From Hand-Me-Down To Dream Home

My youngest brother, Chris, is the baby of a family of seven. He was always last in line and ended up with all the hand me downs and second hand stuff. This was inevitable since we lived a mostly subsistance life and were so far out in the wilderness that access to stores was rare. There was one time he came in first, though–his bedroom, in the huge, six bedroom house we built by hand, was the first one with finished walls. Because it was the smallest, of course. Chris didn’t seem too comfortable with this anomaly, and rarely spent time in his own bedroom.
     Because of his good nature and matchless adaptability, over the years he turned what could have been a sore point in childhood into a huge plus in adulthood.
     Never was this more obvious than when he and his wife Konni, with help from family and friends, built their dream home from second hand and re-purposed materials.

When Chris was four years old we moved to the burned down, abandoned salmon cannery. Almost as soon as we older kids set foot on this apocalpytic site, we began scavenging delightedly. There were literally tons of abandoned (partially singed) items that we could and did use in building and furnishing innumerable forts throughout the woods. In addition, we beach-combed all sorts of treasures, and we were allowed to dig through the scrap pile from my dad’s mobile sawmill. Chris was too young to build anything on his own, but he was obviously paying attention and soaked up for future reference the kind of joy that could be had from building a fort–or in his case, a home–from scavenged, recycled and re-purposed materials.
     The first thing he did was buy a wooded piece of property out north of the city of Ketchikan at a really good price. It had an old trailer house on it that was unsalvageable, so he burned it down and hauled away the debris. It already had a pad so all he had to do was put up a foundation.
     Chris is a journeyman carpenter and construction foreman so he has access to all kinds of scrap material. His first find was old bags of cement that were going to be tossed, but were in still perfectly viable condition, and his boss let him have them for the price of hauling them off the site. He borrowed a cement mixer and put in the foundation himself. Then he traded some labor to his brother-in-law for some lumber for the floor joists.
     On one of the jobs he was working on he was able to re-purpose some good condition plywood that had been used to crate up roofing, and he used it to lay the deck. Then he called our dad and asked him to cut some 2 x 6s for studs in the walls. My dad was still operating his mobile sawmill at that time and cut the studs. Meanwhile, Chris went around scrounging up more plywood. He also found some pre-manufactured beams for the roof. Again he went to his brother-in-law to see what he could do to get some rafters cut. His brother-in-law was in the process of building his own home so Chris was able to help him in return for the rafter material.
     This was exactly how it worked when we were kids. We were always trading our treasured building supplies and furnishings, or trading labor to build one kids’ fort for supplies to build another’s. Chris learned that lesson well.

After Chris got the walls up he called our dad and asked him if he’d help him put the roof on. We kids have seen and helped my dad put on many local roofs, not to mention build entire houses. In fact, my dad has helped each one of his kids build their own home. I wonder how many dads can say that?
     At the same time, Chris’ father-in-law, Konnie’s dad Jimmy, offered to do the plumbing. Chris didn’t have the plumbing materials so he called his boss and asked if he had any extra plumbing materials. His boss said that he could go through his scrap pile and get what he needed. Remarkably, Chris wound up with everything the he needed for the job.
     By the time he and my dad finished the roof, the plumbing was also done. In addition, Chris’ brother-in-law, who was an electrical contractor, offered to do his wiring in exchange for Chris helping him pour his concrete driveway. So the wiring was done by the time they had rafters and the boards that the roofing would be fastened to in place. On the job where he got the plywood from the crating for the new roofing, he also got the old roofing from that job. His boss told him they were just going to haul it off to the dump anyway.
     It was time to insulate the house and Chris again scored with his boss, who had over-ordered insulation. He gave Chris a good deal on the excess. For the rest of the insulation he needed he found what he wanted at garage sales.
     Every year the city of Ketchikan has what is called Clean Up Day where everyone can take all of their unused and unwanted things and put it beside the road for the garbage collectors to pick up. Chris decided to see if there was anything that he might be able to use in his house. He found all kinds of treasures–it was just like beachcombing when he was a kid, only it was much easier to drag it all home!
     He found: kitchen cabinets, lighting fixtures, sheetrock, more plywood, counter tiles, cook stove, kitchen sink, bathroom sink and vanity, a brand new toilet, fasteners. Most of these things were in new or good condition. The kitchen cabinets had to have a few panels replaced–Konnie was in charge of sanding the new doors…during one of our hottests summers, in 90 degree heat.
     Once the roof was on and the insuation in place he started to put up the sheetrock. He had nothing but bits and pieaces from the clean up day and from different jobs that he had worked on. He was able to get the mud and the tools from a garage sale.

Chris went to work on the interior and did a masterful job with his scraps and pieces of sheetrock, you couldn’t tell that there were lots of joints in the sheetrocked walls. When he came to the bathroom, there was a problem: no bathtub. No problem. Someone he knew had ordered the wrong one from a supplier Down South and was happy to part with it in exchange for a case of Heineken beer.
     It’s important to mention that here in Southeast Alaska when you order something through a local store and it isn’t the right thing, the store doesn’t send it back. Usually, it’s given away or sold for next to nothing. The reason being that it is more expensive to send things back than to just write them off, so the stores just tells people to keep the item. (This partly explains why everything bought in a local store is so expensive.) The contractor, likewise, usually sells the wrong item for close to nothing just to get it out of his building.
     While Chris was building his house he still had to work. One of the jobs he had was building Ketchikan’s first Burger King. Again there was a miss-order, and this time it was flooring tile. They were sent way too much tile so the owner asked Chris if he would like to have what was left. By now you know Chris wouldn’t turn down anything like that. He used the Burger King tile to make a hearth for his wood stove that he’d gotten cheap through a newspaper ad.  In fact, he’d bought two very cheaply, fixed them up, and then sold one for the price of both.
     Konni, meanwhile, turned out to be an ace at unearthing garage sale treasures. She began collecting antique kerosene lamps and filled a shelf in the living room, below the high, peaked ceiling and above the hallway. They were a beautiful addition to the bright and airy, combined kitching, living room and dining room (which was lit by french doors).

One day while waiting in line on some road construction, Chris saw that the road crew was putting in a new culvert. He asked one of the people standing around what they were going to do with the old culvert. They said they were going to haul it to the scrap yard. He asked them if he could have it and how much it would cost. They told him they would get back to him. The next day, while he was waiting for the flag person to give him the go ahead, the foreman of the job came over to him and asked him what he wanted the culver for.
     Chris said that he wanted to use it for a water tank. The foreman asked him where he lived. Chris told him. The next day the culvert ended up in his yard free of charge.
      To complete his water facilities, he was able to get a water pump, a coldwater storage tank and a hot water tank at a going out of business sale.

      The entire building and furnishing of the house was a non-stop adventure, a scavenger hunt and completely “green” recycling endeavor. And in the end Chris and Konnie ended up with 1,440 square foot, three bedroom house built exactly to their own design, nestled in a wooded lot out of the city. They would have liked to have lived in it forever, but found that they couldn’t turn down an offer made on it for $180,000…especially considering they’d only put $5,000 of actual money into building it!

It’s clear Chris learned his early hand-me-down and recycling lessons well. And in that, he is a true bush Alaskan.

Photos: Chris, the baby of the family at Cannery Creek, Creosote Bill, our eccentric cat at his feet; family help: Chris with our brother Robin and our Dad–and to the far right you see the top of his father-in-law Jimmy’s head, Chris’ daughter Delaney helping out by having a ball with her ball, Chris’ wife Konni giving design help; Chris and our dad working on the roof; some interior highlights, including the Burger King tile hearth and Konni’s collection of antique lamps; Chris and Konni in their dining room, still a work in progress even after moving in; Chris the king of his repurposing domain.


1/24/2016 11:55:36 am

Great story.



1/24/2016 07:09:44 pm

Thanks, hiker!


Susan Bernhardtlink

1/28/2016 02:56:38 pm

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

This story is just amazing. Like your brother Chris, I am the youngest the seventh child.

Your brother is truly amazing. All of you are.



1/28/2016 03:25:02 pm

What a nice thing to say, Susan–I hope Chris reads the comments and gets a well-deserved boost. Thank you for reading–and sorry about the typos. The poor signal doesn’t let me go in and fix them as I’d like. Very frustrating!

Oh, and I guess I was counting my parents as kids when I said a family of seven! 🙂 There were only five of us, though I’m sure my parents felt that was plenty.

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