Tiny House Builder Salvages the Past for the Future

21 December 2019 in leafhouse, Tinyhouses

LB: Hey Darby, could you talk about your background, and what events were formative to your development as an artist, tiny house builder, community-organizer, and business owner?

BDK: I was born poor, to a private in the US Army, and moved 17 times before graduating high school at 17. I got to see the world, Germany where I was born, Bolivia for a couple years, back to USA, Germany, USA, Germany, USA, Germany as a soldier myself then at 18-years-old. I got out of the Army as a Viet Nam Era Vet, attended college as the first of my family since immigrating from Germany two generations before. We were a blue collar family you might say, working in the factories or in the Army like my dad. I see the world with different eyes because of my youth, for many reasons, and my ability to fit in to the norm was destroyed while young.

I started digging in dumpsters for toys when I was less than 6 years old and never stopped, even after I had made millions. I ate from dumpsters in Las Vegas at 25 years old, unable to get a job for the first time since I started working part-time at 12-years-old to buy my clothes. This last week, I returned to Vegas, and stood atop the Stratosphere hotel and looked down upon the places I once searched through trash to survive.

LB: The excess and decadence of Las Vegas must have been a bizarre contrast to eating out of the trash in a country you just fought for. This may be an odd connection but unlike other Tiny House companies yours uses almost 100% salvaged materials. How did dumpster diving affect the way you saw the things we produce, consume, and throw away?

BDK: The biggest lessons I learned when in Las Vegas was from others who landed in that lifestyle when they were much older than me. One distinguished psychoanalyst, John, a gentleman I met who chose to walk away from his psychiatric practice, was living under a plastic tent in one of the desert fields that were common 40 years ago. He taught me how to use the coupon books for the casinos to make $10 by cashing in the “Buy $4 in Nickel… get $5.” The casinos did this thinking you’d play the machines and lose it all anyway. The trick was to build the willpower to leave instead of gamble and go to the next casino for the free meal.

Two other old guys in their 60’s lived in delivery trucks, Joe, a lifelong mechanic with arthritis too bad to work, the other, Ron, a retired head shop owner who sold jewelry he made at the markets. They traveled around. But Joe survived by raiding dumpsters, and when he came back one day with a Rolex watch and two gold necklaces he hocked at the pawn shop for $600, I got on my bike and started dumpster diving instead of looking for a job at the local post office.

From the tourists and locals there was no mercy, not a thought for the poor who were about the streets in stark contrast to the rich people coming to gamble in a fantasy world where they do not know Casinos are paid for by losers, not winners. No sympathy or expressed love for fellow man in trouble, but instead a disdain for the down and out, as if they deserved whatever had come their way due to gambling or other weaknesses, not circumstances such as health, financial ruin, or emotional retreat. I learned that I could find what I needed in the dumpsters like a sterling silver engraved Thimble, household goods, and the many things I sold at the flea market to buy the parts I needed to rebuild my bus motor so I could get out of the middle of the desert.

LB: How did you start Texas Tiny House and what is your vision for its future?

BDK: I was at the end of my 10 year cycle in the Salvage and Architectural antiques business, which became the largest in the USA. That business was not my goal, but a path I couldn’t resist taking. Next, the time had come for the Baby Boomers to downsize, as I saw it, and starting Texas Tiny House was an alternative to the beginning trend of Tiny Houses on Wheels.

At first, I was not aware of the way modern codes promote unhealthy houses. I was not aware of ways to be more energy efficient. Slowly I figured out how to design the houses for easier transport and thus stay with an owner for life, to then be handed off to loved ones and moved to where it is needed next.

I wish to teach people how to salvage, I wish to see Pure Salvage Co-ops bloom around the country like a string of Salvage Pearls. And as we sweep up the billions in resources trapped in houses, barns, and buildings, I want to see this evolve to where millions benefit, not just a few corporations. My goal was never to build a million houses, or create a giant building company, but instead to inspire millions to build their own houses from salvaged materials, gathered locally wherever possible, thus creating local solutions that all would benefit from. ​

LB: One of my favorite tiny houses you’ve built is “The Kidd” – can you talk about that build specifically? (i.e. how long did it take to build, where did you salvage those materials, etc?)

BDK: We built “The Kidd” out of 3 sections of walls that came from a house we salvaged. It is only 67 sf. The downstairs has a shower, kitchenette, and dining table made from a slab of mesquite. While the stairs lead up to the double bed in the loft. It is actually quite popular and is designed as the first fold up prototype to load up on a modified dump truck for easy transport without a permit.

We began building it in a seminar with four women who had never swung a hammer. It took about 500 hours to build it once my employees got on finishing it after that short seminar. Usually, when designing a house, we walk through the salvage warehouse to find windows, doors, and other parts. Oftentimes, when building, we create the floor the right size then have people hold up the doors, windows, and other key parts around the house to see how they feel, then we place them.

LB: Wow, that sounds like an incredibly creative and organic process. How much do your tiny homes typically cost?

BDK: I had reached the point of selling houses from the $45,000 to the $160,000 range, which meant sizing from 10’x12′ on up to 12’x30 with porches and more amenities.

The idea of building with employees in America— paying a living wage while offering the benefits packages that people expect, then paying the government taxes— made it too expensive to make a great profit like the Tiny Houses on Wheels do. It’s too costly, I require too much labor.

LB: Other tiny house builders offer lending options to finance their homes, either through “owner-finance” or getting their tiny houses “RV certified” for more conventional loans, do you offer financing options?

BDK: One might not be surprised that the system of lenders are not real fond of loaning on things that do not fit into the box of loan types that are defined by the Fed and big banks. We could not get on their books unless we went for RV status but that would mean using the toxic box materials required by the industries that write the codes for such things. Only then the money is available.

It seems the idea of “sustainable building” that does not send bank money to the big box stores, the vinyl window makers, sheetrock makers, and other industry-standard materials, is not welcome for lending. These global corps with shared stockholders have nothing to gain from the idea of Salvage Mining, Salvage Building, Off-Grid living, and permacultural alternatives to industrialized agriculture.

LB: The importance of “self-build” seems integral to your salvaging mission as a means to revitalize communities, so even if you could get lenders to finance your homes, would you? Do you see an inherent contradiction in creating a debt-system for the tiny house movement?

BDK: My goal is instead to inspire local “Pure Salvage Outposts” that can act as a co-op for storing materials that are salvaged, teach the building of houses out of salvage with common tools, spaces, from the help of elders with the common sense, experience, and willingness to share the wisdom of their ages.

If we can do that, the cost point for homes could be taken down and the debt paid with little or no interest as the beneficiaries are the co-op members who create a virtual family of support. And in the coming years, I think downsizing will be both a desire and necessity for new generations, as they realize how much a “big house” contributes to an unsustainable economy. These Salvage Outposts may be a way to help with this transition.

LB: It sounds like you’re transitioning your focus from the sale of Tiny Houses to educating people on how to salvage and build their own houses and communities?

BDK: I choose to teach others how to build now. To take the knowledge I have accumulated over years of experience in building, salvage, and real estate, and grow communities through salvaging the best of the past; especially the wisdom from our elders who have watched the progression of the technological age, and the crippling of the children’s minds in schools that don’t teach life skills.

I believe we need to teach our kids to build early on. We need to participate in “community-builds,” bartering skills, sharing materials, engaging in house raising parties to swap knowledge and imagination with our local communities. Then we’ll have stronger communities, and homes to last another hundred years.

“Salvage Texas,” where we store our salvaged materials and build our tiny homes, is my attempt to demonstrate this community model — with a permacultural jungle and salvage co-op, we will offer a glimpse into an alternative world of self-sufficiency and sustainability. We can live with nature better if we make an effort. Populating “Salvage Texas” is my primary goal now: we have events, let people experience the houses and sleep in them, and thus help plant the seeds of their dreams.

LB: In my opinion, among the other prominent alternative housing builders, you seem to be the most vociferous critic of conventional building styles, methods, and materials. Do you believe that just building healthy, affordable, and ecologically regenerative housing isn’t enough?

BDK: Our homes are the incubators for our children to grow up, thus the toxins we are now recognizing that come from latex paint, plastics, vinyls, carpets, glues, wood, etc. are causing cancer and other major hormone disorders that lead to many unneeded health issues. We know from studies that the flooring alone can give someone leukemia if the formaldehyde content is too high (read more). None of that need happen if we just build houses to not be toxic boxes without enough clean air to breathe.

Most people have no idea that the materials used in conventional homes are intended to go bad and be replaced in 7-12 years, throughout the house, inside and outside. What is the future of a family that can not pay off a house that requires new systems and maintenance at 12 years old, making the maintenance costs greater than the mortgage and taxes by the 15th year in the home, with 15 more years of payments?

How are we to build healthy families, communities, and work together if our homes make us sick, lock us into a whirlpool of debt and maintenance, and in the end, only to be owning a house in a suburb that collapses because others can’t keep up as well? Slums come from great neighborhoods that crumble. I made millions in real estate in my 30’s fixing up dilapidated crime-ridden areas in Austin, learning what gentrification was by doing it without understanding what would happen when we cleaned up the trash and chased off the criminals. I had to get out of the box to find solutions to the problems we were facing in the poorest parts of the city.

As the public keeps its blinders on and buys into the American Mass Marketed Dream of owning giant houses, cars, and toys to find happiness, the home is where we will learn this behavior that is destroying our culture. Living in a home like I build does not let that train of thought get on the track. Please consider the home is the cocoon that the child is to grow in and become a butterfly, not cook and be destroyed.

What I’ve done is create affordable, healthy, and ecological homes, which then create US jobs, and provide security for millions from the trash that would otherwise go to landfills. This is a path where the kids can find purpose, work to last a lifetime, a new path that is freeing them from jobs that never go anywhere, and a way to stay with the family for a lifetime of working together. A home is many things to many people, this is a way to give all of them one. Teach the masses how to build from salvage and they can share their skills, change the world with their hands and imagination, human energy and love.