Marin Independent Journal
The House That Kahn Built:
Back-to-the-land believer promotes doing it yourself
LLOYD KAHN sits downstairs from the octagonal tower sheathed in the redwood shingles he harvested at low tide from the nearby Bolinas beaches, and he slaps a well-calloused palm on the polished wood table.
“This is built from old floor joists,” he declares, giving the table another solid knock.
In Kahn’s world, do-it-yourself is almost beside the point. For the 70-year-old publisher and unapologetic old hippie, the idea is really to do it for yourself. Thirty-three years after he published “Shelter,” a textbook and tour of hand-built architecture that crested a counterculture back-to-the-land movement, Kahn is back on subject.
(IJ photo/Frankie Frost)
He’d spent decades publishing fitness books, including a best seller on stretching, but his newest book, “Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter,” is clearly a sequel to “Shelter.” It reads like an autobiography. Kahn has seen a lot and likes to talk about all of it. “It all came out of my own life,” he says. “You can ride shotgun with me.”
But mostly he wants people to think about where and how they live, and why shaping it, building it and making it theirs is so important. “It’s going to be a really difficult thing to do,” Kahn says of building a home. “Harder than anything else you’ll ever do.” And then he adds, “but it’s a wonderful process.”
“Shelter” wasn’t just a guide to that process; it was a guide to an era. Kahn is quick to defend 1960s – “You don’t hear the success stories of the ’60s,” he’ll say -“and many of the buildings in “Shelter,” and “Home Work” could be zoned as hippie houses. These are homes for people who wanted to “create their own life,” and alternative building in the ’60s and early ’70s was an expression of that.
“Building your own house was just part of everything else,” he says.
It certainly was for Kahn. A native San Franciscan, Kahn was older than the baby boomers who launched those multiple revolutions, but he recognized the movement when it happened and left a job in insurance in 1965 for a “one of those ‘On the Road’ trips,” hitchhiking across the country.
“I decided there were other things I could do with my life than making a lot of money.”
When he got back, he started building. He worked with carpenters, taught himself the trade and started thinking about different ways of building, erecting a home in Marin from recycled lumber. “I was using used railroad ties things like that.”
He took a detour into geodesic domes “after hearing Bucky (Buckminster) Fuller talk” and became a “counterculture spokesman for dome building.” “I was Mr. Dome in those years,” he says. But when he grew disillusioned with domes – they leak and the floor plans are hard to define – he came back to simple homes. They were buildings anybody could build, and they did, lots of them.
“It was this little blip of history,” Kahn says.
The little where “Shelter” came from.
In the ’60s and early ’70s, a back-to-the-land ethic made living simply, and escaping the materialistic mainstream, a definable social statement. Back-to-the-landers fled to areas where building codes did not penetrate. “People were jumping suburbia,” recalls Peter Warshall, a former editor of the Whole Earth Magazine, and a contributor to “Shelter.” In the country, people were free to define their own lives and the structures in which they lived those lives. “No one was out there looking at building codes,” Warshall recalls.
When Kahn bought his Bolinas lot, “a building permit was $200 and you could draw your own plans.”
It was happening in lots of places. People used local materials and sometimes whimsical shapes. Ilka Hartmann, another Bolinas dweller who contributed photographs to “Shelter,” recalls it as an era of “voluntary simplicity.”
“People were very consciously rejecting the ’50s and the sterility of the ’50s,” Hartmann says.
There was a pride in living and building outside the commercial whirl. Hartmann remembers salvaging lumber from a decommissioned Fort Baker in Sausalito. “I spent a whole day just pulling nails for the floor,” she says. “Shelter” captured that.
“It’s an expression of that time.”
But times change.
Warshall would say that the homesteaders were too successful for their own good. The appeal of rural life became popular. Second homes drove up prices. Suburbia caught up.
And speculation crept in. Warshall believes homes stopped being statements — “We all thought of our houses as living organisms at that time” — and started being investments.
Homes became grander. The counters went granite and the spa tub was trimmed in marble for the master bath, not planked together out of redwood next to the organic garden.
“People got into thinking of houses as turnover houses,” Warshall says.
Whatever happened, Kahn isn’t happy about it. People are living in houses that are too big, too expensive and ill-tuned to their surroundings.
“Things got more expensive, and building something got much, much more expensive,” he says.
All that deprives people of an essential experience.
Kahn is still living in a house that will “never” be finished. He attributes a favorite proverb to Arab origin; “When a man finishes building his house, he’s dead.” Kahn says he works on his house “one day a week” and assumes many of the readers who wore through multiple copies of Shelter are doing the same.
Louie Frazier is one of them.
Frazier lives on the Garcia River in Mendocino County near Point Arena, weaving furniture from willow branches and living in the house he built with inspiration from “Shelter.”
Frazier met Kahn when the Bolinas publisher was working on “Home Work” and was able to show him how the book became a house. He took Kahn on a tour, pointing out features he’d borrowed from “Shelter.”
“I held up the book and I said, ‘See this?'”
Frazier was part of Kahn’s “little blip of history.” He got to his land before the building codes caught up.
“It’s pretty natural to build a nest,” Fraizier says. “It’s only the building codes that make you think you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Kahn would say everybody can know what they are doing. “If you don’t know how to do something,” he says. “Start doing it and you’ll figure it out as you go along.”
He senses that more people are ready to do just that. The free form expression of “Shelter” has given away to a green building environmental ethic with do-it-yourselfers experimenting with straw bale homes, “papercrete,” “rasta” blocks made out of recycling plastic and other energy efficient building styles.
“I was at a solar energy conference in Hopland and it was just like the ’60s,” he says, beaming.
What he hopes is that people learn that rethinking their homes doesn’t begin and end at Home Depot. It starts somewhere inside. By building their own home, or just changing it, people might better understand what they really need and not just what they saw in a magazine, or in their neighbor’s kitchen.
It’s just not do-it-yourself, he would say.