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Wednesday, 12 January 2011 22:40


Written by Dan Phillips
We believe in building codes. While we sometimes suspect special-interest groups have managed to manipulate building codes and perhaps in some areas of the country this is true - codes are the result of massive research, debate, input, and planning. They represent the minimum for a safe quality of life in America.

Building inspectors are simply doing their jobs. While they have some discretionary power, dispensations must be within the spirit of the prevailing local codes. Occasionally an inspector will make a mistake, and when confronted with written evidence in the code as published, usually will happily change a decision. With after-market construction, however, where grading of materials is impossible because of degradation, it is simply smart to enlist the support of the inspector. As an agent of the municipality HE must live with what you construct, as well as the eventual occupants. It is in everyone's best interest to insure predictably safe construction. Often that means overbuilding. Building with salvage and alternative materials puts you on the fringe of standard strategy, and one cannot expect an inspector, or a city engineer, to immediately process everything you have thought out well in advance.

At the time of permit application, I always include an explanation of what I intend to do, with a defense of why I think it will work. A defense is easy to find - you have the history of mankind as your library. I always get the engineer with whom I work to look my plans over, and put his imprimatur on the application. That helps everyone involved in the project immensely. Such a strategy has allowed me to get permits to do some outrageous projects. If everyone understands what is intended, we all are on the same page.

Procure a copy of the local code from your local building department. While reading a code is similar to reading the Chicago phone book, there is much useful information. Inspectors will gladly answer questions about the code, and if unfamiliar with a particular section, can be expected to sleuth out answers and get back to you. You would do the same. If you stay in communication with the inspection department, and keep them completely involved, it streamlines the process for everyone.

In our locale, building outside the city limits means that I am free from being inspected by the city inspection department. While that can streamline the building process, it is also a temptation to slide by details that will be hidden. A building code is essentially a guide, and it is smart procedure to meet minimum requirements of the building code for safe occupancy. Allowing yourself the luxury of saving a bit by compromising structural integrity will ultimately give everyone the blues in the future.

Departing from standard building strategies is nervy. After all, standard practice is the result of decades of experience, and who are you to try something new? That's what everyone says. You certainly won't know if it will work, however, unless you try. If it fails, well, darn. But chances are it will work when thought out in advance.

This section has been approached from a conceptual point of view, with examples, and organized into building components. The world of materials and procedures is vast, and is limited by your own imagination. In all cases, alternative tactics must be viewed from three perspectives: (1) how labor-intensive the procedure is; (2) how available the materials are; and, (3) how the materials will perform for the purpose intended. Materials that in the past would have been overlooked can now be considered, in consort with the wide range of polymers, adhesives, and fasteners that technology provides.


Gravity pulls down. Material that will resist the constant pull of gravity can be a structural member, provided it retains it shape and position. Materials can be broken concrete and rocks, core samples or firewood. Wooden cutoffs can be either stacked like bricks or framed into shorter walls and then stacked. Rammed earth can be in tires or five-gallon plastic buckets (see Fine Homebuilding, issue #111, September 1997). The whole world of adobe and cob yield wonderful possibilities. Materials are unending. The slenderness ratio, a gravity-to-structure relationship, says that the height of a wall cannot be more than 22 times its width, without help. Such a ratio guides the after-market builder in selecting materials and strategies. All materials must withstand the ravages of compression, tension, and transverse shear, created by dead and live loads, for an extended period of time. The materials must be fastened together. These can be nails, screws, mortar, structural adhesive, wooden pegs, interlocking parts that rely on gravity for a compression fit, or any of a number of polymers and adhesives that technology offers. Standard framing practice is of course always an option.


Water runs downhill, and will always go downhill unless impeded. A roof must withstand wind, heavy rain, snow, hail, and last for a bit of time. Anything that fulfills these requirements can be a roof. These materials abound: old tin, license plates (available from your tax office just ask), ferrocement, highway signs, advertising signs, and of course any combination of manufactured roofing, which is available as salvage with a bit of research.

Outside Sheathing

Often designers rely on outside sheathing to keep the structure square. Alternative materials may or may not do this. However, there are alternatives to keeping a wall square: diagonal bracing. This can be in the form of members mortised into the wall, or "wind strap," which is simply metal strap that is nailed to the structure across diagonal dimensions. The banding that lumberyards use for bundling lumber, which always ends up in dumpsters, is a nice solution, and is free. One needs to take a nail punch to put a hole in it for nailing, but it is strong. When you have a choice, opt for the one-inch wide banding, rather than the half-inch.

The moisture barrier beneath the sheathing can be felt paper, coroplast (plastic corrugated signboard available as salvage from sign companies), 6-mil polyethylene, or any of a number of commercially available products. People change their shower curtains on a fairly regular basis, and would gladly save them for you. You'd be surprised how quickly you can accumulate enough for a house easy to store, easy to use.

Once structural problems are solved, outside sheathing simply needs to be waterproof, and attractive. Since repetition and texture create pattern, anything can be used provided there is a way to fasten. Signage, old tin, scrap lumber - the array of materials marches over the horizon if you keep your eyes out. Stucco is always an option, as well as commercially available products often available as salvage. But repetition is important. If you can't repeat a texture, it tends to look a bit cluttered. Rules are always meant to be broken, however, provided you know what the rules are and enter into your rebellion with intelligence.

Floor Coverings

Sometimes a floor covering is the same as the sub floor. I have seen huge planks used for the sub floor, and simply left exposed for the finished floor. A flexible grout between planks is smart. Anything that can be fastened to the floor, and will withstand foot traffic, is a floor covering. Some ideas follow.


Attractive papers are available free of charge by the truckload. Most printers have a scrap bin that they will let you raid. Grocery sacks, product labels and cartons, posters, theatrical programs, comics can all be successfully glued to the sub floor, and then finished with two or three coats of urethane. Completely soak the paper in thinned aliphatic resin (yellow wood-carpenter's glue), about 50% water, 50% glue. Lay the now-fragile paper on the floor, smooth it out, and allow it to dry. Aliphatic resin is tough, and water-resistant.

Scrap Wood:

Glue is a marvelous thing and allows the permutations of a wooden floor to be endless. I have seen strips of quarter-inch oak plywood glued to the sub floor in strips, yielding a hardwood floor appearance absolutely undetectable from the real thing. Cabinet shops often have scrap they throw away. Mosaics are always successful, and yield the additional bonus of designs and patterns for the floor.

Tile and Stone:

Scrap tile is everywhere, but usually not enough of any one color to do an entire floor. Don't overlook giving the tile the hammer treatment, and then putting in a mosaic floor. Stones from your driveway are easily glued to the floor. Perhaps you have a riverbed close by, or you have lots of scrap brick. Glue, grout, and seal.


A mud floor, troweled on to the sub floor is not only attractive, but quite durable and repairable. When the mud dries and cracks, either put yet another coat in the cracks, or fill with a colored grout. Urethane over the top. Fortify the mud with Portland cement, or aliphatic resin, or perhaps another binder you know of. Mucilage from animals and plants is a classic binder.


Don't overlook simply painting the sub floor with a textural patterns, sponges, stripes, stencils, or the whole array of designs.

Wall Coverings:

Wall coverings are the same as floor coverings, except they must be able to hold the weight of a mirror, picture, or shelf. Fastening is important. If you solve these problems, literally anything can be used. Repetition and texture create pattern. Plaster, stucco, scraps of wood, papier-mâché, tile, stone, paint - all are options, and of course, each requires its peculiar substrate.

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