The Owner Built Home and Homestead: Introduction to Building

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Photo by Ken Kern
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

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

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

(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.


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