The Crestone Eagle, July 2003:

Recycled Houses

text & photos by Kelly Hart

A few months ago I was driving down Road T and noticed a house in the middle of the road. I didn’t remember a house being there and thought that I was seeing a strange mirage. The closer I got, the more real it appeared, until I was forced to slow down and drive around the thing, at which point there was no doubt about its authenticity.

A big truck tractor was towing this entire 1200 square foot house balanced on two huge steel I-beams and a bunch of wheeled dollies. Progress was slow but steady as it inexorably moved toward its next incarnation in the Baca Grants. Just that morning it had departed its original home north of Monte Vista along highway 285, where it had been seasonal housing for migrant workers.

Ann Bunting and Tom Dessain had searched for just the right orphaned house to adopt as their own, lovingly place on a new foundation, and refurbish. Many houses would not be suitable for such a trip; only well-built wooden structures can withstand the stress of such a move. This house had all the qualities they were looking for: charm, integrity, and affordability. The entire cost of the house and having it moved was $10,000.

By the time they have it completely fixed up with new plumbing and electric service, an insulated stucco exterior, new energy-efficient windows, a metal roof, a completely rebuilt front porch, all of the interior walls resurfaced, and miscellaneous repairs, they estimate that the total cost of the project will be about $50,000, including the land. Not bad for what in most regards will be as good as new!

Of course new is not what they wanted; they bought this early twentieth century house (it’s actual date of construction is unknown) precisely because of its special vintage quality. It reminds Tom of the house his grandmother lived in, with 9 foot ceilings, three smallish bedrooms, tongue and grooved fir flooring, cast-iron radiators, built-in cabinets, drawers and even ironing board, and the intangible quality of a by-gone era. They plan to retain the original floor plan intact, only altering a walk-in closet to become the mechanical room and turning a room off the kitchen into a dining space.

The house made the entire trip with just a few plaster cracks in one corner, which are easily repaired. This is one very solidly-built house, made from the sort of fir that no longer can be bought. There was only one place under the kitchen sink that had suffered leak-induced rot over many years; everything else is as straight and true as any carpenter would want.

This house was not the first to find a new home in the Baca. Five years ago Barbara Hoeppner was led to adopt a house from Fort Garland. Through a series of fortuitous events, she purchased the perfect lot for $1,000 and then noticed an ad for a house to be moved for $7,995. She asked Gary Olson to help her inspect its condition, and they agreed that it would be suitable for moving onto her lot. She hired Bob Hansen (the eighty-something-year-old who also helped move Tom’s house) to transport her new purchase. Barbara knew that the house was not insurable until it was set on a new foundation, so she kept her fingers crossed.

Barbara’s late twentieth century second home of about 800 square feet came from property leased from the Federal government, and so it needed to be moved. Barbara, with the help of Keith Conway, added an additional room onto the original to comply with the Baca’s 900 square foot minimum. She has thoroughly enjoyed the process of remaking this simple cabin into her charming home, imbued with the wonderful quirky qualities that spring from her fanciful mind.

Once a house is moved, it must comply with current plumbing and electrical codes, so these elements were completely redone. Most of the windows were replaced with second hand units that gave her just the views that she wanted. The exterior was resurfaced with rough-sawn lap siding and a new metal roof was installed. The original interior plastic paneling was replaced with sheetrock, and decorated with lots of natural wood trim. The whole feeling of the place is one of lovingly crafted touches wherever the eye lands. Barbara says, “I would much rather live in something recycled than buying something brand new which has no character. I let this house come together—it just evolved!”

Then about a year ago, after having done most of what she wanted to do with her house, she realized that if she did it once, she could do it again. So she set about finding another suitable house to move. She put an ad in the paper announcing her interest in buying a house to move and contacted several cities and asked if they knew of any houses that needed to be moved because of their right of imminent domain. The city of Alamosa suggested that she contact the hospital, because they had bought property to enlarge their parking lot, which led her straight to her next adoption. At 1,350 square feet, this one was larger than she really wanted, but it was in good shape and they only wanted $5,000, so she agreed to purchase it.

One of the walls was brick, which had to be completely dismantled and then reassembled later. She hired two guys from the La Puente Homeless shelter to help with this project. Local builder Mike Dennett helped with most of the heavy construction at this end. This second project has totaled about $74,000 to accomplish, but Barbara is happy with the results. She has entered into a lease-option arrangement with a tenant, and can break even on the mortgage payments, so she feels it is a win-win situation for everybody. Even though she felt she was under more pressure with this second project, she still enjoyed the process. After all, Barbara says, “When you can follow your heart, life works!”

Creating new life for old or abandoned houses has got to be one of the most sustainable ways of making habitation. This is the ultimate form of recycling, where most of the basic components of a house are utilized intact instead of being tossed into a landfill or burned. There is a tremendous savings in the embodied energy of the house (in both materials and labor), so that all that needs to be done is to repair and polish the original dwelling to create a whole new life for it. Hoorah for these people who have the vision and willingness to take on these projects!