The following post is an excerpt from Builders of the Pacific Coast (Shelter Publications, 2008) by long-time Mother Earth News contributor Lloyd Kahn. A continuation of Kahn's journeys into the creative processes of owner-built homes — their innovative techniques, use of sustainable materials, and essential dedication to the natural elements surrounding their designs — Builders of the Pacific Coast explores the aesthetics and techniques of three master builders in California, Washington state, and the rugged terrain of British Columbia.
Michael McNamara studied architecture at the University of Oregon in the mid-60s, and then got drafted for Vietnam. Like so many other sixties-era draftees, he headed north for British Columbia, where he found welcome asylum.
As I met Michael and other 60s immigrants to Canada, I realized how wrong the term “draft dodgers” is. Sure, they dodged the draft, but primarily, they believed the war was wrong, that Nixon and Kissinger were wrong, and that they didn’t want to end up killing Vietnamese people. Trudeau was prime minister of Canada then, and his policy was that the border guards could not ask an immigrant’s draft status. And so Canada got some of our best and brightest, including this one.
Michael applied for landed immigrant status and moved to Vancouver, where he got a job with architect Arthur Erickson. On weekends, he was on the ski patrol at Whistler Mountain. One day, Dean Ellis, one of his ski patrol friends, told him about a carpenter on nearby Hornby Island who was building unique houses out of driftwood, and Michael started visiting Hornby.
There was a serious back-to-the land movement going on in that part of the world then — he felt so sympático with it that he moved to Hornby. In a year-and-a-half, he bought 10 acres with two other people, his then-wife Kirstin and Dean Ellis, and has been there ever since.
Michael is responsible for leading me to many of the builders for the book this post comes from. (His light-filled studio and house were my nomadic headquarters for plotting who to visit.) The builder he originally came to Hornby to see was Lloyd House, and this was the first builder he urged me to see.
Michael built his own house and went on to found Blue Sky Design, a firm that does both design and construction. In the beginning, they did the design, framing — “everything from foundations to furniture.”
“Framing was always one of my most favorite parts,” Michael says, “because at that stage, you’re shaping the space. It seems the most creative.” They’d do the design in the winter and the building in the summer. He’s still running Blue Sky Design, with his long-time partner, builder Tim Wyndham.
At this point, he’s designed over 100 houses, a low-cost “village” for elders, was coordinating architect, along with Lloyd House and Ernst Snijders, on the unique Hornby Island Community Center built in the early 70s, and has been active in designing the infrastructure of the island for over 30 years.
Michael has designed a number of sod-roofed houses, and I asked what kind of waterproofing membrane was used. Michael showed me a piece of “torch-down” roofing material, which is applied with a large propane torch (called a Tiger Torch), and is used for most sod-roofed houses on the northwest coast these days. I was fascinated by a roll of torch-down lying around in his studio that had a quilted copper finish — not something to go under sod, but for an “aggressive industrial atmosphere.”
On one of my trips, Michael and his wife, Sally, were traveling, and said I could stay in their house, which I did. I woke up one morning, and the skylight was covered with snow. There’s an outdoor bathtub on the deck, which I filled with hot water. I lay in the tub watching snow fall all around.
Lloyd Kahn is a sustainable living visionary and publisher of Shelter Publications. He is the author of natural building books, including Home Work, Tiny Homes, Tiny Homes on the Move, Shelter II , Builders of the Pacific Coast, and The Septic System Owner’s Manual (All available in the Mother Earth News Store). He lives and builds in Northern California. Follow Lloyd on his blog, Twitter, and Facebook, and read all of his Mother Earth News posts here.
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