Mother Earth Living

Slow Hand: Salvaged Building Materials Transform a Small Condo in Boulder

Piece by salvaged piece, a Boulder carpenter turns a basic box into a sunny, inviting home.
By Robyn Griggs Lawrence
March/April 2011
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Greg’s south-facing living room is bathed in light all day long. He found his furniture in thrift stores and Dumpsters (Boulder college kids throw away some pretty good stuff).
Photo By Povy Kendal Atchison

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Greg Miller finds his 816-square-foot home excessive, though the two-bedroom condo near downtown Boulder, Colorado, barely registers in a town where the average house size is around 6,000 square feet. But Greg’s a roving carpenter who once called a 1948 Dodge school bus in the Ohio woods home and who journeyed for six years in a van. To him, 816 square feet feels like too much.

“This is the first normal place I’ve lived in,” Greg says, and sometimes he’s overwhelmed by all that square footage. “All we really need is a place that’s dry and warm—the basics. You can’t be in more than one room at a time. So why have more than one room?”

Greg bought his unassuming condo, just blocks from Boulder’s lively farmer’s market and Pearl Street Mall and within walking distance of hiking, transportation and entertainment, seven years ago. “It was a basic apartment. I like to take places like that and transform them,” he says. “You can do so much when the four walls are already up. All the hard work is already done.”

Taking It Slow 

Greg was able to practice slower, more intuitive carpentry (a method clients don’t always appreciate) for his own renovation. He took three years, working mainly during the winter when his business was slow, and often basing his plans on what salvaged materials he found. This work flow suits him. “I’m not a big planner,” he says. “I like just letting things evolve.”

Greg’s goals were to make better use of his space, beef up energy efficiency and bring in more natural light. The condo’s large south-facing deck and sliding glass doors, which let sunshine into the living room all day long, were a great start. Elsewhere, Greg cut holes in interior walls to let natural light penetrate dark rooms, and took advantage of every possible nook and cranny to create storage. He insulated around all windows, box sills, exterior plugs and the ceiling; replaced the windows with low-E glass; and installed insulated blinds throughout the home.    

Greg’s economic and ethical model called for extensive use of salvaged materials and nontoxic finishes. He replaced the carpet with reclaimed oak flooring and found oak window trim, baseboards, newel posts and steps at the local salvage yard. As he replaced materials, he reused or recycled the old ones. (He tried for zero waste, but at the time he was renovating he couldn’t find anyone to recycle the old drywall.) When he was finished, he decorated with furniture from local used furniture stores and Dumpsters.

Simple Living by Example 

Now complete, Greg’s comfortable condo is a testament to his simple lifestyle. He doesn’t have a microwave, garbage disposal or dryer because he doesn’t consider them necessities. “Forty years ago, every home didn’t have a dishwasher or a garbage disposal,” he says. “Your home is a product of your environment. We have so many comforts.”

The small square footage makes the home easy to clean and maintain. It’s also affordable. Even before the renovation, the highest utility bill Greg had ever paid was $55. These days his utility bills average around $30—he says they aren’t substantial enough to track.

“It makes me feel good that I did all the energy things I could do,” Greg says. “If everybody would take care of their own home’s efficiency, that’s really all it would take for the whole system to be more efficient. I love to show people that. It’s kind of neat to live by example.”

A Chat with Greg 

What book is on your nightstand?
The Big Year
by Mark Obmascik; Alice Cooper, Golf Monster by Alice Cooper with Keith and Kent Zimmerman

Favorite thing to do on a spring day? Get out in nature and watch the spring bird migration.

Favorite way to spend Friday night? Going to the Dances of Universal Peace here in Boulder.

When is your next adventure? Soon.

Natural Home editor-at-large Robyn Griggs Lawrence has been known to drive slowly past Boulder Dumpsters when the college kids leave for the summer.  


Design and Build 
Greg Miller, Builder
Red Pepper Kitchen and Bath 
kitchen and bath design

ReSource Boulder 
salvaged materials

Whole House 

AFM Safecoat  
low-VOC paint, grout sealer, floor and trim sealer, caulk

Armstrong Air Ultra V
Advantage 80
80 percent-efficient furnace


American Loft Cabinetry 
custom kitchen cabinet doors

low-flow kitchen faucet

natural linoleum

kitchen sink

Oasis Montana 
Vestfrost efficient refrigerators

Oceanside Glasstile 
85 percent recycled glass tile

recycled plastic cabinet panels


low-flow bathroom faucet

cast-iron vanity sink

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