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Building in Truth or Consequences

(Ed. note. This post is excerpted from the Building in Truth or Consequences chapter of Wendy's book the The Good Life Lab. We previously excerpted another chapter from Wendy's book, Living the Decommodified Life, here.)

"Excerpted from The Good Life Lab (c) Wendy Jehanara Tremayne. Used with permission of Storey Publishing."

Build like you give a damn. — Mike Warren

Back in T or C, we were nearly finished remodeling a 40-year-old mobile home, the only building on the ratty 1-acre RV park that we had purchased just after we arrived in New Mexico...

The cost of the remodel did come in around $10,000 — approximately $10 a square foot. The first and best thing about it was that we gained a lovely home — and almost every bit of it was waste that had been saved from going to a landfill. The second best thing was that we acquired skills by doing it. Skills that might have cost thousands of dollars had we acquired them by attending a trade school.

We did not go it alone. Mikey and I found Jesse the scrap builder remodeling an old house in our neighborhood. Each day, Jesse hauled garbage from one side of the street to the other. Where a neighbor was tearing down an old outbuilding and piling the wood from it by a dumpster, Jesse saw opportunity and repurposed every scrap. He reworked the wood into cabinets, trim, and counters for his client’s kitchen. One by one he ran the ratty old planks through an unbalanced planer on a makeshift table. When the planks came out the other side of the device, pretty patterns of contrasting light and dark colors appeared. Effortlessly he applied a coat of sealant while smiling in deserved self-appreciation. The wood seemed to smile back at him. We hired Jesse right away and became his apprentices. Together the three of us remodeled our mobile home in three months’ time.

In some ways Jesse is a typical New Mexican. We learned that it was best not to expect him to come to work if the clouds covered the sun. The absence of light was something that made him feel too sentimental to cope. To employ Jesse, we first had to find him a place to live, a protocol common in the nomadic Southwest. A borrowed trailer sufficed for a temporary home for our roving builder. He parked it on our lot, next to the city bus that he’d converted into a workshop.

Photography (c) Holy Scrap

Once Jesse finished any part of a job, he had to be removed from the place before he could destroy it. Though he was gifted with the ability to transform waste into beauty, he also bore the curse of clumsiness. He once gave me a tour of a finished room of freshly sheetrocked walls while digging a groove in the wall with the tip of a sharp metal T-square that jutted out from the tool belt hanging from his waist.

By the end of the remodel, Mikey and I had acquired enough skills to work on our own. We learned the names of the tools and materials and how to use them: a chop saw for cutting lengths of trim and flooring, a table saw to thin woods to needed sizes, a finish gun to mount trim, a floor stapler to install wood flooring, trowels and hawks to cover sheetrock seams with plaster (after taping the joints with fiberglass tape), a diamond saw for tile cutting, a sander and a planer for bringing out new surfaces of woods, a variety of drills and an assortment of attachments, a jigsaw for cutting wood into free-form shapes, and a variety of solvents and oils for reviving and sealing wood and other materials. We planned and then built garden beds, irrigation systems, and distillers.

We made shade structures and everything from skateboards for moving heavy things to fences, sheds, and fire pits. I hurdled over and over again past a preset “I can’t do that” by doing it anyway. We made mistakes and built things that could have been better but were good enough. I invested myself in the doing and avoided being caught up in expectations that might prevent me from taking a next step. Sometimes this was very difficult. At times Mikey and I argued over design and method because I could not reconcile with the idea of making something imperfect. Old habits are hard to break. Having a spirit of reckless experimentation was necessary.

In the desert Mikey discovered that knowledge he had carried around for much of his life and only occasionally found uses for — things like melting points, measurements of distances, conversion tables, flammability of gases, friction and leverage, weight limits, boiling points, and elevation — was invaluable when applied to the new lives we were living as makers of things. I filled sketchbooks with colorful drawings of domes, hot tubs, and gardens. From the moment we touched down in New Mexico we were enlivened by the challenge to create a 1-acre wonder world. First we imagined, and then we built what we saw.

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