Grandeur of Garbage: Beautifying a Space With Recycled Materials in Ways That Are Elegant and Attractive

Grandeur of garbage

Grandeur of garbage

This article was excerpted from Architecture Laid Bare!: In Shades of Green, by Robert Brown Butler

For every thousand square feet of floor area built in America today, a few acres of land somewhere in the world have usually been destroyed. At the same time, for every thousand square feet of floor area built in America today, a truckload or two of trash is usually hauled to a landfill. All this waste coming and going doesn’t stabilize that larger foundation under a building known as the environment. LEED has done well to address this problem. It awards points for such green construction practices as “maximize the use of building products that include recycled materials” … “minimize construction waste” … “divert waste materials from landfills and incinerators to recycling centers” … and “use salvaged, refurbished, or reused materials.” Indeed, if anything could be called the soul of sustainable architecture, it is rescuing and reusing old materials in new construction. After all, it is not the mighty dinosaur or mastodon that has survived through the ages, but the scavenging buzzard and shark.

An elemental way to think of recycling is to look at the property you live on. The landscape you see outside contains a certain cubic yardage of material. The building you are in also contains a certain cubic yardage of material. Both those yardages are more alike than you think; after all, one did come from the other. Extend this idea to the materials a few miles away at your local landfill, and possibly a few places in between and beyond, and you get a glimmer of the opportunities that await someone who considers using natural or old materials in new construction.

A fine way to map these logistics is to think of the most beautiful marbles or hardwoods you’ve seen in an expensive residence or corporate office. Those materials came from someone’s backyard that was a lot like yours, and their essence is no different than the essence of any material found anywhere. The challenge is not reclaiming materials to work with—that is easy—but finding ways to bring out each material’s essence so it displays the same kind of beauty you see in the finest marbles and hardwoods.

For example, it takes little more than money to bring out the beauty of a finely grained hardwood in a building; but it takes a refined insight to bring out the beauty in an old board found in someone’s backyard, and people know and love this quality when they see it. Furthermore, if you reuse an old board in a building, that’s recycling; and that achievement is noble enough; but if you clean that board in a way that makes its weathered grains gleam so lustrously that someone says, “You can’t buy wood like that in a lumberyard”—then you have tapped into a more kingly essence. Done like this, recycled building materials won’t look like reshuffled trash; they will exhibit the kind of class and erudition one associates with elegant lifestyles and sophisticated people. It almost seems incidental that such efforts can help keep a few corners of our world green, and could save you some of that green you put in your pocket. And we all admire beautiful work made with things someone obtained for free.

Let’s elucidate this idea with an example. Figure 3-33 shows a corner of one small room in my house that I built in 1974, the master bath. The fieldstone wall rising above two sides of the sunken tub was constructed of rocks I collected from a two hundred year-old stone wall on my property. When building these walls, all I did was preserve the material’s essence—its strength and rugged character—from where the rocks once sat in the woods to where they now sit around this room. I also used this natural material collected on my property to build the exterior wall around the first floor, eighty linear feet of walls completely indoors, and the chimney mass with three fireplaces that rises through the heart of the house.

Another example of bringing out a discarded item’s essence is the round pieces of glass you see mounted in the fieldstone wall above the tub. These tiny windows are empty liquor bottles. The essence of this material is that light passes through the glass but you can’t see clearly through it, which allows a bather to see what she is doing while preserving her privacy. After collecting a couple dozen bottles from the dumpsters of several local bars one Sunday morning, I arranged the bottles in matching pairs, removed their tops with a bottle cutter bought from the Whole Earth Catalog, mated the matching tops, duct-taped the tops of each pair together to make a cylinder about three inches thick and ten inches long, and mounted these cylinders of thermopane here and there in the stone walls as the mason built them.

I employed a simpler tactic with the hexagonal slate shingles on the wall to the right of the tub. The essence of these thin slabs of stone is that they shed water. After finding them in a back yard ten miles away (the owner was glad for the Hamilton I laid in his hand and having a cleaner backyard), I nailed them on the wall around the tub much the way one nails shingles on a roof.

One material I had to pay for and do a lot of work to exploit its essence is the sunken tub’s bluestone floor and side walls. On visiting a local masonry supply yard (not to buy rocks, to be sure) I spied two huge slabs of bluestone, 36 ≈ 48 inches in size and 3 inches thick, marked 70 percent off because they had a coppery blush on their bluish surfaces that someone thought was unsightly. The better the fool. Also considered unsightly were the long cracks along the slabs’ edges which indicated the slabs were delaminating. After bringing them home, I carefully tapped a row of oak wedges into the delaminating edges and split each three- inch slab into three one-inch slabs. I didn’t break a piece. After mounting a diamond-tip masonry blade in my circular saw, I cut and assembled the six slabs into a sunken tub that’s 48 inches wide by 74 inches long which is big enough for a family to bathe a dog in if it wanted. In fact, here is where we wash our dog and it is the perfect place to do so. I cut the tub’s side pieces at slight angles so they incline 10 degrees outward toward the top, and I clad the concrete pedestal under the barn beam post with three narrow slabs of bluestone whose edges I mitered at a 45 degree angle so the pieces fit together as neatly as the corners of a picture frame. The masonry blade I used can be bought in almost any hardware store, it fits into any electric handsaw, and using it requires no more skill than it takes to cut plywood. The blade does cut through masonry much slower than through plywood and it raises a cloud of dust behind the saw; so if you do this work, make sure you are outdoors and facing the wind. That’s all an amateur needs to know to do professional work with this material. In fact, every part of this bathroom’s construction was routine carpentry and masonry performed with common hand tools, much of it done by the one who is typing this text.

Toilet paper holderOne of the biggest troves of recyclable treasures I found for my house regards the little steel railing on the near side of the tub. This railing’s pieces came from a factory that had gone out of business. After driving my Chevy Blazer inside, I folded down the back seats, picked pieces of scrap off the floor, and loaded them in. When the metal was only three inches deep I noticed my tires were half flat from the accumulating weight! I stopped loading and slowly drove home. I drove back for one more load. I could have had a half dozen if I wanted. Onsite, after trying my hand at welding and blacksmithing (two skills I had no previous experience in), from the metal I collected I not only built this railing around the bathtub, I constructed a 32-foot-long railing for my house’s three-story staircase, a 37-foot long drainage grate in front of the garage, a 13-foot-long drainage grate at the top of the driveway outside, a 31-foot-long tool hanger in the garage, and many smaller items throughout the house. That’s a lot of architecture for 80 miles of gasoline, wouldn’t you say?

Another recycling adventure that ended in this bathroom concerns the thick wood post above the mitered bluestone pedestal and the weathered boards on the front of the vanity and around the mirror. These came from a 250-year-old barn seventy miles away. I reused one of the barn’s handhewn beams for this post, and I reused many more of the barn’s beams and posts as exposed structure throughout the house. As for the vanity fronts and the mirror’s frame, I made these out of the barn’s siding, which I also fashioned into cabinets, shelves, and base molding throughout the house in every room. I even reshaped some of the old barn door hinges into toilet paper holders (see figure 3-34). Since the siding was very dirty, I brought out its essence by:

1. Lightly wire-brushing each piece on all four sides in the direction of the grain (where the grain was swirly I matched the swirls with my brushstrokes)

2. Tapping the piece vertically on a concrete block a few times to knock out the dirt

3. Hosing the piece down (it was amazing how dirty the water was that flowed out of each board)

4. Sun-drying each board for two days

This is a simple, superb method of turning the oldest filthiest board you ever saw into an attractive finish you will never have to paint.

In the old barn I dismantled for this house, I also cut the barn’s long slim rafters into mullions and placed them 4′-0″ apart in six ribbon windows, one of which is 161 feet long that wraps around three sides of the house. To see what this construction looks like from the inside see figure 3-27.Garage workbench

Another wonderful recycling experience I had with this house concerned a small mill only three-tenths of a mile away where a man made oak stakes and wedges for local contractors and the public utility. (We used to send new laborers out to “Fred’s steaks and wedges” to buy lunch their first day on the job). Behind Fred’s mill was a pile of oak lumber cutoffs, some of them fourteen-feet long. After relieving Fred of these scraps I ran them through my tablesaw and created lengths of 1/8 ≈ 11/4 inch oak trim that became 170 linear feet of edging around a dozen built-in countertops throughout the house. For years afterward I hauled away Fred’s lumber scraps and cut them into oak firewood to warm my house. Fred and I got along real well together.

When it comes to recycling, two personality traits are important that require no innate skills, though they do tend to be more eloquently expressed if constantly exercised. These are reputation and obsession. Reputation involves having a congenial demeanor and letting your friends and their friends know you are looking for trash to build a house with. Reputation is what led a friend of a friend of mine to tell me about the slate shingles in someone’s backyard ten miles away, a friend of a friend who led me to the steel scraps on the floor of the company going out of business, and a friend of a friend who told me about the big barn 70 miles away that I used to build my house. Obsession is acting with heightened inspiration when spying a potentially useful item. Many times while driving somewhere I have seen a nice-looking rock along the road and stopped to pick it up. These rocks now appear in 370 linear feet of walls averaging three feet high that I built around two turnarounds, two patios, and a beautiful three-terraced garden next to the house. Once while driving along a country road I saw a small half-collapsed barn clad in weathered siding. Instantly I envisioned converting the old siding into new trim in my house. The farmer who owned the barn was pleasantly surprised when I offered him forty dollars to remove it “before somebody got hurt there.” Obsession is also what led me to gather the rocks on my property, the liquor bottles in the dumpsters behind the local bars, and Fred’s oak lumber cutoffs.

Obsession can find other avenues of expression. As a sample, in figure 3-33 see the shower curtain hanging by the left of the bathtub? For years after constructing this tub in 1974 I couldn’t find a shower curtain that was long enough and whose top would slide smoothly around the tub. Then in 1986 while working on a remodeling job, I was cutting some molding on my table saw when a piece got hung up in the blade and—wham—the next thing I knew I was staring at a red hole an inch long and half as wide on the underside of my forearm. Table saw kickback! I knew I’d bought a few sutures at the local ER; so after finishing up work (yes, I wrapped a cravat around my arm and worked another four hours until I was done), I drove to the hospital where a nurse led me to an examination room with a bed in the center and curtains all around and told me to lie on the bed and wait for the doctor. While I rested on my back staring at the ceiling, my eyes wandered over to the surrounding curtains … up to the little chain connectors at the curtains’ tops … around the metal track the connectors were mounted in. Suddenly I cried, “There’s my shower curtains!” When the doctor stepped in, he found me standing on a chair looking up at the curtains’ ceiling connectors. My first words to him had nothing to do with my injury but were, “Where’s the custodian?” After the doc closed the cut in my forearm with seven sutures he phoned the custodian, who came up and gave me the address of the company that supplied the curtains; and the rest of the story you know.

The above experiences reveal another recycling truth. Although a building’s construction is described in a set of plans before ground is broken, many recycled materials may not be found until after construction has begun, which can lead to plan changes during construction. Hence recycling often requires flexibility by the architect, contractor, and owner.

Now, some recycled materials may cost nearly as much as analogously new materials purchased retail. For example, regarding the old barn I used in my house, I paid a carpenter who lived near the barn to dismantle it, a crew of four men to help me load the barn beams and siding onto my excavator’s backhoe trailer, the excavator to haul these materials 70 miles back to my house, and a couple of laborers to clean the beams and siding onsite; and all these outlays together came near to what I would have paid for similar-size beams and boards at a commercial lumberyard. But here’s another truth about recycling: the checks I wrote for this lumber went not to merchants and managers in other parts of the country, even the world, but to local people. Indeed, the money spent in procuring, packaging, transporting, and preparing such materials is a local “stimulus package” of which any American president would be proud.

The recycled lumber, reused rocks, retrieved liquor bottles, recovered shingles, and reclaimed steel in my house have another quality that is missing in new construction materials: the older they get the better they look. Admittedly a lot of imagination was required to create this architecture —but the more of this resource you consume, the more that remains!

In the above residence, LEED’s recycling directives were taken to a higher level of fulfillment and refinement than what would have earned a top score on any environmental checklist.

Indeed, this dwelling not only is environmental, it looks environmental: it plays the part, it practices what it preaches, inside and out. From the living room, the barn-rafter mullions between the long ribbon windows wrapping around three sides of this space look like the trunks of the trees outside, the weathered wood trim around the windows looks like the trees’ branches, and the rocks in the chimney mass behind look like the rocks on the ground outside—all of which make you feel like you’re outdoors when you’re in. As if untrammeled Nature flows in through one side of the house and out the other. As if the wind has blown through the place for a century. A few weeks ago an outdoorsman who makes his living conducting ecotours around the world visited my house. While standing in the front hall he said the place smells like the outdoors. Buildings like this need no scorecard to judge them by—a penned effort to render their values as exemplary—and they can be built by any amateur with common hand tools.

When I was in architecture school, my history professor showed color slides of Simon Rodia’s monumental Watts Towers, two of them nearly a hundred feet tall, built by one man in Los Angeles; and he showed slides of Antoni Gaudi’s gorgeous serpentine benches rimming the large public terrace of the Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain. These architectural wonders were built of trash—shattered china, defective tiles, collected seashells, broken bottles—yet they are studied in the halls of academia as examples of the finest architecture in the world. Look at these mighty works at Watts_Towers and Park Guell. You’ll be delighted at what you see.

After graduating from the Cornell School of Architecture in 1964, Robert Brown Butler has worked as a carpenter, contractor, and registered architect. Through the years Mr. Butler has received a variety of honors for his creative work. He is the author of The Ecological House, which introduced many ideas that are further advanced in this volume, among other books.This excerpt reprinted with permission from Architecture Laid Bare!: In Shades of Green, by Robert Brown Butler. © 2012, Robert Brown Butler.
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