How to Build Houses Out of Trash
Using some redneck engineering, Harvey Lacey wants to bring homes to the poor.
“I was raised poor, and I’ve had about all of the ‘It’s good enough for you’ that I can stand,” Lacey says.photography by Sara Kerens
A Vietnam War vet, his weather-beaten face hiding behind a white cumulus cloud of a beard, is building a house made almost entirely out of trash, practically in the middle of SMU’s campus. It sounds like the beginning of a police report. Which is probably why Harvey Lacey has the wary smile of someone who is getting away with something very big, but just barely.
It’s early April, a few days before SMU kicks off its inaugural Engineering & Humanity Week, which will act as a coming-out party for the school’s Hunt Institute. Like the name implies, the event is a marriage of ingenuity and empathy. Its centerpiece is the Living Village, wherein various potential solutions for the world’s low-cost housing problem are presented full-scale.
Lacey’s answer is Ubuntu-Blox, small bricks of plastic refuse—some made of discarded water bottles, others of Styrofoam and plastic film—bound like miniature hay bales. They are then wired together to form walls, post-tensioned two ways, and covered in mud and stucco. It all adds up to a house that can be built for about $250, using parts that you can find anywhere and plastic trash that you can find, unfortunately, everywhere. That’s the idea; this is his first attempt to actually do it. As he works, he talks. Seventy percent of the impoverished are female. “One of the last barriers to true gender equality is homebuilding,” he says. This was designed for women. The blocks are light. The machine that makes them (kind of like an open stapler) is, more or less, portable.
With his beard and his red work shirt, Lacey looks like Santa Claus, or at least Santa’s shop steward. He was personally invited by Stephanie Hunt to participate in the Living Village after a meeting in February. He still can’t believe it happened so fast. But everything with this project has gone that way. Five months ago, Ubuntu-Blox wasn’t even an idea.
Then he came to SMU in November to hear Ronald Omyonga talk about the HabiHut, which Omyonga called “a holistic solution to housing.” It sparked something in Lacey. “He said there are informally trained voices out there that have credibility, and we need to listen to them,” Lacey says. “To me, what he did was, he looked out there and said, ‘Harvey Lacey, I believe in you.’ ”
A week later, Lacey came up with the block-building machine in a dream. And now here he is, on a corner of one of the university’s aggressively manicured lawns, getting looks from male students in pressed pink shorts and female students with wrinkled tan noses. He is already becoming the mascot of Engineering & Humanity Week, partly because he is the only one here, and partly because he looks and talks like Harvey Lacey.
For example: “I tell the millennials, I say, ‘This is your problem. You have to take control of this. You have to fix the world. And when adults come in and say they want to help you by taking over, you tell them to f--- off. Because they had their chance, and they just made it worse.’ And people tell me I can’t say that. Why? Well, you insulted all the adults. But it’s the truth.”
On the other end of the lawn, hired laborers busily set up the other models, fashioning pieces of corrugated plastic into igloos and wigwams and so on. Lacey is the only inventor who is here for this part. He is alongside his wife, two grandsons, and a few volunteers, slathering the walls with mud. He is not the type to drop off a set of blueprints. More than that, though, he is here because that’s how his father raised him. He shows up, because that is what you do.
Lacey grew up in various trailer parks in Arizona and Southern California. His father, also named Harvey, did a little bit of everything—carpentry, electrical work, welding—and was poor but principled. If a job didn’t meet his ethical standards, he found another one, usually in a different town. At his family’s most nomadic, Lacey went to four schools as a seventh grader.
Lacey admits he still feels like the new kid, the poor kid, and enters unfamiliar situations (figuratively now) fists first. And that itinerant nature has continued in his adult life, at least through his career. He worked for the telephone company until his 30s, then left to become “an entrepreneur, self-employed, a free spirit.” Mostly, that has meant he builds things, skipping from one project to the next.
His father’s impact is really felt in the space between those words: “he builds things.” That’s where you find how he does it, and why he does it that way. The senior Lacey was a taciturn man of the old-school variety, someone who offered respect if not always love. So his son constructed himself first, making Harvey Lacey into a man who was, as he says, “clever and hardworking,” the kind of person his father admired.
A couple of years ago, Lacey was hired to build a staircase for a well-heeled client in Highland Shores. It was needed to connect the property’s infinity-edge pool and deck area, which sat atop an engineered hill, to the miniature park that had been created below.
Lacey’s solution was made of stone and steel, and had an economy of design that was both practical and elegant. There are no wasted moves, no extra pieces. It would be impressive enough if Lacey, without any formal training, had merely conjured up the design, sketched it out, and passed it on to someone else to make it happen. But that is not how he works. He showed up with a group of laborers and built the thing, too, drilling all the postholes with his Little Beaver hydraulic auger, helping move the 400-pound blocks of stone. He bent every bar of the handrail himself, welded it together, and then painted it. (To see photos, go to harveylacey.com.)
When he was done, the client told him he was the only craftsman who had actually gotten his hands dirty on the entire project—the house, the backyard he spent half a million on, all of it. The others had arrived with a pack of workers, given instructions, and split.
Then there is the fence design he came up with for Texas A&M’s campus at Coit and Campbell, where their genetic scientists are located. Lacey topped the fence with a twisting double helix. He has three patents on building systems, including two issued just last year. He is a creative problem solver and a straight (maybe too straight) shooter, which is why when people with high-end homes need something built, he gets a call. He is Brad Oldham without the name.
“Think about how I built that house,” Lacey says. “That is the most simple solution to a couple of our biggest problems. It’s very hard for me to focus, but when I do look at something, I’m able to X-ray it.”
Lacey believes it’s hard for him to focus because, after seeing the 2010 film Temple Grandin, he realized he is autistic. Is he? Perhaps. I don’t really know. I do know that if you send him an email, you’ll get 2,000 words back, probably sent in the middle of the night. If you’re looking for a Dixie cup of conversation, he will give you an ocean, and it will be just as salty. And that conversation is everything and everyone and everywhere at once. The recycled plastic blocks are related to the staircase, and that’s related to his father and Arizona, and that’s related to quitting the telephone company and striking out on his own, and that’s related to Haiti and the future of Ubuntu-Blox, and that is connected to now and to you and to me and back to those recycled plastic blocks.
It doesn’t sound like it, but in there is a focus, the X-ray he is talking about. He is five moves ahead of everyone, sounding less like he is planning than relating what he has already done. The house he built at SMU worked as a marketing tool and as an actual house. It is now at the University of Oklahoma, its walls being tested so they can be compared to other structures. And then next is Haiti. He will survey the trash problem, what is available to make the machines. Then he will come back and make the plan. He will adapt his model to what is there, what can be used, and then he will give it to them. Then Pakistan or somewhere in Africa. And he will give it to them, too. He says there are products out there ruined by people getting greedy, trying to protect their intellectual property. He won’t. “This is literally too good for somebody to say, ‘I’ve got to try to get rich off it.’ ” Ubuntu-Blox was never his. That’s why he named it that.
The word “ubuntu” comes from the Bantu languages of southern Africa. It is a philosophy for living that essentially means we are all in this together. I like this definition from Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
Lacey, of course, already knows who he is—his father’s son. “I’m not auditioning to be anybody but Harvey Lacey. And I’m going to do that just fine.”
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