The Last Straw: What are you working on now?
Lloyd Kahn: There’s an awful lot going on right now. And the thing is, as you get older and real old like I am, I don’t think of it so much as memory loss; it’s just that over a lifetime of 80 plus years you’ve got so much stuff in your head that you can’t easily make room for new stuff. I can remember things from when I was four years old, but I can’t remember the name of a movie I saw three nights ago.
Anyway, the last book we did was on rolling homes and it’s due to arrive in the warehouse tomorrow.
The book that I’m working on now is kind of a different thing. I grew up in San Francisco and I went to high school in the Haight-Ashbury district. I was an insurance broker from 1960-65. I started smoking pot in about ‘64 and I looked around and found that I had more in common with the people 10 years younger than me than I did with my own generation. So I dropped out and went to work as a carpenter and a builder and have been building ever since.
The 50th anniversary of what they call the ‘Summer of Love’ was around five years ago now. There were exhibits, articles, and magazines. I have over 50 books on the ‘60s and what happened then. And the thing is, it just didn’t sound to me like what I saw happen. So I started to write a book on the ‘60s and thought, well while I’m at it, maybe I better cover my background so you know where I’m coming from. So it’s kind of a semi-autobiography.
But that book is in a different category than the other books that I’ve done, like the ones on tiny homes and the latest on rolling homes. I’ve maybe done 10 books on buildings since Shelter in 1973. We call the collection the Shelter Library of Building Books. The common theme among them is doing it yourself.
TLS: Can you describe your book making process?
LK: The way I do books is I assemble a lot of information and then I start doing layout. It’s kind of based on the principle of ‘if you don’t quite know what to do, just get started and the momentum will carry you along and you’ll figure out what to do.’That’s kind of the way I’ve been with building as well. Unfortunately I never got to work with a master carpenter. I started out building my own home and had to figure it out as I went along.
I love putting books together. One of my favorite things to do is the layout of a book.
I do it with scissors and scotch tape, the old school way. Then it goes to Rick who does the work in Photoshop and InDesign. He prepares the files for the printers.
TLS: Can you speak a bit more about the culture of DIY homebuilding?
LK: The big change is that in my town here, a small town an hour north of San Francisco, there were about 35 of us building houses in the ‘70s. We all wanted to find 10 acres in the country and build an adobe or wood frame house that was solar heated and had its own water supply. I bought my land for $6,000 and the building permit was $200. The building department allowed me to draw my own plans, so I was the architect and the engineer.
Nowadays the building permits are over $50,000 in this area and the houses are all selling for over a million dollars for a teardown. So to tell you the truth, I don’t know anybody that’s building their own home, at least around here.
I think that if you’re within an hour or two of a great city, like San Francisco or New York or
LA or Chicago, you’re not going to be able to build your own house. It’s just going to be too expensive. So if you’re going to do it yourself, you have to get farther away.
I think if I were a young person now it would be more relevant to find a rundown house in a town or a city, and to fix it up. That way you’ve got a house and hopefully the foundation is good, and you’ve got water, sewage, and power.
If you’re looking to do it yourself, I think the principles are still the same as they used to be. You still need your hands to build a house. You still need a hammer and a saw, or it might be a nail gun and an electric saw. But a computer isn’t going to build your house for you, so I think that the principles are still the same. But it’s quite a different situation these days, at least where I live.
Lloyd Kahn as a young man
TLS: As a DIY homebuilder, what is your relationship to building codes and code enforcement?
LK: California’s building code is not so bad. I came around to appreciating it after dodging it for many years because building a house isn’t like doing a painting or a sculpture where you can throw it away if you don’t like it. And a lot of first time builders don’t really understand safety.
I’ve never really been able to build completely free of building codes, but it would be a wonderful thing. It’s kind of scary, but it’s very freeing also. I used books to understand building. I’ve probably built about four houses, including where I live now.
I don’t know if you guys have seen the book The Half-Acre Homestead, but it’s a record of 46 years of building, gardening, raising chickens and goats, foraging, fishing, and everything we did here starting in 1971. It’s kind of the story of what was possible in this part of California back then but is completely impossible now.
Bureaucrats beget more bureaucracy. So the bureaucrats have added on layers and layers of things that are just not practical. They work with people who have lots of money. I mean now they make you put sprinkler systems in a house, which just makes no sense to me because it costs $30,000. If you have a restaurant where you have a risk of grease fires, yeah that makes sense. And the septic system, ugh, there’s a thing going on here and in a lot of the country that is just a huge corrupt scam where they’re making people put in engineered mounds and high tech systems where gravity septic systems would work fine.
Anyway, I don’t want to get off onto an old guy rant here, but I think if you’re able to build your own house with your own hands then that’s something that you’ll have that people around here don’t. It’s not possible for them to do that in the San Francisco Bay area where everything costs a million dollars.
TLS: How did you become interested in DIY building?
LK: Well, I started out in probably 1961, when I was an insurance broker. I was an insurance broker during the work week, but every night and weekend I was working on building a house.
I got started building post and beam homes. When I quit the insurance business in 1965, I moved to Big Sur and got a job building a house out of bridge timbers on a ranch. I eventually quit that job and built my own house in Big Sur, still post and beam.
Around that time, I got into building geodesic domes. I did that for five years and I actually thought that geodesic domes were a better way to build. I ended up doing a book on building called Domebook 2, and by the time it sold 160,000 copies I had figured out that domes didn’t work. I’d also figured out that stud frame housing was actually a more practical way to build.
When I moved to this town in ‘71, there was a house for sale for $17,000 and I thought, ‘Well, that’s too expensive. I can build a house for less than that.’ So, I built my own house with studs because I live in California. I think if you live in the desert you build with adobe, and if you live up north in Washington or Oregon, there’s a lot of rain and it makes sense to build with wood. I tell people to look around where they’re going to build and look closely at the farm buildings. Look at the chicken coops and the barns, because for those farmers it was the architecture of necessity. They had to be practical. It wasn’t like architects, you know, that want to make a statement.
I did Shelter in 1973, which was a record of the history of building. In Shelter, we drew up the plans for five tiny homes and we drew every stick of wood in the building, every stud and every rafter, so that you could look at the drawings and say, “I understand that, I get it.” I did Shelter Two in 1978, but it wasn’t the kind of countercultural book that Shelter was. It was a more serious book on building a stud frame house.
After that I thought, well, that was going to be about it for me in publishing. I was doing gardening and farming at the time and had a sore back. I saw a book called Stretching in the Whole Earth Catalog and sent away for it. It was a homemade book, and I did the stretches and fixed my back. So I wrote the authors, Bob and Jean Anderson who lived in LA and said, “This is for athletes. What about stretches for carpenters and plumbers and waitresses and nurses and truck drivers?”We got into a discussion and I still had a connection at Random House, my distributors with Shelter. I talked to my editor there and sent her the book. She said, “You know, I think this book could sell 300,000 copies.”
Over the course of two or three months, Jean did all new drawings for the book and we republished it. We printed 50,000 copies the first run, which you would never dare to do now.It sold like wildfire. That got me into 20 years of doing fitness books.And then at the turn of the century I got back into doing books on building, which is what I enjoy most.
But those fitness books have paid for the building books. We’re at the point right now where we’ve been losing money for three years.I’m not sure what’s going to happen. You know, how long I can keep going. I’ve got two or three more books I want to get done. I can’t imagine retiring.
Fisheye of Lloyd in his dome at Pacific Highschool in 1969