Houses to Save the Earth by Seth Shulman (March 3, 1996)
You are walking on the casings of used fluorescent bulbs," says Steven Loken, pointing to the ceramic floor tiles in his master bathroom. The rich blue tiles around the tub were made from recycled car windshield glass. It's the kind of detail Loken loves to volunteer about the dream house he built on the out- skirts of Missoula, Mont. In the kitchen, the sink looks like it is made of stone, but Loken explains that it was molded from epoxy and granite dust-a byproduct left when granite is quarried. The carpets upstairs were once plastic milk jugs, from the foundation to the roof tiles, the split-level house is made almost entirely of recycled materials.Houses to save the earth.
Despite the sound of it, the house Doesn't look newfangled or avant-garde. In fact, without Loken's animated descriptions, a visitor would never guess the origins of the materials--a feature he says was important when he set out in 1990 to build his "recycled" house. "I wanted to show that you could use re- cycled building materials without making any compromises on the type of house most Americans want," says Loken. "This meant that the place had to look like any other house if the ideas behind it were going to catch on."
Since his house was completed in 1992, Loken's efforts have caught on in ways he never imagined, helping to spawn one of the county's hottest trends in house construction. In fact, over the past few years, Loken has become something of a guru to an alternative- material movement among builders. He travels the country regularly giving lectures about his building techniques. So far, 12,000 people, including architects and builders from around the world, have made the pilgrimage to his Missoula home.
Why make houses from recycled materials? To Loken it is a question of using our resources efficiently. The average wood-framed house, after all, uses an astonishing 11,000 board feet of lumber-enough, stacked end to end, to top the Empire State Building and both World Trade Center towers combined -but the stock of large-diameter trees has steadily declined. In addition to the environmental consequences, the diminishing supply has led to a significant rise in the average price of lumber."I wanted to show that you could use recycled building materials without making any compromises on the type of house most Americans want."
But, as Loken puts it, builders are a "conservative bunch who tend to favor old reliables" when choosing materials. He realized that, if he was going to change attitudes, he would have to do something about it himself. "I realized I was part of the problem every time I blindly followed building practices that were inherently wasteful," he says.
The result was Loken's own path- breaking house, in which he incorporated recycled materials into virtually every facet of construction. The house's insulation, for instance, is made from blown bits of cellulose derived from shredded newspaper. Instead of using cement to mix the foundation's concrete, fly ash was added. (Fly ash is a waste product from incinerators and coal- burning power stations. Generally hazardous, it is harmless when fused into concrete.) Loken used one-sixth of the wood required to frame a conventional house of the same size. The wood he did use was either salvaged or "composite" lumber made from the chips of slender trees, which normally are discarded.
For Loken, an important part of the project has been to live in the house with his family (wife, Christine; daughter, Kim. 7; and son, Rye, 5), testing the products over time. Loken says he has learned some lessons the hard way: The recycled sawdust and cement tiles he used on his roof look identical to slate and came with a 50-year guarantee. But they are beginning to flake after five years of Montana's brutal, freeze-thaw climate. "It is sad," Loken says, "but this is how you learn."
So far, however, most of the products Loken used have worked flawlessly. And though it has a furnace, the house is so energy-efficient that it can stay comfortable in winter with just ambient heat (from cooking, body heat and other existing sources) and solar heat (enhanced by the home's southern exposure).
As an outgrowth of his building efforts Loken founded a Missoula-based organization called the Center for Resourceful Building Technology in 1990. The center serves as a clearing- house for new ideas about building materia1s, replete with samples of every- thing from "strawboard" (a plywood substitute made from straw) to a paintable, woodlike material made from soybeans. Tracy Mumma, the research coordinator at the center, keeps close track of changes in the use of materials by the construction industry. "Recycled carpets are really catching on, " she says, "as are some of the lumber products made from recycled plastics."
Meanwhile, in the past several years, a half-dozen demonstration homes like Loken's have followed his initial effort -including houses in Arizona, Oregon, Massachusetts and Minnesota. All have offered builders a look at the new materials and have proved that competitively priced homes--which look and feel as solid, safe, and appealing as any on the market-can be built today from recycled materials.
"Efforts like these help contractors to see the new materials and talk with other builders who have learned to work with them." says Kate Warner, an architect who employed Loken's help to build a "resource-efficient" house on Marsha's Vineyard, Mass. "We ask people to recycle, but then we don't know what to do with the stuff," she says.
Warner's sentiments are echoed by builders across the country. For instance, Brian Paul Sweeney, a Washington-based architect, recently finished a model conservation house in downtown Seattle. He believes designers and contractors eventually will adapt to what he terms "issues of sustainability," just as they have to stringent energy codes and to the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires public buildings and bathrooms to be accessible by wheelchair. "My hope," Sweeney says, "is that these materials and building techniques will become so commonplace that contractors won't see them as extra demands."
But the demonstration homes of Loken, Warner and Sweeney alone don't nearly convey the growing popularity of the new building materials and techniques that Loken has helped pioneer. The real action is happening at thousands of other new homes that are starting to incorporate some of the new materials and techniques into their designs. And many more recycled products have become available in the last few years, as wood prices have risen steeply. Just five years ago, Loken explains, many recycled building materials were relatively overpriced and hard to come by.
Amid all the attention to his ideas, Loken keeps a frenetic building pace. His construction firm currently is rehabilitating Missoula's oldest commercial building downtown. And he is focusing more on affordability in his latest project-building a new, low-cost, resource-efficient house. Like his own home, this one uses considerably less wood than the average home and incorporates many recycled products. This time, Loken says the goal is also to meet or beat the cost of a comparable home using conventional materials.
Today, Loken notes proudly, he has prospective clients from as far away as Atlanta and New York. He says he is happy to see many recycled building materials being used but views some of them as only interim solutions. "I'm interested in cutting down on waste altogether and making more intelligent use of our resources," he says. The key is turning one industry's waste into another's raw materials. "If we could master this," he says, "our environment and our society would be a lot better off."