The Half-Acre Homestead: Designing the House

Reader Contribution by Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Publications
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The following is an excerpt from Lloyd Kahn’s The Half-Acre Homestead: 46 Years of Building & Gardening, a record, with over 500 color photos, of Lloyd’s and his wife Lesley’s owner-built home and garden. They show you what the house and garden look like, how various functions operate, including solar panels, septic systems, skylights, and tools they use in the kitchen, garden, and shop. Buy the book from Shelter Publications and several of Lloyd’s other books in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store.

In the early 1970s, I had just come off a 5-year period of building geodesic domes (a friend of mine called it “circle madness”) and had concluded that they didn’t work — for a variety of reasons. Before that, I had built post-and-beam houses. Nothing as simple as stud-frame construction, which I discovered in 1971. Eureka! Rectangles!

Hand-built wooden door

Notes on Design

After years of experimental building, I realized that building a home shouldn’t be a “trip,” at least not for me. A dome, a seven-sided building, a sculptural design — building a home from an abstract idea is not sensible for most people, in my opinion. It’s going to take much longer and cost a lot more money.

Our aims. A lot of what we did was essentially reinventing the wheel. We felt that modern life had lost touch with the practicalities. We felt that homes being designed by architects had nothing to do with the kind of life we wanted to lead.

We wanted a home with versatile, useful space: a place to cook, eat, get warm at night, to sleep, to heal, to listen to music and sit around the table and talk, where we’d be able to work on projects, dry clothes on a rack, put up guests comfortably, and have the necessary practicalities — water, heat, kitchen, lighting, plumbing — functioning well. We wanted it to be built of materials that felt good to be around, to be colorful, and to have good feng shui.

Handbuilt Wooden House In Country

Construction. I won’t go into detail about building the house, other than that the main part of it was stud-frame and built largely of recycled materials — wood, windows, and doors. There’s a very thorough section on building a stud-frame house in Shelter II that is available free online at

The earliest part of construction is what I like best. The foundation, floor framing, and then: nailing down the sub-floor, my favorite part of the building process. Creating a floor where there was nothing but space and now standing on it. It’s a great feeling. I can get a building framed, sheathed, plumbed, and wired, but I’m not good at the details, the finish work. Over the years, I’ve had a succession of carpenters help me tune things up.

Designing during construction. We designed as we went along. First, the kitchen and bathroom, then an expansion of the living space. At first, we had an old, wood-fired cookstove that heated our main room and on which we did some cooking. In those days, a lot of builders made a departure from the typical house, in which kitchen, dining room, and bedrooms were all separate. They opted for an open floor plan — cooking, eating, and sleeping all in the same room, often with an open loft. As time went by, people wanted more privacy, so they started partitioning off the bedroom(s).

Handbuilt Home Living Room

Building 45 Years Ago

 Building a house back then was way different than now:

1. Tools. There were no portable drills, no grabbers (construction screws), no chop saws, no laser transits, no portable planers or joiners.

2. Insulation. There wasn’t much choice — certainly no insulation that was non-toxic in its manufacture. There were no insulated windows.

3. Water and energy. Greywater systems weren’t in use. Solar water heating and generation of electricity were in their early stages of development.

Handbuilt Home Open Floor Plan

Lloyd Kahn is a sustainable living visionary and publisher of Shelter Publications. He is the author of natural building books, including The Half-Acre Homestead, Home Work, Tiny Homes, Tiny Homes on the Move, Shelter II , Builders of the Pacific Coast, and The Septic System Owner’s Manual (many available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store or at Shelter Publications). He lives and builds in Northern California. Follow Lloyd on his blogTwitterand Facebookand read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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