Quite frequently I design a project that calls for one or more stone walls, and almost as frequently the stone I specify is New England fieldstone. Fieldstone walls are ubiquitous in this part of the world, and a good wall, even if it’s newly constructed, can help give structure and readability to a landscape.
Because I specify stone walls so often, I see quite a few stone supplier ads. A newish product, fieldstone veneer, has been advertised in the last few years. Fieldstone veneer is made by cutting chunks of fieldstone into small rectangular pieces; the face of the veneer is left rough and weathered, or with a split, not sawn surface. The rectangular form makes installing the veneer a relatively quick process, and gives an architectural, or at least strictly ordered, look to a wall face. The contrast between that ordering and the naturally textured surface presents quite an appealing finish.
When I see videos of the fieldstone veneer cutting process, though, my mind drifts to the disappearance of historic stone walls throughout New England, and I wonder if any of the projects I’ve worked on contain some of that stone, hauled from its centuries-old home and sliced into construction-ready pieces. This article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation outlines the problem: stone walls are being taken without permission or compensation from private properties and reused elsewhere. As far as I can tell, there’s no way of determining the provenance of stone — and cutting it up only makes identification even more impossible. We can only see the ancient walls disappearing from roadsides, yard perimeters, and woodlots, and hope that what we’re using has come only from legitimate sources.
Here is a photo of intact stone walls in winter. These are freestanding drylaid walls, and one of their structural merits is that they move with frost. Their jointing methods – no mortar used – and wall composition insure that the walls move with the land as it undergoes the freeze/thaw cycle, and the relatively large stone size keeps the walls from falling apart even as they move.
With the ‘recycling’ of New England fieldstone for mortared walls, as in this wall,
for instance, the cutting up of stones limits their future use, and the ability of future generations to recycle the stones once more. The argument could be made that veneer makes fieldstone a material accessible to more people because a veneer wall is less expensive to build than a full-depth stone wall — and it’s a valid argument. But the lifespan of mortared veneer walls has to be far shorter than that of traditional drylaid walls, given the nature of the freeze/thaw cycle, the shallowness of small veneers, and the prevalence of moisture in the New England winter — and that means that these walls will need maintenance and/or rebuilding sooner than the more traditionally built walls. Not to mention that if the natural stones themselves disappear, so too do the building techniques that produce the most stable and flexible kinds of walls for landscape use, and the possibility of being able to build them as readily as has been done in the past.
Is this a solvable problem? Is this a problem? I think that stone wall theft is definitely a problem, and I don’t know if it’s a solvable one. I’m pretty sure I haven’t explored the topic of New England stone walls, their disappearance, the metamorphosis of fieldstone into veneer, the use of veneer in landscape applications, or the costs (short-term and life-cycle) of veneer versus fieldstone with anything approaching thoroughness — but it seemed that recording initial thoughts on the topic would be a good place to start this particular conversation. Your thoughts?