The Owner Built Home and Homestead: Site Building Conditions

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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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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.
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The urge for a dramatic architectural effect usually impels the modern designer to place the structure on the most prominent position of the site.

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

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

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

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