Tiny Tuesday: You Gotta Start Somewhere

Real estate agents often describe a small house as a “starter home” – implying, in the truest American tradition, that the owners will get a bigger one as soon as they can afford. Some people do trade up to accommodate kids or absorb a higher income. Others find that small suits their needs, and stay in the “starter home” for most of their adult lives.

And then there’s Luke Thill from Iowa, who built his own starter home but will probably never move into it. Luke lives with his parents and plans to keep that arrangement for a while longer. He’s 13.


Luke Thill and his “starter home.”

According to this Des Moines Register article, Luke bankrolled the whole project himself. He reclaimed 75% of his materials, spent $1500 he earned from lawnmowing and online fundraising, and bartered labor – for example, he cleaned a neighbor’s garage in exchange for the neighbor, an electrician, to help him wire the house.

The 89-square-foot groundbound house has a shed roof and a front deck. Inside is a kitchen with hot plate and refrigerator, a living room with couch and TV, and a sleeping loft. There’s no plumbing, which means the house cannot be a legal dwelling. Nevertheless, Luke uses the structure for homework and entertaining friends, and he sleeps there a couple nights a week. He plans to eventually sell it and use the proceeds to build a larger house on a trailer that he can bring to college. A starter home, indeed.

“Everyone had to have a big house, and now people have changed and realized it’s not practical. You can save money, travel the world and do what you want instead.”
Luke Thill

Tiny Tuesday: Three Unusual Adaptive Reuses

Adaptive reuse occurs when a structure, having outlasted its original function, gets repurposed for a new function. The term includes things like barns and shipping containers that get converted to homes, but excludes remodels within a home or office – the new function needs to be considerably different from the old, or in a different location. It’s a smart concept, though not always effective: the conversion process may be more expensive or more energy-intensive than starting from scratch.

Here are three unusual examples of adaptive reuse that span the spectrum from clever and environmentally friendly to just plain cool.

1. Shipping container gardens. A major problem with shipping container homes is that they’re expensive to retrofit for human comfort: the steel sides let heat in but don’t let heat escape. The company Freight Farms uses the greenhouse effect in its favor by turning shipping containers into hydroponic greenhouses. Each unit is outfitted with rows of irrigated trellises from which farmers can grow vertical gardens. LED lighting, humidity, and airflow are optimized for photosynthesis. A remote app controls light, heat, and watering, and a single container can contain several different zones. Aimed at commercial growers, the containers sell for $85,000.


A steel bridge in Ohio.

2. Bridge beam salvage. Ohio DOT has found a fiendishly simple use for the steel beams they salvage when a bridge is torn down: build them into another bridge! Most deficient bridges get replaced due to spalling concrete abutments, cracking decks, and rusty cross-bracing; the steel beams of the superstructure may have plenty of design life remaining. Projects with full local funding are encouraged to choose salvaged beams from Ohio DOT’s storage facility – they’re free for the taking, including transportation. In addition to saving money, project managers can greatly reduce the embodied energy of their bridges compared to fabricating new steel.

3. Missile silo homes. During the Cold War, the US built hundreds of underground missile launch facilities in preparation for nuclear war. Most of the sites have been decommissioned, leaving lots of big holes in the ground. Believe it or not, about a dozen of theses holes have since been converted to private homes. This Huffington Post article describes one such house in Lewis, New York, which was for sale as recently as 2013. Underground homes do benefit from low heating costs due to the insulating effect of soil, but the work required to make this place habitable was surely monumental.

Thanks to Robin Jaeger.

Oversize Load

Old buildings are on the move in northern Vermont. Last Sunday, a 19th-century house was transported 2 miles by truck, on flatbed trailers, from Winooski to Burlington. The following day, during an unrelated project in the Northeast Kingdom, a similar feat was performed using oxen.

Bridport-based New England Building Movers managed the job in Burlington. They moved the private home basically in one piece; only the dormer window was removed. The route included crossing the Route 7 Winooski Bridge (I envy the engineer who got to analyze this load case), and power lines and traffic lights were swung out of the way as necessary. Compared to the self-propelled modular transporters used for rapid bridge replacements, this convoy traveled at a surprisingly quick walking speed of about 3 mph. I guarantee the Burlington Free Press video of a house rolling down the street will make you giggle.

Developer Nate Dagesse plans to build housing and offices on the now-vacant site in Winooski. He gave away the structure for free; the new homeowner, Chris Khamnei, needed only to pay the cost of moving it. I wonder if the $100,000 price tag includes construction of a new foundation… although even if the foundation cost another $100K, it’s a bargain compared to building a similar-size house from scratch. Add a hefty savings in embodied energy – new construction materials were minimized, and old ones didn’t go to a landfill – and moving a house looks like a very smart thing to do.


Oxen move a historic Brownington structure the old-fashioned way.

Not to be outdone, East Montpelier-based Messier House Moving & Construction moved a Brownington schoolhouse a third of a mile using 44 oxen. The choice of power was historically driven: draft animals moved structures frequently in 19th-century Vermont, including this very schoolhouse. (Town officials say this building, formerly the Orleans County Grammar School, was simply returned to its original location.) Messier began the project by excavating around the schoolhouse and inserting steel support beams under the structure, then using jacks to lift it. That’s exactly how the same company lifted a house I worked on last summer. Working with beasts of burden was new to them, however.

Thanks to Laura Schutz for both stories!