We’ve been off the island for about two weeks. Nominally this is called a holiday. In reality this involves a lot of driving (largely through the night to avoid whinging wee folk), a heap of work and some trawling of what used to be called scrap yards.

I’m amazed and disappointed in what legislation has done to scrap yards. Nowadays most are closed off tin sheds where materials are separated quickly and recycled. Nothing wrong with that in principal it’s just that lots of this recycling involves high energy processes which may be largely unnecessary. Do we need to cut up and melt down steel to make new steel? Is burning ‘waste’ timber as biomass really the best we can do with it?

My parents slowly rebuilt a ruined black house in Leverburgh on Harris from that late 70’s to the early 90’s. Much of the material we brought up ourselves from lowland scrapyards. Structural timbers. sarking, roof tiles, floor tiles, baths & sinks were all recycled. It seemed that in those days there were hundreds of yards – run by colourful characters like Willie Dryburgh or Michael Rush – where stuff would sit for years seemingly slowly rotting away. But they were never the same twice and each visit brought the renewed excitement of searching for treasure. I recall many happy Saturday afternoons searching for replacement parts for my dad’s car or the tractor, or the next lot of building materials for a new shed or the Leverburgh house.

Part of my ‘holiday’ has been as organiser, exhibitor and participant in Threshold a four-day pop up architecture and built environment centre in an underground carpark in central Brighton. One of our events is a dual presentation from Cat Fletcher of Freegle and Duncan Baker Brown of BBM Architects based in Lewes and well known for their cutting edge sustainable design. Cat & Duncan are working together to build a house from waste in the grounds of Brighton University. Cat talks about the waste we generate and what happens to it. Duncan talks about reclaiming it and putting it back into construction. Its depressing and inspiring in equal measure.

With all this in mind I have been searching for a steel I beam to span across the door opening to the byre. Given my childhood experiences I thought this would be straightforward.

I speak to my dad. It seems all the old yards have been bought out by the large waste processors or shut down, the glint in their patriarch’s eye long extinguished. The days of wandering the yard until you chance upon what you’re looking for (or even better something you’re not!) have long gone.

‘I can ask’, he says slightly mournfully. It appears he knows a guy who works there.

‘It’ll depend what they’ve got in on the day, but he’ll keep his eyes open’

All I want is a 2.7m length of steel and some reinforcement mesh for the new concrete floor. It doesn’t sound much to ask.

In the end my dad chances on a previously unknown metal yard in Cupar where the guy agrees to sell the requisite beam for £26. He also has all the mesh we need. It’s only taken about two weeks to track this down. I think back to Cat & Duncan’s project and it brings home the huge challenges they face in procuring their materials (despite the backing of a major construction company and the University of Brighton).

The I beam fits diagonally into the back of our transit van. And with it all strapped down (to protect my ears from that screeching that metal rubbing against metal makes as much as the sides of the van) I set off from Fife at 2am with the girl strapped in and sleeping. There’s too much background noise to hear her contented breathing and she’s too young to understand the satisfaction I get from the treasure I have in the back.

Brighton Waste House

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