Case Study: Re-Using American Oak and Maple Flooring

A developer in a small North Oxfordshire town was determined to reuse as many materials as possible in their conversion project but was surprised to find that some of it appeared to have already been through the recycling mill.

“We took up some of the oak and maple floor boards, intending to reuse them or save them for the next development project,” said Derek Jones*, “and were surprised to discover that they were from an American Air Force house.”

USAF Housing in the United Kingdom

American housing is widespread in the area as a result of the post-war agreement between the United Kingdom and the USA to site USAF bases in Britain and other European countries to counteract the communist threat. Bases such as Upper Heyford and Brize Norton were home to bomber squadrons and there were smaller setups such as the one at RAF Bicester, which was converted to offices and medical stores for the USAF in Europe.

All of these, and many more locations, had houses built for American servicemen and their families. Although they were not built to a terribly good standard they had large rooms and were well appointed inside. The flooring was an example of that, with American oak and maple floorboards imported to be used for the base houses.

21st Century Development

Fast forward to 2009 and the small development project to convert a large late 1970s bungalow, formerly a bed and breakfast, into two semi-detached houses.

The house had oak and maple wooden floorboards in all the main rooms downstairs and although they bore signs of passing years it was obvious that sanding and revarnishing would bring it up to the high quality finish that Mr Jones is aiming for throughout the build.

But on lifting the provenance of the boards became clear. Mr Jones explained: “the boards are even better quality than we thought they were and then we spotted the name of a sawmill in Illinois stamped on the back of each one. The stamp also features a USAF parts number, so it’s pretty clear that they were either from, or intended for, a USAF house.”

Reuse Or Misappropriation?

And there is reason to be unsure as to whether the floorboards ever made it to their original destination. “There aren’t really any records that we can access to check this easily but we’re pretty sure that no, if any, USAF houses were demolished before this house was built, said Mr Jones. “They could have been taken out as a result of a renovation and sold on, but then as there was nothing wrong with them that doesn’t really ring true.”

So it could be that the floorboards were diverted from their intended fate as part of USAF housebuilding during the tail end of the Cold War?

“Well, it’s just speculation at the moment, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out,” said Mr Jones. However, he is now not sure that he will be able to reuse the floorboards.

Underfloor Heating Dilemma

“We’re installing underfloor heating and we’ll need to make sure that the screed over the pipes is of the right depth,” he explained. “It needs to be thin enough to allow heat to come through efficiently but also thick enough to slow down the heating up and cooling down process enough to stop the floorboards warping.”

If he can’t be sure about this after researching it then the boards are likely to be sold off for someone else to use, they certainly won’t be ending up as landfill.

* names have been changed