A fellow named Paul emailed me with this question:
I really like what you have set out to do with these projects. It is so important that we find new ways to structure our social systems so that they are more inclusive of alternative, lower embedded-energy housing solutions. Recycling is the most obvious way of lowering the environmental cost of building – particularly if the recycled material is destined to be junked. I have one little concern though – I have heard that many products in shipping containers are routinely doused or loaded with pesticides before being allowed through customs. If true, this would mean many imported products are coated in a layer of poison. Wouldn’t this be absorbed into the timber of the pallets? Has any organisation ever conducted toxicity tests on pallets to establish whether they are safe to use, especially around children? Cheers, Paul
Here is my answer:
I know of no studies, and no expert myself, but the knowledgable people I’ve consulted tell me that any reclaimed wood should be handled carefully especially when being cut or sanded – and never burned if suspected of contamination. These activities, especially burning, could release anything bound to the wood so proper safety measures should be taken – use of respirators, etc.
The other thing that was conveyed to me was that most of the fumigants known to be used on pallet shipments evaporate/dissipate quickly, so little residue would theoretically be left on the wood. A good layer of sealant over the finished wood would be a wise precaution, but make your own decisions about safety.
Lastly… considering the amount of toxic chemicals used in many manufactured wood based materials and their known dangers I suspect an old pallet is the least of our worries – but that is just my humble opinion.
It’s an excellent question. In short, use caution when handling any reclaimed material.
2011 has been a busy year for me with little opportunity to work on the tiny free house. Yesterday we were at the family farm for a few hours to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner and I snapped the photo below. The house appears to be no worse for wear. Putting the roof on it last fall was definitely the right thing to do.
The big news I have to report for 2011 is the adoption of a baby girl – growing our family to 4 (mom, dad, and two daughters). Our little one is almost two years old now and we’ve had her in our home full time since she was about 8 months old – but we’ve known her since birth.
You see our daughter’s birth parents are relatives who’s lives spun out of control and into the lap of the law. It’s a sad story but at least their three children (13, 6, and 2) safely landed in the arms of family after a short (1 month) stay in the official foster system. The other two have been adopted by their grandparents.
It’s situations like this that scream for the right kind of help from the community (a.k.a. the system). For example if safe and low cost housing were available to people who fall on tough times, bad luck, drug dependencies, whatever… maybe they would get the leg-up needed to pull things together themselves. Our society seems to reward those who have good luck with the money game and punish those that don’t. To top it all off all the rules/laws seem to be written to amplify this effect instead of helping everyone achieve their goals.
I don’t have the answers for these bigger questions but I’m sure something useful will be learned by my effort. Check back in 2012 – if my current time constraints reduce I’ll be back at it and highly motivated to finish my tiny free house.
Oh by the way. Just to the right of the house is another natural gas well going in nearby. The area is now littered with fracked gas wells.
I’m sad to report that I won’t be completing this Tiny Free House, but I can share my lessons learned and what I’ll do differently the the next time I attempt to build another free house.
Choose a place to build the house close to home. Building a house, even a tiny one, takes time. So if your time is scarce, it may be difficult to schedule serious work trips to the build site. In my case my time is incredibly scarce and spent mostly with my children, wife, day job, and blogging work.
Choose a place to build that you own and/or control. If you build on someone else’s land like I did, you’ll be subject to the other things happening there. In my case most of what was the family farm was sold off in a bitter dispute between the owners. A tiny portion was kept but now the atmosphere there is not conducive to visits. So in other words if you don’t own/control the build site you’ll be subject to the random events in other people’s lives.
Avoid taking shortcuts on quality. My worst mistake was building on a free and low-quality trailer. It works fine for moving the house around the property but I wouldn’t want to pull it down a freeway.
Make wise choices for when to use reclaimed materials. I built this house with shipping pallets and did everything I could to built it strong. But with the benefit of hindsight I would have searched harder for free normal dimensional lumber for the framing and used the pallet wood for floors, siding, cabinets, and furniture.
Don’t rush things. This is hard to do when you have little time, but essential for a quality home. Do the job right the first time and avoid trouble down the road.
Weight the cost in time against the cost in dollars carefully. When I started this house in 2008 I wasn’t planning on factoring my time into the budget, which was a mistake. My time is worth a lot. So I can make a lot more money by spending time doing things like blogging than I can save scavenging for materials. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pull over and toss something in the back of my truck when I see good stuff free on the curb. I should always do that, as well as browse the free stuff on craigslist over a cup of coffee while taking a break. But time costs money so avoid selling your time cheap – even to yourself.
I will attempt this again, but next time it will be on my own property, where I live, and with enough space for storing found materials. I’ve also learned a lot about building on a dime over the past few years and won’t be using pallets in the same way again.
Pallet wood is great stuff and if handled with care can be reused safely – my milage. The main issue with all reclaimed materials is that you don’t know anything about its history. Pallets may have been fumigated with some nasty stuff, so it should not be burned and when cut, a respirator should be worn. When you work with wood, whatever is in the wood may be released, so extra care should be taken with materials that have questionable histories.
Instead of pallets I think I’ll build with dirt. I’m leaning toward earthbags because they can be found in the waste stream. So if I could find some regular users of feed and grain bags, and ask them to hold them for me, I could theoretically collect many without spending a bunch of time. Other needed earthbag building materials are things like barbed wire, wire pins, rough lumber for lintels and door & window rough bucks. All these things can be found for free and inexpensively.
So in a nutshell I think it’s totally possible to build for free – except for the land. It’s not as easy as spending money, but for those with the time, skills, and desire I think building for free or cheap is totally within reach.