Diary of an Eco-Builder

Even teak from a Burmese rainforest can find a place in an ecohouse
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The Independent Online

This week I faced up to a job that I have been shirking for months. We have a shed-load of Bur-mese teak in need of serious TLC: dozens of bags of grubby reclaimed parquet, crammed in tightly from floor to ceiling. When I bought the lot last year from Lassco ( www.lassco.co.uk), London's biggest reclamation warehouse, I had a vision of the upper floors of Tree House glowing with the rich, warm hues that teak is famous for. Cleaning up 750 sq ft of the stuff might be a bit of a challenge but, hey, I had plenty of time. Six months later, I decided to invite our friends Nick and Hussein round to lunch, promising an interesting encounter with our building project.

This week I faced up to a job that I have been shirking for months. We have a shed-load of Burmese teak in need of serious TLC: dozens of bags of grubby reclaimed parquet, crammed in tightly from floor to ceiling. When I bought the lot last year from Lassco ( www.lassco.co.uk), London's biggest reclamation warehouse, I had a vision of the upper floors of Tree House glowing with the rich, warm hues that teak is famous for. Cleaning up 750 sq ft of the stuff might be a bit of a challenge but, hey, I had plenty of time. Six months later, I decided to invite our friends Nick and Hussein round to lunch, promising an interesting encounter with our building project.

In fact, it was a good purchase, for each tile requires fairly brief attention. It's just that there are so many of them. Life gets difficult restoring parquet when the original installers have been too liberal with their bitumen, resulting in the joins between the tiles getting clogged up with the black gunk. You can leave the undersides, and the tops will be sanded down after the floor is relaid, so the key task is cleaning the slots and grooves that connect the tiles together. Happily, our grooves are only caked with the accumulated fag ash and skin peelings of several generations of Chelsea's telecoms engineers.

Teak is a remarkable hardwood. As well as being attractive, it is very strong and naturally durable and so is a popular choice for tough assignments such as boats, bridges and British garden furniture. If you ever had a chemistry lesson on a wooden lab bench, it was almost certainly made from teak, as it is not harmed by acids and alkalis. The trees grow to 150ft tall in the monsoon rainforests of south-east Asia, where traditionally they were sought out, ringbarked and left to die, then felled a year later, before being dragged out of the forests by elephants. This is obviously not very sustainable, but the quantity that has been harvested in the past, and the durability of the wood, means that there is a good supply through reclamation yards.

Reclamation is a crucial part of the recycling loop, keeping precious resources in use and eliminating the ecological costs of extracting new ones. It's particularly valuable when the resources in question come from threatened natural habitats such as rainforests. Reclamation yards also tend to be interesting places to visit. They are full of the promise of discovery: scramble past the rusting Victorian radiators and the perfect piece of industrial archaeology lies awaiting your rescue and subsequent transformation into a chic garden ornament.

Unfortunately, reclamation is not without its risks - there's nothing ecological about buying stolen goods. Salvo (www.salvo.co.uk) has developed a code of practice to limit these risks, but as yet there is no assessment of those who sign up. As well as having an excellent online directory of salvage yards, Salvo alerts buyers to architectural items that have been reported stolen. Lassco's business is sustained only by reputation, so it cannot afford to take chances with goods of dodgy provenance.

Nick and Hussein didn't make much impact on our bags of parquet. Perhaps it was the wine; perhaps they were just too well dressed. As I'm not going to pull off Tom Sawyer's fence-painting trick with our easily distracted friends, I shall wait until the weather warms up, shut myself away, then dream of dancing the tango on a herringbone floor as the bags spill open around me.

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