King of Scrounge: North Country man finds simple living is easy
Jim Juczak hates mortgages. When he started building his home in rural Jefferson County, he resolved to stay out of debt.
The house he finished five years later is an 18-sided structure with 3,000 square feet of space. It is mortgage-free.
And much of it is made from junk.
The support beams are salvaged from a bowling alley that was being demolished.
A two-story concrete column that supports the center of the house is made from scrapped manholes.
Windows, interior doors, sinks, tubs and other materials were bought cheap or salvaged for free after being removed from renovated buildings.
And the mortar for the outer wall was made from paper sludge, a waste material from a nearby mill. Juczak had to get a special permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to divert the sludge from a landfill.
"Everyone gave it (the permit) with much humor, because this is basically garbage," Juczak said. "You know -- 'Oh, my gosh! He's living in a house made of trash!'"
Among homesteading enthusiasts in the North Country, Juczak, 50, has a reputation as the sultan of scrounge. His 50-acre property even contains a submarine-like guest house made from an old 10,000-gallon fuel tank buried into a hillside. (The windowless bedroom is, as the Realtors say, cozy.)
"He's the king of scrounging everything," said Patricia Greene, of Canton, a member of the Ark Community, a group that shares information about sustainable living.
Now Juczak is reaching out to a wider audience.
He has taken a year-long leave from his job as a middle-school shop teacher to spend more time spreading a message of simple living and self-reliance. Among the first items on his agenda is to finish the book he's writing, "The High Art and Subtle Science of Scrounging."
He's also taking on speaking engagements at energy fairs and conferences around the country.
And he's planning to expand the number of workshops he hosts at his property in Adams to a dozen a year. Topics include how to make a wind turbine, how to grow and preserve your own food, and how to build a home for $20,000 or less, among others.
Juczak typically charges $100 a day for his workshops, which can run one to four days.
At the end of the year, Juczak will decide whether to return to school teaching or to pursue his new calling full-time.
"I like to do stuff like this," Juczak said. "I like to pass on the message that you can live a bit simpler."
It's a message people need to hear, Greene said.
The debt-driven, energy-intensive American lifestyle is not only harmful to the environment; it's also getting more difficult to achieve as oil and other fossil fuels become more expensive, she said. A more self-sufficient and less acquisitive lifestyle can be a rewarding alternative.
"It requires a kind of mentality that looks at being poor as being rich," Greene said.
Richard Freudenberger, the publisher of North Carolina-based BackHome magazine, has advised Juczak on sections of his book. The worse the economy gets, the more books like that attract interest, he said.
"When things get tough, you would be amazed at how people shift their thinking," Freudenberger said.
'Less is more'
On a recent morning, Juczak (pronounced JU-zack) chatted about home-building while cutting up apples and tossing them into a big pot on the stove to make applesauce. (It's a commercial-sized cast iron stove he picked up for $300 when the restaurant upgraded to stainless steel.)
The apples -- 12 buckets and pails worth -- were free, picked from the tree of a neighbor who prefers store-bought apples.
"She's very happy not to have to rake rotten apples off her lawn," Juczak said.
In 1996, Juczak and his wife, Krista, bought 50 acres outside of Adams Center. The Juczaks grow about 40 percent of their own food. Canning jars full of applesauce, string beans, jam, sauerkraut and other foods line the walls.
The Juczaks have opened their property to other residents who want to adopt the self-reliant lifestyle. Five new households, including a family of four, are planning or building homes there.
The Juczaks call their place Woodhenge, "a sustainable community and self-reliance educational center."
Among the soon-to-be residents is Elizabeth "Lee" Brown, an Oswego County native. She, her husband and two children fled their fast-paced urban life in Virginia, where she had a high-paying job with a military contractor. They plan to build a house constructed of straw bales at Woodhenge.
"Less is more," Brown said of their decision. "Less is peaceful. Less gives you space in your head to figure out what you want to do."
Like the Juczak's home, two guest houses at Woodhenge represent outsized feats of recycling.
One of them is made from a 10,000-gallon kerosene tank recovered from a factory that closed. After the tank was steam-cleaned, Juczak and friends cut entry holes on either side of the 10-foot by 27-foot tank. Then they buried it on one side with an earthen berm.
The second is a recycled motel. When a bank in Adams planned to raze a motel and build a branch, Juczak scrambled to buy the motel for $2,500. He spent another $2,500 moving it.
Following an interior renovation and the addition of a new roof and porch, the former motel is a guest cottage with two bedrooms, a large community room and a kitchen.
Together on the Ark
Rich Douglass, a carpenter from St. Lawrence County who helped work on Juczak's house, said finding used materials is critical for self-reliant homesteads.
Douglass, his wife and three young children live with no electricity, no car and no running water on a 160-acre farm in Hermon. They can get by on $6,000 a year, he said.
"Most of our stuff is used," Douglass said. "I've never bought any furniture. The only things we've ever bought for our children are socks and underwear -- everything else we've gotten used."
Two years ago, Douglass started the Ark Community. The group, which includes Juczak, typically attracts about 40 people to its monthly pot-luck dinners, mostly from the Potsdam area. Members demonstrate homesteading skills or share work such as barn-raising.
In rural Northern New York, Juczak is a long way from his roots. He was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island. But Juczak said he always found city life too busy and wasteful.
He leans toward Spartan living. During graduate school, he lived in a converted school bus. If he didn't have family, he said, he would have built himself a tiny house.
"I would have put up a cave," he said, "One window, and bury the thing. Six-foot six-inch ceilings."
Juczak said his first inclination, after building the house at Woodhenge, was to ring the property with barbed wire and get a pack of Rottweilers "to protect myself." In his more paranoid moments, he fears there could be a breakdown in society as energy grows ever more expensive, leave many people unprepared and panicked.
A political libertarian, Juczak has little faith in government to address such a crisis.
But the more he thought about it, he does have faith in community. Far from putting up a fence, Juczak makes every effort to be neighborly.
"Independence is good, but nobody can be completely independent," he said. "The best way for me to look out for myself is to make sure others are looking out for me because they know I'll help them out. ... I'd rather depend upon a neighbor than a municipality or a government."
Building with sludge
Juczak started building his house in 1997 in his spare time, with help from friends, relatives and hired teen-aged students from his shop classes. It took five years to finish, during which he trolled the county for materials.
At a local concrete company, he found the discarded manholes that would make the central "tower" of his house -- a massive cylindrical column made of steel-reinforced concrete. Seven feet wide and 23 feet tall, the tower rises through the center of the house, supporting the roof rafters and second-story floor joists.
It's made from sections of manholes that were rejected for minor imperfections. Juczak's cost to buy and stack the manholes: $550.
The tower also provides central heating. Juczak worked with a friend to make a two-ton, wood-burning stove in the tower's hollow interior. He then filled the column's interior 16 feet high with sand, creating a 35-ton radiator that provides steady heat throughout the house.
The huge roof rafters and perimeter support posts for his house were salvaged, along with other lumber, from a Watertown bowling alley as it was being demolished. Juczak and a part-time crew of high school kids spent the better part of a summer disassembling the bowling alley's 100-foot-long trusses and taking nails out of the recycled framing lumber.
He paid $10,000 for the materials, but figures they were worth five times that.
The 16-inch log ends used in the cordwood masonry walls were cut from a forest of red pine decimated by North Country ice storms. Since the dead trees were too small for lumber, they were his for the taking.
So was the mortar for the masonry outer wall. It was made from paper sludge, the waste material that didn't make it through the filter screens at a nearby paper mill. The mortar was 80 percent sludge, 20 percent masonry cement.
To get electricity from National Grid, Juczak would have had to pay $6,800 for the utility company to bring in an electric line, pole and transformer to serve them, Juczak said.
Instead, he built a household electric system that runs on 1-kilowatt worth of solar panels and a 1-kilowatt wind turbine, with an occasional boost from a gas-powered generator. And the family learned to conserve.
The Juczaks and their 11-year-old daughter use just 120 kilowatt-hours a month, about one-sixth what a typical household uses.
"You can view me as a tree hugger or as a cheapskate," Juczak said. "The end result is the same."
And which is he, at heart?