Yes, it still needs a coat of paint... Image credit: Sami & Jenni Grover
We're big into creative reuse here at TreeHugger, especially when it comes to architecture. From trains repurposed as bunkhouses to establishing building reuse centers for reclaiming waste, the idea that we can save the embodied energy in our building materials—that is the energy (and resources) that went into making them—and give them a new lease of life is central to more sustainable living. So when my wife and I decided to build a home office, it only made sense to explore the option of reuse. But how do you work with a contractor to make the best use of reclaimed materials?
New Home Office? Look First at What You HaveBefore starting any building project, it's worth taking a long, hard look first at what you have. After all, a spare bedroom can often double as a home office with little or no renovation needed. If, however, you decide you need to build a separate space, it is still worth thinking hard about what you have available to you. When we first started talking about a home office, I immediately assumed we would need to build new. My mind started wondering about all kinds of weird and wonderful green ideas—treehouses, strawbale construction, cob, or maybe one of these space-age modern home office sheds. But luckily my wife—and our contractor—have clearer heads on their shoulders. Sitting at the back of our house was a small barn and lean-to storage area that was primarily used for storing junk. I had almost completely overlooked this space, assuming it was too trashy and drafty to create a good home office.
The original barn structure.
Find a Contractor Who Cares About ReuseOur contractor—Marty Hanks of Sweat Equity Construction, Chapel Hill (hey, he deserves a plug!)—is a friend, and I chose to work with him because I knew he is passionate about sustainability and reclamation—both as a means to keep trash out of the landfill, but also to support a local economy. Marty also has a strong focus in his work on renovation, preservation and custom building—skills that are highly valuable when working with reuse, as opposed to someone more accustomed to new construction . As soon as he set his eyes on the barn, he started trying to dissuade me from my grander plans.
In short order, he explained how he could reuse the primary structure, convert the lean to at the back into a workshop area (using the original doors from the barn to enclose it), and incorporate reclaimed, recycled and otherwise sustainable materials throughout the project.
I was sold.
Original lean-to storage area behind barn.
Finding Reclaimed Materials: Search Before You DesignOur next step was to start finding materials we could deploy for the job. Marty advised us he would be happy to adapt plans to fit what materials were available, so we immediately started searching Craigslist for doors and windows. Almost immediately, we hit upon a 3-frame window set with low-e glass for a mere $30. We were on our way.
The lean-to is transformed into a workshop space behind the home office, complete with original barn doors.
Next up we visited our local Habitat for Humanity ReStore and scored another low-e double pane window, 90 square foot of laminate flooring, and a doorframe with windows, all for just over $300.
Working with Contractors: Expect FlexibilityWhile we were off to a good start, it couldn't all be plain sailing. Having purchased our door frame, we later discovered when our contractor went to pick it up that it was a foot taller than I had realized. (Hey, I've said before I am not exactly practical!) But working with guys who were accustomed to reuse, this proved not to be a major issue. They sourced another frame the same day, and purchased an FSC-certified new door to fit it. Sure, it involved a little rejiggering of the design, but it was not the end of the world.
The reclaimed window in our home office.
Reuse Has It's Limits: Expect Some New MaterialsWhile reuse is all well and good, I would argue it is worth being flexible about what materials you use. If you can push for using reclaimed, recycled, and otherwise sustainably-sourced materials wherever possible, you should cut yourself some slack about occasionally heading to Lowes to pick up what you need. The chances of finding reclaimed drywall in usable condition are slim to non-existent anyway.
Drywall & GreenFibre insulation inside the home office.
Reuse Is Just One Factor: Don't Forget About PerformanceIt's easy to get carried away with reclaiming this, and recycling that. But embodied energy is just one factor in the sustainability of your new office. From the start, our discussions with our contractor were at least as much about how the building would perform—both in terms of usability and energy use.
So we sat down and very carefully laid out the various ways it would be used—from home office to occasional guest bedroom to parental sanctuary and eventually a teen hangout spot. And we aimed to optimize our design to make that possible.
Slate floor and reclaimed laminate flooring inside home office. The slate stores heat from the sun and the wood stove to provide for more even temperatures.
We added a new wood stove—though given the short heating season, and my tendency to work in a cold space, we opted to not invest in the fanciest, most efficient stove technology.
We ran DSL and electric out there, and a ceiling fan reclaimed from our living room. And we installed a dark slate floor in the front of the structure to capture passive solar heat and to even out the temperatures from the wood stove. We also added two layers of insulation in the walls and ceiling, and blew recycled newspaper insulation into the space beneath the barn.
On first firing of the stove, it seems a hot, fast fire in the morning creates enough heat to be still emanating warmth well into the afternoon.
Reuse, Sustainability and Working with ContractorsNow that our project is complete, and all that is left is a few licks of paint, and more than a few trips to the second-hand furniture store, I think the biggest thing I've learned about working with contractors on reuse or sustainable building is to make sure they get it, and give a damn, first and foremost. Time and again I would get nervous as we had to change our plans to incorporate this window, or that door, but the guys we worked with were ready to be flexible, creative and resourceful to do the job with a minimum of new materials.
Reuse is Not Always CheapThe other main lesson, I would argue, is that reuse is not always cheap. The fact is that in a world that undervalues natural resources and energy, it is sometimes cheaper and easier to pick up virgin materials than to go out of your way to incorporate old stuff. Sure, we saved considerable amounts on windows and doors (both of which are highly energy-intensive elements in any construction), and the decision to reuse the original structure was a no brainer. But by the time we had paid the guys to carefully remove the barn doors and reposition them, or reframe the door for a second time to fit some unexpected dimensions, it was clear that on some items it would have been cheaper to buy new. Overall I have little doubt we came out on top, but I would caution against thinking of reuse as always being the budget option—even when it is the most environmentally preferable.
I pointed a camera at Marty and asked him a few questions about working on reuse from a contractor's perspective. This was the result.
Above all, though, I would say that embarking on a reuse project—whether you are practical DIYer or, like myself, prefer to have someone give you a helping hand—is an opportunity to create a unique space with character like no other. I wish I could say I was already typing this sentence from my new/old reclaimed space, but I guess I soon will be.