Mortgage-Free Living in a Hand-Built Tiny Home

Owner of Shelter Publications and godfather of the hand-built homes movement, Lloyd Kahn brings us another great book on tiny homes, chock-full of examples of small houses anyone can afford to own.

Tiny Homes

Beach-combed whale-bone rafters on a tiny house in British Columbia.


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An Authentic Life, Doin’ What He Loves

Just a few years shy of his 80th birthday, Lloyd Kahn is among the most enthusiastic, dedicated, hardworking and athletic — yes, athletic — guys I know. If they were to put a photo next to the definition of “authentic” in the dictionary, it could be a picture of Lloyd. 

When Lloyd came back from his stint in the Air Force in the late ’60s, he went to work as an insurance broker. But what he really wanted to do was surf and build houses, and he seems to have quickly picked up the habit of doing what he really wanted to do. 

His first building project had a living roof. Then he built a home in Big Sur from railroad timbers and used lumber. He built geodesic domes for five years, before concluding that they don’t work well as homes. His present home in Bolinas, California sits in the midst of a large vegetable garden, includes a striking 30-foot-tall hexagonal tower and is covered with hand-split cedar shakes. 

Today he is one of the world’s leading voices in creative, environmentally sensitive, human-centered building practices. His early books were about domes. Later his passion grew to encompass anything built with creativity and a conscience. 

A Lifetime Achievement Award. For more than 50 years, Lloyd has been sharing his passion about building with the world. His company, Shelter Publications, has published his series of unique books that have inspired thousands of us to build our own homes. (For more information about his books and a special discount offer, keep reading.) In recognition of Lloyd’s exceptional contributions to wiser living, MOTHER EARTH NEWS presented him and his Shelter Publications team with a Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this summer (we’ve dubbed it the “Mommy”). 

— Bryan Welch, MOTHER EARTH NEWS Publisher and Editorial Director 

Visit the Image Gallery for a collection of photos of cozy, affordable and inspiring homes. 

In 1973, we published our first book, Shelter, an oversized offspring of The Whole Earth Catalog that featured 1,000 photos of buildings around the world.

In those days, many people were looking for ways to escape the conventional suit/job, bank/mortgage or rent/landlord approach to housing. In Shelter, we encouraged people to use their hands to build living space, to be creative, to scale back, to start small.

Like a lot of other ideas from the ’60s, the concept of hand-built homes is popular once again. Tiny homes have been discovered not just by the public, but also by the media.

The mortgage crisis has devastated housing in North America. Huge homes along with huge mortgages were, in the end, unsustainable. Millions of people have had the rug pulled out from under them. Wages are down, jobs are scarce and rents are inching ever higher.

We’ve gone through a long period of overconsumption, of people living beyond their means, of houses too big and incomes too small. As we witness the end of a pie-in-the-sky housing boom and enter into an era of increasing costs for that most basic of human needs — shelter — a grass-roots movement to scale things back is taking root.

I started gathering material for Tiny Homes in 2009 and have been amazed at the activity in the small-house field. It’s a thrill to see such enthusiasm, variety and creativity in tiny buildings these days. Moreover, there’s a new audience: young people who are picking up on Shelter ideas, 40 years later.

Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter is our new survey of scaled-down housing circa 2012. Written mostly by the builders, it’s not consistent in anything other than the size of the buildings. The styles of writing are diverse, as are the photos. The little homes run from elegant to funky, from hand-built to bought, from super-cheap to surprisingly expensive, from thoughtfully designed to seat-of-the-pants, just-go-ahead-and-do-it dreaming (visit the Image Gallery to see examples of tiny homes).

The maximum-size building here is 500 square feet — pretty small. But it’s an alternative if you’re young or single; if you’ve lost your job or your home; if you want to get out of rent or mortgage payments and cut back on stuff; or if, for any one of myriad reasons, you want to start over again in life.

This alternative needn’t be permanent, but it may work for you right now. It needn’t be this small, but the ideas here are certainly antidotes to the overblown single-family houses of recent decades. It’s moving in the direction of small.

You can hire a builder or buy a prefab kit, or, if you can find the time and can work with your hands, you can do the building yourself. This will save about 50 percent of your costs (labor and materials split about 50/50). Another economic fact: With a mortgage, over the years you pay back about twice what you borrowed.

Here we are in the midst of an electronic revolution, and you still need your hands to build a home. Your computer isn’t going to do it for you. It’s comforting that not all of the skills of the past have been superseded.

If you embark on such an adventure, my advice now is the same as it was 40 years ago: Start small. Kitchen and bathroom back-to-back for efficient plumbing. Hot water from solar panels in summer; water-heater coil in the woodstove for winter. This is your core. You can live in it while you add on.

In Shelter, we wrote that self-sufficiency was a direction, not an attainable goal. The idea was to do as much for yourself as possible. Maybe not plowing fields with horses or making your own shoes, but doing something within the context of your life: remodeling a house, creating a studio, building a table or bed, or fitting in things such as a productive garden, chickens, homemade bread, or lettuce in pots on the windowsill. It’s a tightrope act, finding the right balance between work for others and work for yourself, between creating things with your own hands and buying things from others — just like finding the balance between sitting at a computer and physical activity. These are complex times.

Do I live in a tiny home? Well, no. But it started out tiny.

When I began building, we slept in a bedroom that was barely big enough for the bed. We cooked on a Coleman camping stove in an outdoor kitchen (on a deck). Our home got bigger, but it started small.

A Special on Lloyd Kahn's Books

Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter is the fifth in a series of building books from Lloyd Kahn’s publishing house, Shelter Publications. His earlier books are Shelter (1973) and Shelter II (1978). Through September 2012, we are offering a 25 percent discount on his latest works, HomeWork: Handbuilt Shelter (2004) and Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), as well as his newest book, showcased here, Tiny Homes (2012). (For an iBooks-optimized e-book version of Tiny Homes, visit the iTunes bookstore.) 

Lloyd Kahn has been the godfather of hand-built shelter since 1970 and continues to lead the way. He lives with his wife, Lesley, on a half-acre homestead in northern California. 

ann fenner
2/15/2013 11:07:19 PM

I live in Mountain View, Arkansas, in Stone County. There are very few building codes here. The city is about 3-4,000 pop. and a great place to "retire". Outside the city there is only one building code I know of and that's the saturation (?) test to put in a septic tank. Your land has to pass that, but I think after that your on your own. There are not a lot of jobs here in a good economy so people have had to learn to be self-sufficient. Our winters are fairly mild and our summers are hot & humid. We get a lot of rain in the spring & fall. There is plenty of land for sale and the taxes are ridiculously low. There are some amazing houses around here and I'm sure they would not pass any code rules in a bigger city. Stone county is in the north central part of the state but if you want to get Really, Really natural go to Newton County. It's just north west of our county. There are plenty of trees,hills natural springs, rivers & creeks. So don't be frustrated move to Arkansas.

doug pitcher
10/5/2012 5:38:12 PM

I think some people are getting around the building code issues by building a tiny home on either wheels or skids. If it's movable I think some places will let you get away with it. (tumbleweed homes) I guess there are a few options to get around the building code dilemma. If you are wanting to build a bigger building building codes come into play. We wanted to build a garage type structure to live in until we could afford something bigger/more permanent. We ended up scraping the idea because by the time we met all the building codes it was going to cost a significant amount of money that we just put into our permanent home. I like the self sufficiency is a direction approach. We started with a small home in our plans but ended up with a big home but far smaller than we would have if we didn't have self sufficiency in mind.

allie engle
9/14/2012 6:56:50 PM

Building codes are a concern for me too. I'd like to build a tiny (10x25) guest house in our woods, but I don't know if I'll be able to get the composting toilet approved! The woods are landlocked, only accessable on foot or horse, and that's another concern for zoning purposes. Then there's the fact that it rests on a north slope. So much for solar. :( Wind's not looking too good either, and the only water source is ground water.

will best
8/17/2012 5:47:02 PM

I'm glad to see you bring this up. I get so frustrated with articles about DIY/tiny/hand-built homes that never mention the elephant in the living room: building codes and the bureaucrats enforcing them that make it all impossible. The inspiration we really need is for us to demand the freedom to build our own homes as we see fit.

8/17/2012 4:30:52 PM

Unless you live absolutely in the middle of nowhere, you cannot get these types of buildings permitted. They don't pass building codes. I was so impressed with the 70s and 80s hand-built houses, but now it's almost impossible to build one unless, like I say, you are in the middle of nowhere with no codes AND you own the land outright. Sad but true. BC seems to be more friendly towards these, but in the U.S. it's extremely difficult to make it happen.