A Debt Free Home from Salvaged Material (and Trial and Error)

Reader Contribution by Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Publications
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The following is an excerpt from Builders of the Pacific Coast (Shelter Publications, 2008) by long-time MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor Lloyd Kahn. A continuation of Kahn’s journeys into the creative processes of owner-built homes — their innovative techniques, use of sustainable materials, and essential dedication to the natural elements surrounding their designs — Builders of the Pacific Coast explores the aesthetics and techniques of three master builders in California, Washington state, and the rugged terrain of British Columbia.

Alan Beckwith is a carpenter, gardener, farmer, jeweler, and hunter. In 1980, he bought 40 acres in the coastal California hills, and built a homestead in a valley, the house on the banks of a year-round creek. It’s at the end of a long dirt road.

Alan did everything himself: carpentry, plumbing, wiring (solar electricity and hydro), and developed his own water supply. He drives a tractor, maintains several miles of roads, makes beer and wine, and raises pigs and ducks. A lot of people have started homesteads since the 1960s, but seldom have they got as far along as this.

Basically, Everything was Done with No Money

It’s a homemade, home-crafted house with gardens and animals all blending together to create a working entity, a self-created place to not just survive, but thrive. Alan’s not only a good carpenter (he does remodeling and finish work for others), he’s a jeweler, making exquisite gold earrings and other pieces that he sells at Christmas fairs and as special orders.

The first thing he built was a shed, then he and his partner, Lynn Kalani, planted a garden before starting on the house. He’s got photovoltaic solar panels for basic electricity and water/hydro power during the peak of the rainy season. When he first started, “I dragged redwood logs out of the creek (for house posts) with a Volkswagen bus.”

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “Well, I did and I didn’t.” He means he made mistakes, but also did a bunch of things right. He dug a foundation trench, poured a concrete footing with rebar, using sand and gravel from the creek, and slip forms. Then he got a concrete truck down his long winding dirt road to pour a slab. On top of that, he laid high-fired red Italian tiles.

It’s a wood-framed house and he first built the upstairs, while the bottom was dirt and gravel. “Basically, everything was done with no money.”

Building with Salvaged Material (and Trial and Error)

The 10 windows are tempered glass sheets he got at a local dump, set in redwood frames. He bought a large load of cedar (different sizes) for exterior siding, which he says he’d never do again — the wood bakes in the sometimes 120-degree summer sun, and is starting to fall apart.

I asked what he would use if he were sheathing the house today and he said, “HardiePlank,” which is a paper/concrete board that can be cut with pneumatic shears. Quick to install, takes paint well, sun-proof, fireproof.

I got up to Alan’s one cold December morning. After some good coffee, I took pictures, and we went wild boar hunting. No boars, but we did find a huge chanterelle mushroom (under redwoods, of all places).

That cold night, we sat around the kitchen table with a fire burning and had roasted leg of wild boar (from his freezer), Alan’s potatoes, bought carrots, sautéed chanterelles, Alan’s homemade cider, then homemade beer. The food, the fire, the house, the silence of the night, the vibes, as they say, were all of a piece — the harmony of a working homestead.

In the pantry the day I was there: 2 kegs (20 gallon) of apple wine, 10 gallons of Monukka rose wine, 5 gallons of pear wine, 10 gallons of hard cider, and a case of very hoppy homemade beer.

In addition to vegetables, he’s got 10 apple trees, four Asian pears, four plums, and one each of dwarf peach, dwarf nectarine, pomegranate, and persimmon. He recently planted 100 olive trees to make olive oil. He also grows raspberries, olallieberries, boysenberries, and blackberries. There are two walnut trees, Monukka as well as Thompson Seedless grapes, a Meyer lemon, and lots of roses.

“ There’s a cosmic ¬connection,” he said, when you plant an apple tree, then pick the apples and make apple juice or hard cider. You’re doing it all yourself, from creating the raw food to the final product. “It’s a closer connection between me and the cycle of life.” It’s also unusual in this day and age, when people are so disconnected from the creation of their own food and shelter.

Lloyd Kahn is a sustainable living visionary and publisher of Shelter Publications. He is the author of natural building books, including Home WorkTiny HomesTiny Homes on the MoveShelter II , Builders of the Pacific Coast, and The Septic System Owner’s Manual (All available in the Mother Earth News Store). He lives and builds in Northern California. Follow Lloyd on his blogTwitter, and Facebook, and read all of his Mother Earth News posts here.

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