some principles of recycled building

We build with junk. Or, rather, Paul builds with junk, and I (1) complain about the mess in the yard, and (2) enjoy the results of his hard work. It’s called ‘consulting’ and it is integral to the creative process. First you put your hands on your hips, and then you point at things….

But I’m not here to talk about that. What I’m here to talk about building with junk—that is, turning other people’s junk into beautiful, usable buildings.

First, the nuts and bolts:

Principle #1: Have a truck. When Paul said this, I suggested that this isn’t really a principle, but he was adamant. Having a truck is crucial to Recycled Building because, you must

Principle #2: Always be on the look out for good junk.

Here’s how it works. You’re driving down the street in your truck (#1 above) and you notice that someone is throwing away some perfectly good glass doors! Put them in the truck. Or you’re driving along and you see someone taking off a slate roof and putting up an asphalt roof (why would anyone do that? that’s a totally silly thing to do!)—pull over, make friends with the slate guy, and get the ok to take home a truck load of discarded slate. Or, you’re driving along and notice that there is a marble countertop business that is throwing away the granite and marble scrap from their countertop cutouts every day. Make friends with the manager and get the okay to raid their dumpsters whenever you’re in that part of town. Rinse and repeat, which leads directly to:

Principle #3: Be prepared to store stuff until you need it.

Because it isn’t that you have an immediate need for a glass door, some slate tiles, or some slabs of marble. It’s that you know you have building projects ahead of you, and you’re going to need stuff to build with (#3). Good and interesting materials can later be worked into the project in ways you haven’t even thought of yet, because you aren’t in that part of the building process yet. So gather and store your stuff until the day comes when you realize you need it.

Of course, part of the art here is recognizing good junk when you see it. Sometimes it’s easy, but sometimes it takes more…vision. Paul has lots of vision. I’m always saying, “Dude, why did you bring home all that trash?” I mean, sometimes junk really is just junk. But recycled building requires that you,

Principle #4: See the potential in stuff, that is, how things can be reused or turned into something else.

Sometimes you recycle something as what it is—someone’s old floor becomes your new floor.

But sometimes you can use something in an entirely new way. Those stairway pickets can become a gate fence.

That bowling alley can become a kitchen counter.

And that pipe insulation is just what you’ll need to wrap up the outlet pipe on the waterstove (that pipe insulation really looked like trash to me, but it wasn’t to Paul). (Sorry, no picture on this one.)

This is where recycled building can get wacky and fun. You didn’t know you needed a bowling ball on the top of a post in the chicken yard, did you? But, hey, it looks great up there!

The normal way, as far as I can tell, of building a house, is to design a house on paper, buy the materials to build that house, and build it. In recycled building, it’s pretty much the opposite.

Principle #5: Look at what you have to build with, then design in a way to use that stuff.

and it’s close corollary,

Principle #6: Look at what you are building, then figure out how to solve that building problem with the stuff you have on hand.

Either way, it’s about finding ways to make use of the stuff you’ve gathered.

For example, in building the goat barn, Paul knew he had a bunch of old glass doors, so he put them in as high up windows that the goats couldn’t kick, but would let in plenty of light.

Building the goat barn went back and forth between #4 and #5, looking at what he had to build with and designing from there, as well as solving the problems at hand, with the stuff he had. Which is what happens when you…

Principle #7: Design as you go.

Say Paul is working on the tool shed and the concrete block foundation is looking kind of grim, so he starts looking around at what we’ve got to improve the situation. Hmmm, some slate facing would be just the thing!

Recycled building is not wandering through Lowes picking stuff out, it’s wandering through life and gathering supplies like puzzle pieces for puzzles you haven’t started yet, or, perhaps, are right in the middle of. The granite and marble castoffs I mentioned before are a good case study. Paul collected lots of pieces, both small and large, when his job took him by the dumpster on a regular basis. That stuff has been turned into paths and entryways,


(here’s a close up of this pretty piece of stone)

and floors, both rough and polished.

All free. All headed for the dump if we hadn’t grabbed them.

Recycled building (a fancy name for Building With Other People’s Junk) is, at heart, deeply practical. The fact is, there is tons of stuff out there, going to the dump, unless someone rescues it. There is no question that a bunch of concrete blocks have a high embodied energy that makes them unsuitable for Green Building. On the other hand, Recycled Building says, yeah, these concrete blocks contain a lot of embodied energy, and yeah, it would be better for the planet if we built with something else, but these blocks are already here, getting thrown away, and that’s an even bigger waste. So I’m going to keep them out of the dump by using them. (Which makes it cheap, or even free, so, again with the deeply practical.)

So Recycling Building is green, but might not exactly be Green, in the way that cob, cordwood, strawbale, are. All of those building systems are great and can produce truely lovely spaces. We’ve played with several of them and I’m sure will do more. And, of course, Green building can be combined—and well!—with recycled building. But Green building can also be buying all the new, fancy, expensive green materials, such as natural paint, bamboo floors, papercrete, cotton insulation, etc., and while I’d love to have the moola to drop on some of these spiffy green materials, honestly, the majority of that stuff is way, way, way out of our price range. We’ve got two kids and one income, and we’re bootstrapping this operation, room by room. We make due with the stuff we find. Scavengers-R-Us!

Recycled Building is all about using what’s out there, because, it IS out there. And why bother to produce more stuff when the pickings in the dumpsters, and craigslist folk, and habitat reuse stores, are so rich?

5 thoughts on “some principles of recycled building

  1. Mom

    Hi to all. Well, I have caught up on all the blogs. Especially liked the one about recycling. I know where you get your “love that junk” mentality. I’m the same way.

  2. steven hurst

    Great article

    I have been saving up supplies for a few years and driving my wife nuts in the process. Recently I got a demolition job to dismantle an old Bar in a hotel and scored hundreds of board feet of beautiful fir and oak. My friend and I were not under too much presure as we worked for minimum wage so we took our time and tried not to damage things so they could be donated to habitat for humanity. We realized that a lot of waste is unnecessairly created in the quest for time savings. We convinced our supervisor that keeping as much out of the dumpster as possible was actually saving more money than what it costed in added labour costs.

    One of my favorite sucess stories was when I got a job to build a custom deck. In order to correct a poorly designed concrete patio that was graded towards the house I had to take it out entirely. Not wanted to make numerous trips to the dump I decided to get creative with the jackhammer and make stepping stone shapes which took a little time and lots of patience. I convinced the owner to hire my friend to install these huge slabs into the garden. The result was a gorgeous path of organic shapes that blended into the garden. The owner was more than impressed, she was smitten, and the leaf springs in my truck breathed a sigh of relief.

    Im gonna enjoy the rest of the site. Drop a line if you like.



  3. maya Post author

    Hello Steven, thanks so much! It sounds like you and my husband are cut from the same cloth. And the stepping stones sound really cool.

  4. falwyn

    I am so torn. On the one hand I am like: YOU ROCK, this is totally awesome.
    But on the other hand, my FIL is a terrible hoarder (and I should know, as I have plenty of packrat tendencies myself) and so the picking it up and saving it for later thing makes me a little twitchy.
    I guess the trick is to have an eye for it, like you said, and then actually USE it… if you can manage to do that, maybe you’ll be alright. 🙂

    1. maya Post author

      Oh, no kidding. I’ve gone way beyond ‘twitchy’ and moved into ‘grand mal seizure’ at times about the level of junk around here. There is, in this path, inevitably a ratio of junk-that-will-get-used to junk-that-will-sit-for years. Keeping that ratio within tolerance levels is the trick.


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