Where a casual observer might notice only an outdated, falling-down barn, Tracen Gardner sees with a more discerning vision. He appreciates the big timbers that were cut from old-growth longleaf pine forests long since disappeared, transported on horse drawn wagons, shaped into thick planks with hand tools, and fitted together with square head nails. “Somebody went to a lot of trouble to make that into a piece of wood…It’s kind of like treasure seeking in a way.” Tracen is explaining the motivation behind his business, Reclaimed Space. He finds discarded old structures, carefully takes them apart, and re-uses the materials to build modern, energy efficient, and quirkily artistic homes.
Size matters, too. Most of the houses Tracen builds are less than 600 square feet. Big houses waste material resources and burn up energy for heating and cooling. Excessive space just mean more bathrooms to clean, and more closets stuffed with useless junk. Do we need a Hummer House to be happy? Could a leaner lifestyle equal a richer life?
Tracen Gardner and Lyla
Tracen was set to take over the family ranch, but when his grandfather died, financial difficulties forced his family to sell the land. So instead of becoming a rancher, he dropped out of college for a journey of self-discovery. He started in Massachusetts and headed west. Without a dollar in his pocket, at times he had to dumpster dive for his dinner, leading him to the decision that a bit of prosperity would be more satisfying. By the time he reached Hawaii he knew he wanted to build things for a living, but he wanted to be a contractor on his own terms. He wanted the respect of his peers as a man of integrity, and he wanted to be proud of the projects he built.
Tracen returned to Austin to graduate with a degree in environmental resources management. At the University of Texas he became troubled by environmental issues such as urban sprawl, acid rain, and emissions from coal fired power plants. He worked his way through school by running his own painting company, so he was often at construction sites where he noticed great piles of discarded construction materials. Tracen realized that, with a little imagination, this “waste” could be resurrected. He had acquired some land near Shiner, Texas, and wanted to put a small home on his new ranch. He considered a mobile home but they seemed flimsy and impersonal. He knew he could do better.
A house should reflect the owner’s values. Tracen’s would be very compact (400 square feet). The structure would function in concert with its surroundings, providing shade in the summer and collecting warmth from the sun in the winter. He would use salvaged materials, laying longleaf pine floors, and decorating the walls with recycled metal roofing and hundred year old shiplap. Drawer pulls and hardware were fashioned out of odd pieces of metal. Old lumber became shelves and trim.
He built his creation in Austin, planning to move it to the ranch when it was finished. The result was so elegant, and people were so fascinated by the tiny-but-exquisitely-functional concept, that Tracen decided to haul the whole house to a design show in Los Angeles, where somebody bought it on the spot. Oh well, build another one.
And so Reclaimed Space was born. Tracen has continued to build, sticking with his principles of using reclaimed and non-toxic materials, proper orientation to the sun and surrounding environment, energy efficiency, and transportability.
Reclaimed Space is now up to 23 houses, and Tracen has yet to keep one for his ranch.
You can see more pictures at www.reclaimedspace.com.
Tracen (left) and Jon Roberts, project manager