INHABITAT: What inspired you to write Housing Reclaimed?
Jessica Kellner: I was inspired to write Housing Reclaimed after hearing stories on the news day after day about all the people losing their homes following the housing market crash of 2006 to 2008. In my work at Natural Home & Garden, I had seen many amazing homes built for next to nothing out of materials otherwise headed for the landfill. As people lost their homes after buying into a market in which housing prices had been falsely inflated, I began thinking about those homes as an alternative way that people could create shelter for themselves and their families without depending on the success of the real estate market and Wall Street. I saw it partially as a way to inspire hope in people’s minds about creating their own affordable housing, and partially as a way to fight back against a system that I believe robbed many people of their homes and financial livelihood to benefit wealthy investors.
INHABITAT: How has your work as Editor of Natural Home & Garden influenced your opinions on sustainable housing?
Jessica Kellner: My work at Natural Home & Garden has opened my eyes to the many options in sustainable housing, but what I’ve found truly influential in my work are the stories of people who have taken their homes into their own hands. Those who have said, “I’m not going to do the conventional thing and have a little white box made of plywood and vinyl. I’m going to make something that is shaped by my lifestyle and my family and my needs.”
Not so long ago, our homes were reflective of our families and they changed over time. You had a baby, you added on. Your parents got older, you added a story or a second structure. Today our “one size fits all” model doesn’t have the heart of those hand built spaces. And what I really wanted to show in the book is that that spirit isn’t just reserved for the wealthy who can afford a super-customized, architect-built dream home. We all have the power to do this.
INHABITAT: Finding adequate, safe, healthy and energy efficient housing should be a basic human right. What are some of the issues now in the US that prevent someone with a low to moderate income with finding and buying housing
Jessica Kellner: One of the ironies of the housing crisis, to me, is that the banks were shelling out money and huge mortgages to just about anyone beforehand, convincing them that they could pay their low introductory rates, then turn around and refinance or sell the house for a profit because housing values kept going up and up. Then after the market crashed because of their irresponsible lending practices (and in my mind, economists and the heads of major mortgage companies should be responsible for understanding market trends, not the average person trying to buy a home for her family), they reacted by tightening their lending practices so much that it makes it difficult even for qualified, responsible borrowers to obtain a mortgage.
We also face a situation in which housing within many city centers is either very expensive or dilapidated, leaving people with great jobs that don’t pay a lot such as teachers and firefighters with no option but to move out to the suburbs, buy a little vinyl house and commute a long distance. That’s what inspired Nancy Murray to found her nonprofit Builders of Hope, which I profile in the book. She says it seemed that the universe was continuously bringing people into her life who were hardworking people who worked in the city but were forced to move their families to the suburbs because of the lack of affordable, quality housing inside Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lives. She wanted to help provide nice, healthy and affordable housing to families who aren’t rich, so she used a small inheritance to begin the nonprofit. Since 2007, she’s created 10 neighborhoods in 6 cities, all of them built from renovated donated homes that would have otherwise been demolished, and all rehabilitated with a commitment to green and healthy principles. She’s creating safe homes for many people who couldn’t afford them otherwise, and she’s creating a national, replicable model, as well.
INHABITAT: Many people assume that the only way to own a home outright is through a mortgage? What were the secrets of the families and projects you featured to own their home outright?
Jessica Kellner: The people in my book used a variety of methods to finance their homes. The biggest financial issue is always going to be land acquisition. You have to have land. Some people had inherited a small piece of property, others bought land with an affordable loan, others such as the people whose homes were built by the Phoenix Commotion were aided by a seed fund. Dan Phillips, the founder of the Phoenix Commotion, has a lot of really intriguing ideas about community investment. He uses a donated seed fund through a partnership with a local nonprofit to help finance the initial materials to start building a home. Then he saves tons of money by using mostly free waste materials and low-cost labor. After the home is complete, it appraises at much more than the costs that went into it. The homeowner takes out a small mortgage on the place, then pays back the seed money with it.
Pretty much everyone in my book avoided construction loans by doing the majority of the work themselves, and spent virtually nothing on building materials because they salvaged most of them from deconstruction sites or elsewhere. A couple of the people in my book used salvaged materials along with a straw-bale infill structure. Straw bale can be expensive if you hire it out, but it’s incredibly cheap if you do the labor yourself. All it requires are straw bales and plaster for the walls, which you can make yourself. You can learn to construct a straw-bale home by volunteering on other people’s projects. Many cities and states have straw-bale associations or organizations where you can connect with others. Then after volunteering, you build up a network of people who will come and help you build your house. It’s a really fun way to build community while also accomplishing something great.
INHABITAT: There seems to be a growing trend of DIY home builders? What sort of knowledge or skills do they have? Or are these individuals largely learning as they go?
Jessica Kellner:Dan Phillips of the Phoenix Commotion talks a lot about the basics of building and how specialized skills aren’t necessary for the majority of the work that goes into a home. For complex wiring or plumbing, you probably want to hire a professional, but cutting lumber, driving in nails or plastering walls are fairly basic skills. I think it’s wise to do your research and to try to get hands-on experience before tackling any major endeavor, but I think we should get over the idea that there is no way your average person can build a home.
INHABITAT: For a family who either has no time, no building knowledge or little money, what would you suggest to them to find a way of owning their own home.
Jessica Kellner: A home is going to require the input of resources. Aaron Powers, one of the homebuilders in my book, made a great point by saying he and his wife used the resources they had available to them as young people—time and energy—rather than the resources they didn’t have—money. Collecting salvaged materials takes time. But it saves a boatload of cash. As far as knowledge is concerned, there are myriad ways in every community that you can gain knowledge. Like I mentioned, join a straw-bale building association to learn how to build that way. Volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity house. Go volunteer at the Phoenix Commotion for a week or a month, or read all of Dan Phillips’ educational materials on his website. Read up on building methods. There are tons of excellent books and websites out there. Building a home isn’t rocket science—up until about 100 years ago, lots of people did it. The skills it requires are fundamental; it’s a matter of taking the time and energy to learn them.
INHABITAT: What organizations are out there leading the charge in building affordable and sustainable homes?
Jessica Kellner: The Building Materials Reuse Association is a fabulous group that is encouraging the smart deconstruction (as opposed to demolition) of homes and hoping to institute a program of collecting and cataloguing valuable building materials for reuse. The more organized groups in my book, The Phoenix Commotion and Builders of Hope, have both created replicable models that help provide affordable housing to many people. Of course Habitat for Humanity ReStores collect and sell salvaged building materials, and the organization builds low-income housing, as well. There are also lots of architects and builders having fun exploring the notion of how to house our world’s ever-growing population in small, affordable, well-designed units. We feature a lot of them in Natural Home & Garden in our “tiny house” series. Michael Katz’s L41 house is one that comes to mind.
INHABITAT: What was one of your favorite projects you featured in your book and why?
Jessica Kellner: This sounds like a cop-out answer, but there are only six projects featured in my book, and they are all absolutely fascinating and inspiring in different ways. The Baker family in Alabama inspired me with the way their entire family—two parents and three teenage sons—came together and put their hearts and souls into this home. All the sons talk about the project so fondly despite the fact that they weren’t necessarily thrilled to spend all their weekends as 16-year-olds working on a building project in the woods. They say it brought them closer as a family and made all three of them into confident young men. The Powers’ house in Idaho is amazing because they included all these super clever space-saving techniques such as a sunken Japanese soaking tub under the shower floor and a formal dining table under removable planks in the living room floor, and they had a team of friends and family camp out for various lengths of time in a village of tents, trailers and tipis over the summer they built the place. The Colorado home I featured was built by a couple and more than 100 volunteers, and the homeowners incorporated their own personal artistry into it to make it a truly unique, artistic vision rather than just a house. And the organizations in the book are fantastic, too. The Phoenix Commotion’s houses look more like something out of a fairy tale than a subdivision; Builders of Hope brings safety and community to families who thought they couldn’t ever have it; and HabeRae has transformed whole areas of their city of Reno, Nevada, simply by updating one dilapidated structure in a rundown part of town. They’re all just so amazing, and the people behind them are some of the funniest, smartest and most independent-minded people you could hope to talk to. Interviewing all of them was a joy.
Thanks for you time and the great book Jessica. We’re huge fans of Natural Home & Garden Magazine and always look forward to the beautiful homes you feature.
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Images Courtesy of Jessica Kellner
Great interview! We're currently finishing our tiny house (12'x20' approx.) with mostly salvaged materials. It's so fun having a custom house that doesn't look like every other one and we save money, too!