“Buy local” is a popular refrain in food, culture, and retail circles, and for good reason. Supporting local producers can keep money in our community, increase variety in our neighbourhoods, and minimize the environmental impacts of shipping.
And while the “buy local” movement didn’t start here, it has special importance for our island. Our supply chains rely precariously on good weather letting the ferry in.
Building local – with materials harvested or produced locally, in a way that works for our climate (more on that another time) – is an implicit dimension of the local movement. It is not a choice we make often, or one we always realize is there, but it is one with benefits.
Building is big business, and building local means big investment in local initiatives. There is also big potential for emissions reductions by minimizing the shipping of heavy materials.
A quick survey (ie. a glance out the window) reveals that we have an abundance of rocks and trees here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Luckily, both make for excellent building materials and have been used creatively since building began here.
The earliest structures – Beothuk mamateeks, Norse sod houses, and Labrador trapper’s tilts – were built of wood and earth, materials easily shaped with light tools. Early settler homes were similarly sourced, but as communities grew, stone was added to the built landscape. By the early 1800s stonemasons lived in most major centres.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries the availability of materials fluctuated, but truly local buildings were common. A number of brickworks operated near Clarenville from the mid 1800s until 1999. Various quarries produced granite, sandstone, and roofing slate.
Lumber was sourced across the island, and the nails to fasten it were produced in St. John’s until 1982, when United Nail & Foundry Co. closed its doors on Hamilton Ave. Projects such as large churches continued to import stone, but others, such as the St. John’s Court House, used local brick and granite precisely because it made the structure more our own.
Today our culture of construction is different again. You won’t find a local nail at Home Depot, but you will find windows – vinyl and wooden – made on the island. Many of the quarries of the last 50 years have been shuttered, but roofing slate is still produced at Burgoyne’s Cove and flagstone at Pynn’s Brook.
Some granite quarries still exist for specific uses and special requests. Mills across the island continue to turn Black Spruce (our provincial tree) and others into framing, flooring, and siding. And while many historic structures lack insulation altogether, modern insulating foam is now produced in Bishop’s Falls.
Building with more of these and other local materials would support our producers and minimize shipping emissions. Using them well could enhance the character of our architecture by showcasing the beauty of our natural resources.