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Gimme Shelter

Lloyd Kahn documents wildly creative, sustainable living spaces

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CREATIVE BUILDING GURU In addition to chronicling unusual living spaces, Lloyd Kahn lays out all of his books by hand.
  • CREATIVE BUILDING GURU In addition to chronicling unusual living spaces, Lloyd Kahn lays out all of his books by hand.

There he was, in the middle of vendors shilling organic raw fair-trade quinoa bars and yoga pants made out of recycled tires: a white-haired man in a Thrasher Skateboards T-shirt, manning a booth stocked with oversized glossy, colorful books. "Oh my God, it's Lloyd Kahn!" declared my friend Torie, a radical librarian who's always dreamed of building her own house on a compound in the woods.

I followed her through the 2008 San Francisco Green Festival to the Shelter Publications booth, where I ended up buying a copy of Builders of the Pacific Coast, Kahn's full-color exploration of wildly imaginative hand-built houses from San Francisco to Vancouver Island. Not only did it capture the beauty of a creatively built house, but the book itself was a work of art—and with that I became a fan of Lloyd Kahn, documentarian of owner-builders and their sweet, sustainable world.

Kahn's latest book, Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter (Shelter Publications; $26.95), explores the recent boom in houses under 500 square feet, a movement lead in part by Jay Shafer, the Sebastopol-based owner of Tumbleweed Houses. "I noticed that tiny homes were getting media attention, so I started assembling information," says Kahn, on the phone from his home in Bolinas. "I always have several ideas for books revolving in my head, and I sort of wait to see which one will take."

Sustainability and green building may be worn-out buzzwords in 2012, but Kahn was writing about this stuff, out of his own singular passion for owner-built houses made from natural and sustainable materials, before it had any mainstream clout. Still, the 77-year-old publisher and writer considers himself a journalist rather than a leader of the sustainability movement, even as he acknowledges that self-sufficiency and sustainability have always made sense to him.

"The idea of being smaller rather than larger is the important thing here," he explains, adding that he's heartened to see mounting interest from the younger generation for this style of minimal, scaled-down living.

"We've been talking about these things in our publishing business for 40 years—sustainability, doing things yourself, organic gardening, building and ecological consciousness," says Kahn. "All these things were sort of 'Whole Earth' concepts back in the '60s, and it has come around where I see that 20-year-olds, the children of the baby boom, are now of age, and among other things they are discovering our books."

A few of these younger folks grace the pages of the latest book, including Jenine Alexander, a young woman builder from Healdsburg, who's completed and sold two tiny houses since 2009.

"Tiny, tiny homes are not for everyone," explains Kahn. "The little Tiny Tumbleweed places, a lot of people would feel like that is too small, but there is the idea that it's not permanent. Maybe you need to do it for a few years, or you can start small and add on."

This is exactly what Kahn and his wife did at their Bolinas homestead when they first started building 40 years ago. They began with a kitchen out on the deck and a small bedroom that was only about 6-by-6-feet, and built the house out from there. "It worked out fine," says Kahn.

For the book Builders of the Pacific Coast, Kahn traveled up and down the West Coast in his trusty 2003 Toyota Tacoma, taking 1,000 of the 1,200 photos himself. For Tiny Homes, he relied more on technology, specifically web research and email, to complete the project.

"Maybe for a year, and maybe an hour or two a day, I'd search out stuff for follow-up on leads, and then I'd print out the photos and anything that looked interesting, and maybe some text, and put that stuff in a folder."

Lloyd Kahn, in front of his own Bolinas home.
  • Lloyd Kahn, in front of his own Bolinas home.

Once he reached "critical mass," it was time for layout—by hand. Yes, in a world of InDesign and computer domination, Kahn still does book layout using an inexpensive color copy machine and removable Scotch tape. He enlarges the pictures, tapes them down and prints the text in two or three columns to figure out how it will fit.

"It works pretty good," he says. "That way I don't have to be locked into the requirements of the computer, and it's different for your mind."

He's been doing layout like this for years, ever since compiling his first book, Domebook One, in 1970, while working as editor for the Whole Earth Catalog. The book was based on Kahn's experience as a carpenter, building domes inspired by Buckminster Fuller. But after discovering domes didn't work the way they were supposed to, Kahn took the book out of publication and traveled to Canada and Europe to study the roots of building.

Upon returning, Kahn created the book Shelter, which has sold 270,000 copies since its publication in 1973. The book explores the history of hand-building from early man to modern times and includes building instructions for all kinds of shelters, from yurts to cabins.

Shelter Publications became a full-time endeavor with the publication of the book, and in 1978 Kahn published Shelter II. At the dawn of the Reagan era, the company began focusing on books about stretching, weight training and running marathons—not a far leap, since Kahn himself is an athlete. He still runs to this day, and has surfed for 50 years. At the young age of 65, he took up skateboarding (you can find online videos of Kahn dominating a hill on a longboard, white hair streaming behind). Then a little over 10 years ago, Kahn felt the urge to create books on building again, and he ended up publishing Homework: Handbuilt Shelter in 2004.

"All along, it's made sense to me for people to build and create their own shelter with their own hands—that never will change," says Kahn. "Your computer is not going to build your house for you, and you still use your 10 digits and a hammer and saw, even if it's an electric saw and a nail gun."

Kahn does acknowledge that it can be difficult for owner-builders in Marin and Sonoma counties, where building permits can cost exorbitant fees.

"Where I live now, it's pretty much impossible for anybody other than a millionaire to build," says Kahn. "The building permits in season in Marin County are $50,000."

Fortunately, the San Francisco native reaches beyond his own home to find inspiration, as seen in Tiny Homes, with its photos of joyous, small-space livers and builders across the country and the world, people who've bucked the system and done things their own way—just like Lloyd Kahn.

"I still never got discouraged," says Kahn. "I think that whatever is going on politically, you still need food and shelter. Maybe the biggest incentive, I think, is to avoid mortgage or high rents."

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