In Wedowee, Ala., Guy and Kay Baker live in a cozy cabin they built with their three sons using almost entirely reclaimed materials. Under the guidance of Guy, a professional builder, the family spent about five years on the project, lovingly and painstakingly building a sustainable home using centuries-old materials. The family so loves their hand-built home — initially planned as a vacation cottage — that they ended up moving in full time. Every day, Kay and Guy enjoy the personal connection they have with every detail of the 1,100-square-foot space.
In 2001, Guy was feeling overwhelmed at work, and Kay was working on her bachelor’s degree in psychology. The couple’s three young sons were becoming increasingly busy with school and their personal lives. When Guy’s mother unexpectedly fell ill and passed away, Guy became acutely aware of the sensation that life was passing him by. For years, Kay and Guy had owned land on which they planned to build — a piece of property formerly owned by Guy’s grandfather — but they’d never gotten around to starting the project. After his mother’s death, Guy felt driven to make good on a longtime dream of building a getaway in the woods for himself and his family. “We just needed some peace and serenity,” he says.
Building With Reclaimed Materials
Guy had long had a fascination with the antique building materials he saw while working on tear-down buildings in the area. He was impressed with the materials’ quality and durability. He saw the antiques he’d collected as heirlooms of a bygone era that valued craftsmanship over speed.
“It amazed me that I could work on houses that were 150 years old, and the damages to these homes were minute because of the materials and the quality of the studs and the lumber,” he says. “A year later, you work on a home that’s only 20 years old, and you see all this termite and water damage.”
For years, Guy had been collecting items — bits of the region’s architectural history — gathered from projects in the area. Though he hadn’t been sure at the time what he would do with them, he knew they were too wonderful to throw away. When it came time to start construction on his family cabin, Guy realized he had collected nearly enough reclaimed materials to build the whole cabin.
Having spent 20 years building in Randolph County, Ala., Guy had a vast knowledge of the area’s best sources of reclaimed and antique building materials. “All these materials were readily available. They were everywhere,” he says. People in the area who were tearing down old structures often didn’t have another destination for them, so Guy took them off their hands. “Being in the construction industry, I saw it everywhere — say we were tearing down an old barn with great old wood. If you ask them if you can have it, nine out of 10 people say, ‘Sure!’”
Guy and Kay were determined to avoid taking on debt to build their dream home. Over time, finding free supplies became a game to Guy. “Anytime you needed something, you knew it was out there, and you could find it. It almost became a challenge to not spend any money and be able to do this,” he says.
Guy searched far and wide to find the best materials, then used creativity, artistry and hard work to incorporate them into the home. He used entirely antique window panes from an 1800s-era church his company had worked to deconstruct. Guy spent hundreds of hours reframing the antique panes with reclaimed wood. Another project was creating a gigantic bathtub by lining a cattle trough with fiberglass. Overall, building the house cost virtually nothing.
“Other than the wiring and the plumbing and things like that, we didn’t spend any money,” Guy says. And though saving money was part of the motivation, the family was also keen on using reclaimed materials because they liked incorporating their region’s history into their home.
As Guy collected materials, the Baker family started spending their evenings and weekends building. From roofing and tiling to laying flooring, the family members took on every task. The boys — Jeffery, Kyle and Adam, who were 15, 14 and 12 respectively when the project started — were assigned specific jobs, such as constructing the outdoor fireplace from rocks found all over the property. Adam says he touched every one of the thousands of rocks used in the outdoor fireplace and foundation three times — once when he found a stone, once when he moved it to the house, and once when he laid it in its final destination.
Guy and Kay viewed building their home as an important way to teach their sons the value of hard work, and to show them what a huge feat they could accomplish when working together as a family. Though the teens may have grumbled at times, today all three Baker sons realize how much they learned from building the home, and they know their home was worth all the hard work.
Jeffery and Kyle also gained a foundation for their careers through the project — both are professional builders working with Guy today. Kyle says that, though the project was challenging, he gained enthusiasm as the home came together. “At first, I hated it. That’s the last thing you want to do with all your free time when you’re 16 and 17 years old,” he says. “But later on, all the pieces of the puzzle came together. When it got closer to the finished product, you saw how neat it was and you wanted to do more to it.”
Adam says working with his parents helped him develop a stronger, more mature relationship with them. “There is a certain amount of time you have to spend with a person before you truly know them. I had the opportunity to see how both of my parents deal with stress, and it built respect between us. They did not throw a fit every time a rock refused to stay cemented to the wall. We saw what was happening and learned from it.”
Guy sees the home as a testament to his family’s dedication: “It’s more than a house when you know that you or your children had your hands in the whole project.”
“The idea’s been batted around about selling it,” Kay admits. “We’ll say, ‘If someone pulled up in this driveway and offered however much money, would we sell it?’ The boys look at us and just say, ‘No.’ This is the one place that means a lot to all of us.”
Building by Hand
Guy says there are three basic requirements for taking on a building project such as this one. The most important is having patience. “The biggest key is realizing you’re not going to do it overnight,” he says. Concentrating on achieving one small goal at a time helped keep the project manageable and helped teach his sons to enjoy the process as much as the finished product.
Knowledge is the next requirement on Guy’s list, but he thinks that anyone willing to investigate and learn could figure out nearly every skill needed to build a home. Even as a builder with 20 years of experience, he says sometimes he had to learn a new skill along the way: “We all get to the point where there’s something we don’t quite understand, and when we get to that point, what do we do? We ask questions or we go online until we find the answer, then we move forward. It would be the same thing for someone who didn’t have the knowledge or background. It would take them longer, but if that’s what they want to do, they can do it.”
Finally, you have to be willing to invest a lot of time and energy into the project. “Anytime you go with recycled materials, and you’re doing it on weekends and after-hours, it becomes time-consuming,” he says. Though using reclaimed building materials helped reduce the financial expense of the project, it increased the time investment of nearly every task. “It’s not the simple task of calling the materials store and having stuff delivered,” Guy says. “You’re actually bringing the materials from somewhere else. With wood planks, you’re de-nailing them and using them again. That becomes a task.” But the family says all the added effort required to prepare the reclaimed materials was worth it for the one-of-a-kind home it created.
Building the house with items collected from all over the region connected the home with its location, its history and the family’s friends in the area, Kay says. “Different areas of the house are connected with particular areas of the county, or even the particular barn it came from.” The family also incorporated many antiques and mementos of their own family life. A childhood wagon was converted to a coffee table. A blue cabinet inherited from Kay’s grandmother graces the cabin’s living space, and a ladder built by Kay’s grandfather leads to a sleeping loft.
The cabin is also a place to feel connected with nature. Their land, which includes forest and several streams, was valuable to the family for its natural beauty, so they cleared minimal trees to make space for the cabin. Wildlife wander through the area. Guy says he honored the trees he did clear by using them in his home’s design. Indoor railings are made of twisted pine. Guy designed a bed for the master bedroom out of local wood, modeled after an expensive bed Kay had admired in a magazine. Sometimes the materials they used led to imperfections, but these make Guy and Kay love their home even more. For example, Guy used wood from trees on the property to make the boards for the floor of the bedroom loft. The fresh wood was still moist when Guy laid it, so he butted the boards close together, but the wood still shrank more than he expected. The resulting cracks in the floor are one of Kay’s favorite elements of the home, she admits: “They lend the bedroom a hayloft feel that reminds me of Little House on the Prairie.”
In the community, the Baker cabin has become quite well known. The home attracts visitors from far and wide, all of whom are blown away by the simple home’s soothing feeling. “It has a homey feel, and a lot of simplicity,” Kay says. “I think that’s part of it, but it’s also just the calmness. I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s just peaceful. You’re not trying to make everything perfect. It is what it is and everybody’s comfortable. I guess it’s contagious when people come in and see and feel that.”
Adapted from the book Housing Reclaimed: Sustainable Homes for Next to Nothing by Jessica Kellner, Editor of Natural Home and Garden magazine.