalogue-based business. They are in direct competition with Home Depot and Rona yet have managed to continue to expand and remain successful. What's their secret? Specialization and tailoring to specific markets. You can buy at Lee Valley what no big box can provide: excellent service, high quality tools and gadgets you cannot find anywhere else. Everyone I know shops at Lee Valley and we all covet their seasonal catalogues.

50+ historic house owners in Lacombe will now need very specialized supplies to restore their houses; window and door hardware, special order wood siding, shingles, replacement bricks, stained glass window replacements, historic lighting, new and used building stores etc etc. Now, this little town that is trying to find a unique identity within Alberta, becomes a hub for specialized historic trades and historic building material businesses. Similar to what happened to Portland, Oregon.

It's an interesting way to look at heritage buildings and their role in the future sustainability of our communities. And at a personal level, good for me to always keep in mind that our heritage house is contributing to the local economy in a small way.


*And for anyone who owns a heritage house, it seems like nobody with any power seems to realize this. I have shared 'words' with provincial/federal eco initiatives (who want you to upgrade wood windows/doors - which can last 100s of years - to vinyl, which lasts 20 if you're lucky); house assessments (who place higher value on synthetic new material over old); house insurance (ever try to insure a heritage house?). And on and on and on...

**Wood windows are actually very simple to repair and are designed to be maintained by the owner. It's a lost art in our culture.


lilynymph said...

I've been reading through your posts all morning and this one makes me want to comment so hard!!! I am really happy to hear what Lacombe is doing... in fact I am going to send this idea to my home town's council ( I happen to know a few of the councillors.. small towns are great for that kind of thing!!) I cruise MLS quite frequently and nothing makes me sadder than seeing a beautiful Craftsman with an ugly 80's MDF kitchen inside, or new vinyl windows in an old Victorian. Anyways keep fighting the good fight! Support your local artisans and tradespeople!

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