Housing Reclaimed – Sustainable Homes for Next to Nothing

Jessica Kellner, editor of Natural Home and Garden magazine and author of Housing Reclaimed, is pictured in her home made of items destined for the dump.
Jessica Kellner, editor of Natural Home and Garden magazine and author of Housing Reclaimed, is pictured in her home made of items destined for the dump.

“As editor of the Topeka-based magazine Natural, Home & Garden, Jessica Kellner had plenty of stories of families and organizations from across the country who had built their homes from materials that were otherwise destined for the landfill.

But it wasn’t until the housing crisis hit that Kellner connected the need for building affordable housing with the drive to reduce waste.

Here’s the numbers that convinced her. The stock of affordable housing is about 4 million homes shy. Meanwhile, each year 250,000 homes are demolished and 125 million tons of construction debris are sent to the landfill.

“There is a fundamental paradox here. We are in need of low income housing and we need houses that people can actually afford, instead of everyone taking out these mortgages that we can’t pay back. At the same time, we are demolishing all these homes and taking them straight to the landfill,” Kellner said.

In her recently published book “Housing Reclaimed,” Kellner tells stories of folks who built their homes piece-by-piece with items uncovered in salvage yards and demolition sites.”

Source: Sunflower Horizons.com

Housing Reclaimed is available from New Society Publishers. From the cover:

“Housing is a fundamental human right. For most of human history, our homes were built by hand from whatever local materials were available. However, since the Industrial Revolution, most housing has become little more than quickly constructed, mass-produced, uniform boxes. At the same time, the invention and standardization of the 30-year mortgage and our ever-increasing reliance on credit has come to mean that most of us never own our homes outright.

Housing Reclaimed is a call to arms for nonconventional home builders. It examines how technological advances, design evolution and resourceful, out-of-the-box thinking about materials and efficiency can help us meet the challenge of building affordable, environmentally-friendly, beautiful and unique homes. Focusing on the use of salvaged and reclaimed materials, this inspirational volume is packed with case studies of innovative projects

These projects and others like them demonstrate that building one’s own home does not have to be an unattainable dream. This beautifully illustrated guide is a must-read for anyone interested in creating quality zero or low-debt housing, reducing landfill waste and creating stronger communities.”

22 thoughts on “Housing Reclaimed – Sustainable Homes for Next to Nothing”

  1. Owen,
    I love your work and your research. I an trying to convince my family (primarily my Granddad) on alternative building techniques. I surprised them with the durability of earthbag building. My Granddad is over the codes and building permits for his county. He had never heard of it. However my uncle had heard of it and had wanted to give it a try so far nothing has come of it. Although in your opinion which would be better earthbag, stone, shipping container, or silo building? My wife and I are planning on moving to Kentucky for a ministry opportunity and we are debating which one would be better to the eye, better for the wallet, and fastest to finish. Would love your help and input.


    • It’s impossible to say which natural building system is best. There are a whole range of considerations, including your skill set, climate, available materials (appropriate soil, etc.), schedule, personal goals, aesthetics, flammability, disaster risk, etc. Each have advantages and disadvantages. (No system is perfect for everything.)

      Earthbag building excels at providing disaster resistant structures.
      Straw bales provide excellent insulation and are fast and easy to build with.
      Recycled wood is fairly fast and well suited to those with carpentry skills and tools.
      Adobe is good for areas where it’s already popular and for ultra low cost.
      Earthbags filled with lightweight fill material is great for cold climates and those who are not real strong.

      Shoot me an email if you’re confused or want specific advice. My address is at the top of the page.

    • Justin,

      One of the best ways to begin to convince an experienced building official of the viability of a new technique is to SHOW THEM.

      In almost every area of the country, it is perfectly legal to build a small shed without ever getting a building permit.

      If you’re trying to convince your Granddad the viability of a particular construction technique, I suggest trying to find an opportunity to build a useful small shed in his area, or on property owned by some of your family. Someplace where Granddad is inevitably going to encounter the shed.

      Let him see the shed for himself. Let him see how safe it can be built.

      Just make certain that you build it correctly so that it demonstrates the building technique you are trying to promote in a positive light.

  2. Mr. Geiger, I am so thankful to have found your website(s) and opinions. I can’t express the amount of respect I have for you. Thank you for all you do to help us all.

      • I second that. Even tho’ we’ve never met in person you’ve been a huge help. I consider you a friend. Let it be known that I don’t consider many people that. I’m very particular and use discretion.

        • Thanks, Carroll. Likewise. Please keep us posted on your project. And consider making a secret food forest garden like in today’s blog post.

          • Will do. I am going to build a fairly large greenhouse to do my food stuffs and have started fruit trees already. Washington state can be tricky growing with it’s short seasons but, with trees I may have better luck plus other vegetables that may grow on their own yearly in the open. I know for sure potatoes will grow like weeds up here. You just have to remember not to dig them all up…ha. Have you got any other suggestions for this area? Lots of snow and rain.

          • Can’t help you much as far as gardening in the Pacific NW. I spent a month or so up there and that’s about it. I did manage to pick a few gallon containers of blackberries. Great fun!

            Talk to the state agricultural agent about gardening in your area. They provide free info. Also seek out local gardening clubs.

  3. It’s exactly because of all the state government intervention (codes, taxes, building permits etc.) that I happily choose to live way off grid and build my home the way I believe it to be the best build. A build that I believe to be better than what “they” want. Government is too much in our lives today. America today in some ways is not the home of the free. I guess you can tell that I don’t like the government much today. I’m just waiting to be taxed for going to the bath room.

      • Almost right. That’s 10% for number 1 and 15% for number 2. By the way, I’m still furious because of all the crap these people lay out and they don’t pay a single thing! They should pay at least 25 to 45% because they REALY do a number 2 every single day. Some say they actually have their desk in the crapper.

        • You have no idea how close to the truth you are!

          This may be a little off topic, but it’s one of the most hilarious things you’ll ever hear.

          Former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, famously made a lot of phone calls while sitting on the toilet. He also had his phone calls recorded.

          Yes, those recordings still exist.

          Here is, in all its graphic detail, AND UNCENSORED…

          LBJ ordering pants from his tailor.
          (warning, contains language some my find offensive, but it’s amazingly funny)


  4. I wonder just how many people today are thinking about building AND OWNING their home using these old tried and true methods?! America IS a debt nation today. People need to step back to the original ideas of reuse and rebuild. This is a good article…..”Thanks”…

    • Using recycled wood is one of the fastest, easiest ways to build. Stay tuned for an update on our recycled wood house. It’s coming along nicely. Final cost should be a few thousand dollars.

  5. Sounds like a great book.

    Sadly, acquiring free or cheap building materials is actually one of the easier aspects of building your own home. It’s an important aspect to be sure, and it can take a significant amount of time and effort, but it’s not particularly difficult for someone who is determined and works hard.

    Satisfying local government bureaucrats to be allowed to use those materials is the difficult, frustrating, aggravating, and in far too many locations, impossible or outrageously expensive part.

    There are still some areas in Kansas (where this author is from) where one can build an inexpensive home using these materials, but those areas are shrinking day by day. Many areas of Kansas have extremely restrictive building codes, and it is getting worse constantly. As more and more communities adopt unreasonably restrictive building codes, the ability to live inexpensively, especially without taking government handouts gets more difficult.

    Yes, this topic is repeatedly discussed on this blog. Building in areas with few or no building codes is part of the answer, but keeping areas available which have few or no building codes is perhaps more important. Those areas where someone can build freely are under threat. If things continue at the pace they currently are, I believe that areas with few or no building codes will effectively become extinct within my lifetime.

    It would be interesting if someone has ever done a study that looks to prove the hypothesis that there is a very strong link between areas that have restrictive building codes, and areas that have higher rates of poverty, homelessness, and government handouts.

    I suspect that overly restrictive building codes are far more costly to the population than just in the fees for building permits and even the increased needless expenses in building construction. I suspect that there are costs that ripple through the entire community. Increases in the amount of government handouts supporting those that are no longer permitted to build their own home using free or inexpensive local or salvaged building materials would be just one of those ripple effects.

    • Yes, most areas will not allow recycled wood. It’s for “your safety”, don’t you know?

      Meanwhile we’re making good progress on our recycled wood house. The wood has already been used on one or two previous houses and we expect it to last another 50-100 years. Good enough for this old codger. Update coming soon. Things are looking good.

      And that’s a good point about the ripple effects caused by overly restrictive codes. That might be worth a separate blog post. My hunch is that when people can’t obtain affordable housing, then all sorts of problems kick in — basically, one ripple after another — from government dependency, crime and so on.

      • Welcome Back, Owen. Glad your computer got fixed.

        It would be great to be able to get real data about these ripple effects, but my efforts searching the web have turned up nothing.

        I’m not really very surprised.

        • Thanks, however my computer is not fixed yet. The mother board is probably damaged and probably won’t be fixed for another 5 days or so. I’m temporarily using our daughter’s piece of junk computer.

          As you know, housing is a basic necessity just like food, water and clothing. Except for the last 100 years or so people have always built their own houses since the beginning of time. Depriving people of this basic need is at the core of much of society’s problems. I don’t have the data to prove this exactly, but it boils down to common sense. A few things to think about:

          – Providing housing in previous years typically involved a few weeks or months of work.
          – The work was usually done out of pocket (no debt) and with the help of the local community.
          – There was typically minimal fear of being cast out on the street since most people could at least improvise some sort of basic shelter.
          – Now, people are virtual slaves to 30 year mortgages. They spend a vast portion of their lives, money and energy on housing.
          – Most people are far removed from the building process. It’s now mysterious and intimidating except for those who work in the building trades. Women, children and the elderly especially are almost completely removed from the process.
          – People live in almost perpetual fear of losing what they’ve worked toward.

          In a nutshell: There are bound to be infinite problems when people move from a free, natural environment and turned into slaves.

          • “Perpetual fear” ripple effect.

            Most of my comments about ripple effects have focused on more tangible and at least potentially measurable effects.

            Your comment about perpetual fear opens a whole new category of ripple effects.

            Fear is just as real as all the other effects, but it’s one that is effectively impossible to measure objectively. Yet it is perhaps one of the most powerful and destructive in so many ways.

            Fear not only impacts our basic decisions, “Do I buy little Johnny new clothes for school, or do I save that money for the emergency moving fund when landlord refuses to fix the plumbing?” Fear also impacts stress levels, health, attitude, productivity, and a host of other factors.

            Many people make a lot of noise about a great number of social and political issues we face today. (Not trying to start any off topic political debate about these issues.) How many of those issues would be greatly reduced if everyone were allowed to use their own two hands and cheap or freely available materials to build their own home? How many mothers would choose to keep their children instead of feeling forced to give them up because they don’t have a safe and secure home for them? How much would educational test scores improve if every child had a safe and secure home to study in? How much would crime be reduced? How many other areas does cheap and affordable housing impact?

            How much more stable would communities become if most people actually built their own home with their own two hands? How unstable are our communities currently because housing has become a commercialized disposable commodity? Our current system has actually created ways to trade someone’s home as if it were a gambling chip at a casino. How much does that devalue each of us as humans, every belief we hold dear, and every monetary and commodity we value?

          • The economic loss from all this is probably in the trillions of $. Beyond the loss of productivity and income for individuals and society, think of the broken families, spread of diseases, lower test scores, increased crime (homeless people are much more vulnerable) and on and on due to lack of housing. That’s why having safe, decent, affordable housing is acknowledged as a basic human right by every major international organization. Take just one example — a child who doesn’t have a decent home. Studies show how their grades will on average be lower, their future prospects dimmed and their risk of becoming criminals goes way up. That’s why communities have often worked together in the past to ensure basic human needs such as housing. Letting people fall through the cracks creates problems that come back to bite us in the butt.

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