Often when we hear "prefab houses," we conjure up thoughts of structures pieced together on a site like a puzzle made from mass produced parts that were shipped as separate pieces. While these homes are often more sustainable, they can leave much to be desired in regards to character, aesthetic, and durability. But Reclaimed Space, founded by Tracen Gardner in Austin, Texas, is changing the way we think about prefabricated buildings. Instead of using anonymous materials from mega-factories, Gardner and his team salvage beautiful woods and metals from old homes, barns, and buildings across Texas and use these unique materials to build one of a kind, handmade spaces. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Gardner and learn how Reclaimed Space is carving an artisan niche in the prefab world and why Gardner believes that all designers have a responsibility to be sustainable.
Why did you start Reclaimed Space?
Tracen Gardner: The job came about because I’ve always been in the construction business. I had a ranch that was remote, and I questioned how I was going to be able to build out there. So that’s when I built the first space. After that, a bunch of people told me “Hey, you should do something with this. It’s the right pitch, the right amount of wood versus metal, the right materials,” and they talked me into trying to sell them. Then I realized that there’s a real demand for spaces like this, and it grew from there. It all grew about from having a place that’s remote and without water or electricity and needing to live on it within a short period of time. If you tried to build out there, it would take forever. It would take many months or even years – you wouldn’t believe how long it can take. You never know what will come up. Building in a controlled environment speeds it up, and you can accumulate materials that have meaning behind them.
Reclaimed Space works to minimize and even reverse the effects that new building and construction have on the environment. Can you talk about how you accomplish this?
Tracen Gardner: We save a thousand or two cubic yards of landfill waste by deconstructing the structures. If they don’t go to a landfill, they’ll either get burned on site or they’ll get pushed into a hole. It’s just better all the way around. There’s fewer nails left on the job site, there’s less to burn if they are going to burn anything. It’s an encouragement for landowners to want to clean up their land and to sometimes remove a structure that could become a liability. Plus, the fact that we’re reusing the materials makes it less wasteful than if you had to bring in new materials to finish a project.
There’s somewhat of a debate between whether or not prefab houses are more sustainable than building homes on site. Given Reclaimed Space homes are prefabricated, why do you believe that this is a more sustainable way to build?
Tracen Gardner: I think that every time I’ve seen a new construction go on, it’s a solid concrete slab, and there’s a lot of waste. The amount of waste that goes into building a 1,200 square foot space would probably use upwards of four dumpsters in the course of that construction, whereas we use less than half of a dumpster. New constructions typically use solid concrete slabs, and if you change your mind about something, you have a big concrete structure that you have to deal with. Whereas our homes, people are able to pick them up and move them at a later day. Some we’ve moved as many as six times. The ability to put them all together quickly lets us really be thorough with everything that we’re doing to maximize our resources.
What responsibility do you think that designers and architects have in terms of sustainability, if any at all?
Tracen Gardner: I think it’s so simple that you can’t ignore it, really. It’s so easy that you shouldn’t ignore it. You want the right amount of light to be let in and out depending on your climate – that means heat coming in and how you control it, how you shade it, or open it up. It’s not a really complex way of looking at it. It’s just trying to understand each climate and meeting the client’s needs. We’ve built homes made for 6.5 magnitude earthquakes in California, and we’ve done wind-strapping on the coast for 120 mile per hour hurricane winds. We hope to keep making the homes different and unique. That’s one thing that we’ve found that our clients really appreciate is that theirs is one of a kind. There are no two alike and there’s no way to really make two alike.
What type of materials do you reclaim? Is there a most common type of wood that you use?
Tracen Gardner: What we find and use most is long leaf pine. It’s the interior wall, it would be where the drywall or sheetrock would be. It’s six inches wide and however many linear feet we can get together. What we prefer is anything that’s over 70 to 80 years old. They quit using long leaf after about the ’30s into the ’60s, and building techniques have changed, so there’s a lot fewer materials that we can get. The other material that we use a lot of is exterior barn wood, and we find that galvanized tin is readily available, you just have to go and look for it or ask around for it. But when we do find the tin, we can find it in big increments.
From a design perspective, what are the benefits to using reclaimed materials?
Tracen Gardner: There’s a lot of different wood types, and they’re beautiful. They’re from first cut forests a lot of times, so they are unique. Also, there’s history behind each piece — where it came from, who lived there, what was done there. There’s a lot of significance in where it came from, whether it’s from a church or a brewery or livery stable or someone’s home in the neighborhood or their old furniture. Often times people have us build pieces into their structure so it’s more personalized.
What is the biggest challenge when designing with environmental sustainability in mind?
Tracen Gardner: Meeting the client’s needs versus the sun’s demands. We have an incredible heat source here [in Texas] that we have to watch out for with window placement, porch placement, and the direction of the house. There’s a lot of variables that go into building a space and putting it in the right location. The one that’s been moved six times was built pretty well because it’s face north, south, east, and west, and it’s worked out just fine each time. It’s all about catching the sun and protecting all the windows from that heat.
How are you able to keep the homes affordable?
Tracen Gardner: Um, by not eating. [laughs] No, we’re all in it because it is an artisan thing that we’re doing, and we all recognize that we’re going to have to grow this business together to be able to get ahead in today’s economy. You can’t just come in and expect to make six figures after the first year at a job. You have to come in and make sure it’s a good fit. And so far, it is. Just tell 20 of your closest friends about us, and that will help.
All images via Reclaimed Space