Can you build a house with found objects?

For many people, having a home built, like this one in Las Vegas in 2006, is more than enough trouble. Others see things a bit differently. See more home construction pictures.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It takes a lot more than cruising through neighborhoods and scoping out available properties on a weekend afternoon to secure a house. You've got to find a real estate agent, hire a home inspector and keep your eye on interest rates to lock in a reasonable mortgage.

Other people like to be even more involved in the process of securing their home. To this end, hiring an architect and builder to construct a dream home is usually sufficient. Others get their hands dirty by buying an old home and renovating it. If you choose this last route, don't be completely surprised if someone stops by to ask if he or she can have the scrap materials you've got piling up in the front yard.


That's because some people feel that the only way to truly build a home is through one's own sweat, using objects that can be found half-buried in dirt, tossed aside or simply forgotten. One person's bottle cap is another's doorbell button. With enough imagination and a thorough disdain for keeping up with the Joneses, anyone can build a house from found objects, and a few people have.

The reasons behind making a found object house vary. For the poverty stricken, using found objects to construct a home can be an economic necessity. To others, using scraps of building materials is a way to reduce waste. And for green enthusiasts, using materials that were never intended to be used as a wall or a floor constitutes recycling. Found objects are also a great way to preserve history -- by bringing together elements from historic sites that have been slated for demolition, a found object house can serve as a functional museum. But there's a common thread connecting all houses made of scrap, junk and rescued materials: an artistic bent in the house's creator. And for some builders of found object houses, art is reason enough.

Read about some of these found object homes on the next page.



Found Object Homes

A discarded shoe or the door handle you've been looking for?
David McNew/Getty Images

Eliphante is one found-object home -- art is reason enough to justify its existence. It was created by Michael Kahn and Leda Levant, two artists who were given property outside Cornville, Ariz., in 1980. The couple's primary materials were the rocks from the surrounding landscape and weathered wood brought to their doorstep by the annual rainy season. Eliphante's windows are stained glass mosaics made from bits of glass found here and there. Inside the house are sculptures and paintings the couple produced. Even the truck that they drove to Arizona in now serves as a wall for the dwelling.

As time passed, the house turned into a full-fledged compound with freestanding outbuildings, an art gallery and a "Nennis court" (a tennis court without a net). Despite exposure to the elements, Eliphante continues to stand -- although an audit of the dwellings in the compound did conclude that needed repairs would come to about $28,000 [source: New York Times].


Sometimes art is mixed with practicality in a found-object house. The Scrap House began as a challenge to a group of San Franciscans to construct a recycled home. They proved that it is, indeed, possible to build a home out of reused and creative materials in lieu of the standard drywall and linoleum. One interior wall is made entirely of hanging fire hoses; another is a thick wall of phone books. The floor in one room is tiled with strips of conveyor belts, and there's also a floor made of doors.

While it may sound like the house straddles the border between high art and insanity, professional architects and designers were involved in creating the Scrap House. As a result, it bears a design that would attract many homeowners. The bedroom is located on a mezzanine floor with a grand staircase that leads to it, and the ceilings are punctuated by skylights [source: Scrap House].

The Scrap House group says some materials were poached from construction sites and dumps. Others were donated by organizations that no longer needed the stuff. The conveyor belts used for flooring, for instance, were a gift from the SFO International Airport. Longevity was not a goal of the project: The house was built for World Environment Day 2005 and disassembled four days later [source: Scrap House].

The Big Dig House also illustrates the nexus where practicality meets art. The home gets its name from the construction project where the materials were salvaged. When the city of Boston expanded its highway system by adding a huge tunnel, there were a lot of leftover materials from the project. One of the Big Dig's engineers used 600,000 pounds of concrete and steel -- that would have been discarded at taxpayers' expense -- to build the modern house in Lexington, Mass. [source: Business Week].

A few states away, Duane Thorin chose to construct much of his house from objects with a long history. The Fairfax County, Va., house features a kitchen floor of cobblestone from the barracks of a World War I prisoner of war camp. Some of the timbers that support the ceiling hail from a Confederate army hospital. Thorin's views of history look forward as well -- he bricked in two time capsules in the home's walls. One contains this inscription: "House was built with materials that were discarded by one of the most wasteful societies of the world" [source: US GenNet].

For more information on unusual houses and other related topics, visit the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • Spencer, Ingrid. “The recycled home.” Business Week. October 6, 2006.
  • 075213.htm?chan=top+news_top+news+index_innovation+%2Bamp%3B+design
  • Wadler, Joyce. “A handmade home.” New York Times. January 31, 2008.
  • “Big Dig House.” Single Speed Design. 2006.
  • Demonstration home erected on San Francisco Civic Center Plaza.” Public Architecture. May 31, 2005.
  • “Found object house.” HGTV.,,HGTV_
  • 3662_1376730,00.html
  • “The house that junk built.” US GenNet.