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InterviewsNo. 73, Fall 2022

Getting Loose With Lloyd Kahn

By Lloyd Kahn and The Last StrawFebruary 11, 2023October 30th, 2023No Comments

We sat down with Lloyd Kahn via zoom as he recounted his life’s work of making things about making things. Lloyd is a publisher, editor, author, photographer, builder, self-taught architect, DIY enthusiast, skateboarder, surfer, music lover, and much, much more. He was also the shelter editor for The Whole Earth Catalog and is the founder of Shelter Publications. The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

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 t
hat 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

 

TLS: From what we’ve seen on your blog and social media, you stay very physically active- homesteading, surfing, longboarding, etc. Can you speak to the relationship between fitness and building, and how you maintain physical well-being?
 
LK: If you’re a carpenter all your life and you’re not stretching and doing other things, your body’s gonna be pretty banged up and worn out.I’m probably in the worst shape now that I’ve ever been in, but I’m also older than I’ve ever been. I’m working my way back into shape. I have a group of guys that I’ve been running and hiking with for about 30 years. Last night for instance, we walked maybe two miles, then went swimming.
I haven’t been surfing for a couple of years now. But whenever I get time, I’m going to take a trip down to Baja where the water is warm. My problem right now is getting up to a standing position on a surfboard but once I’m up, I’m fine.Also, having an electric bike has really changed my life. It’s so much fun and we have all these trails and fire roads around here that the bike makes accessible. 
It’s all really important. I’m 87 and I meet with my high school friends twice a year and my college friends maybe once a year. Our numbers are dwindling. I think that it’s really not as much age as it is inactivity as you get older.
So anytime I’m depressed, if I can just force myself to go out and do something, especially jumping into cold water, I’m going to feel so good afterward. I still ride a skateboard, but not as much and not as aggressively as I used to because I fractured my arm a couple of years ago and that was traumatic, but I still love it. I just have to be careful enough that I don’t fall and break a bone again. As far as workouts go, I like to have adventures and not just run around the same park every day, but you know, go out and walk on the beach, mix it up.
  
TLS: Can you describe your daily routine?
LK: During the week, I’m probably in the studio here from nine until six. I have somebody who comes and works here one day a week in the garden, so I work with him for a while. He was here today and we unloaded lumber. Tomorrow I’ll water the garden, then I’ll probably work six or seven hours.
On the weekends I try to do work around the place here, repairing the fence or fixing a roof.
Check out The Half-Acre Homestead. It pretty much describes what Lesley and I did and what we do here in our daily lives. We each have an awful lot of plates spinning and there’s no pattern or anything. It’s just waking up and seeing what needs to be done that day.I don’t work at night very much. So we get together at about six o’clock and make dinner, and then usually watch a movie or something.
I go into San Francisco maybe one day a week. I’m still a city boy at heart, and I get really excited when I go into the city. There’s just so much going on, as opposed to out here. Where we live is pretty rural, so there’s not a lot of mental stimulation. I go swimming in the Aquatic Park. The water’s cold, but once you’re in it for two or three minutes, your body adjusts. I can stay in now for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. When you get out you’re so stimulated and things feel so good. I’m revved up for the next couple of hours.
I also take pictures in the city. There are some spots in San Francisco that I like a lot: the Outerlands restaurant and Trouble Coffee, and The Mall surf shop and Java Beach Café.
I haven’t done it for a few years now, but I also like to stay in a hotel in the city once in a while and eat out and just walk around and see what’s happening. It’s like going to Manhattan,I just absolutely love it. Sometimes I’ll walk out of the hotel and not know where I’m going and just start going in some direction and something will happen, you know? I feel like I’m an observer and a communicator. I’ll see things like a window display, or a house that’s painted an unusual color, or somebody doing something, or a truck that’s got a camper on the back, and I’ll take pictures of it and post it.
The heart of Lloyd and Leslie’s home is their kitchen
TLS: Have you noticed since you published Shelter that there are different aesthetics or periods of time that come back in style and then cycle through popularity?
LK: One thing that’s happened is in the last few years 20 and 30 year olds, they’re like a different breed as far as I’m concerned. A lot of young people have discovered Shelter. We’ve got a lot of followers and there are thousands and thousands of people who have written to us and told us about being inspired by the people in our books.
But on the other hand, Dwell Magazine is hugely successful and makes a lot of money and they print 200,000 copies. They have a much bigger audience than we do- people who like minimalism. It’s just not our aesthetic or our idea at all. Those are people who buy their houses and we’re people who make our houses.
 
Sometimes I think we’re like the people in Fahrenheit 451. The story is set in the future and books are outlawed and burned. But there’s a group of people who love books and each one of them has taken it upon themselves to memorize a book. They meet on the outskirts of the city and walk around in the snow memorizing books. It’s a much smaller group than the general population, and I think maybe our group of people is similar: the people on the fringe of the city that want to build things by hand and live in places that feel healthier and more comfortable.
It’s a very powerful thing, using your hands. In this age of computers and technology, there’s still building and gardening, and it’s done with the 10 digits. It’s wonderful to see people that have the same ideas and want a home to be homemade and to be comfortable; and for it to be a place where you eat and garden and sleep and heal: the idea of shelter.
 
  
TLS: How do you meet most of the people that are featured in your books? Is it through letters or social media or is it on your city walks?
  
LK: Well, we’ve got a network of people. I have a blog and I do Instagram and I have a newsletter called Gimme Shelter. I send out the newsletter because in a way it’s kind of digital old school. With a blog or Instagram, people have to come in. They have to make a choice to come in and look at it. But with the newsletter, it goes out to people.

One thing about blogs and Instagram is that there’s no income, but it’s something I love to do. I can do things on a blog that I can’t do on Instagram, but I love Instagram because it’s a photographer’s dream. Go out and shoot a picture and then boom, it’s up everywhere in the world, including China.
But on a blog I can write stuff and I get to use the big screen.
  
TLS: One thing that we’ve noticed is your appreciation and interest in tools. The Whole Earth Catalog was all about access to tools and you often post about different tools that you find. Can you speak a little bit to that interest? 
  
LK: Well, I love tools. The thing about tools is that because I didn’t go through any formal training as a builder, I sort of look at building and architecture, as well as tools, with a fresh eye. I don’t take them for granted. Like a chalk line. I mean, this is a really smart tool. You can make a perfectly straight line by simply snapping a chalk line.A lot of what you’re going to be able to make depends on your knowledge of tools. 
I also have a lot of wrecking tools that I really like. I think I counted up, I have 13 different saws, maybe 10 different electrical saws. And I have really good and unusual crowbars. I’m always on the lookout for tools.
Lloyd’s home in Big Sur, built in the 60’s
TLS: You’ve spoken before about certain buildings that have a certain harmonious characteristic. What do you think makes a place have that quality? Do you think there’s something about a building being handmade that kind of lends itself to that harmony?
 
LK: Well, I don’t know any generalizations or common themes, but they’ll often be the buildings that are farm buildings and barns. I think the reason that I like those is because they’re built for a purpose and there’s no bullshit involved.
I met the builder of my dreams after 50 years of interviewing builders and his name is Lloyd House. A building that he built is in the Builders of the Pacific Coast, which I think is my best book. Anyway, there are three or four of his buildings that when I saw them, I just sat down. It just took my breath away because everything was so right. There’s just something about how everything worked together that this guy did.
 
I’ve never tried to extract the qualities that I love in buildings, but I know buildings that I like. If you look at our books, there are eight or nine and each has about a thousand photos in them, you’ll find quite a few examples of buildings where I think things are working.
 
TLS: Speaking of barns, we were reading something you had said about going into a barn, I think it was somewhere in Cape Cod, and you just went up into one of the hay lofts and smoked a joint and really just kind of took it in. Do you think there’s a connection between psychedelics and creative building?
 
LK: Well I think that if you get stoned, at least with me, it puts me onto the right side of my brain, which is the intuitive and artistic part as opposed to the left side, which is logical and practical. I don’t smoke pot anymore, I use gummies now, but it’s not as good as smoking. I smoked for a long time and my lungs just don’t feel good. 
Also, I don’t want to be stoned when I’m building. And if I get an idea and I’m stoned, I want to come back and look at it the next day straight. I really like to be high when I listen to music because it puts me in a different frame of mind.
That building on Cape Cod was a barn that had been owned by a sea captain. It’s in one of our books, and I think on that same page I took pictures of an elliptical spiral staircase that had been built by a carpenter who traveled on a horseback with his tools. If you know building at all, a spiral staircase is difficult, but an elliptical spiral staircase…the idea that this guy came on horse and built that thing, you know?
The story of that Cape Cod barn is that I went to a conference at MIT on building. While there I got into arguments with people because by then I’d given up on domes and these guys were into plastics and futuristic architecture. I had my son Peter with me, who was 12, so we rented a car and drove out on Cape Cod to go see my cousin who lived in Provincetown. We stopped at that place. And it’s one of those examples where I saw something, so I took photographs and I put it in a book.
TLS: Last question: what music are you listening to lately? 
 
LK: One of my all time favorite records is Salty Dog by Procol Harum. It’s a beautiful record. I think the last thing I put on was Hot Blood by Lucinda Williams. I love Lucinda. 
I’d say I listen to blues and rock ‘n’ roll and Cajun music and reggae. Just good music. 
If you go to my blog, go to the topics and go down to music I have a pretty wide range of musical taste. I mean, I listened to a lot of rhythm and blues and doo-wop in college, with groups like The Clovers, The Robins, The Medallions. And in the ’60s, it was the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan.
Nowadays there’s just so much available. It’s a cornucopia. I’ve had some depressing times lately and music seems to pull me out of it.
There’s also Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven.  I like Vivaldi as much as I like the Rolling Stones. There’s Django Reinhardt, Chuck Berry… and Sam Cook is maybe my favorite singer in the world. Anyway, don’t get me started on music!


THE LAST STRAW
The Alternative Journal of Design and Construction for Dirtbags and Dreamers
Since 1992