The Owner Built Home and Homestead: Introduction to Building

Ken Kern shares an introduction to the basics of building using low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and techniques.
November/December 1970
Everyone in the building industry appears to be busily engaged making "improvements" in his personal area of concern. But quality makes a steady decline. The end product is as inadequate and unsatisfactory and costly a house as ever.


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: Introduction to Building

I am intending this to be a how-to-think-it as well as a how-to-do-it book. As a designer-builder of contemporary homes—a self-appointed specialist in the low-cost field—I have long had the compulsion to express my feelings and thoughts in regard to the home-building industry, and to do something constructive for the people who are now suffering under it. I have yet to find one critic who comprehends entirely why our houses are so poorly constructed, why they look so abominable, why they cost so much for building and upkeep, and why they are so uncomfortable. Some critics blame the building contractors personally; others feel that the fault lies with urban codes and building restrictions. Some believe that expensive housing is due to the high interest rates charged by the bankers; others blame the trade unions for hampering efficient construction. Every writer on the subject seems to fondle some pet corrective measure. And every year some noted architect develops a sure-fire technical solution to the housing problem. Even more often the building material manufacturers come up with a new wonder; an improved wallboard or window or what-not which can be installed with a ten-minute saving in labor!

Everyone in the building industry appears to be busily engaged making "improvements" in his personal area of concern. But quality makes a steady decline. The end product is as inadequate and unsatisfactory and costly a house as ever. The architect spends more and more time at his drafting board, exhausting possibilities of new construction techniques and more economical arrangements; the contractor conscripts even more and specialized equipment for building efficiency; the banker resorts to undreamt-of-schemes to make it possible for everyone to buy his new home—even if he lacks money to make the down payment; building material manufacturers work overtime in their laboratories making "more and better things for better living." With all this hustle one might well expect some major improvements in new home construction. Whatever improvements occur are insignificant in comparison to the improvements that should be made. The causes of the world's housing problem still remain.

Tracing these causes to their sources has helped me to view the problem in perspective—comprehensively. This procedure has also suggested some workable alternatives as solutions to personal housing needs. Here they are in the form of seven axioms for the Owner-Built Home.

1. Build According to your own Best Judgment. At the apex of the poor building hierarchy—and perhaps the greatest single impediment to good housing—is convention. Building convention takes two forms; first, there is convention which is socially instilled (commonly called style ), which can be altered through education. The second type is more vicious, and politically enforced. Building codes, zoning restrictions, and ordinances all fall into this class. In urban jurisdictions, politically controlled convention calls the shots for practically every segment of the building industry. Ordinance approval or disapproval makes the difference between having a house or having none at all. Or it may make a difference of $1,000 (average)-wasted because of stupid, antiquated building laws.

So if we are to be at liberty to build our own home at less cost, we must necessarily be free from all building code jurisdiction. This means we must locate outside of urban control—in the country or small township districts.

2. In Building your Home, Pay as you Go. A building loan is another type of legalized robbery, added to that of the building codes. More than any other agency, banks have been successful in reducing would-be-democratic man to a state of perpetual serfdom. The bankers have supported and helped to determine social and political convention, and have amassed phenomenal fortunes through unearned increment. As "friends" of the home-owner they have made it possible for him to take immediate possession of his new home—and pay for it monthly for 20 to 30 years. Most people who fall into this trap fail to realize that the accumulating interest on their 30-year mortgage comes to more than double the market value of their home! If one expects any success at all in keeping the costs of his new home down to a reasonable price, he must keep entirely free from interest rates.

3. Assume Responsibility for your Building Construction. The general contractor has become such a key functionary in practically every building operation that one soon loses sight of the fact that he is a relative newcomer to the housing scene. Not many years ago the contractor's job was performed by a supervising carpenter—a so-called master builder who had control of the whole project. Once people realize how little is involved in implementing a set of house plans, they will better appreciate the fact that the contractor is the most expendable element on any job.

Excessive profits are made by the general contractor for coordinating the work stages and assuming the responsibility for a satisfactory completion at a specified cost. For this service he receives 10% of the total cost of your house. Besides, he receives an even greater percentage on all materials which go into the structure. The contractor is an expensive and non-essential luxury for the low-income home builder.

4. Use Native Materials Whenever Possible. Much of an architect's time is spent in keeping abreast of the new "improved" building materials which manufacturers make each month. Many of the products are really worthwhile; but more often than not they are entirely beyond the reach of the average home builder. Basic materials, like common cement and structural 2 x 4's, have not appreciably advanced in price over the past dozen years. But some of the newer surfacing materials and interior fixtures have sky-rocketed in price during this same period.

By not using these high-cost materials, one of course nips the problem in the bud. Instead, emphasis should be placed on readily available natural resources—materials that come directly from the site or from a convenient hauling distance. Rock and earth and concrete and timber and all such materials have excellent structural and heat regulating qualities when properly used.

5. Supply your own Labor. Building Trades Unions have received—and not unjustly so—a notorious reputation as wasters of speed and efficiency in building work. We all know that painters are restricted to the 4 inch brush and that carpenters are limited to the 14 oz. hammer (upon threat of penalty from union officials). Apparently more width and weight might conceivably speed up a project to the point where some union man would prove expendable.

The disinterest that the average journeyman has in his work, despite his high union pay rate, is appalling. The lack of joy-in-work or acceptance of responsibility among average workmen can be accounted for partly by the de-humanizing effect of the whole wage system. So long as the "master-and-slave" type of employer-employee relationship continues to exist in our society, one can expect only the worst performance from his hired "help". So until the dawn of the New Era approaches, one would do well from an economic, as well as from a self-satisfying standpoint, to supply his own labor for his own home insofar as he can.

6. Design and Plan your own Home. Another ten-percenter with whom we can well afford to dispense in building a low-cost home is the architect-designer-craftsman-supervisor. Experience in this branch of home building has led me to the conclusion that anyone can and everyone should design his own home. There is only one possible drawback here; the owner-builder must know what he wants in a home and must be familiar with the building site and regional climatic conditions. Without close acquaintance with the site and a clear understanding of family living needs, the project is doomed to failure no matter who designs the house. An architect—even a good architect—cannot interpret a client's building needs better than the client himself. Anyway, most contemporary architects design houses for themselves, not their clients. They work at satisfying some esthetic whim, and fail really to understand the character of the site and the personal requirements of the client.

7. Use Minimum but Quality Grade Hand Tools. If the house design is kept simple, and the work program well organized, an expensive outlay in specialized construction equipment can be saved. The building industry has been mechanized to absurd dimensions. And even with more and better power tools, labor costs rise. Or at times where labor savings occur, the difference is taken up in the depreciation and maintenance of the equipment which saved the time in the first place. Whatever way you look at it, a certain amount of work must go into building a home. If a prospective home owner is unprepared to accept the challenge of building his own home—and falls into the power tool trap—then he must be prepared to spend greater sums for a product which could very well prove inferior.

Now that I have presented the ideal program for the owner-built home, I should retrace my steps and face the sheer realities of the situation. Obviously, not all people can locate their home site out of building code jurisdiction. Nor can many people expect to finance their home from their weekly pay check. Very few people have the native ability to design an inexpensive and attractive home—one that truly fits their needs and site conditions. Even more rare is the person who can carry through all phases of building construction, or who even has the necessary free time to devote to a house building effort. And how many people do you know who could take the raw material resources and process them into building materials for wall, roof, and floor? One has only to observe current owner-built home flops to appreciate the fact that we are dealing with a disturbingly complex problem—a problem that demands a comprehensive solution.

It is unquestionably our drive toward specialization (stemming from a basic failure on the part of our whole educational system) which is primarily responsible for modern man's inability to provide directly for his own shelter needs. Despite this drift, I sincerely believe that the owner-built home can be an economic as well as esthetic success. It has been so for centuries, for thousands of families—if not millions—and continues to be so today. Furthermore, the process of building one's home can become one of the most meaningful and satisfying experiences in one's life—as indeed it should. Owing to the physical limitations of the owner-builder, and those impositions fostered by society in the form of restrictions and general mis-education, one can expect only to approach the completely self-tailored home. On one or more scores compromises are in order, but to the extent that the owner retains full control over his design and his work, he is successfully participating in creative building.

My limited experience in the building design and construction field in this country has taught me one very important lesson; satisfactory progress with the low-cash cost, owner-built home can come only after an entirely new approach to materials, structure, finished appearance and the occupants' basic pattern of living. I view our existing ego-inflated, over–materialistic and downright absurd housing forms as gross impediments to the sort of rational and economic building that is actually possible and desirable. But to find intelligence in housing today one must go to the countries which, out of sheer necessity, are beginning to approach the housing problem at its roots.

In Asia, for instance, 150 million families live in overcrowded and unsanitary quarters. Some countries, like India, are attacking this situation with energy and imagination. A series of Aided Self-Help programs are included in the Indian government's three-year Community Development plan. At the International Exhibition on Low Cost Housing held at New Delhi a few years ago, a complete model village was on display. Over 30,000 people visited this village each day; it proved to be the most successful low cash-cost demonstration center in the world. None of the dwellings in this village cost over $1,000. Besides the wide variety of domestic buildings, the village contained a school, health clinic, co-op store, carpentry shop and smithy. The village was laid out with proper regard to water supply, drainage, lighting and street planning. This demonstration center also illustrated the wide variety of low cash-cost materials available; reeds, aluminum, gypsum, hessian, rammed earth, and concrete—employed in new and more imaginative ways.

The new structural ideas, uses of materials, and methods of design that result from an effort such as the New Delhi Exhibition mark a tremendous architectural advance—but the human advance behind the scenes is even greater. The best thinkers in their field have been on the job. Men like Kurt Billig, director of the Central Building Research Institute (Roorkee), A. L. Glen, (Pretoria), and G. F. Middleton, Commonwealth Experimental Building Station (North Ryde, New South Wales, Australia) could command the highest fees from those most able to pay. Instead, they contribute their vast store of building knowledge and imagination to the greatest housing needs of our age. Architect Joseph Allen Stein, head of the Dept. of Architecture at Bengal (India) Engineering College, summed up my sentiments in effect when he made the following statement at the New Delhi exhibition:

Centuries of privation, of social and economic inequality, have conditioned vast numbers of human beings to endure surroundings that can only be called sub-human. Today, architects, engineers and planners are called upon to show that a pleasant, healthful, human environment need no longer be the monopoly of a fortunate few.

It is a rarity of the first order when a dean of an architectural college takes it upon himself to build houses out of woven split bamboo between two layers of treated clay! These readily available materials were artfully used by Professor Stein in his creation of two demonstration low-cost homes. In his own words, the design was worked out so that under proper conditions of community organization, such buildings can be built by village families with their contributed labor, without dependence on extra-village materials— on the basis of a program of guided self-help. The skill required for this type of construction is readily acquired; a two-months' apprenticeship is usually considered time for man to become a skilled bamboo worker.

If properly used, bamboo and clay construction can be expected to last as long as many manufactured materials that are considered to make permanent industrial housing. Standard materials for urban construction, such as corrugated iron sheets, poorly burnt, inferior bricks, or unseasoned wood can hardly be expected to last 25 years under average urban conditions. Yet even in the extremely hot humid climate of West Bengal and Assam, there are many clay and bamboo structures of 40 years of age. When replacement or repair is required due either to accident or deterioration of age, the materials are readily at hand, and the householder himself can do the work. The roof is of such a design that repairs can be made to any portion without affecting, or having to break up, the remaining part.

(The rural house) . . . is constructed of only three materials; it utilizes wood for the roof framing; the remainder of the construction is of earth (clay) and bamboo. In villages where wood is not readily and cheaply at hand, bamboo can be substituted. The sole purchase from outside the village is creosote, or other preservative materials; desirable to prolong the life of the structure.

Some of the world's "underprivileged" countries maintain a caliber of low-cost housing research which surpasses that of the far more wealthy countries such as our own. More significant research material is coming out of the South African Research Institute, for instance, than from all the HHFA, FHA, FPHA agencies combined. A recent housing development in South Africa (illustrated above) made use of such construction features as "no-fines" concrete (crushed stone and cement) for surface beds, and single thick brick internal walls—plastered on both sides. Detailed investigations were made on every item of expense that went into the experimental house.

In this hemisphere the most important low cost, owner-built housing research is being done at the Inter-American Housing and Planning Center (Bogota, Columbia). Two years ago this agency built a demonstration soil-cement house at a cash cost of $375. Designed for the cool climate prevalent on the Andean plains, the house has a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, covered porch, storage room, shower, and laundry area, apart from an outside latrine. Roof members were constructed with eucalyptus tree limbs. Common clay tile was used for the roof, placed with a mud mixture on a frame of split bamboo. The floor was constructed of tamped earth, covered with a layer of weak cement and soil-cement floor tiles.

My personal approach to housing utilizes technical features similar to those of the low-cost housing research mentioned above. In following chapters on the subject, however, I introduce an evolutional frame of reference. The sort of house that I propose involves a process of growth and development for its realization—not only from the first conception of design and plan to the final nail that is driven, but also an internal growth and maturation on the part of the owner-builder. And the end-product is as different from the reactionary contractor-built, bank-sponsored, tract house as it is from the revolutionary architect-designed, owner-financed suburban home.

What distinguishes my proposed evolutionary form of owner-built home is its fitness for purpose and pleasantness in use. Volume I of my thesis, under the heading SITE AND CLIMATE, concerns the ways and means by which one can relate the house to regional and landscape conditions—heat and cold. Volume II includes chapters which evaluate the potential MATERIALS AND SKILLS that go into the owner-built home. Volume III deals with FORM AND FUNCTION—the actual room planning aspects of the owner-built home. Finally, Volume IV has to do with DESIGN AND STRUCTURE. In this series I discuss at length the various components of the house itself—from foundation to roof covering.

In my judgment, a positive philosophical outlook and way of life must necessarily precede the achievement of a quality owner-built home. This is to say that a truly satisfying home must develop from other and more subtle patterns. The mere technical problems of building a home are insignificant when compared to an understanding and interpretation of one's innermost feelings and thoughts concerning his shelter needs. But if these feelings and thoughts are not consistently related and released in daily activity, or if they become life-negative in orientation, then one might just as well discount the prospect of creating a satisfying home.

Thoreau said:  

What of architectural beauty I now see, I know has gradually grown from within outward, out of the necessities and character of the indweller, who is the only builder— out of some unconscious truthfulness, and nobleness, without ever a thought for the appearance, and whatever additional beauty of this kind is destined to be produced will be preceded by a like unconscious beauty of life.