Sustainable Missoula: A family grows up with the fun (and ‘serious sustainability’) of SponCon

ElRoy Miller and Steve and Camas Allison-Bunnell working on Team Wunderkind’s first entry, titled “King Tut’s Ball Machine” at SponCon 2007 (Photo courtesy Steve Allison-Bunnell)

The start of September in our household was, like it has been for most of the last 12 years, my cue to ask our sons, “What should Team Wunderkind do for SponCon this year?”

And no, it’s not about what we should wear to an obscure local sci-fi/fantasy convention. It’s Spontaneous Construction, the mildly competitive, exhilaratingly fun contest held by Missoula’s own Home ReSource to showcase the vast creative potential contained in its inventory of reclaimed building materials.

Here’s the drill: Get turned loose in a warehouse full of what to the casual eye is a spectacular, but well-organized hoard of junk. Have your pick of (almost) anything another contestant doesn’t get to first (the competition part). Work with all-consuming focus for seven hours straight to make something using only your team’s collective skills and personal tools. Our kids think this is better than a bottomless basket at the Sweet Palace in Philipsburg. Camas, now 18, started when he was 6. This will be Cedar’s fourth SponCon, having also started at the same age.

Over the years, we’ve made, among other things, a giant marble run with PVC pipe and golf balls, armor hammered from ductwork, a Pachinko machine out of window casements, an ornate clock, a planter with a sink as the bowl, and a cascading fountain using glass light fixtures. The giant crossbow that fired a toilet plunger, alas, contributed to the ban on building weapons (although it was the trebuchet that tipped the balance). And each year, as our team’s collective skills have grown, so has our ambition, craftsmanship and execution.

Team Wunderkind’s Cedar Allison-Bunnell, Joyce Allison, and Steve Allison-Bunnell with their floor lamp that includes a light fixture from the old Tower Pizza and Camas Allison-Bunnell and Calvin Servheen with their ski-topped coffee table at SponCon 2018 (Photo by Jonathan Qualben)

Upon reflection, I wanted to say that Home ReSource in general, and SponCon in particular, has contributed to both Camas and Cedar developing an eye for the many possibilities basic materials present, along with a willingness to reuse instead of buying new.

The day of frenetic yet intense building seems like an ideal setting for them to practice flexible thinking and problem solving. Not wanting to put words in Camas’s mouth, I asked him what he’d gotten out of SponCon over the years. He immediately answered that it was the ability to look at all that seemingly random old stuff, choose particular items, and make something unique and beautiful out of them.

He added that not only was it fun to build things himself, but it also was incredibly inspiring to see what the other teams, especially the professionals, could do with the same amount of time and similar materials, in spite of their advantage in using power tools. Cedar agreed.

So yes indeed, SponCon has been a wonderful opportunity for us to revel in what I’d like to call “Improvisational Building.” It is this idea that leads us from the fun and games of SponCon to serious sustainability.

An analogy: Even before SponCon, our family became very connected to the Missoula local food movement. Being a locavore shortens the distance from farm to table. It both necessitates and enables inverting the recipe + grocery list = meal equation. And just like cooking based on the food available in season, building with what’s on hand inverts that process. “What can I make” comes into focus as “What can I make with this?” 

I think that is the bigger takeaway of all this. Our kids have developed a very different view of creation and construction they will carry with them. Instead of starting with a pre-determined blueprint and building it with generic new materials, Improvisational Building is a profoundly different way of looking at and executing design. It can both honor or subvert the history of an object or material. It has the practical virtue of reducing our use of virgin materials and shortening the transportation loop of the supply chain.

But it also has the ineffable power to enrich our buildings and spaces with artistry and humanity. The cookie-cutter home makeover shows on TV can’t touch that. Moreover, Team Wunderkind’s participation in SponCon has helped form a way of living sustainably based not on a moral imperative shared by the dedicated, educated few, but a spirit of play that anyone of any age can connect to and enjoy.

That is a blueprint we can all happily follow.

Steve Allison-Bunnell has used Home ReSource to store his junk pile for the last 15 years, much to his wife’s relief.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

September 14. 15th annual Spontaneous Construction– Home ReSource’s annual festival of creative reuse. Team registration is closed. 1515 Wyoming Street in Missoula. Building contest starts at 9 am. Activities and food trucks open at 11 am. Judging at 5:30 pm. Music all day long.

September 15. Sunday Streets. Celebrate Missoula as a bikeable and walkable community and kick off Walk and Roll week. Higgins Ave through downtown is closed to cars and filled with free, fun activities for all ages. 12pm-4pm. 

September 16-20. Walk and Roll Week. Annual community-wide celebration promotes active and sustainable transportation with events, special discounts at local businesses, and more. Learn more and sign up here.

September 19. Communicating about Climate. A panel discussion hosted by the National Communication Association and UM’s Climate Change Studies at Program. 6-7:30pm, University Center, Room 326/327. More information here.

September 20-27. Global Climate Strike! People of all ages all across the globe are striking on Friday, Sept 20, and planning is underway for a rally and festivities here in Missoula on that day. Then there are multiple events throughout the week, including a youth-led teach-in. Find out about local events and actions here.  

September 28. Missoula’s second annual Clean Energy Expo. 10 am-3 pm, Caras Park. Join Climate Smart Missoula, The Montana Renewable Energy Association and many others to learn about and celebrate climate solutions and clean energy. Learn more here and contact Abby at Climate Smart if you’d like to co-sponsor or volunteer. 

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.