Tiny Houses need fewer materials. Often we can complete a job with leftovers from someone else’s bigger job. Smaller structures are easier to build with strength – shorter spans can carry more weight. Less material also means far less expense. These are some of the factors making a tiny house a manageable building project for almost anybody who can work a saw, a drill, and a hammer.
The biggest thing I built before my house is a set of shelves. I am not an exceptional person – building a tiny house is exceptionally possible.
Giant houses are being built by developers who hire construction crews. The materials are brought to the jobsite by the truckload. When ordering materials, it is standard practice to over-estimate because of likely mistakes which will need to be re-done. Developers are rich and new homes are expensive – there is plenty of money to pay for the wood in the dumpster. The workers have no personal investment in or attachment to the materials, which creates an environment that is ripe-to-bursting with dumpsters to harvest.
Have you taken a peek inside a jobsite dumpster? Long two-by lumber and half sheets of plywood abound. I have also seen unused buckets of joint compound, unused lighting fixtures still in the boxes, many pounds of unused nails, unused caulk – it’s somebody else’s money, so it goes in the dumpster with no hesitation. The crews make the most money by being wasteful-but-quick. Time costs much more than wood. A contractor can’t afford to pay a carpenter to puzzle over where to fit a half sheet of plywood. Measurements are made on a fresh new sheet, while a workable cutout waits for the landfill. If 10% of the full sized studs are a little twisted – toss them in the dumpster.
It’s time to get pro-active about re-used building materials. I’m talking to myself, I’m talking to you, and I’m shouting into space.
There are good reasons to use building materials that are not purchased directly from corporations. Corporations distort our sense of what we need. Corporations do this because they are human-built monsters which have been programmed to profit and have no ethics or morality to make them hit the brakes. This dangerous arrangement pulls humans under the wheels of the bus, and allows Earth’s resources to be plucked with abandon. Worse yet, now that they exist, it is not feasible or prudent to dissolve a company that is creating jobs and holding a stabilizing arm under our nation’s economy.
Beyond ethics and sustainability are the equally compelling forces of cost and aesthetics. Personally, I prefer the look of a tiny house that reveals something about the builder. A tiny house constructed of all-new materials from Home Depot does not have the same charm and character as a home with beams cut roughly using a chainsaw. Both are functional, but only one of them inspires me.
I don’t have a chainsaw that can rough-cut timbers, but I have an old pair of shoes, and I can dodge nails inside a dumpster. When I think about money and myself, I think in terms of opportunity costs as often as income. If I can get materials for free, then that is a direct amount of money that I do not need to earn in some other way. If a corporation loses a sale, and a landfill loses potential mass – that is icing on the cake. It’s a game. The more I re-use materials and avoid corporate product streams, the more I win.
The more we care about the Earth, the less we should care about straight lines and flat surfaces in our homes. Carpenters need to be concerned with straight lines. Straight lines make easier work for the drywall and carpet guys. Straight lines show skill and quality. Straight lines are necessary to sell the house.
A tiny house built by its owner can handle some lumber with a personality – as long as it keeps the rain out and the owner stays warm.
Tiny House owner-builders have a choice to make. We can try to emulate the skills and styles of specialists with decades of experience – with likely disappointing results for those of us who are first-time builders. Or – we can try our hardest to remember that imperfection does not equal weakness. A twisted stud will hold up a roof. Knots in wood – not a problem. With an open mind and a dedication to finding creative solutions, we can reduce cost and waste much further than we already are. We can photograph our progress and explain our decisions. We learn from each other. With more information about the creative sourcing and use of materials will come an increased confidence in would-be builders that they too can build a happy home.
I am proud of my tiny house’s cost-quality ratio, and I am proud that my windows, siding, and insulation were 100% used materials or headed for the trash. Given more time and energy, a larger percentage of my total materials would have come from scraps and bargains. Expediency also has a value – you can’t always wait a month to avoid buying a $2 cinder block, but you can remember to look for a free one first. Or use some old bricks instead. I couldn’t find everything in a dumpster or on Craigslist, but I made a strong effort. Basic lumber is so inexpensive that we conveniently forget how much energy is being wasted to harvest it. I didn’t forget, but to be honest, I’ve spent thousands of dollars at Lowes that I wish went somewhere else. It’d be nice if there were universal access to used lumber and sawmill seconds, but that isn’t currently realistic. So I shopped in some dumpsters, got some fantastic bargains, and bought the rest with plastic and carried it home in more plastic. I’m a faulty human American. The trick is to do your best – strike a comfortable balance while maintaining a willingness to improve.
I know of four major ways to get building materials outside of the new-production stream.
1) Dumpster-direct. Find out where new construction or renovation is happening, and go to the dumpsters when the workers are gone. Watch out for nails; bring gloves. I got loads of plywood and studs this way.
2) Craigslist. That’s where I got my insulation, siding, and most of my windows. I got the siding for free from a guy who pulled it out of a dumpster on a jobsite. I got insulation that was pulled out of a gymnasium ceiling and would have gone into a dumpster if a worker didn’t catch it on the rebound. I paid $8 per sheet, and the enterprising employee had thousands of sheets. If you see something of value, you can sell it on Craigslist even if you don’t need it yourself.
3) Call around. Window installers throw away the windows they remove. This is America – most of those windows are absolutely fine. If you can speak well on the phone, then you can figure out how to get in touch with the person most likely to help you – usually someone further down the chain without a personal stake in selling you something. Talking in person is best, and talking to management usually doesn’t work. I adopt a friendly lilt in my tone, and speak as though I have an unassailable zeal for life. I speak with put-on confidence and use any leverage to make it hard to tell me “no.” You’ll have to find what works for you. Simply asking people for what you want can be surprisingly effective. And a shutdown can be brushed off.
4) Shop at the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store, or look for other “salvaged” or “reclaimed” building material businesses. The Re-Store in my town is a great source for doors, windows, lighting, electrical, hardware, tiles, furniture… all the construction basics. An “architectural salvage” business might cater to fancy people and only offer expensive accent items, but some are a good resource for the basics as well. I even found one place that had a small stock of used 2×4’s – rare indeed, but admirably thorough.
If I am missing any major (or minor) sources of not-new building supplies, let me know in the comments.
I am writing these words with the empowerment of individuals close to my heart. I am not writing this to condemn corporations. But these are often two sides of the same coin – and I like humans better than monsters. If a monster does an ounce of good in the world, it is not out of benevolence. Wake up, smell the self interest, and lets all try to wean ourselves from our connections to a larger network of greed and suffering.
If you are reading this, and you are in charge of a large, powerful company – please look at your feet: if you are standing on a pulpy mound of the bones of suffering humans, please adjust your business practices accordingly. The fall weather is pretty, but some of us are still having trouble breathing down here.
Good luck with your tiny house building project!