Written by Fabian Bedne
When I was a kid my dad would send me around the neighborhood to buy old newspapers. I walked around our streets in Buenos Aires asking the superintendents of the apartment buildings if they had old papers to sell. They instructed me to wait and came back with pounds of them. After I paid, I took the newspapers to dad’s store. He wrapped the merchandise he sold with Kraft paper, and using a layer of old papers saved him money.
In Argentina, and I am sure all over Latin-America, on-site labor is more economical than processed and/or manufactured construction materials. So carefully removing and reusing materials is the only way to keep costs down. Another difference between these two markets is the credit system. Doing business with credit abounds in the United States (or it used to until recently), and businesses could not survive without it. In Argentina money has to be saved in cash in order to be able to buy a car, a house, or whatever. Credit exists, but it is so expensive that is not used the same way as in the US The resulting paradigm shapes the difference between the way the built environment is created in the industrialized world and everywhere else.
When I finished college at the University of Buenos Aires’ School of Architecture, I started an architectural office with another young architect, Gabino Regunega. Our objective was to explore traditional construction with a twist. We did a lot of reusing by visiting salvage yards and purchasing old iron railings, wood doors and windows, traditional ceramics and wood flooring. Then we figured out how to recombine then in our projects. Our crew – a welder, a carpenter, and masons – were amazingly skilled at retrofitting materials.
When we wanted certain details such as using bricks of different colors, we climbed the pile of discarded bricks at the yard to find the hue we wanted. A concrete mix that was supposed to be light was achieved by destroying old bricks and adding the desired-color bricks. By reusing the same untreated wood again and again, we created the framing for concrete structures like beams or columns. To prevent the wood from rotting, these forms were painted with oil discarded from automobile oil changes.
Over time my office evolved into a design-build business. With a new partner named Jorge Solari, who also graduated from the same university, we did remodeling and new construction for many years (until I moved to the States). My partner saved any material we removed and practically built his whole house with them. His house is beautiful.
Fabian Bedne was a local Tennessee Scholar at the 2009 National Preservation Conference in Nashville.