The Owner Built Home and Homestead: Site Building Conditions

Ken Kern shares how to evaluate homestead site building conditions: understanding the relationship between home owners needs, the surrounding landscape and the site of the building.


It is important to consider the house and site as one indivisible whole. The house-planning and site-planning process must go on together, with equal consideration to the design of every square foot of indoor-outdoor space.


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Ken Kern, author of The Owner-Built Home and The Owner-Built Homestead, is an amazing fellow and everyone interested in decentralist, back-to-the-land, rational living should know of his work. Back in 1948 he began collecting information on low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and techniques. He combed the world for ideas, tried them and started writing about his experiments. Eventually, Mildred Loomis started publishing Kern's articles in The Interpreter, Way Out and Green Revolution. Ken has also issued a three year series of pieces (called Technic) on his own and a greenhouse-sun pit design of his has been featured in Organic Gardening. 

This installment of Ken's work is taken from The Owner-Built Home. I'll be featuring never before published material from The Owner-Built Homestead in my No. 7 issue. Again, I have to apologize for jumping back and forth as I reprint Ken's excellent material, but that's the way I have to do it and Ken's writing makes it all worthwhile. 


The Homestead Building Site: Building Conditions

The site analysis sketch illustrates some of the more important site conditions which can and should play a dominant role in influencing the design of the well-planned, owner-built home. Influences of site on building design are little understood and little appreciated aspects of conventional building construction. Nevertheless, they are aspects which affect every person who uses the building. The realized design, in turn, affects the site, and these two features condition one's life and plans for years to come.

It seems entirely logical to me that every individually designed home should have more than the usual degree of site planning. Besides being expressive of its owner's life, a home should be at one with its site and regional ethos. A man building his own home can afford to spend the time necessary to acquaint himself with the physionomic-climate site environment. The speculative or commercial builder usually fails to take enough time from his actual house-building program to know the character of the land upon which he is building. Results of this neglect are always unfortunate.

When the individual prospective home builder becomes acquainted with even a few of the specific site conditions found on his plot, he will come to appreciate the fact that sites tend to vary as much as people. No two sites are the same; no two regions are the same; no two climates are the same. Hence every building design problem must be solved individually. I should add, of course, that no two persons are the same, nor do they have the same needs. We are dealing with three independent, though inter-related, components; people, site and building. Both visually and actually, the building exists only in relationship to the site and surrounding landscape. And in the same manner, the site exists in relation to people—through the introduction of the house.

It is important to consider the house and site as one indivisible whole. The house-planning and site-planning process must go on together, with equal consideration to the design of every square foot of indoor-outdoor space. Lawns and workshops and gardens contain essences of their own; and it is as important to the total design concept that these be adequately expressed as it is that the essence of "living room" be expressed. It is something of a help to think of the house and site as a coordinating grouping of related indoor and outdoor rooms. In contemporary design work we are apt to concern ourselves with the psychophysiological requirements of interior space, and exclude a consideration for the equally strong need which people have for a satisfying relationship to the outdoors. The control or lack of control of climate can be as important a design feature as the determination of the refinement of interior surface materials. One's relationship to view or to plants can be an extremely significant design feature, as I will try to illustrate.

The so-called "Contraspatial" house grew out of this integrity-of-the-site concept. Another type, the "Bi-nuclear" house, has also been gaining popularity in recent years. But for every serious attempt to achieve integration of house to site, you will find a thousand houses peppering the landscape which clearly demonstrate the builder's total disregard for even the most basic consideration of sun, wind and view. In between these extremes you will find scores of half-baked efforts which try hard to achieve some semblance of site-relationship. I am more critical of these latter abortive efforts than of the former. The contractor-built tract home is at least an honest failure, since it doesn't even try for integration.

A few examples of the half-baked or "modern" efforts may suffice as forewarnings to the owner-builder in his approach to site planning.

The urge for a dramatic architectural effect usually impels the modern designer to place the structure on the most prominent position of the site. Or, for ease of construction and access, the house is located on the most level portion of the site, irrespective of associated, outdoor functions. Actually, it is the outdoor functions which require level ground; the house itself can be located on precipitous topography, often to great advantage. It is usually a mistake to build upon the most beautiful, most level section of the site. Once this area is covered with massive structure, its original charm is destroyed.

The "machine-for-living" approach to house-design and site-planning is about as false to man's true living needs as the art-for-art's sake approach is to his practical needs. In the former case, all important rooms in the house are oriented due south-irrespective of outlook or interior planning. The idea, of course, is to achieve maximum heat-gain in winter, and minimum heat-gain in summer. All the rooms end up with the same lighting conditions, as all the rooms have the same amount of south-oriented glass.

Glass is one material very much misused by modern designers. They respond to the bring-the-outdoors-in notion with floor-to-ceiling sheets of crystal. Paradoxically, the opposite effect is usually created; namely, claustrophobia, which results in the urge to break the glass and get out! Obviously, the glass restricts an easy ingress and egress, though it succeeds in suggesting such movement.

The "picture window" is, of course, the epitome of the mistaken bringing-the-outdoors-in notion, now held by ding-bat contractors everywhere. Picture windows are to homes what show-windows are to stores. They extend the market-place mentality with its display of things. In essence, the picture window provides a vicarious experience; more people can sit in their armchairs and look at, not live with, nature.

My final example of the ways in which modern dwellings fail in integrating house to site has to do with view. When one is fortunate enough to have a site with a dramatic outlook—especially to the south or east—the natural inclination is to orient all the major rooms toward that direction, and to use glass in as much of the view—wall as structurally feasible. A house so constructed speaks to me of arrogance and greedy self-importance. At best the end result is unpleasant and distracting,

On the matter of view, we can learn much from Japanese builders. (Readers of this book will find frequent reference to Oriental architectural features. I have long felt that the traditional Eastern forms have more to offer the modern-day owner-builder than most of our up-to-date source materials.) A general practice among the Japanese is to place the house so that the same view is never seen from more than one vantage point—except in instances where the second view presents a contrasting element not seen by the first. In my own design work, I try to achieve a sequence of outlooks—from entry into the front yard and entry into the house, to a final view stepping onto the outdoor terrace. The owner-builder should investigate the prospects for varieties of outlook, and perhaps employ some of the many devices for enhancing it. One good idea is to develop a contrasting element between the long view (such as a distant mountain range) and short view, the garden-patio. Again, it is unpleasant to view something perpendicularly through glass. The Japanese stay clear of picture-like impressions by off-setting the center-of-view interest, and by creating hidden, around-the-corner vistas.

In his book, Japanese House and Garden, Dr. Jiro Harada gives the final word on view when he tells what Rikyu, a famed Japanese tea-master, did more than 360 years ago to give his garden deep spiritual significance:

When his new tea-room and garden were completed at Sakai he invited a few of his friends to a tea ceremony for the house warming. Knowing the greatness of Rikyu, the guests naturally expected to find some ingenious design for his garden which would make the best use of the sea, the house being on the slope of a hill. But when they arrived they were amazed to find that a number of large evergreen trees had been planted on the side of the garden, evidently to obstruct the view of the sea. They were at a loss to understand the meaning of this. Later when the time came for the guests to enter the tea-room, they proceeded one by one over the stepping-stones in the garden to the stone water-basin to rinse their mouths and wash their hands, a gesture of symbolic cleansings, physically and mentally, before entering the tea-room. Then it was found that when a guest stooped to scoop out a dipperful of water from the water-basin, only in that humble posture was he suddenly able to get a glimpse of the shimmering sea in the distance by way of an opening through the trees, thus making him realize the relationship between the dipperful of water in his hand and the great ocean beyond, and also enabling him to recognize his own position in the universe; he was thus brought into a correct relationship with the infinite.

My chart No. 1 cannot indicate what is perhaps one of the most important aspects of site planning; the site's physiognomy; that is, the essence, spirit, or original individuality of the site. If the owner-builder is fully aware of his particular site—as it relates to the ethos of the regional landscape and character of the existing neighborhood—he will not go far wrong in his site-planning practices. Much can be said about the human feeling towards the setting, especially in regards to one's immediate plot of ground—the microcosmos and micro-climate of a half-acre lot, say. I have certainly seen the effect that care and loving attention can have on a setting. Really high-quality site developments result where seemingly the only investment is imagination tempered by a full realization of the profound assets which lie within each site. Ambient forces were allowed to exert their full energy, unhampered—but on the contrary, developed—by personal re-directions.

The best approach to site development lies somewhere between the "masterful" and "subservient" levels. One should neither wreck the site nor fail to develop its character. Richard Neutra speaks of the consequences of disregard for the site's individuality:

 . . . try to understand the character and peculiarities of your site. Heighten and intensify what it may offer, never work against its inner grain and fiber. You will pay dearly for any such offense, though you may never clearly note what wasting leak your happiness has sprung.  

Once this "feeling-for-the-site" aspect has been achieved, one should begin the house plan by first drawing a site plan. (A house plan can only be drawn on a site plan; both site and building must be regarded in the same light.) Three general areas of space are outlined; the public area, the private area, and the service area. Under each heading, list all the space requirements proper to it; a patio-garden living room, a game-play area for children; an outdoor work area (crafts, hobby projects, auto repair); outdoor storage facilities for garden tools, firewood, lumber, compost; a trash-area; plant structures (lathhouse, greenhouse, garden work-center); a vegetable garden, fountain or swimming pool, perhaps some animals . . .

As your desires and needs are listed, the space allotments for their satisfaction plotted on the site map, the plan will blossom and begin to take form. Like a successful jig-saw puzzle, each component will fall into its obvious, unmistakable position. You will know that this particular function must take place at this particular place on the plan, and that this amount of space must be allocated for this other particular need. Soon the whole scheme will become immediately perceivable. It will be right, and you will be sure of its rightness. And you will know when the time has arrived for the first stage of plant arrangement and building design.

Bibliography (books listed in order of importance)
Mystery and Realities of the Site: Richard Neutra, 1951
Looking Through the Picture Window: Bernard Rudofsky
The House: Robert Woods Kennedy
Japanese House and Garden: Jiro Harada
Japanese House: Yoshida
Natural Principles of Land Use: E. H. Graham
Chinese Houses and Gardens: Henry Inn
Land and Landscape: B. Colvin