The Owner Built Home and Homestead: Using Salvage Materials for Building

Author Ken Kern writes about building using salvage materials, salvaging recycles old buildings while saving you money.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
March/April 1974
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Learn about using salvage materials to build new structures.
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Author Ken Kern writes about using salvage materials and where to find them at no cost to you.

The Owner Built Home and Homestead: Using Salvage Materials for Building

One knowledgeable building writer stated recently that there will be more homes erected during the next ten years than have accumulated since the beginning of civilization. Population increase accounts for the vast majority of this new construction. But no small amount will have to be designed and built to replace the obsolete structures currently prevalent. This is not a reference to slum-clearance and urban-renewal; by far the worst domestic architecture found in our society is in the suburbs! I mean worst psychologically. Clifford Moller, in his timely book, Architectural Environment and our Mental Health, refers to architecture "as an agent or a catalyst which is able to make possible a reduction of frustrations and tensions and to aid in fostering emotional stability, improved personal motivation and improved social interaction." Obviously the provision of physical shelter is not necessarily a satisfaction of psychological stress: suburban tracts are not planned with any degree of psychological sensitivity in mind. There is less acoustical, visual, and spatial privacy and less genuine communication and social contact in suburban housing than in slum ghettos. The practical-builder ("physically adequate") approach to housing must necessarily be replaced. Yet an architect's self-conscious ("arty") point of view is not "where it's at" either. We must stop thinking form-ally: form is static and merely instrumental. Rather, let's think of what Moller terms the "transactional" relation between man and space, we should think spatially, in terms of function, flexibility, and growth.

It has long been known that architectural spaces can have a dominant effect on the consciousness and emotional well-being of the people who live in them. Unfortunately, the life-affirming effect is the exception: most people live in neurosis-fostering houses! The city of Detroit once paid Frank Lloyd Wright a sizable sum to diagnose the city's plight and make suggestions for an urban renewal program. After some months of study he made his usual dramatic presentation to dignitaries at a special city council meeting. "I suggest," he told them, "you tear it all down and start over!" Perhaps this will have to be the approach we take in the suburbs as well as in the ghettos. It may yet be found that bad housing causes cancer. The following ten years will witness a monumental influx of new housing — it will also witness a monumental amount of demolition. Building salvage is already big business. Lipsett Brothers, perhaps this country's foremost wreckers, estimate 100 million dollars a year earned in salvage value — not including sale of equipment. Available buildings for salvage are plentiful. The Buildings To Be Moved section of any newspaper lists numerous buildings offered for salvage value. Even in rural areas, buildings can be had — usually free of charge — just for clearing the site. State and County highway departments offer buildings on this basis, usually to clear some new road right-of-way.

There are a few salvage techniques which can be used to advantage in wrecking operation. For safety's sake remove all glass windows and door, first. Following the removal of all plumbing and electrical fixtures, the process of "stripping" takes place. This removes ceiling, paneling, trim and moulding. Properly done, minimal waste will result. One learns the process of "high-grading" in due course. The very finest salvaged material is used in exposed sections of one's new house. Following this stage, the salvage "high-grading" operation commences from the outside and from the top down — roof, walls and floor. Structural members are set aside, exposed outside sheathing, covered wall and roof and floor sheathing, concrete formboards, and backing material for masonry. Finally the remains are sawed-up for fireplace kindling. Wood removed from old buildings is well seasoned and will not warp or shrink; but it should be protected from the weather until re-used. Members of the United Building Wreckers Local use a wrecking adze in most of their hand salvaging operations. A ripping chisel, nail claw, hand sledge, and nail puller give additional assist. I use also a modified ripping bar — a hammer head is welded to the back of the hooked end, thus combining hammering and nail-pulling and prying, all in one tool. (Tools are easily lost or misplaced in a wrecking operation, so the fewer in use at tfne time the better.) I improvised also a sheathing-removal device which can be attached to a pry-bar. It consists of a pair of prying forks which lift the entire board from rafter or joist, thus preventing splitting while speeding up the operation.

Scavenger-personalities belong to a certain type of character and culture. The philosophy of salvaging is integrally tied-up with many of the libertarian, self-motivated, freedom-oriented concepts that form the basis of this book. For instance, a perceptive scavenger is able to envision the use of some unusual material in his prospective dwelling merely because his vision of the structure is both unorthodox and flexible. He lets the material contribute to the design and form, rather than discarding the material or attempting to force it into a preconceived mold. The exercise of ingenuity and the challenge that goes with the utilization of waste materials can be a dominate motivation to the artistic personality. People put down the local scavenger as one "scabbing on the system," but the scavenger challenges the system as wasteful of natural resources. It is not a comfortable reminder that our American 6% of the world's population devours 35% of the world's annual production of raw materials! Building materials are everywhere! Discounting the natural elements — earth, rock, trees — one can find salvage, culls, dunnage, scrap, junk, and surplus items wherever you might look. One needs to learn the fine art of scrounging: keep an eternal eye out for materials. Haunt the junkyards and auctions, acquaint yourself with local building material industries — "culls" and "brokens" and "number twos" and "discontinued lines" are common occurrences in any high-speed factory production. One can secure these misfit materials sometimes free for the hauling off. Plumbing fixtures with unimportant "hairline" cracks are commonly available at half price. The serious scavenger makes as his first investment an oxy-acetylene and arc-welder. Scrap metal is relatively cheap and universally available; used corrugated iron can be reworked to meet a multitude of building needs; 55-gallon oil drums and iron pipe are low in cost, easily worked and versatile. Metal products are commonly available free at the local city dump. Public dumps are also a good source for broken sidewalk pavement — which can be reused for walk and patio paving and for retaining walls. Telephone and electric service companies often have used poles for sale; railroad companies sell used ties cheap. Packing crates can be salvaged with little effort; plywood panels are often used for crating. Cardboard boxes pulverized in a hammer mill, mixed with asphalt emulsion and clay make a super material for floor, wall and roof. The use of discarded burlap has also been mentioned.

A new twist in using burlap was introduced recently by builder Ed Dicker of Dallas, Texas. Called the Dicker Stack-sack, it consists of 6-inch by 24-inch burlap bags filled with a dry concrete mix. As the hydrated sacks are laid in place, two pieces of No. 3 reinforcing steel 10 inches long are driven through each sack. Water is then sprayed on the wall and finished with a "tack" coat of 1/2-inch thick cement, sprayed on inside and outside. Probably the final word in salvage materials should be reserved for mention of one Steve Baer. Steve is a geodesic dome buff and wrote a booklet, The Dome Cookbook. In it he tells about how he proceeded in removing the tops from car bodies, then working the panels into a dome-like structure (called a zome). He first used an acetylene torch to cut out the panels, then found it easier to chop them out with an axe! His current dome project was made from 112 cars including 30 station wagons and one van. Junkyards charged him 25 cents apiece for the car tops. Here's an interesting contrast — or conflict — between the use of a salvage material (car tops) and a highly sophisticated building form (geodesic dome). I put the Fuller dome in the same architectural class as the "mobile home": both are designed to be factory produced and assembled; both have static and unyielding forms and are completely devoid of flexible spatial quality. The dome and mobile home are both offered as "solutions" to physical space needs; they are touted as end products in building! But as I attempted to point out earlier, psychologically balanced spaces are not "finished" end products . . . they are catalytic agents for the creation of an ever-changing visual and functional order.

In building with salvage materials, therefore, I would anticipate that the materials themselves, in their own integral honesty, suggest the architectural style. Fuller's complicated and obscure mathematical formula carries with it little psychological sensitivity for me. And the degenerate mobile home fabrication is an even more total turn-off. I would anticipate, further, that the scavenger-built structure would be completely free-form, with undefinable flexibility, curvilinear and grotto-like. The space would be designed to serve many functions and allow for change in function. It would relate in a flexible manner to the quaint, unorthodox, organic vision of its scavenger-builder.


Ken Kern, author of The Owner-Built Home and The Owner-Built Homestead, is an amazing fellow and everyone interested in decentralist, back-to-the-land, rational living should know of his work. Back in 1948 he began collecting information on low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and techniques. He combed the world for ideas, tried them and started writing about his experiments. Eventually, Mildred Loomis started publishing Kern's articles in The Interpreter, Wayout and Green Revolution. Ken has also issued a three year series of pieces (called Technic) on his own and a greenhouse-sun pit design of his has been featured in Organic Gardening. This series of Ken Kern's work is being taken both from Owner-Built Home (already published) and Owner-Built Homestead (to be published). To give you advance chapters of Homestead as they are written I have to break my presentation of Home on an irregular basis for which I apologize. If you want Home all at once it's available right now direct from Ken Kern, Sierra Route, Oakhurst, California 93644 for $10.00. — MOTHER


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