The Cabbage Dispatch: A Sustainable Transformation

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The world will be saved by millions of small things

Pete Seeger

Check out the previous chapters of the Cabbage Dispatch (and more) here.

What does it mean to renovate sustainably? How can we bring balance to one of the most wasteful industries? It starts with putting our consumption at the forefront of our consciousness and care. When I embarked on this renovation journey, I was overwhelmed by making the “most sustainable” choice at every turn, and felt like a failure when I didn't, but a designer gave me some good advice that eased up the pressure: hone in on your sustainability values. Consider these:

Sustainable Values

  1. Circularity: materials that can be reused and recycled
  2. Climate health: materials with the lowest carbon footprint
  3. Human health: materials that don’t harm people (zero toxicity)
  4. Ecosystem health: materials that have low impact on water, resources, air quality, etc.
  5. Social Health: brands that operate with fairness, diversity, and equity

It’s very hard to find solutions that deliver on every value. Something can have a low carbon footprint but may not be made of organic materials. Or, as I experienced many times, a great sustainable option may not fit within the budget. But when you know which values matter most to you, you’re better equipped to deal with the inevitable waterfall of decisions that come with renovating a house. What might be seen as a limitation can actually open a door to creativity and further personalization of the home.

Circularity and climate health are my top values. Knowing that led to sourcing local and secondhand items and materials, which oftentimes had the added benefit of being less expensive. I sourced things like tile, doors, furniture, tools and more from garage sales, free groups, and second hand stores. I decided to go electric with my HVAC and water heater for an easy transition to solar, hopefully in the near future.

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Picking up all these items meant a lot of solo trips in my dad’s tiny truck — a 2004 Subaru Sambar with right-hand drive. It’s not exactly what you picture when your dad says he’s buying a truck, but at exactly four feet wide it can fit an armoire. It’s the twelve-foot lumber that extends out the front — and back — of the truck bed that’s the most comical. I know this, because the pros at the lumber store loading dock literally laugh when I load up. I drove the “mini truck” around town, once skidding to a stop on a dirt road to check out some chairs in a trash pile (see my new, old dining chairs). 

The armoire is a perfect fit in the back of the kei truck.

My biggest score was 450 square feet of large format tile from my local Habitat for Humanity Restore. I found the tile on my first trip there and liked its unique printed linen texture. They had a pallet’s worth and I bought every box. What would’ve originally been $4,800 cost me $740. Not only does the Restore keep building materials out of the landfill, it provides funding and resources for affordable housing.

I spent my first night at The Cabbage on March 17, 2023, three years to the day of leaving NYC for the Hudson Valley at the start of the pandemic, and two years since I started rehabbing the house. There were patches of snow melting outside but down the hill, in the marsh, the peepers were beginning to peep. I leaned against the headboard I’d found in an online auction, sank into the secondhand mattress given to me by a friend, and wrote down some thoughts. I am content, not nervous. I can’t believe this. That I am sleeping in my home for the first time. That I have a home. That I made a home. 

Because I didn’t have curtains (I still don’t) I woke up with the sun the next morning . With no construction site to run off to, I lay in bed and listened to the birds chirping — sounds I had never heard at The Cabbage over the screeching of saw blades and power tools. I once overheard someone say that when songbirds sing it means there are no predators lurking, and it instinctively gives humans a sense of calm. 

It took me two years to take the abandoned, cabin-y cottage and make it a home. Two years of labor after I was told to bulldoze it because it wasn’t worth saving. And now, free of the threat of being torn down, The Cabbage was beginning to sing.

If I were to thank everyone who helped me along the way, through materials, labor, advice, and encouragement, this article would just be a list of names. I am so grateful for the people who have celebrated this project, and for those of you who have returned each week to read about the exploits of a novice home designer/renovator/lover. So, thank you!

My favorite places to shop second hand items (and what I found!)

Local Habitat for Humanity ReStore

  • 450 sq ft of basement tile

Garage sales via the app Yard Sale Treasure Map

  • Front door with brass hardware
  • 3x solid oak interior doors
  • Furniture

Local Facebook Free Groups

  • Stair handrail
  • 1x toilet
  • Furniture dressers)
  • Cement board
  • Tiling tools

Aptdeco.com

  • Dining room chandelier

AuctionNinja.com

  • Carpet remnant for guest room
  • Furniture

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Bea Copeland
Bea Copeland
Bea Copeland is the millennial Martha Stewart. With a colorful background in writing, video production, and professional organizing, Bea created the popular apartment-makeover series Bea Organized for Refinery29 and Amazon Prime. As the co-host and co-EP of Cheddar’s first lifestyle show, Cheddar @ Home, Bea’s expertise grew to include home design, home improvement, and sustainable living. Bea’s most recent project is the 2-year gut renovation of an abandoned Upstate cabin into a cottage, which she aptly calls The Cabbage. Her work was featured on the Refinery29's series, DIY Dream House, where Bea created complex DIY projects including custom concrete countertops and repurposing an oil tank into a fire pit and pollinator planters. She is currently putting the finishing touches on The Cabbage in Upstate NY.
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