The Owner Built Home and Homestead: The Space Inside Your Home

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Let us recognize, first of all, the animal nature of man; we design to satisfy needs or, more simply, we design to secure comfort.

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 series of Ken Kern’s work is being taken both from The Owner-Built Home (already published) and The Owner-Built Homestead (to be published).


Modern architects have been harping continually on what is different in our time to such an extent that they have lost touch with what is not different, with what is essentially the same.

–Aldo van Eyck

Exciting changes are happening to the “interior design” segment of new-era housing. Laotsu has been quoted elsewhere as saying that the important part of a building is not the walls and roof but the empty spaces inside. For purposes of discussion we must differentiate between inside space and outside form. Frank Lloyd Wright said that what happened on the outside occurred because of what was happening on the inside. Houses should be designed essentially around what we do in them.

Let us recognize, first of all, the animal nature of man; we design to satisfy needs or, more simply, we design to secure comfort. Heretofore, this book has been devoted to aspects of achieving physical comfort; something needs to be said for the even more important concept of psychological comfort. The overall effect upon one’s senses and consciousness by interior spaces defies definition, but it can be partially analyzed. Sensory reactions to a room environment can be relaxing and invigorating, or it can be disturbing.

The Owner-Builder who expects to attain a pleasing interior environment should first of all not take himself too seriously. His tone should be one of relaxed informality; he should keep experimental and loose and, above all, the creating (living) experience should be fun.

Architect Venturi goes even further; he claims that the best architecture is not symmetrical or balanced; nor is it clean and simple, logical and formalized. According to Venturi, to achieve a vital and timely reality, the architecture must contain what traditionalists would call confusions and distortions; it must be complex, “contradictory,” ambiguous and contain downright “error” in concept and execution!

Our reaction to an enclosed space is a reaction to size, shape, light, color, openness, etc. To a space-sensitive person a long and seemingly endless corridor is disturbing: Anxiety is created because this type of space encourages distortions of preception. Also, a space that does not have a clearly defined size or shape can produce a feeling of insecurity. A space should be immediately comprehensible.

The new look in building interiors is one of boldness with lighting in design and color. Lighting is no longer thought of in reference to mere illumination. Rather, psychological relief and atmosphere are prime concerns. Spots are employed to highlight or wash; recessed “down-lights” create smug and sophisticated qualities; table and floor lamps are works of sculpture.

On the one hand, we seek to create a psychologically stimulating environment–yet on the other hand, the space must not draw too much attention to itself apart from its function in our home-life. It should complement, not compete with, social contact. We all know the hassle of personally competing with many so-called “conversation pieces.”

The need for genuine social contact, and also for privacy, in our living environment is of uppermost importance. In each case, a satisfactory experience is possible only by freeing our environment of all barriers. Alienation is aggravated by a bad spatial environment, and relieved by a good spatial environment. Circulation paths should be laid out so as to provide people with contact to all activities. An immediate work space should have a visual relation to the total space. A face-to-face personal contact can sometimes be furthered by the simple use of adjustable furniture.

Some furniture items can be advantageously mounted on wheels. But wherever possible use built-ins–they go far in eliminating the furniture clutter. Consolidation of furnishings is an attractive concept to people who are unencumbered by conventional trappings. Dispensing with the usual traditional paraphernalia has economic as well as social implications.

There is a major economic advantage in building minimal rather than fulsome interiors. The elimination of interior non-essentials radically miniaturizes dimensions. Some noteworthy concepts are called Room-within-a-room, Mini-room, and Living-centers.

Living-centers consist of clustering equipment and furniture into the central portion of a room. Furniture is consolidated instead of scattered around the perimeter. A Living-center contains “systems” furniture that does even more than synthesize and consolidate furniture and equipment. It provides a fresh, revolutionary view of the whole “furniture” concept. In a Living-center the furniture may very well consist of movable trays or platforms. They can be wheeled or slid or taken apart into various pieces or laid out in different ways. One polyfunctional Living-center may thus become a living, dining, sleeping, or study area.

This new-era furnishing concept is contrasted to current furniture arrangement practices in about the same way that a mobile-home furnishing arrangement relates to the interior of a boat. A boat is designed to utilize total space; amenities are built-in. The space in a boat is small but highly integrated. The mobile-home, on the otherhand, is also small in space, but it is furnished with the usual assortment of standard-sized appliances and furnishings. The basic prefabricated shell does not carry through to the inside.

Possibly the most satisfying sense of all is the sense of privacy. This refers to visual and acoustical privacy as well as spatial (touch) privacy. In this regard there is real danger in too much modern-day “open planning.” Aldo van Eyck has said:

We must break away from the contemporary concept of spatial continuity, and the tendency to erase every articulation between spaces, i.e., outside and inside, between one space and another. Instead, the transition must be articulated by defining the in-between places which induce simultaneous awareness of what is significant on either side.

My endo-space, meso-space, ecto-space approach may help to clarify this concept, but continuing on may prove more confusing than helpful to the average Owner-Builder. Suffice it to say that the inside should be allowed to change. Flexibility is the key here. Flexibility to satisfy all our senses and all our moods and life-programs. We need to sit in different ways at different times; and at different periods of life we need different places and arrangements for eating and sleeping.

When a Living-center “systems” furnishing is not employed, a room’s floor should be kept bare; things can be stored out of the way conveniently in wall storage cabinets. Rooms too often become centers for the display of possessions. If passage areas are expanded into usable alcoves, the size of other rooms can be reduced, thereby saving on construction costs. Costs are also reduced by eliminating reveals and mouldings–“trim.” Flush, frameless window and door openings and broad expanses of plain surfaces also contribute to this end. Remember, a poorly designed interior cannot do permanent damage to a well-designed house–but it can surely ruin it for the duration of its occupancy.

One final word: Frank Lloyd Wright has said that corners put an end to space. This is a concept worthy of contemplation. It just may be that some of the exciting spatial features mentioned above can be achieved in a straight-walled structure only with the greatest difficulty and compromise. I have had sufficient design experience to appreciate the fact that a rectangular or cubic room is about the most depressing space imaginable, while a circular, curvilinear, or organic space–though it may seem novel or difficult to construct feels right just in its own pure and simple “undesigned” form.

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