Recycled garbage gives green twist to homebuilding

People thinking about renovating their homes seldom look to abandoned city buses, scrap computer keyboards and old socks as potential building materials.

It's not the sort of stuff lining the shelves of most hardware stores but it's perfectly feasible as the recent efforts of a crew from urban environmentalists, Rebut Global, show.

They're just putting the finishing touches on their latest project, a bungalow-type structure in Montreal's Old Port that will serve as an ecological interpretive centre.

"It's to show how everyone can re-imagine a house," said Vincent Vandenbrouck, the project's artistic director, during a break in the work.

"We're using different types of materials, most of them are at the end of their life and we're just trying to find another life for the object. We're trying to transform trash into something nice."

The one-storey structure looks like a cheery little box - it's based around two maritime containers - with a recycled banner from a Walt Disney exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts chopped up to add colour. Otherwise, it would look at home on most campgrounds among the other cabins.

The effort is the fourth renovation project for a regular series of documentaries under the Rebut Global brand, says producer Marc St-Onge. The programs are broadcast on the public Tele-Quebec network.

"The purpose of that documentary series was to raise the awareness of consumers about recycling," he said.

This year's project was sparked when a joint effort was suggested by biologist Jean Lemire, who returned in January from a 15-month exploration of the Antarctic.

His three-masted sailboat, the Sedna IV, is anchored in the Old Port near the site of the recycled building.

"He said it would be nice if you could build a Rebut Global house near it so we could show videos and some interpretation on recycled materials," St-Onge said.

People have gotten tips on climate change when they tour the boat and organizers of the recycled building project hope they'll take away more ideas when they visit it.

The building will likely remain on site until late 2008, although it will be closed during the winter months. Nothing has been decided about its fate beyond that.

Most of the materials in the recycled building are donated.

"We tried to find everything that is used or recycled," St-Onge said. "The two containers were bought locally.

"You see the old doors from an antique shop," St-Onge said of the large wooden pieces that form part of the wall in a 40-seat projection room in the building.

"Some of them (the doors) were rotten at the bottom so we decided to cut them, clean out what was rotten and keep the good part and sandblast them so they could get a second life."

While many tout public transit as the environmentally friendly way to go, Vandenbrouck and his cohorts have used a number of parts from subway cars and a scrapped bus for the structure.

The city's transit commission "gave us access and we picked parts of the bus," Vandenbrouck said. "It was very exciting.

St-Onge said transit commission officials were surprised at how much useful material there was in a bus.

"One of them said 'I should keep one and make a cabin out of it,'" St-Onge said with a laugh.

Seats for the projection room come from the subway. Large windows at the back of the structure come from a bus. Even a welcome mat is made from an old tire.