Making Shelter Simple: An Interview with Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn is the editor-in-chief of Shelter Publications. His latest book is Tiny Homes: Scaling Back in the 21st Century.

Avi Solomon: What do you see in your childhood that pointed you onto the path that your life took?

Lloyd Kahn: When I was a kid I had a little workbench with holes in it, and the holes were square or round or triangular. And you had to pick the right little piece of wood block and hammer it in with a little wooden hammer. And so I'd hammer with it, put the round dowel into the round hole, and hammer it through. And then maybe the most formative thing was when I was twelve – I helped my dad build a house. It had a concrete slab floor, and concrete block walls. And my job was shoveling sand and gravel and cement into the concrete mixer for quite a while. We'd go up there and work on weekends. One day we got the walls all finished, and we were putting a roof on the carport, and I got to go up on the roof. They gave me a canvas carpenter's belt, a hammer and nails, and I got to nail down the 1" sheeting. And I still remember that, kneeling on the roof nailing, the smell of wood on a sunny day. And then I worked as a carpenter when I was in college, on the docks. I just always loved doing stuff with my hands.

Lloyd Kahn Interview Audio Excerpt

I like the smell of wood, and the moment I like best when I'm building is when I get the foundation done and get the floor joists on and nail down the flooring and stand on the floor. That's just a wonderful moment: I did this myself. You have these good experiences when you grow up that carry over. So even while I was a businessman I was still leaning towards building. I like builders and I like farmers, because they have to deal with the real world. It's not like buying and selling stock options. The farmer's crops have to grow, and he has to deal with the wind and the sun, the temperature and rain. The building has to stand up. It can't fall down on people.

Avi: You made an interesting career change in 1965 from working as an insurance broker to being a carpenter.

Lloyd: Things were starting to happen then in San Francisco! The cultural revolution really started in 1963. People started moving to San Francisco and living in the Haight-Ashbury district. When I was an insurance broker, I used to go up to upper Grant Avenue which was kind of the artistic and beatnik center of the city, at a place called the Coexistence Bagel Shop. In 1965 I decided I wanted to think about what I was doing with my life, and I hitchhiked across the country, and went to New York, and went out to Cape Cod, and came back about a month later and quit my job and went to work as a carpenter. I was a lot happier working with my hands than I was wearing a suit. I was making pretty good money then, and I would have made a lot of money if I'd stayed in the business world, but it just wasn't what I was interested in doing.

Avi: What was the first day like working as a carpenter?

Lloyd: There wasn't any first day. It was just that I worked on odd jobs, and also did gardening work. As soon as I got out of the Air Force in 1960 I had started doing an extensive remodel on my house which was in Mill Valley about a half hour out of San Francisco. So I'd been building all along. I would come home from my job early and work on the house, and I'd work on weekends. So when I quit, I just kept on working on the house, and I got jobs doing gardening and carpentry. It was a welcome change.

Avi: You got into building domes and then wrote an remarkable essay called "Smart But Not Wise" .

Lloyd: I'd been building domes and after a few years of building them, started to see that there were problems with them, and with using plastics. And also seeing problems with Buckminster Fuller's ideas, that they weren't really the kind of ideas that I was in favor of. So then I went to a conference at MIT on shelter. And at that conference I saw the scientifically oriented people, architects who were working with plastics and things like that. It was somewhat of an epiphany. By that time I'd seen that there were a lot of drawbacks to using plastics, and to using mathematical formulas for making the frameworks of buildings. So I wrote "Smart But Not Wise", whose title was based on the saying of the Indian Ishi, who was the last of a tribe discovered in California probably in the late 1800s or early 1900s. He said that the white men were smart, but not wise. We had the mathematics and the plastics, and the technology, but it just didn't work out with homes. And so I wrote that essay saying hey, you know, we were wrong here. And shortly after that I stopped the printing of Domebook 2, which had sold about 160,000 copies by then.

Avi: How did your audience react?

Lloyd: Well the Dome groupies were not very happy with me. When I took the Dome book out of print, I had an audience of maybe a quarter of a million people, and Domes were the countercultural icon of building in those years. I thought well, I'd better show these people that there are lots of other ways to build. So I took off and went to Europe with cameras, and traveled across the U.S., and photographed all styles of buildings. I came back and went to a Los Angeles conference in 1967 called Habitat For Humanity, and people were expecting me to talk about Domes, but by that time I was completely off Domes. The place was packed and for my presentation there I showed slides of Irish thatched cottages. I said, you see that cottage in the field there? You see how good it looks? It just looks like it's part of the surroundings. And I said, that's because the materials all came from the area. They planted barley in the fields, and after they harvested the barley, they took what was left over, which was the straw, and they made the thatched roof out of that. And they also built the walls out of stones that came from the fields when they cleared the fields so they could plow them. And they also used the stones for the fences around the fields. Everything is harmonious, and everything looks right because the materials are local. And this is totally different with Domes, which are made out of highly manufactured materials. So people were pretty upset with me for going in that direction. It was kind of the math science guys who really wanted to use an abstract concept like icosahedrons, that appealed to people who were left-brain oriented.

Avi: So you rediscovered vernacular architecture?

Lloyd: Yes, I discovered it for myself. And building Domes for five years was good in a way, because then I went out and looked at all these other ways of building. I'd drive down a country road and see farmers' buildings and I'd think gee, that's got a vertical wall, and it's rectangular, and building materials are rectangular. And you don't have problems sealing the roof. Especially in England, I kind of went back to the roots of building from the times when people started farming. They were living in round houses and then they expanded to rectangular houses when they had to have shelter for the animals. So it was this wonderful rich world of all these different styles of building all over the world. They were not alternatives to Domes, because Domes were really pretty silly as far as homes go. And that's when we did the book "Shelter", which became a great popular favorite.

Avi: What's the strangest place that people have read "Shelter" in?

Lloyd: I don't know! I'm sure there's plenty of strange places because it sold over a quarter of a million copies, and we get feedback two or three times a week even now from the book. People saying that it changed their lives. And it wasn't me, it was all the people that we showed in the book that were inspiring to people. It was translated into French, German, and Spanish. And more recently it's been translated into Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. The thing about "Shelter" is that it captured the spirit of the times. It had primitive building in it, builders making mud huts in Africa, or thatched buildings in the South Seas. But it also had the young people from the hippies, the counterculture of the day, and what they were doing. So it was a combination that just everybody loved, and they still do almost forty years later.

Avi: Your new book "Tiny Homes" is kind of similar, but different.

Lloyd: It's similar to "Shelter" in the fact that the heart of the book was small buildings. We drew up five small buildings with different roof shapes, and showed people exactly how to make the structure. How to frame the buildings. And we wrote in the book, start out small if you're going to build a house. And if you have a piece of land, everybody isn't going to be able to have their own land to build on, but if you do, build something small and have a kitchen and bathroom back-to-back so that you can live in there, and then you can expand. But the small house was really sort of the heart of that book. So now forty years later, we do a book on very small houses. And the four building books we've done all kind of have a connection between them. And this book has a connection back to "Builders of the Pacific Coast" and then the book "Home Work", and then back to "Shelter". If you look through "Tiny Homes", you'll see all the people in there saying that they were inspired to do this by one of our books. And it's also similar in the sense that the way we do books is with a lot of photographs and interviews. It's kind of a scrapbook in a certain way, although there is an underlying order of things. Nobody really does the kinds of books that we do, and it takes us a really long time to get them done. It took around four years of work in between each of these last three building books.

Avi: You have a unique way of editing your books.

Lloyd: For years I 've used a $175 color copy machine that I could blow things up and reduce things on. So say I'm working on a section about a woman from Hornby Island in Canada who is building caravans on wheels to sell to people. I'll get out all the photos of her and I'll print them out like a contact sheet, and then I'll lay everything out on a table and I'll have a two-page spread in front of me and I'll decide what to do, and then I'll blow up or reduce the photos on my color copy machine and I'll tape them down with removable Scotch tape. Then I'll write the text if it's not written already. I'll print it out in two and three columns and I'll paste it, I'll tape it down and move things around until I get things the way I like them, and I'll maybe sketch in the headline in pencil. For the earlier books, I had a portable Adler typewriter on a table I made out of recycled wood with wheels on it. I would type stuff on that. The way I would do cut and paste was I would cut and paste! I would cut up the manuscript with scissors, and then I would tape it back together. I'd say oh, I want this paragraph up here, so I'd cut it out and tape it in. I would get these manuscripts of maybe eight feet, ten feet long flowing text. When I get things the way I want them, and if they're good enough, they go straight to Rick, our digital maven, who imports the photos into the computer and gets things ready for the printer. But maybe half or more of them go to David, our artist, who will go over them and refine them, and shift things around, and make them look better.

It's a pretty good process because I think there's a different quality you get when you're not working on the computer. I have coffee and play rock and roll, and get inspiration that way, and so I have fun when I'm doing the layouts. So it's kind of delaying the entrance into the digital world. It's not like you're going to start doing everything the old way, but it's taking another look at some of the old ways of doing things and seeing how you can blend those with the modern world. Maybe I can do a few of these things to connect with the real world, or do things the way they were done before, while I've still got my MacBook Air and InDesign and Photoshop, and am in touch with the world instantly.

Brian "Ziggy" Loloia built his cob house for less than $3,000.

Avi: "Tiny Homes" has a very interesting subtitle "Scaling Back in the 21st Century". It points to the importance of not having debt and having creative ways to get access to land.

Lloyd: One of the powerful things about the concept is not to get involved with a bank. Don't get a mortgage if you can. Tiny homes may not be for a whole lot of people. But if you're young, and you're facing either getting a mortgage, and we've all seen how that worked, or paying high rents, here's an alternative. And it doesn't have to be that you build a house on a piece of land. It can be that you build a house on wheels. You build a house on a float and have it in the water. Or you have an apartment in the city that's small. You just kind of go the opposite direction from what they call McMansions. It's a different way of approaching life. I mean, I don't live in a tiny home, but I'm in my seventies. But you can start out small. And it's an incredibly powerful movement right now. I like the idea of starting out with your core, which is your kitchen and bathroom, and your wood heat if that's what you're going to do, and your solar heated water, all in this core. Then you've got a place to sleep and cook and eat. And then you start adding on. With rectangles, they're easy to add onto, as opposed to polyhedral shapes.