Celebrating DIY Home Building

Lloyd Kahn, author of the classic book “Shelter,” talks about modern homesteading and the art and craft of building your own home.
Interview by Megan Phelps
Aug. 31, 2009
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Lloyd Kahn has inspired a generation of DIY home builders with his books celebrating handcrafted homes.
SHELTER PUBLICATIONS


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Take a look inside one of Lloyd Kahn’s classic books about homes and other buildings, and you’ll find hundreds of inspiring examples of unique, handcrafted buildings. In 1973, Kahn, the former shelter editor for The Whole Earth Catalog, produced the now classic book Shelter, celebrating the many and varied forms of human habitat. He’s since followed that up with Home Work, published in 2004, and Builders of the Pacific Coast, published in 2008. All together, his books include thousands of photos documenting some of the most interesting and unusual buildings in the world. (Click the links above for examples.)

In addition to his role as editor in chief of Shelter Publications, Kahn is also a dedicated blogger, skateboarder and world traveler. He took a few minutes to talk to us about his life and work. Here’s what Kahn had to say about the art and craft of home building, the perils of bureaucracy, and the next generation of homesteaders.

How do you meet the people who are featured in your books?

With the book Home Work it was just an accumulation of years of travel. I shoot pictures wherever I go, so a lot of it is just what I’ve run across.

But increasingly, we have a network of people who send stuff in to us. I get a lot of feedback from people. The next book we’re doing is Tiny Houses, which is about houses that are 500 square feet and under, and we have a lot of material already. It’s just coming in from all over the place.

You shoot most of the photos that are in your books.  

Yes. Well, in the book Home Work about half of them were my photos. I didn’t go to all those different parts of the world, but I go wherever I can.

Most of the photos in the Builders of the Pacific Coast were mine. That book came about largely through two friends — one an artist, and the other an architect in British Columbia — who turned me on to the area and its people. Then one thing led to another, and I met a lot of people on the road. In that case, I got myself into a geographical area with a lot of art and craftsmanship that nobody had really paid much attention to.

None of it is Fine Homebuilding kind of stuff, houses where you go in and everything is perfect. None of those houses look like anyone lives in them.

The homes that you feature are more unique.

Well, they’re more real.

Some of the buildings you shoot are very practical, where others are more works of art.

In the different books, there are various degrees of practicality. The goal is to bring together something that’s aesthetically beautiful, practical and economical. That’s really the whole package.

Speaking of practical buildings, I’ve read a little bit about your experience with domes.

(Laughs).

It sounds like you spent some time working with dome architecture and finally decided it wasn’t the most useful building style.

Yeah, it just doesn’t work. There’s really no reason to build buildings out of icosahedrons. The entire surface of the dome is a roof, so they tend to leak unless covered with asphalt shingles; because of the angles, they’re hard to subdivide or add on to; furniture, refrigerators, beds are rectangular and you’re trying to fit them into a curved space. It goes on. There’s a lot of information about why domes don’t work on our website.

You’ve spent a lot of time photographing different home designs over the years. What’s the house that you live in like?

It’s a house that’s been built over 30 years, kind of a farmhouse. It’s wood frame. That’s what I knew how to do, and at least in the early years, it was all recycled materials. I could get used wood — most of it came from a torn-down naval base.

I like the look of used wood, the character to it. In the ’60s and the ’70s, a lot of people tore out wooden windows and put in aluminum. I found six beautiful glass doors one time. I used to have a truck and I’d prowl the streets of the city looking in debris boxes. It was fun.

And it was a very green approach, back before it was called “green.”

Yeah, it was something that seemed natural to do in the ’60s. It was just natural, I think, for a lot of us to think that way. I realized a long time ago that you can’t be completely self-sufficient, but you can do as much for yourself as possible.

It’s great to now have these young people, these 20- and 30-year-olds, discovering this kind of stuff. There are a whole lot of them. It seems like a new wave of people who are interested in these sorts of things, shelter and the home arts.

A week ago, I went into a really cool little café in San Francisco out by the beach — they have homemade bread, and the guy knew who I was. He knew our Shelter book, and all his friends knew it.

Nowadays, there’s this idea of urban homesteading, where you do what you can in your city apartment. You can bake bread, you can grind flour. But the principles are the same as what we were doing here in the ’60s.

Of course, you’re in northern California, which seems to attract a lot of people who are interested in sustainable living. Although actually, MOTHER EARTH NEWS is based in Kansas, and there are a lot of people interested in homesteading here, too.

It’s probably a lot easier to do it in Kansas than California. It was a lot easier 30 or 40 years ago to create your own shelter. It was also a time when you didn’t need a lot of money to live on.

I actually think that if people are interested in doing what I was able to do in California 40 years ago, and they don’t need to be near the beach, they could go someplace like Kansas or Iowa.

The most powerful principles are still valid. If you can build as you go, and pay for it yourself, you avoid a bank mortgage; this makes a huge difference in your life. Also, in creating it yourself you get what you want. Plus there’s the satisfaction of creating your own shelter.

I also want to ask for your thoughts on building code requirements. They are limitations for some of the people building unique homes like the ones you write about.

Well, like a lot of things it’s just a question of how they’re applied. There’s a good reason for building codes. If you do a painting or a sculpture that doesn’t work, there’s no harm, but if you build a house that isn’t safe, somebody could get hurt.

I really haven’t looked at building codes in a long time, but I’ve built three houses that had permits and were covered by the Uniform Building Code, and they went OK. They didn’t really make me do anything that was too outlandish.

But there are local ordinances in the state of California now that I think are absurd. In fact, one really stupid and wasteful thing right now is that they’re making people install sprinklers in their houses. I used to be an insurance broker, and those things are basically for restaurants, where they have grease fires, or for commercial buildings. But to make people pay to sprinkle their house — in some areas it really has gone too far.

It’s kind of the same thing you’ve been looking at with septic system requirements. You wrote an article for us about how some local governments are mandating that people install  needlessly expensive septic systems .

Bureaucracy begets more bureaucracy. The bureaucrats are continually feathering their nests, charging more and more money for permits and fees. And there’s no one that can really take the time to oppose them. So codes get more stringent, fees get higher, and that’s just the way it goes.

I’m kind of railing against the storm here. All I can do is point it out to people, especially in some of the worst cases, like with the septic systems, where what people are now being forced to do is really unreasonable and anti-ecological.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell people about?

Oh no, I already blog about everything that crosses my mind. If you want to check out my blog, it’s Lloyd’s Blog on Blogspot. Be sure to take a look at the photos of my wife’s quilts.


For more information about Kahn’s recent projects you can also find him on Twitter, and sign up for his monthly newsletter, Gimme Shelter.

Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on .


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