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Lay Your Pallet Down, Don't Burn It!

Earthaven Ecovillage and Clement Pappas Cooperate on Juicy Green Building Solution

The Armstrong-Allison family home under construction at Earthaven ecovillage.
Walls and trusses shoot three stories high on the Armstrong-Allison family's 4,000-plus square-foot versatile multi-purpose home that they are building at Earthaven. Lynn Armstrong's innovative construction design was instrumental in crossing the paths of two families' American Dream.

Pursuing the American Dream

22 February 2002, Black Mt. NC USA - Pursuit of the American Dream has taken many paths. Each path is as unique as the visionaries who set off on the quest.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the American Dream took three rural Greek brothers of the Pappas family through Ellis Island. They were on their way to build a new life and a global corporation in the United States.

As the 21st Century dawns, the American Dream has taken the Armstrong-Allison family of Texas to the Earthaven Ecovillage. They are helping to create a sustainable, environmentally-responsible rural community.

Entrace sign to the Earthaven Ecovillage near Black Mountain, NC USA.
Robert Gilman, in The Ecovillage Challenge, defined an ecovillage as "a human-scale, full-featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future."

Although widely different in their aspirations, each family had a clear vision for its dream of a better life. Here is how their paths crossed in western North Carolina.

Clement Pappas Juicy Environmental Problem

From its humble beginnings at the turn of the 20th Century, Clement Pappas and Company has become a nationwide leader in private label juice and fruit products. Its products are found on shelves of supermarket chains and distributed by wholesalers throughout the United States.

A Clement Pappas Juice truck on a rural road.

Based in Seabrook, New Jersey, Clement Pappas is a global player in the food processing industry. Annually the company turns out millions of cases of juices, cocktails, drinks, teas, isotonics, lemonades, as well as cranberry sauces in a variety of package configurations for store brands nationally and their own flag ship label, Ruby Kist.

Last year, Clement Pappas capitalized on the depressed cranberry market to buy out the Northland Cranberries, Inc. processing plant at Mountain Home near Hendersonville, North Carolina. Northland had long processed its Treesweet and Seneca brand juices at the 220,000 square-foot North Carolina plant. Locals feared the worst, that the plant would close or downsize. But Clement Pappas had no such intentions. They were happy to add the plant to their expanding operations.

Inside a Clement Pappas juice processing plant.

Of course, along with the benefits, Clement Pappas inherited the liabilities of the Mountain Home plant. North Carolina has banned the wholesale burning of wooden shipping pallets that are a necessary component of moving vast quantities of juice concentrates from where the fruits and berries are grown to where they are processed.

To ship juice concentrates globally, you need lots of heavy-duty wooden pallets. Along with four plywood sides and a top that surround a plastic liner, the pallets are used to create four-foot square 'juice cubes' that can be strapped and stacked on huge open-air cargo ships that ply the Juice Trade routes. When the pallets and plywood squares have served their purpose, they become an intermediary processing nuisance. And on the scale that Clement Pappas produces juice and sauces, you are looking at a big problem... stacks and stacks of shipping material for which they have no further use.

Historically, the large-scale food processors' solution to used shipping pallet accumulation was simple; burn them. But burning has serious environmental costs, especially when the adhesives between the plies of the plywood are added into the wood burning. The air-quality problem from such a convenient but dirty solution was simply too much for the state of North Carolina to ignore. So the state banned industrial shipping pallet burning.

One Industry's Problem is an Ecovillage's Solution

The Armstrong-Allison family in portrait and in a candid planning view.
The Armstrong-Allison family of Earthaven Ecovillage, in portrait left to right; engineering builder Lynn Armstrong, first-to-Earthaven pioneer Patricia Allison, Can-Do spirited Mother Fran and entrepreneurial Mary Armstrong. (Not shown, Patricia's son, Robin.) Inset shows the family planning their housing project. Photos: Susan Patrice

Lynn Armstrong is a retired pipefitter and engineer. But he is not letting retirement slow him down. At a time when most folks are looking to take it easy, Lynn moved with his wife Mary, and eightysomething-year-old mother-in-law Fran to the 325-acre permaculture-based ecovillage of Earthaven near Black Mountain, North Carolina. They came to join Lynn's sister-in-law Patricia, one of Earthaven's early pioneers, and her son Robin. Together, the Armstrong-Allison family intends to help envision and build a community that reflects a new face of rural America.

"Mary and Patricia are both very people-oriented as well as environmentally conscious and socially responsible," Lynn said relating to the wholesale relocation of their Texas 'clan' to Earthaven. "When they came up with the idea to build a home large enough to accommodate a constant stream of visitors, as well as having flexible meeting and work space, I knew I was in for some creative engineering. They say, if you build it, they will come. Well, I knew I'd be the one who had to figure out how to build it."

The founding editors of The Permaculture Activist, Peter Bane and Keith Johnson, are founding elders at Earthaven, North America's hotbed of Permaculture research and education.

Lynn's challenge was to design what amounts to the biggest building to date at Earthaven and to do it within the spirit and construction techniques consistent with the Permaculture-based ecovillage.

"Permaculture is a philosophy and science about sustainable, environmentally conscious agriculture, building and community development that integrates us humans responsibly into the overall ecosystem of our fragile planet," Mary Armstrong explained. "In order to live responsibly within our bioregion, Earthaven has strict limits about what building materials and techniques can be used here. Given the toxic nature of plywood manufacturing and its tendency to give off nasty gases as plywood seasons after manufacturing, we had some serious community thinking to do when Lynn proposed our building design."

Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual is a Sohodojo must-read, find out more at

Building techniques that are taken for granted in most places are given 'acid test' consideration by the consensus democracy-based Earthaven ecovillage. Pressure-treated lumber is banned from the land, for example. After review by the Land Use and Building Committees, Lynn's building design was approved last October.

"We're not promoting or supporting new plywood manufacturing. We're strictly using recycled materials that were destined for the burn bucket or scrap heap," Lynn said. "And since these pallets and plywood squares have seasoned for months at a time on the open seas, they are gassed off before they come on our land. We use the heavy-duty ones that are screwed, not nailed together. These four-foot squares are like giant, rock-solid toy building blocks."

Shipping pallet based flooring design seen from below showing 4-foot wide truss centers
Lynn Armstrong's innovative pallet-based construction design is reflected in the four-foot wide truss spacing of this floor system viewed from below. The trusses are made of Earthaven lumber spanned by Clement Pappas shipping pallets.

Everything we do as humans on our fragile planet has trade-offs. While plywood pallets would not normally be welcome at Earthaven, the fact that they are recycled and gassed off was important to acceptance of Lynn's design. But there was an even stronger, literally, stronger reason to consider Lynn's pallet-building design.

Shipping pallet based flooring design showing distinctive checkerboard pattern.
Shipping pallet construction is visible in the distinctive checkerboard pattern of the second-level subfloor. A length-wise steel beam recycled from a rebuilt local bridge means no load-bearing interior walls. This gives the Armstrong-Allison's home flexibility with movable walls to configure sleeping, meeting and work rooms for themselves and their guests.

"Most of the buildings at Earthaven are constructed from wood harvested right here on our land as we clear roads and building sites," Patricia Allison said. "The Earthaven Forestry Coop was, in fact, the first real sustainable business here on the land. We want to use our native lumber judiciously, to get as much habitable space as we can from our renewable but precious trees."

Lynn Armstrong's design uses four-foot centers rather than the conventional 18 inches for trusses to support floors and ceilings. Since all non-pallet structural lumber in the Allison-Armstrong multi-purpose house are made from Earthaven trees, this innovative building design affords tremendous material efficiencies. The rock-solid shipping pallets significantly reduce use of Earthaven's own supply of construction-quality lumber.

Another factor in the Armstrong pallet building design is construction efficiency. The Armstrong-Allison's broke ground on their Earthaven site in October. With the assistance of a mild Winter, Lynn's crew - headed by Patricia's son Robin - has made remarkable progress on their building as the photos accompanying this article show. Here again, the modular pallets help speed construction with the ease of their 'drop in and attach' installation.

Once all the structural elements are firmly in place, the Armstrong-Allison multi-purpose house will be finished with the same care and attention for detail that has gone into the pallet-based sub-structure.

The Earthaven Forestry Cooperative is engaged in sustainable forestry and building. Right livelihoods through environmental awareness.

"The exterior will be finished with natural-edge slab lumber from our Forestry Co-op and there will be about 11 tons of beautiful stone-work to give us that rustic mountain lodge look," beamed Lynn Armstrong as he envisioned his finished project. "Inside, we'll have total flexibility since we've designed a huge space with no load-bearing interior walls. Mary and Patricia will be able to reconfigure our space with movable walls to support all kinds of sleeping and meeting arrangements."

What's Next?

What started as a controversial proposal within the Earthaven community has now become a promising building experiment. The Armstrong-Allison building design is big and requires use of questionable construction materials. This experimental learning community is using its consensus democracy process to assess all aspects of this construction project.

When successfully completed, Earthaven will add a much-needed member to its growing entrepreneurial business community. And thanks to Lynn Armstrong's engineering creativity, members of the Earthaven community are set to become leaders in an innovative green building construction method.

"We've already apprenticed a number of community members and off-land visitors as part of our construction to date," Lynn Armstrong said. "These youngsters are so energetic and eager to learn, it has been inspiring. They want to know how they can apply what they are learning here to their own housing needs. So I've already worked out some preliminary designs for smaller residential pallet houses. With the cooperation of companies like Clement Pappas, we can turn an industrial waste problem into a wave of new and refurbished housing for folks who need a solid roof over their heads."

Visit the 3RBuilders.Net web site...

To promote Lynn Armstrong's design and construction innovation, Sohodojo has launched 3RBuilders.Net, a Small Is Good Business Web to construct affordable housing in rural and distressed urban communities. We're already active with collaborators in Montana and Australia interested in bringing this Green building innovation and its associated business model to rural communities. To learn more about 3RBuilders.Net's business model, please read this short article comparing two Small Is Good Business Webs.

If you would like to learn more about the Armstrong-Allison housing project or to learn more about Lynn Armstrong's recycled pallet-building techniques, visit the Earthaven web site home page,

Article and photos, except as noted, by:
--Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky--
Sohodojo Founders and Research Directors, and
Supporting Members of Earthaven Ecovillage
12 February 2002
Raleigh, NC USA

All photos taken at Earthaven are by the authors, except the B&W photos of the Armstrong-Allisons by Susan Patrice. The photos in the section about Clement Pappas are courtesy of Clement Pappas and Company and are used by permission. Sidebar art is supplied by and used by permission of the respective sidebar link recipients.

Copyright (c) 2002 by Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Content License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at


End of OpenContent article.

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