Deconstruction: A Good Way to Find Free Building Materials

Reader Contribution by Elizabeth Richardson
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Elizabeth “Neko” Richardson is a licensed counselor in the State of Texas, a veteran, and holds a degree in Environmental Science. She currently lives in Hunstville, Texas, where she is building and designing her own home and studio using reclaimed and salvaged materials on a budget of $16,000 or less. She also works as a carpenter’s apprentice under the mentorship of Dan Phillips. Follow her building progress living experiment in design on her blog, Salvaged Homes.

My friend Shannon looked at me with a raised eyebrow and asked sternly, “Were you raised in a barn?”

Motioning her chin to the exterior door I had left open.

“Oh, sorry.” I reflexively moved to close the door and then we both burst out laughing as I looked at the big, blue sky, where a newly gapping hole was and where the roof used to be. We had just removed the roof from this house we were taking apart for materials, and I had not quite made the full mental adjustment to an absent roof yet.

Shannon Bryant, deconstructing an old home. Photo By Elizabeth Richardson.

We had gotten word that the little lake house’s owner was willing to let us have any materials we wanted from the house, but the project looked like more than I could take on by myself. When my friend and carpentry co-conspirator Shannon texted me and asked if I wanted to take the house apart with her, the opportunity sounded too good to resist. I love getting into trouble with Shannon.

We met at the house and quickly called dibs on what we wanted to take.

“I get the roof decking.”

“I get the footings.”

“I want the wood flooring.”

“That fan is mine.”

“Wait just a min…”


We started laughing, and as we looked around we knew if the other person wasn’t there to bolster our courage we would have left. Our limited budgets helped to push us a bit, too. Shannon is working on a green building project in Houston and needed some free materials, and I needed siding for my house and concrete footings.

We had worked together for close to a year as carpenter apprentices with Dan Phillips, so we understood how a house was put together–but we had never taken one apart.

Deconstruction is a rare situation in which everyone wins. The homeowner gets to remove a house that is not wanted, and in this case we did it for free. A large amount of construction waste does not go into the landfill, and the people taking it apart get free building materials. In this case, the house was at least 60 to 80 years old, and the materials were unique and could not be bought new if you wanted to.

So there we stood, tempted but wary.

We made sure the electricity was off and the wires were severed; the gas and water were off; structural supports in place; and then we both grabbed a crow bar and a hammer and started taking the little lake house apart from roof to floor. We took the home completely apart in about one week. I figure we both got a few thousand dollars worth of materials, and again, much of it was unique wood of a certain time period.

The home, at the end of deconstruction. Photo By Elizabeth Richardson.

While I recommend further training than this article–and extreme caution in attempting a deconstruction–this project is evidence that in a relatively short time, without any special equipment, we were able to get a large amount of free materials to build our projects with. Learning to think beyond money is one of the traits of a true scraper. Building a unique home does not require a huge amount of money–just a good imagination and a willingness to work.

Deconstruction may not be your thing but if you spend just a little time thinking about how to acquire materials versus how to make money, you will be well on your way to finding an abundance of free or low-cost materials. The funny thing about this change in thinking is that it has helped me to build relationships, as well as a home. I would not have attempted this deconstruction without the relationship that I had first built with Shannon.

This is my micro story. Let’s look at how this might work in the macro for a moment.

The big picture here is all of the homes that are currently vacant, abandoned and beyond repair in America, and all of the people who would like a home of their own but simply can’t afford one. Instead of filling our landfills with more construction waste, and watching impotently as more Americans live in poverty (42 million, a new record as of 2011), why are programs not in place that make it mandatory to reuse these materials for housing low-income people? Why do local governments pay $10,000 and more to have homes demolished and then taken to the landfill, and then pay to subsidize housing and further pay someone else to mow lawns on foreclosed lots?

Mandatory deconstruction on government-owned homes slated for demolition could be an answer to many of the problems that America now faces: government debt, abandoned neighborhoods, lack of job skills, lack of income-appropriate housing, abandoned homes that are derelict, to name a few. Where there has been only the ravages of economic devastation, we could build communities and relationships. We can transform our broken communities from a picture of the blight, apathy and waste to a face of efficiency, cooperation, local community action and power in the hands of the people. We might actually make some really beautiful homes, too. 

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