Introduction: Pallet House to Save the World... or a Garden Shed.

About: I like to explore with my hands, but I trouble choosing one area of focus. I have completely renovated my house, but nothing I do is craftsman quality. I want to build an electric car, hack computer hardware…

My middle school class designed and built a basic prototype for a house made of pallets.  The pallets are for the basic wall structure, and other materials can be used as sheathing, the floor, roof, etc.  With a little imagination the builder can fill in the gaps.

One inspiration was Alexander Saunder's op-ed piece in the New York Times about helping victims of a 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.  His piece "Give Them Shelter" suggested buying garden sheds from Sam's Club en mass and dropping them into isolated regions.  It is an interesting idea.

We also used several sites dedicated to a "Tiny House" movement, which we first saw in a local piece "Stuck in Vermont".  Tiny houses are houses about ten-feet by ten-feet and intended to be lived in (windows, loft beds, water and the like).  There are many other sites dedicated to the movement.  This movement, in turn, was inspired by Thoreau and Walden, which we read excerpts from.  Many of these sources stressed simplicity and self-reliance.  They also dovetailed with groups looking to solve the problems of homelessness and the environment.

There are several Instructables that will support this project, but "Pallet Playhouse" is mentioned several times in the article as it has excellent information on deconstructing pallets and using their cannibalized parts in interesting and creative ways.  I suggest you read it during the design phase and revisit it periodically.

Because we embraced the ideas of civic involvement and recycling we put down two simple rules:

First, everything had to be found.  Because of this, we used pallets.  You will see that we used a refrigerator door for the door.  Even our nails were a rusted mass that we found, and much of it was bound with twine.  We speculated the builders could use anything from scrap wood to crushed soda can shingles for siding or the roof.  The user of this design can use their own ideas and the resources available, as more appropriate nails and ties will make your own results much more sturdy.  The aesthetic, though, was renewable and found so that materials could be found at the site for free.

Second, it was designed to be moved.  We hoped that the basic structure could be manufactured at a central site, sent to its permanent site as a shell and finished with local materials.  Therefore, it had to come apart and reassemble easily.  The main conceit is that the pallets are nailed two each into a panel.  Then, all other connections come apart easily.  In this way, the entire frame can be stacked and moved on the back of a truck or pushed (bound) out of a cargo plane.  On site it can then be assembled.

Mainly, though, we wanted to create a simple shed that anyone could build from materials anyone could find.  Adapt to suit your needs and change your own little piece of the world.

Step 1: Materials

For the frame of the structure we used:

Pallets.  We chose them because they are plentiful; indeed, everyone seems to always want to get rid of them.  Still, check with a store manager to be sure (our local food coop gets a deposit for returning theirs).  They should be uniform in size.  Some pallets are treated with a chemical to prevent bugs hitchhiking to foreign lands via international trade, while others are pressure treated.  The Wikipedia article "Pallet" has extensive information about sizes and also how to identify how they were treated.  You will want at least sixteen for the building we made, plus extras to cannibalize for lumber.  The nature of pallets are such that you may find some are not sturdy or "quite right", so spares are worth having about.  Also, if you wish to use pallets for your floor or roof you will need to calculate in those extras, too.

The Instructable "Pallet Playhouse" has excellent information on deconstructing pallets and using their cannibalized parts in interesting and creative ways.

* Three inch nails or screws

* Twine and duct tape

* More pallets

Considerations for finishing the structure:

* Door.  We used a refridgerator door from the dump (free).

* Hinges.

* Windows.

* Sheathing

Again, "Pallet Playhouse" has some interesting ideas about this.

Tools required are:



Pry bar

Drill to pre-drill (pallets are made of a hard, hard wood)

Step 2: Make a Panel

The solid nature of this portable structure is the panel.  Consisting of two pallets bound together with nails or screws, it is small enough to put on the back of a truck, light enough that two twelve year olds can carry it easily, but substantial enough to create a strong piece of the housing puzzle.  Still, pallets are made of solid wood and get heavy fast.

Pallets are not square, but rectangular.  Lay them on the ground so that their exposed side is facing up; this will give you access to pound nails into the spacers.  Turn the pallets so that they face the same way, and that the outer spacers of each run next to each other.

Using three inch nails or screws bind the two pallets together.  Their union should be solid when done, but the entire panel might not be like a rigid board.  Later, when the entire structure is assembled, it will take on a more solid form.  Toppers and the like can also be added for greater stability, but for now a few inches of sag when carried flat is acceptable.  The further you plan to transport this, the more solid you may want it; in your backyard this is less important.

Step 3: Measure and Design

Having made a panel, now measure its dimensions.

With a single pallet, you may have already estimated the size of a panel.  Great.

Now that you know the panel size you can determine how you want the panels to stand in the wall.  We wanted a wall that was wider than tall, so our panels were laid on their side and a second stacked on top.  Just as easily, our wall could have been taller but with a smaller footprint.

With a friend, stand the panel up and then on its side to give yourself a true idea of how long and high your wall can be.

Now you know the dimension of your wall.  Two panels make a wall.  Four walls make a basic house.  Of course, you can add more for a larger building.

Step 4: Create More Panels

Knowing the size of the panel and your wall, you know how many panels you need to make.  Make them all exactly the same size.

Step 5: Make a Wall

In our house, two panels made a wall.

This step should be done on site.  The wall is both heavy and cumbersome, and a few people we be needed to put it in place when the time comes to join them together.

Lay the two panels on the ground next to each other.  Again, lay them so that their exposed side is facing up.  You now need to sister your panels to make a solid wall, so their spacers should be end to end.  In a moment you will tie those spacers together to create long support beams.

Using extra scrap pallets, a pry bar and and hammer carefully take apart a few extra pallets.  You are going to use the spacers from these discards in this step, but the deck boards are also useful to have about.

Slide your freed spacers up the panel and lay them next to the outer and central spacers that are the core of your panels.  A few nails or screws at each end will join the two panels together.

You now have the frame for a wall.

Repeat this four times for four walls.

Step 6: Four Walls

Two panels attached together are quite heavy.  You should get a few friends to help you raise the wa;; into place and hold it while you temporarily join them.

Put the first wall where you want it to be.  Have your friends raise it, lifting the top ridge off of the ground while the bottom ridge stays put (someone can put their foot on it if you fear it will slip).  A single person should then be able to hold it in place while everyone else raises the second wall.

Have those friends put the second wall where you want it to be and raise that.  As we are creating a box, they should be at a right angle.  We used duct tape at the top, middle and bottom to temporarily hold the two walls together.  I also thought of zip ties, and even clothesline would work for the time being.  Secure, we let go.

Follow these steps for the third and fourth wall.  Remember to be outside of the structure before duct taping the last corner, as no one wants to be trapped inside a pallet prison until you can cut a door (there is a temptation to climb it, but it is not really together enough for this).

Your building should be pretty stable at this point.  Note the weak points that you can reinforce in a bit..  Also note if your building is at right angles.  This is the time for you and your crew to pick up corners and slide them around until it is where you want it..

Step 7: Bind the Corners for Good

Duct tape is great, but you may want something more permanent.

As most of the world uses lashings instead of nails, and I knew that we were going to break it down in a week (you might notice from the pictures that we build it in our science lab) we lashed the corners together.  It proved pretty solid.  Still, if this is a permanent structure you will want to create more solid connections.

Your choices are many.  You could go to the hardware store and use metal ties.  As you will eventually be putting on a roof, you can use 2x4s or other long, solid boards as a ridge that will extend from one wall to the other; hammer in long nails that bind the wall together at the top.  You should note that the spacers that end each wall can be bound with nails or screws.  You can also use scrap wood from your extra pallets to sister the corners.  Each and all of these should secure your walls to create a box.

Step 8: Doors and Windows

Cutting doors and windows from here is a snap.  For ease, I suggest that they be cut between spacers, as once you cut a spacer you have to make a header and footer.  We cut a door that served us well.

The size really depends on the materials you have available. 

Someone suggested we use a refrigerator door.  Originally, we thought the insulated nature was perfect, as were the build in shelves.  Unfortunately, because of the narrow door we had to cut to avoid the difficulties listed above we had to remove the door's innards so that it would close flat against the wall.  That said, some of my students starting thinking about making an entire house out of discarded refrigerator doors for their insulation properties and abundant shelving.

Windows are equally flexible.  Use the spacers from the scrap pallets for headers and footers.

The Instructable "Pallet Playhouse" has good details about framing and the like that are beyond our class' project.

Step 9: Floors and Roof

We stopped building with the walls, as the floors and ceilings vary more.

Ceilings could be dirt if materials are scarce.  Just as easily, the floor could be a few more pallet panels joined together.  Once joined, decking can be found and nailed to the pallet frame.  Note that the dimensions might be larger than the box you create.  Cut to size or make a porch with the extra, but any lip will lead to puddles.

If you make a deck it should be off of the ground and on cinder blocks so that it does not rot.  You also may want to cap the ends; more rescued spacers, 2 x 4s or other scrap.  In the Instructable "Pallet Playhouse" the author found pallets that were sheathed with particle board, which he was able to use.  Once you begin to notice pallets you'll notice they are everywhere and your mind will start to fit their pieces into your house.

The roof, too, can be panels.  Measure first as you want an overhang.  As pallets are heavy, you want to make sure you can lift them that high and put them in place.  Then, bind them into a solid roof frame. 

You also want a pitch so that the rain and snow runs off.  A slanted shed roof is easy.  For this, you need to build onto one side of the box so that that end of the roof is higher.  Or, build a gabled roof.  Use your materials (pallets or other).  Simple sheets of tin can lay on a simple frame, so don't think pallets has to be the answer for everything.

Step 10: The Skin

At last you need to sheath your frame.

You can use barn board, clap board or plywood.  You basically have a balloon structure at this point, and need to sheath it accordingly.  Again, in the Instructable "Pallet Playhouse" the author found pallets that were sheathed with particle board, which he was able to use.  Once you begin to notice pallets you'll notice they are everywhere and your mind will start to fit their pieces into your house.

We thought that crushed metal cans (soda or gasoline) might be used as shingles for either the walls or roof.  This Instructable tells of making a tin wall out of soda cans, and while meant for interiors it will give you ideas (or at least make a nice interior wall).  Similarly, plastic battles can be cut and unrolled and used the same way (and their transparency offering sunlight).  We even thought mud or plaster (or snow) could work for the walls if the decks of your pallets are close enough together.  It is solid enough to act as a frame for stone, either dry or motor.  Even a tarp stretched over the frame walls or roof will provide a solid shelter. 

If this is for your backyard garden shed, your choices will be more aesthetic. 

A solid sheathing like plywood will give your structure more support as racking can be a concern.  If you shingle make sure it is solid; reinforce as necessary.

Step 11: Other Thoughts....

Our idea was the frame.  We wanted something that was flexible, mobile and used found materials.

One teacher saw it and thought it would make a nice children's structure, with a door and windows cut to simulate a house while anyone could climb the sides as a ladder.  Great, but again make sure the treatment is appropriate and watch for splinters.

I like the idea of making a house of refrigerator doors.  Growing up on Sesame Street, I think the wall-of-doors that kept Big Bird's nest private from the street.  Connecting several doors into a wall would provide warm shelter for the homeless.

In the end, I took it home (two walls at a time, strapped to the roof of my '97 Impreza), reconfigured it a tad, and made a shed of it.  See the photos below.

From this basic structure we hope people create dream houses that use little new resources and fulfill a dream.

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