'it's a bit of an odd story, really, it's not what you'd expect,' explains John Peterson, principal of Peterson Architects in San Francisco, and founder of Public Architecture, a nonprofit organization devoted to pro bono design work. He's talking about the origins of ScrapHouse (www.scraphouse.org), a 700-foot demonstration house constructed on Civic Center Plaza across from City Hall in June in conjunction with World Environment Day 2005, for which San Francisco served as host. One might think the project was conceived by a design professional, but in fact it is the idea of filmmaker Anna Fitch, as the basis for a documentary.

ScrapHouse challenges our thoughts about shelter, allocation of materials, and collaboration. With just four weeks to design the project and two weeks to build it, a team of over 150 San Francisco architects, designers, engineers, artists, contractors, and city officials worked around the clock. The key premise of the project was that all materials had to be salvaged, meaning they had been discarded or were in the process of being thrown away. Materials were gathered from dumps and salvage yards around the Bay Area, as well as from construction project mis-orders and overstocks.

Once construction started, the process was 'moment to moment.' From materials to collaborations, 'we looked for opportunities that seemed appropriate,' says Peterson, including walls constructed from stacked phonebooks and fire hoses, and street sign siding.

The lighting was equally as creative. One fixture, an interpretation of a chandelier was re-imagined in the dining area. Bordering on brilliant, an assortment of table lamps stand atop a sheet of Lexan bulletproof glass suspended by cable. With the traffic light chandelier, materials were procured first, and the design and form followed. As municipalities have converted traffic lights to incorporate LEDs, the reflector lenses are no longer required. Taped and clamped together, artist Simon Cheffins made use of the orange and red arrow traffic signal lenses, suspending them with metal rods from an industrial-style bell pendant.

Although well lit at night, despite not being open to the public after dark, the house relied primarily on natural light throughout the day. 'The daylighting solved itself,' says Peterson. 'We wanted the building to be approachable and open when you were inside the house looking out, and also if you walked by, to be able to see in and through it.'

The team hoped someone or an organization would take the house to another location, but given the overall time constraints, that was not realized. Instead, after being open to the public for four days and receiving over 10,000 visitors, the house was dismantled in less than 24 hours. 'There were lots of things fighting against us, namely time, money, and a location,' says Peterson. 'In the end, we had to accept that just as we had pulled these materials from the waste stream, we had to put them back into the recycling process.' A majority of the material did return to the dump, and some was actually claimed by visitors.

While there are no specific plans currently to make ScrapHouse an annual event, Petersen would like to see the idea continued. This would include a broader understanding of salvage materials as a component of sustainable building, integrated on a more regular basis with the overall construction process.

Luxurious homes with extensive square footage and incredible views: This is the subject of design publications. There is value in this work, but it is not the reality for most. Moreover, as resources become more precious, these houses are not always 'responsible building.' ScrapHouse is one reminder of conservation put into action, a sculptural piece of the everyday. elizabeth donoff