Trash To Treasure: An Upcycled House

One man spent six years building a home entirely from materials he salvaged from a landfill.

| January/February 1982

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    One man turned "junk" into his dream home.
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    John Olberding at the stoop of his less-than-$1,000 home.
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    The clock, the range, the refrigerator/freezer, the table and even the chairs came from the country landfill.

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John Olberding is definitely a man who's taken the Johnny Cash song "One Piece at a Time" to heart. For several years, John watched — from his vantage point in a nearby pizza parlor — truckload after truckload of perfectly usable goods being carted to the county landfill. One day he decided to see if he could turn a few of those "treasures" his way.
To do so, Olberding got himself a job at the dump and quickly gained permission to take home whatever he could use as long as he didn't attempt to make a profit from his windfalls. So, one piece at a time, John loaded the throwaways into the rear of an old red van, hauled the stash to an empty lot for storage and — when he had accumulated enough free material — began building his dream house.

With the help of a few out-of-pocket bucks (the scavenger tells most folks that he's spent "about $1,000," but admits that the actual figure is probably closer to $700), John built a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath two-story home that's complete with a three-car garage, an enclosed breezeway and a basement. He even had enough leftover "freebies" to furnish the interior of the dwelling!

John's house is no thrown-together shamble of shingles, either. The structure is entirely sided in metal coated with white, baked-on enamel — "Excess" material that a local contractor saw fit to pitch out in large quantities. The building is also assembled like a fortress. Olberding framed his dream house in 3-by-6s, instead of the normal 2-by-4s, and then he put the boards on 12-inch — rather than the standard 16- or 24-inch — centers. Furthermore, since people didn't seem to care what kind of wood they were throwing out, some of John's framing was done with oak. Even the garage is as solid as the proverbial rock: 3-by-14 and 3-by-16-foot beams brace the front, and the ceiling is made up of 2-by-6 and 2-by-8-foot boards, which was all lumber that the scrounger thought he should use simply "because it was there."

"There's at least four inches of insulation stuffed into every open space I could find," John says. "The wood, the insulation and the metal siding were among the easiest materials to get, so I didn't skimp on them."

In fact, those three items were so plentiful in Olberding's "ware-heap" that a couple of his neighbors have built two-story houses (on the same theme as John's) using the leftover leftovers!

The list of his free-for-the-carting housing materials doesn't stop at the front door, either (by the way, that portal is a solid oak throwaway that John fitted with a tossed-out antique knob). All the doors, windows, bathroom fixtures, appliances, living room furniture, cabinet doors and even a walk-in refrigerator for meat storage made their way in the back of the red van from the landfill to Olberding's residence.

Some castoff items were available in such steady supply that John actually had to dream up ways to use them. For example, most of his floors are two layers deep in carpet — which makes a walk through his "trash house" feel like a stroll across a well-sodded golf course — and even then, there was enough rug material left over to cover some walls and hand rails. Finally, when John could think of nowhere else to use the versatile carpeting, he simply traded his surplus for a complete bedroom suite.

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