A Lesson in Building So It Won’t Last

For many years now, decades even, I’ve heard people talk about how things aren’t built the way they used to be. Cars don’t last. Toys break after a few play dates. Computers seem to require replacing much more frequently. Cell phones are much the same. Pots, pans, appliances, electronics—everything has gone the way of cheap production and “bargain” sales. The cynical side of me sees industries manufacturing substandard products so that we have to buy them more frequently. The miserly side notices that prices have continually dropped with the quality.

In general, I think things aren’t made to the same standard they used to be. I’ve notice a lessening quality even throughout my lifetime, even in the span of the last couple of decades.

Regardless, constantly replacing these things, whatever the reason, has put a serious strain on the planet, both by gobbling up resources and in having to deal with the increased rubbish. But, recently, I have begun to take the idea of the problem and turn it into a solution. I’ve started considering a new approach: purposefully—carefully planning even—building things so that they won’t last.

Unlike Other Houses, It Began with the Roof

Living in the wet tropics, I’m not stranger to bugs, rot, and other unsavory issues of such climates. I love the growing potential, all the fruit trees at my disposal and the year-round cultivation of food, but it doesn’t come without a price. The weather gets hot and humid, the termites devour like no where else, and consequently the things we—humans—build tend to suffer greatly.

A Cool Spot to Sit
A Cool Spot to Sit

Here, the traditional way, though sheet metal is well on its way to taking over, to build a roof is palm-thatching. There are two types of palms commonly used, the lesser quality but more plentiful cahune palm and the much pricier and growing scarcer bay leaf palm. Cahune roofs last a few years, perhaps up to ten if done very well, while bay leaf might survive upwards of twenty years. In either case, the roof will eventually begin to decompose and require replacing.

It was while harvesting an amazing mulch from on old, discarded cohune roof that it occurred to me just how sustainable and cyclical this process could be. The roof provides perfectly functional shelter for years, as the palm trees replenish their leaves. Then, when the roof reaches the end, it comes down as a great element for the garden. New leaves are harvested for the next roof. The long, slow cycle plays out and improves the state of things.

Other people work to build longer lasting roofs, but find themselves in a constant battle with burrowing insects, rodents, rot and so on, spending loads on sealers and chemicals to battle the inevitable. In the end, they’ve used a bunch of resources, spent a considerably larger bundle and created a mound of toxic waste. Collecting that mulch, the rich compost in between the fronds, I began to see the value of building something not meant to last. We just have to think of it as useful component to impermanence.

A cahune roof here makes too much sense. It’s cheap or free for those with a little bit of land. It goes up quickly, doesn’t require much in the way of expertise, and makes for a cooler home, both in its high pitch creating space for heat to rise and in its thick exterior thwarting the sun, unlike metal roofs. The materials take a couple of days to gather, and with a just a few people, an entire roof can go up in a day.

Palm thatch won’t work everywhere, of course, but the idea of building this way—with temporariness in mind—might benefit other projects.

Expanding the Thatch Theory Beyond Roofing

Permaculture and I get along very well for many reasons, but one of them is definitely the practice of using what is already available to create what we need. I like the thriftiness of it. I like the creativity and ingenuity it inspires. I like not creating extra waste or requiring extra energy to produce something that isn’t necessary. And, I like discovering something new about what was old, such as with the palm thatch theory above.

Temporary Plant Protection
Temporary Plant Protection

Moving on from the roof, I began to think this way in the garden a little more as well: building so it won’t last. Too often, I realized, we turn to now conventional solutions for problems with simpler, more natural solutions. Instead of turning instantly to lumber (even scrap), I use sticks. Instead of immediately looking to chicken wire, I consider whether or not palm fronds will do the job. In other cases, I look for vine over tie wire. I know these things won’t last as long, but I also know they’ll decompose into something useful. And, I’ve built quite a bit with good success.

• A Tear-Away, Half Living Fence: Using sticks of madre de cacao, a local nitrogen-fixer that roots almost instantly, as fence posts has made a long-lasting frame. On it, I’ve put either sticks or palm spines as cross bars, creating something along the lines of a wooden fence. To keep the poultry out, I simply stick relevantly sized pieces of palm fronds along the fence, effectively deterring birds and dogs alike from making a mess of the garden. When the palm fronds and crossbars get to weathered, they are replaced easily and for free, the old ones entering the garden as mulch.

• A Living Compost Bin: I used madre de cacao sticks (again) as living slats for building a couple of compost bins. The trees root quickly and tolerate the compost piling up next to them. They can be trimmed for more compostable material. If a stick fails, it’s easily replaced. In the meantime, while everything builds a stable base, they are held together with vines that were on a nearby tree. By the time the vines are gone, I’m hoping the madre de cacao will stand on its on. If not, the whole thing can be built again in couple of hours, for free, with pruned branches. It equates to no manufacturing, financial investment, timber transport, or questionable material sources. I did a third one, using madre sticks and wild banana leaves, just to hold decomposing mulching material. The leaves ultimately go into the mulch bin.

• Some Sapling Security: With abundance of palm fronds around, it’s easy to gather a bit and still leave plenty for the palm trees to mulch themselves. So, I use them to protect young trees, and especially plantains and bananas, from free-roaming turkeys and chickens. The birds will devour the young shoots, but a few palm pieces and some sticks (again, I use madre de cacao because it feeds and mulches the plants as I prune them back) creates enough of a barrier to get the trees to maturity. And, everything used to build the contraption creates mulch for the tree in the long run—a sort of construction version of chop-and-drop planting. I like it much more than the customary rings of chicken wire.

The Problem, Though, Is Not Always the Solution

While I love the inspiration the thatch roof has given me (many more design ideas than what’s been listed), I’m not sure that it is exactly solves the modern manufacturing problems. Unfortunately, elements of greed—whether we are being purposefully duped with bogus products or sold things made of such poor quality to make them “affordable”— probably factor in too largely.

Reusable Glass Jars with Fresh Cacao Nibs
Reusable Glass Jars with Fresh Cacao Nibs

As well, sometimes it absolutely does make sense to build for more permanence, so we could buy lasting quality when buying is the best option. That might mean more up front cost, but it equates to not having to replace something, not having to dispose of it, and likely not having to deal with constant repairs. I also try to keep in mind what can be done with remnants of something before making a purchase, remembering that not much last forever.

That roof was just another reminder that we can look at our problems from a more constructive, or productively resourceful, angle. In many ways, elements of the palm thatch theory are already in play. Electronics are scavenged for their parts, old buildings for the pipes, doors, wires, wood, and concrete. Bottles are becoming plant-based so that they degrade. The more we can find uses for the garbage we’ve produced (But, even better, the less when need to produce—think reusable glass bottles and Ball Mason jars), the less resources we’ll need and waste we’ll create.

Feature Photo: Palm Thatch Rooftops (Courtesy of Laughlin Elkind)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button