Adventures in pallet shed building

31 05 2012

[Criteria 1; Holmgren principles. Criteria 2; permaculture in my home. Criteria 4; writing articles]

We needed a shed, we had no money. What we did have was 2 hammers, a drill, a saw and a large tin brimming with odd screws and nails. All we needed now was wood – free wood.  The most abundant source of free wood scavangable in an urban environment is the prolific pallet!  Our goal – to build a shed, out of pallets using permaculture principles to guide us.

For years we had toyed with the idea of a reduced commute and a more sustainable way of life, but had been too squashed down by work pressures, and too constricted by our little flat to make any major changes.  Until a year sabbatical gave us the opportunity to breathe, we simply decided that we needed time out to reflect, so we got on our bikes and off we cycled. 9 months later we returned to the UK with clear heads and clear hearts and vowed that henceforth we would place quality of life at the heart of all our choices.  So when setting up house, we looked for a reduced commute = more time, and as big a garden as we could find in London = crop potential.  Living sustainably in an urban environment meant we had to ensure we made the most of what we had.  So while my partner went back to ‘work’ I set about finding ways to make life work for us!  Fresh from my permaculture design course and with a highly restricted budget, I set to designing, planning, thinking about our new 100ft garden.

Hovering to the side of the garden, quite close to the house, there was a small, dank, breeze-block shed resplendent with an asbestos roof.  The shed was on its last legs and rather than have it fall and release all that asbestos into our precious lungs, we decided to take it down carefully and dispose of it appropriately.  This left us with a concrete hard-standing 8mx3m, situated in the best growing spot of the site; a little south facing sun trap.  There was an instinctive part of me that wanted to take up all that concrete, improve the soil below and grow kiwis and lemons!  But working with the principles of efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and finding the route of least resistance (least change greatest effect) and after numerous scale doodles we decided to turn the problem into a solution and opt for a combination shed / greenhouse, and with the hard-standing in place already, why not keep it there.  While kiwis and lemons are delicious a needs survey quickly highlighted that our preference was for accessible abundant salads and a handy seedling crèche. Since we are also renovating and retrofitting our house storage close to the house is also essential (multiple functions from one element).

Let’s not be under any illusions here – neither of us are trained builders, we are two smallish women who are well aware of our limitations but confident in our ability to problem-solve.  And quite frankly, we are confident in us.

Calling out to all intrepid pallet builders… here’s how we did it.

Step 1: Foundations and damp proof course

I started by observing the concrete hard-standing (not massively exciting but certainly informative!). I noticed how the water pools in certain places and placing the pallets directly on the ground would see them rotting over time. Since our goal was resilience we decided to base the structure on a row of brick; this would also offer a level (ish) base to stack our walls on. In our old flat we used bricks as shelving support and rather fortuitously had decided to bring them with us, just in case! (observe and interact)

Step 2: Pallet prep

Pallet sourcing was no problem, first we identified our nearest industrial estate, knocked on a few doors and asked if we could help them deal with their rubbish problem (produce no waste)!  (Note- it’s important to ask as some companies recollect pallets– so simply taking them could turn out to be theft!).  A few simple calculations ensured we got enough to make our basic wall structure. Identical big pallets for the back wall and identical medium sized pallets to make the front wall, and a mix of both to see what happened at the sides! Once we’d sourced a decent range we decided to ‘thin them out’ by removing some of the lengths –enough to lighten, not too many to weaken the structural integrity.

Step 3: Walls

According to numerous DIY books and the great Web, corners are the place to start. Balancing 2 pallets precariously around the back corner, Catherine clung on to them whilst I screwed in our ‘cross members’.  We used wood off-cuts to provide diagonal strength across the corner, hold the pallets together and ensure maximum use of resources.  In a heart-in-mouth moment, Catherine let go and we stepped away… and – oh yes – nothing fell over, we gave it a shake and it all seemed to be holding together.  Hoorah- robustness!

The sides consisted of medium pallets to match the front line, with diagonally cut pallets to make the link between the back height and the front – while a good level of weather proofing is important air-tightness isn’t, in fact those mismatch gaps provide excellent ventilation!

Step 4:  Making windows

We had a couple of old pieces of weirdly shaped clear plastic and a small rectangle of glass lying around – ideal for windows (as the story unfolds, the observant reader might notice just how much we will need this lovely shed – based on the number of items we have ‘lying around’ – the ultimate re-user needs some place to store all their valuable ‘stuff’! (produce no waste)).  So we cut out corresponding holes in the pallet walls before erecting. We used the cladding (coming next) to hold the windows in place from the outside, and more of our trusty wood off-cuts to hold them in place on the inside.

Step 5: Cladding

Any spare moment in the build was deemed a cladding moment – to ensure structural cohesion and protection we decided to horizontally clad the whole structure (apart from the back that was covered with a tough plastic sheet – it is not subject to weather and would be impossible to access for cladding as it butts up against the neighbours wall – give or take a 10 cm gap). To clad the shed we needed a large supply of single pallet slats. If there is any part of this project that was the most laborious this was it – I’m sure there is a more efficient way to finish this type of build – but we were working with what we had – pallets! Rather nerdily we’ve learned a thing or two about pallets.  It’s about trial and error and finding your own technique – some slats just won’t budge, and others practically fall apart with the slightest hammer blow.  We developed a bit of a technique using a hammer and crow bar, youtube clips on pallet dismantling  (yes they exist!) suggest that others just bash the slats off with a mallet.  But some of those nails run so deep there is no way of getting them out – in which case I cut the wood!

We then simply jigsawed them up each wall to produce a rather pleasing rustic effect.

Step 6: The roof

We went through a few design ideas here, we wanted to make the roof out of plastic bottles – so we had a fun evening collecting bottles out of people’s recycling, followed by a trip to the local tip.  We tried corrugating the bottles – stapling strips of bottle together; we also tried making tiles by flattening the bottles.  All to no avail – the problem came in trying to fix them down to something on the roof and with water tightness.  Luckily for us it rained during our building process so we could observe roof leakage (observe and interact). There was lots of it.  There are many examples of plastic bottles successfully used to make roofing, but we simply didn’t have a way to make the bottles flat enough for tiles – and we also started to run out of energy and patience. And so we conceded to spend a bit of money to buy some plastic sheets so that we could have our growing space. We zoned the shed so that one section was darkened to store objects that light might cause to perish while keeping the main area light (multiple functions from one element).  For the darker side of the shed we managed to scavenge some aluminium from a skip- perfect favella style roofing(produce no waste)!

Step 7: The door

When we took down the old shed we made sure we kept the door, with a lick of paint, and rejigging of the locking device, somehow we made it work!

All in all the venture cost us a week’s solid labour (i.e. 14 person days) and about £45 in roofing and a resupply of mortar for the brick base.  It gained us a whole chest full of pride and satisfaction; a secure, watertight shed, and a super snugly crèche for our seedlings and salads – which are thriving!

One year on – there has been a small leak in the roof through one of the fixing points – which I have yet to fix and there is water ingress from the back – a much harder problem to solve.  So we have raised everything in the shed off the ground to prevent it from rotting.  The shed has stood up well to heavy winds.  Over the course of the last 12 months it has been a seedling sanctuary, a full on greenhouse, a bike and junk store and now it has reached its (hopefully final) use as a wood store and workshop!  The natural light through the roof is one of the best things we did!  Ooh and it’s also being featured in our upcoming ‘Green Open Homes’ event in Kingston and I’m planning a trip to visit the shed for Kingston Permaculture Network folk!

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