Thursday, August 9, 2012

building with salvaged things

the new playhouse- built in an evening from five pallets and wood from the old compost bin

I enjoy building things.  It's satisfying in all the ways that a desk job is not.  And I have a lot of time at a desk these days.  On the weekends, partly as an antidote to the cubicle, I like to build stuff.

And I have two small, very demanding clients who have constant orders for new things.  One of those things was a playhouse.  They had seen a very cute, gingerbread-style playhouse for sale at Costco on one of our pantry-stuffing trips and had been asking (whining, really) for a playhouse, a real playhouse, or better yet, a treehouse in the back yard.

We had just purchased a bunch of second or third-hand bricks, and the sellers had been kind enough to stack them on pallets.  But what to do with the pallets when the bricks were gone?  Rather than spend the hundreds of dollars for the chain-store version of a playhouse, one evening after work, I started putting together something from the pile of pallets leaning against our garage. 

I take some pride that we've never had to have a large item trash pickup since we've lived in this house.  We've always found ways to sell, give away or reuse the stuff we no longer need.  We have the smallest size trash can that the hauler is willing to provide- which we fill to the top some weeks- but still manage to get by with it, even now with two young kids added to the family.

So the pallets weren't trash- they were an opportunity. 

I took the two largest ones and made them the side walls of the house, and attached them to one of the small pallets to make the back of the house.  I had to take out a few random nails to make sure the kids wouldn't hurt themselves while playing, then formed some roof trusses from 2 x4's taken from the old, disassembled compost pile.  Two more pallets went on top of the trusses to form the roof.

In all, it took me a little over an hour, and the two small helpers were proud to be a part of the whole process, even driving in a couple of the screws with dad's (and the electric drill's) help.

I let them paint the house, and they added some touches with a permanent marker too.

They don't whine for a real playhouse any more either.  While a grownup looks at the playhouse made from pallets and might see a messy, slapdash structure, kids see their participation, and see the process that created the thing.  They saw their very own daddy build it- and can tell their visiting friends that they painted it themselves.  I imagine that probably means more to them than nice window treatments.

And I got rid of five pallets while making my kids happy.  I didn't have to spend a few hundred bucks on a particle board gingerbread shed.  Everybody wins.

the new compost bin,  built from oak pallets made for quarry stone
The inspiration for the playhouse came in part from the compost pile I had just finished building a few weeks before.

We had some pallets that had been sitting in the driveway for over a year- pallets from stone we had had delivered for our backyard retaining walls.  We had gotten some salvaged stone, but wanted to add some 'nice' stone for wall caps and corners, and a bonus was the fact that the stone was delivered on solid oak pallets from the quarry.  White oak, from the look of it, which has the added benefit of being fairly rot resistant.

So I slapped together a three-sided structure with the best of the pallets, added some pieces of scrap wood in strategic areas for stability, and used one of the more lightweight pallets as a door, swinging on three hinges salvaged from a door at our rental place.  The only thing I bought for the project were two sturdy hasps to hold the door shut.  The interior measures 42 inches cubed, which was about two and a half times the storage capacity of our old compost bin.  I've been able to weed the whole yard and stuff all of the Japanese-beetle infested vines from the garage in the new bin and still have space.  It's a good feeling.

While I was building it, my son kept wanting to go inside and play in it- like a house.  I kept having to chase him out.  Now, with the playhouse, we're both happy.

the new patio, built from old (purchased) bricks
As much as I would have liked to salvage bricks for our new patio, that never happened.  That is one item that other scavengers with more time, and with pickup trucks have consistently beat me to.   Even though a major thoroughfare near our house (University Ave) has been under construction for the last two years, and even though I've seen bricks under the pavement, I haven't been able to get at any.

Part of it is my lack of time and a truck, but it's also the newfound popularity of old paver bricks for patios and walkways.  People are salvaging the old Purington and Barr street pavers and selling them on craigslist for $1.25 or $1.50 each.  This is more than a brand new clay paver costs.  This makes the salvaging of paver bricks a rather profitable venture- thus they disappear faster than amateur scavengers like myself can find them.

Fortunately, Gita and I were able to find some other, less sought-after, but still genuine clay pavers on craigslist, and bought them for between 20 and 45 cents each, then (with some help and a rental truck and a serious backache) transported them back to our place.

Now the trick is fitting together all of these odd-colored and odd-sized bricks into a cohesive patio.  The varying colors aren't a problem.  It just makes it look interesting, but the sizes are another matter.  I'll find a way to make them fit- but it may take some time.

salvaged stone window well
If you read John Michael Greer's blog, you're familiar with the term 'salvage economy'.   This is the state of being where very little which is truly new is being produced, and natural resources are scarce, so 'new' items are cobbled together or repurposed from older items. 

We're already transitioning into a salvage economy as a society slowly- though you wouldn't know that by looking at the shelves of any chain store.  The stuff on the shelves looks new.  But in all likelihood, parts of it are made from recycled steel, maybe old train cars shipped to China from Los Angeles, then reforged into a toy or electronic gadget- with copper wires made from pipes stripped from a vacant house by a meth addict.  The cardboard for the box probably came from recycled boxes that you and your neighbors put out on the curb six months ago, and which made a similar journey to and from China or a corner of Southeast Asia.

I'm not being critical of that process, or really of what the Chinese are doing.  They are filling a need or a want that we in the west are unwilling to fill, at least at a price that most of us are willing to pay.

What I am advocating is using a little bit of smarts and free time to save the materials a trip across the ocean, and save all the wasted fuel and federal reserve notes, not to mention wasted time spent earning those notes in a cubicle.  I could have purchased the playhouse at Costco, and sent my legal tender to Asia in order to have some natural resources harvested, probably not too far from here, and have some packaging re-made, and shipped 8,000 miles each way, then stuffed into my small car and re-assembled at home.  To get approximately the same response from my kids that putting together five pallets got. 

Likewise, I could have taken the easy route in building a patio.  I could have (like almost everyone else in the Upper Midwest) purchased a few pallets of concrete pavers from Maynard's and in the process hand a thousand plus dollars to a billionaire who takes great pride in paying his employees as little as possible.  For a product that will begin to fade to gray within a few years and slowly disintegrate into gravel around the edges.

Instead, I spent a bit less, not a lot, but I still saved some money, and in the process got a good workout, gave some work to an unemployed friend, gave some cash to two local families for a salvaged high-quality resource they had been storing in their backyards, and paid a rental fee to a local truck rental yard.  Everyone wins-- some money stays in the community and no resources are wasted making a crappier new version of an old product.

That is what is beautiful about a salvage economy.  Resources are exchanged among regular people, and the billionaires and bureaucrats get no cut of the action.

As time goes on, the salvage economy will become more the norm than the exception.  And in a more direct way than shipping recycleable materials to Asia to be sent back to us in the form of chain store disposable goods.

black ice plum, almost ripe

I think of it as living in the future now by learning how to use what is available locally second-hand, for free or almost free.   If you can learn to do -directly- what others do by going to a chain store and spending federal reserve notes, you have a leg up, even on George Jetson.

It's not always easy, but that's not the point.  At least here in America, things have been so easy for so long, that we may not have learned how to do for ourselves what others in other countries grew up knowing how to do.  I think it's time to relearn some of that, and gain some strength and intelligence in the process.  

I will try to touch on that more in coming posts.  There is more to building urban self-reliance than learning to garden.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Hi Jeff, I am really enjoying your blog, found by way of your comment on James Kunstler's very unnerving blog reports.
    Love your children's 'cubby house' as we call them in Australia. We made a similar one for our kids a decade ago now, and it's still going strong. It was built on stilts and has a $4 tip shop slide as a feature. When the last child grows out of it I am planning to turn it into a chicken coop.
    I think there are very few societies historically or currently globally, who have ever had the option of not being salvage economies. We just need to get back to those roots, really only a couple of generations ago, when except for the very wealthy, this is how everyone lived.

  2. Very nice piece. And I've seen that Costco chateau. Your work is way cooler, as far as I'm concerned, and no doubt your beautiful kids think so too, able to participate in the building process. And a fine lesson, without it being a lesson. The patio looks great too. Eager to see the finished project.

  3. Just chiming in to say I enjoyed this post as well (I found you through El's site, and threw you on my reading list as we had a bunch of stonework to do this year and your projects were inspiring!). I think homemade playhouses are way cooler too!

  4. Hi Jo- I agree that few societies historically have had the chance to live anything other than a salvage, or hand-to-mouth existence. The last few generations (at least in the west) have been an anomaly, and the bounce-back won't be easy for many, myself included.

    Hunter- thanks! The kids agree.

    S- I'm glad you found me through El- I didn't know she had posted a link! If you like natural stonework info, I plan to post more about building with natural stone soon- I get a lot of hits from people searching for that. There's not a lot of info out there. I will post details when I can.

  5. Hope by now patio is complete and beautiful.

  6. What businesses in the area carry salvaged patio bricks?

  7. Well- we bought the bricks from two separate individuals on craigslist. It's more work, but also less expensive if you do your homework and negotiate a little. And show up with cash.

    In the Twin Cities,there's a business called the Historic Stone company in North Minneapolis that has salvaged patio bricks. They have lots of (expensive) salvaged street pavers, and occasionally the sort of bricks we used to make our patio. You can also try calling Acme/Ochs sales yard in Edina to see if they have any seconds, or end-of-season specials. They sell new bricks, but like everything, when the season ends, there are sales.

    Good luck!