Beginning in March 2013, a local welder, Miguel, and I built an 11′ by 11′ garden room from salvage materials bought in Maryland. A friend called it my Folly, because the building had no purpose — and the name stuck. Neither of us had much building experience, but we received a good deal of advice from friends and relatives (pros) whose insight could be bought with fine wine. These experts gave us help from the ground up, starting with the recommendation that the foundation be set on concrete poured into deep holes past our area’s frostline.
On completion of the footings and foundation, a pressure-treated frame and plywood floor followed. There was no blueprint. We hoped the the design could be guided by whatever salvage materials I managed to locate. We also used simple tools — all cuts were made with hand-held (battery-powered) drills and saws. A modest planer tore through reams of battered wood like a champ. The shavings were scooped up for mulch. Welds were made on the spot with a low-slung torch.
The first, and perhaps most stunning salvaged items I found, were three 8′ by 3′ redwood windows that now grace the front of the Folly — with recycled copper gutters below as window boxes. Once installed, these redwood panels vaulted high, so we decided on a saltbox design for the entire structure. Many re-use windows followed, including a handmade oval window I pulled from a stash of oddities, then later, old glass library cabinets from a Baltimore deconstruction — with matching screens in good working order.
As the material piled up, we stood back and debated how the structure should be configured. Sometimes, changes were thrust upon us. One fine day, when Miguel was finishing the roofline, I arrived hefting massive triangular windows leftover from a home remodeling project. I called up to the treeline, “Hey Miguel, do you think you can use these?” After a thoughtful pause, he responded with a simple “Yes, Miss.” His morning’s work was pulled apart, the triangles were installed and the Folly’s green tin roof (OK, this was new) now had a dramatic slope.
Other great finds included salvage wrought iron (set in a window), an ornate heating grate for the cat door, a curved lacework grill from an old gas stove (placed over the entrance) and a mail slot for needed correspondence. Wall windows were made from inserts pulled from old doors — these pop out with the turn of a screw for screens that were tailor-made to fit the Folly’s windows. We were grateful for this as the summer heat moved in.
There was plenty of interior work. The Folly’s framing walls were set up, then finished with vintage pine paneling pulled from a local deconstruction site. The guy at the salvage shop estimated the wood had originally been installed in the 30’s or 40’s, given its distinctive decorative edge. Once through the plainer, the wood’s beauty was revealed, then enhanced with generous glazings of tung oil, applied in DC-area heat. We chose to cut the pine panels horizontally to make the most of our used lumber — which featured rips, gauges and socket cutouts. When we stood back, we realized our choice created a honey-colored, log cabin feel.
Finer touches followed into autumn. Miguel painstakingly fitted the finished edges of the pine paneling along the windows and inserts, giving an illusion of handmade framing. I hauled more long, narrow windows from salvage locations — then we chose which options should be installed overhead. We re-donated the rest. I painted this hodepodge of windows — which had white, beige and brown sidings — applying uniform colors so they looked like they all belonged.
In October, Hurricane Sandy hit and we scrambled to secure the infant structure from an onslaught of wind and rain. Miguel rigged up braces for the front door and pop-in windows that were screwed into the unfinished floor. A crank window was opened to reduce pressure. From my kitchen, I watched as the storm sheeted by. The Folly came through unscathed.
Soon after, Miguel tackled the floor using oak material remaining from a construction job. I found out later he had never put in a floor before. But there was a construction worker on the block who gave him tips and all worked out — until we ran out of wood after half the floor was in place. I read later it was best not to install a floor this way. A friendly neighbor offered the use of her (larger) car, which she navigated through Friday rush-hour traffic– while I scrounged oak flooring to match what had already been installed. Soon, this too was complete.
It was time to bring in furniture — most of which was lifted through the library windows because the front door was too narrow. No problem. We had agreed on a smaller door because it fit with our emerging design. Besides, when I lived in the Netherlands, folks routinely brought their furniture in through a large window, so it made sense to do this here. Some of what we hoisted was also salvage — including a old sewing machine base and a leftover slab of pink marble from a bathroom re-model. I also found an old gas stove with stylized flames from a salvage warehouse in Cleveland. A small sculpture of an astonished bug, made of re-purposed nails and automotive parts, came from a local store that only opened when the owner felt like it. Later, a second-hand porcelain statue of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion was ensconced on a base of used brick — because no home should be without one. The Folly was really coming together now.
In November, we finished the exterior with salvage cedar shakes that had been rejected because of an ugly stain, which had to be removed. This meant sanding each individual shake before installing — a task that fell to me. I coated them with a thick, sticky finish and then hung them up to dry with borrowed clothespins. My neighbor decided these were best left unreturned. Meanwhile, Miguel located some salvage metal and installed the green tin overhangs to keep out the rain. Clear caulk (new) filled in any structural chinks to get the place ready for colder weather.
Neighbors, who used to drop by to watch our progress, could now come inside to drink beer and admire.
“I don’t understand,” our neighbor’s daughter said, “What does this place DO?”
“It doesn’t do anything,” I explained. “That’s why it’s a Folly.”
But we weren’t done yet. Winter passed and by the following March, we started to address ambiance. Miguel and I laid out a garden hose to decide on the exact meandering curves required for a path made of used brick (natch), which was laid out with detailed patterns. A salvage Japanese lantern was put together with a broken sundial. Mistakes were also addressed. A landing with no drainage (what were we thinking?) was re-built with odd pieces of tropical ipe wood that an employee at the salvage place held for me, knowing I needed it.
Which is why, no kidding, the salvage materials I used to build the Folly can be documented by the people working at my local re-use business, where (not surprisingly) I am known by my first name. One can tell you about my buying the 8-ft redwood windows, vintage pine paneling and flooring, others can speak about the handmade oval window, triangular windows, copper gutters, and many rectangular windows. Yet another can attest to my picking up loads of used brick — which he sold to me at a good rate by the way. Go ahead, ask them. I can give you their names.
Which is why I call my project the House that Generosity Built. Here’s to the neighbor that let me raid her basement for tools when she was not home (then sometimes had to remind me to return). Cheers to the construction expert that made a special trip to sit on the Folly foundation and explain the finer points of everything — not to mention all the last-minute calls that followed. And many kind thoughts to a well-known architect who outlined the maze of building requirements and reassurances on approaches taken. And finally, here’s to Miguel, who has since returned to Bolivia, and his deep nod of approval when I showed up with that handmade lozenge window. He held it up to the light and showed exactly how it could be positioned to capture the curve of a dogwood nearby. His boss, when showed a picture of the Folly, shook his head and refused to believe he built it. But we did build it, all of us.
My Folly is now a happy home for my neighbors, friends, cats and me. The place that has no purpose is very practical indeed. It is my refuge.