Less Is More 3

Builder Steve Loken re-envisions the home

When he was a boy, Steve Loken spent many weekends taking apart buildings. He and his father would pack a lunch and drive out with two crowbars to the barns and houses slated to be razed in the path of I-90.

“We built our farm and outbuildings out of materials that were going to be thrown away,” Loken recalled.

What his father taught him has stuck and Loken has spent more than 40 years taking the old and turning it into the new. When he looks at a landfill, he sees a resource repository. When he gazes at an aging house, he imagines all the embodied energy in its materials.

Loken arrived in Montana by bike in the 1970s. He pedaled his way across the state to Libby where they were just wrapping up construction of the Libby Dam. To ready for the flooding of the river behind the dam, all the trees had been clear cut and burned below the high water mark on the Kootenai River—for 90 miles.

“I saw the dam sitting there, and I thought, this is the most horrible thing you can do to land,” he remembered. “So I made this commitment to energy conservation. I thought if I could combine building skills with energy conservation, we wouldn’t need dams like that.”

For Loken, this has meant improving the efficiency of the houses that are already built.

“There’s been this big drive to make new net-zero energy houses, but 99% of the existing housing stock is in terrible shape,” Loken explained. He offered an analogy: “Not everyone should go out and buy Priuses if we can fix up, tune up, and repair the stuff we’ve got.”

Much of the work his construction company—Loken Builders—has taken on over the last 40 years has been the transformation of old, ugly, highly inefficient houses into new, attractive, efficient dwellings that support and benefit the surrounding ecosystem. A transformation could include adding windows or awnings to improve the solar passivity of a home, installing permeable driveways to allow storm water to infiltrate, or simply putting insulation in the attic. Loken estimated that 50-60% of houses in Missoula do not have insulated attics despite this being one of the cheapest and easiest ways to improve the efficiency of a home.

When Loken remodels a home, he is acutely aware both of the materials he uses and the waste he generates. A typical construction jobsite wastes a quarter of all the materials it buys. Reducing that waste not only limits the amount put into the landfill, but also reduces the cost and the ecological footprint of the home.

In 1990, Loken set out to build a single-family home for his family. His goal was to show that the standard American suburban home could be built almost entirely from recycled products. When completed, the ReCraft 90 home in Lincoln Hills used 20% of the standard 11,000 board feet of lumber (enough to fill 2.5 logging trucks) used to frame a home. The insulation was made of bits of cellulose from newspaper, the bathroom tiles were recycled glass from car windshields, and the carpets were made of plastic milk jugs. The home caught the attention of builders, architects, and homeowners around the country and over 12,000 people toured through it.  It became an example of how conventional homes could be built using waste products we already had rather than cutting and mining precious virgin resources.

Loken was thrilled to see the public’s interest in building with alternative materials but he also recognized where he was still falling short. “I felt more guilty about ReCraft 90 being a single-family, suburban home than anyone else.”

One of his long-term visions has been to integrate shelter with transportation, food production, and community revitalization. In 2008, his vision began to take form with the Dakota Greens Restoration.

For years Dakota Street was industrial, ugly and blighted. Loken gradually bought properties along it. When the City decided to expand the Milwaukee Trail bike path along Dakota, Loken proposed turning half of the wide street into a greenway.  In 2013, Loken finished the next stage of the project by building two medium-density housing units. The units achieved close to zero waste through the use of existing building materials, recycled steel, and renewable wood-fiber siding.

In the third phase of the project, Loken plans to build high-efficiency condos with roof top gardens along Dakota. It’s all part of Loken’s aim to redirect the current model of growth in Missoula from suburban sprawl out into the county to the infill of housing within the city. He’d like to see much of the land within the county remain in agricultural production. Derelict houses within the city could also be turned into urban gardens and non-derelict houses could be retrofitted to last another hundred years.

“I want to see the restoration of cities, so that cities are producers rather than just consumers,” Loken said.

As the cost of building materials and land rises and the amount of virgin resources declines, Loken’s vision of remaking the homes we already have using waste and recycled products could be the smartest, cleanest, and most economically sound choice for our future.

“We could be moving toward ephemeralization,” Loken said hopefully. “Light, strong, and efficient instead of heavy, dense, and massive.”