Wise Howell: Resourcefulness and re-using materials

Wise Howell: Resourcefulness and re-using materials

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This month, Jeff Howell’s Wise Howell column for Professional Builder touches on resourcefulness in construction and re-using materials. 

You might have seen the news about crows and magpies making their nests out of – er – anti-bird spikes! It seems that, in urban environments, where twigs might be a bit thin on the ground, our feathered friends have adapted by ripping up strips of metal and plastic anti-perch spikes and weaving them into their homes.

Full marks for resourcefulness there. The magpies were even found to have used the spikes in a vertical position on top of their nests, to deter other birds and mammals from noshing on their eggs and fledglings.

This got me thinking about other ways in which materials can be re-used – sometimes in ways that were not originally intended. (And I write this as someone who is just in the process of adapting an old plastic olive barrel into a garden water butt.)

For example, Mrs Wise Howell is very fond of her new Starlink satellite dish, which gives us excellent wi-fi coverage in our campervan. But she baulked at the price of a special mounting pole for it, and found that an old telescopic pool pole was cheaper, lighter, and altogether more useful.

And I once surveyed a house where – instead of expensive glass blocks – the owner had constructed a wall using old wine bottles, cut in half and laid flat. When the sun was in the right direction, the effect was as stunning as any cathedral stained-glass window.

And in Australia I visited a house-share where the resident blokes had made fly screens from beer can ring-pulls. Human ingenuity knows no bounds!

Of course the building industry has always re-used materials. Bricks are a prime example. I have worked on Victorian houses in London where the inner skins of the solid walls were infilled with small, slim red bricks that were probably Tudor in origin, if not even older.

And timber has always been re-used. There are plenty of examples of houses built with oak beams salvaged from old ships – you can see from the unused mortice holes that they once had a previous life. And the carpenters’ marks on the ends show the positions they might once have taken in a historic Man-of-War.

Lime plasters and mortars, too, were traditionally recycled. When a building was demolished, these materials would have been saved, and ground up in a mortar mill – with some fresh lime added – to be re-used in new work.

Traditional “daub” plaster – the finish for wattle-and-daub infill panels in timber-framed buildings – was also re-mixed and re-used. (Although the idea that this stuff was made from cow manure has been exposed as a bit of a myth. Recent research suggests that while a bit of farmyard dung might have found its way into the re-mix, it was probably only by accident.)

But for sheer cunning, I take my hat off to the birds who are using anti-bird devices to expand their populations!

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