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.
When Lesley and I first got together, it was homesteading at first sight. We both wanted to create a home and grow our own food. I’d been working as a carpenter for about 10 years and had built a homestead in Big Sur in the 1960s. Lesley had been gardening, sewing, and practicing crafts most of her life.
We both wanted to do as much for ourselves as possible. We both wanted to avoid paying rent or getting a bank loan. And we both wanted to have a home built of natural materials, and that was functional, practical, and good-feeling.
When I say “homestead”, I don’t refer to the original meaning of the word as it applied to farmers claiming land in America in the mid-1800s. Ours is a homestead in the sense of building our own home and growing much of our own food on a (small) piece of land.
Starting. We began in 1974. We had a 100-by-200-foot lot on the Northern California coast — about half an acre. (To give you an idea of the area, a football field is roughly an acre in size.) The book serves as the story of our adventures in providing our own shelter, food, and practicing crafts on this land. There are also lists of useful tools. And it’s a look at what we see in our everyday life, inside and outside the house.
We’ve learned a lot by trial and error, and want to share our experiences with others who are interested in homemade and handmade shelter, food, and crafts.
Skill level. Our building, gardening, and cooking skills are not on the professional level. I’m an owner-builder, not a highly skilled carpenter. Lesley’s cooking is simple and delicious, not fancy. Her garden is home-oriented, not professionally landscaped. The tables I’ve made are crude by cabinet makers’ standards — I think of them as folk art. The point is, these are things you can accomplish on a do-it-yourself basis without getting hung up by the absence of perfection.
The 60s and the 70s. It’s said that the 1960s happened in the 1970s — that’s only partially true. The 60s happened in the 60s and the 70s. Much of what we did in the 70s was inspired by the some of the countercultural concepts of the earlier decade, which we both arrived at independently.
Reinventing the wheel in the 60s, there was — among some of us — a spirit of relearning skills of the past. Building one’s own home, growing vegetables (and preserving the surplus), managing chickens, bees, and goats, making bread — skills that had been abandoned by our parents’ or grandparents’ generations.
It’s a juggling act — there was always more to do than time to do it. We didn’t take holidays. We mostly stayed home and kept busy, enjoying the process as well as the results. There were maybe 35 of us building our own homes in or on the outskirts of our small town in the 70s. It was probably amusing to the older inhabitants here to see a sudden influx of young people learning skills and crafts that previous generations had given up.
Easy living. This was possible then, because it was a time of great prosperity in America. You could live on very little money and take the time to experiment, try things out, learn new skills. Land was cheap — ours was $6,500 — and building codes, planning codes, and fees were reasonable rather than onerous, as they are today.
Self-sufficiency. It’s important to realize that self-sufficiency — like perfection — is a direction. You never get there. No one is completely self-sufficient. Nothing is perfect.
You can’t grow all your own food. You probably can’t do every bit of house-building yourself. The point is to do as much for yourself as possible.
Handmade. A few things haven’t really changed much from 40 years ago. A computer is not going to build your house for you, nor plant your food (nor make quilts or shawls). These things still need to be done with human hands. Just about everything you see in these pages was done by hand.
Analog times. The bulk of our house building was done before computers. Much of what we learned came from books. It was truly a different world. We communicated with landline phones (when possible) and letters via the U.S. Post Office. The Whole Earth Catalog was immensely useful for a large group of like-minded people.
There was no Facebook, no Instagram, Apple, Google, Alexa, or Amazon. There was no internet! If you wanted to build a house nowadays, what if you took all the time you now spend in the digital world (well, a lot of it), and spent it building? Just sayin.’
Assembling this book. I’m the communicator (blabbermouth) of the family. From an early age, I’ve written about, talked about, taken photos, blogged, Instagramed, and published books about what I run across in the world. The same here. Most of the text here is in my first-person voice.
But as I’ve watched this book develop, I’ve realized that, although I’m doing most of the writing here, these pages are a testament to Lesley’s creative skills, her arts and crafts. She’s the captain of this ship, and the food, the garden, the flowers, the quilts, the way things look and work around here is all her doing.
Could you do this nowadays? Times are way different now than they were when we did the bulk of this work. You could do some of the things we’ve done here without devoting as much time to these pursuits as we have. You could scale it back compared to what we’ve done. This book is descriptive, not prescriptive.
For example, you could remodel an old house instead of starting from scratch. If you live in the city, you could grow parsley on your fire escape, bake bread, buy fresh ingredients at farmers markets. You could remodel your living space, build some of your own furniture, do your own maintenance, make your own repairs.
The benefits. In the last few years, we’ve looked around and thought, “This is pretty good.” The house has been upgraded, changed, remodeled, and is working well. The kitchen is a far cry from the outdoor kitchen with washtub sink that we started with. The soil in the garden is black and rich from decades of improvement. The chicken coop is working well (in its fifth incarnation). Every day we make improvements, do necessary maintenance, and tune things up.
We have no mortgage. We pay no rent. We live in a place that we love, that we’ve crafted and created with our own hands, that is ever evolving. This is our handmade world.
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 blog, Twitter, and Facebook, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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