The Art of Reusing What You Have on Hand

In January of this year, during a visit to the United States, I woke up early one morning to the sound of tractors and backhoes laying waste to a century old home behind my father´s apartment. In a little over an hour, a home that had housed dozens of families over several decades was reduced to a rubble heap. Once the machines had moved on, I walked through the remains of the home and found thousands of perfectly shaped bricks that had been the walls of that once beautiful home, hand chiseled rocks that had made up the foundation, and pieces of fine lumber still in usable condition.

The next morning, the dump trucks arrived, loaded up three heaps of supposed "trash", and disappeared that perfectly good and usable building material into some anonymous landfill. In August, when I returned for a visit, a new home was standing proudly on that lot built from brick, rock and lumber.

My family and I recently finished building our own cob/adobe home on our farm in rural El Salvador. When we bought the farm, an old adobe home whose roof had blown off in a wind storm was slowly sinking back into the ground. Instead of trying to source new dirt for our home, my family and I (with the help of our 1 year old daughter), patiently took down those walls, moved them to one side, cleared a foundation site, added some water and straw, and rebuilt those walls into our own home.

The same dirt that had housed a hundred years of memories was once again recycled into a well-built home that will (hopefully) stand for another couple hundred years and hold the memories of generations yet to come. For our foundation, we sledgehammered broken chunks of concrete from the old road that was ripped apart to make way for a better road. The lintels that hung over the windows of that old adobe home we sawed into boards to make our cabinets. The old front door made from beautiful Spanish Cedar was turned into our dining room table so that every time we sit down for dinner, we remember the hospitality that those who came before us offered within these same dirt walls.

There is no shortage of problems associated with our consumer industrial society and mindset, but one of the one problems that most irks me is our seeming inability to reuse what´s around us. By some strange twist of logic, we have made it easier and more efficient to build a new home from products manufactured around the globe than to reuse perfectly serviceable materials laying beneath our feet.

Perhaps it is a prestige thing; having the monetary resources to purchase "new" materials for whatever consumer item we need. In this day and age of planned obsolescence, however, those new materials will most likely need to be replaced within a few years. The rocks, bricks and lumber of that old, ripped-down home were of a quality hard to come by in today´s plywood and 2x4 construction industry.

Reusing what we have around us is seen as a sign of poverty while wealth is equated with the ability to throw away and buy again. Whereas thrift, frugality and the ingenuity to make the most of what was at hand were once values that defined successful individuals, families and communities, our pseudo values today are tied to the unlimited growth economy where any sort of limit, self-imposed or otherwise, is shunned as the absolute evil. Instead of prudence and common-sense restraint as the guiding virtues of society, we know teach our children to dream big in extravagance and profligacy.

A friend of mine recently purchased an old, run-down home in an urban area of the rust belt. As he began the process of renovating the home, he came across a strange set of metal tubes that appeared like an old car radiator. After some investigation, he learned that the old home he had bought had at one time a decent radiator heating system that was installed.

Previous owners, probably confused by those strange pipes, had installed a regular HVAC heating system which had since also succumbed to planned obsolescence. Faced with the choice of how to heat his newly bought home, my friend eventually settled on reusing those perfectly functioning metal tubes.

Radiators as heat sources have long been forsaken by our modern society always searching for something new and supposedly better. This infographic by offers some basic information on how radiators work to heat homes.


Along his research on how to best use the option that was already before him, my friend eventually came across the idea of installing a geothermal heat pump connected to his radiator as a green way to heat his home.

According to "if you have a radiator heating system already installed, you might consider adding a geothermal heat pump. These systems pump water through a system of underground pipes to draw heat from the earth and then redistribute it throughout your home. Your energy savings will pay off your investment in three to five years, after which you'll enjoy one of the most environmentally friendly and energy-efficient heating in the industry - nearly free of charge."

Instead of simply ripping out those funny looking old pipes and hiring someone to install a conventional heating system (the easy option), my friend´s focus on reusing what was before him eventually lead him to an ecologically sound heating source for his home that will save him thousands of dollars every winter for the years to come.

Learning to reuse what´s in front of us and around us requires more than anything a change in perception and values. The rebirth of the virtues of frugality and thrift are not only essential for us to confront the myriad of problems we´ve created for ourselves and our world, but they can also help us discover the multiple practical and tangible benefits of finding value in what we usually toss away.