Boat Builder Constructs Sailboat-Inspired Handmade Home

Reader Contribution by Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Publications
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The following is an excerpted from Home Work: Hand Built Shelter (Shelter Publications, 2004) by long-time MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor Lloyd Kahn. The book features more than 1,500 photos illustrate various innovative architectural styles and natural building materials that have gained popularity in the last two decades, such as cob, papercrete, bamboo, adobe, strawbale, timber framing and earthbags. If you love fine, fun or funky buildings, you will want to own this splendid book.

Dean Ellis grew up in West Vancouver. He studied science at the University of British Columbia in the 1960s. When psychedelia came along, he switched to studying art. Dean became a photographer and did a number of shows. “Conceptual stuff, sort of like Andy Goldsworthy,” he says. In the late 60s he started working as a carpenter in Vancouver. Then he built a 35-foot sailboat “to sail the world.” But he ended up selling it and borrowing $100,000 to build a 42-foot fiberglass long-liner for cod fishing.

From boat building he learned to work with metal. With this house overlooking a beautiful stretch of coast, he decided to build a metal-frame house. To get the curves he wanted, he got a metal fabricator to run the 2-inch-by- 2-inch roof beams through a roller, bending them to the right curve. Posts are 3-inch-by-3-inch and 4-inch-by-4-inch steel tubes. The frame was welded in place and then plywood was attached with self-tapping metal screws.

“I never relied on welding,” says Dean. “I always welded things as strongly as I could, but I didn’t want to depend on the welds.” So he stacked the steel beams on top of the steel posts, as you would with a wood frame. “It allowed me to take a leap into steel.”

To make this kind of curved steel framing possible, he says, you need:

1.A nearby fabricator that will do the rolling at a decent price

2.A hand-held Makita grinder with cut-off blades

3.A wire-fed 220 Hobart welder. It weighs about 50 pounds, and costs around $,000 (www.HobartWelders.com). No acetylene tanks to lug around. He says it’s like using a glue gun.

4.A welding mask that gets darker when you look into the light, so you can work up high

He first put up the curved roof, directly influenced by Lloyd House’s building techniques. I asked him if he ever built a tilt-up wall and he said: “Well, how would you get the windows right?” Meaning you put up posts and the roof, then decide where windows go by looking both out from inside the house, and then back at the wall from the outside.

All the tables, chairs, light fixtures, and plumbing taps are homemade. The steel counters in the kitchen are bold and striking.

Dean clearly remembers my second book, Domebook 2. “I came from Domebook 2. The whole trip. I built an 18-foot dome in the woods. My wife was pregnant. It leaked, but it gave me a place to live for eight years. We had a potbelly stove — we cooked a turkey in it — we were living your dream. Right out of your book. It was gorgeous. We lived in a leaky dome, but the climate was so benign.”

Dean knew and admired Allen Ferrell, ­legendary BC boat builder (also featured in Home Work). “He lived totally simply.” Allen would typically sail in the Strait of Georgia in the summer (when water is warm enough for swimming), and then pull the boat up on the beach in the intertidal zone in the winter. In Canada, no one can own land below the high tide mark; this means, with say an 18-foot tide, there’s a lot of unowned land at water’s edge.

“It’s not just about boats,” Dean goes on. “It’s living in a beautiful place, a nice community. But that era has about ended now. Everything is too expensive these days; there are too many regulations.”

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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