Design (42)

Boathouse Built by Dean Ellis

This is a graceful little steel-framed boathouse that Dean built on the beach. Posts are 4″-5″ square steel, 8′ on center. The steel purlins are 2½″ steel tubes. The 1″×6″ sheathing is welded to the steel purlins with nails. Photo by @lloyd.kahn

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Lloyd House's Leaf House

…It seemed like a light roof was needed to compensate for the heaviness of the forest. Built the roof first; then the floor, and last the walls. To me roofs have become umbrellas that say anything can happen under them. When the roof is finished, you can stand it — feel the space, be in touch with the house — love it…

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Advice to Californians Building New Homes After the Fires

I’d like to get this out to as many people as possible. Please send it to anyone you think might appreciate it. This document is available in downloadable/printable form at shltr.net/afterfire.  –LK

Poster from 1885, designed to encourage people to move westward

I would like to offer some suggestions to people whose homes were destroyed by the California fires of 2017. I have built three homes of my own and, as well, been publishing books on building for some 45 years now. From this experience I’ve come to some conclusions about practical, sensible building.

Much of the emphasis in our books has been on owner-building, and if you will be doing design and construction yourself, these are things for you to consider. If not, these are ideas you can discuss with architects and/or builders you may be working with — the principles are the same.

Much has been learned about building homes in the last two or three decades. You may be able to take advantage of building materials and techniques that weren’t available when these homes were built. Here is a chance to do things better, to learn from experience, to create a home built from sustainable materials that will save energy, that will be better for you and the planet.

Please note: These are just random ideas for your consideration. This isn’t a checklist, where you try to incorporate each suggestion in your plans. The purpose here is to stimulate thinking. Maybe you’ll find two or three ideas that will work for you.

  • Consider putting a tiny home on the site for a temporary place to live. You can get one ready-made, and I recommend the ones built by Ward Hensill in Bodega: www.bodegaportablebuildings.com

    OR get a Tuff Shed: You prepare the foundation/floor, and they erect the building in one day. You then finish the interior: www.tuffshed.com

    OR for a local (Petaluma) manufacturer of small (not tiny) homes: Stephen Marshall at www.littlehouseonthetrailer.com

  • If you build a tiny (or small) house first, it can later be a guest house, studio, or “granny flat.”
  • Consider some sort of pre-fab starting point to get the house framed up quickly and ready for services and finishing.

    For example, some friends in Carpinteria had the shell of their house steel-framed by local barn builders. They carried on and completed the finishing themselves, but the fire-resistant shell went up in a few days.

  • Consider the orientation of your property. Windows facing south will allow for solar heating. Deciduous trees can be planted so there is shade in the summer, sun in the winter (when trees are bare.) What direction do the winds/storms come from? Where does the sun rise and set at various times of the year?
  • Consider having a large enough section of the roof sloping and facing direct south for maximization of solar panels (which can be added years later).
  • Have the home built in two stages. Get the kitchen/bathroom/living/sleeping areas done first, with plans to add on later, so you can live there ASAP.
  • Even if you hire a builder, do some of the work yourself. I built most of a house in the ’60s by working on weekends, after work, and holidays. You can save a lot of money by doing some of the simple stuff.
  • Stud frame construction. Straw bale, cob, timber frame, and other natural materials each have their benefits, but the stud wall system, with insulation, wiring, and plumbing within the walls is by far the quickest way to build.
  • Rectangular design. Stick with rectangles. If you get into building curves or polygons (e.g., hexagonal, octagonal) you’ll end up spending a lot more time and money.
  • Use Class A roofing materials, which are “effective against severe fire test exposures.”
  • Consider Hardie board fiber cement siding for exterior walls. It’s a cement fiber product that looks like wood, but will not rot, and is fire-resistant, insect-resistant, impact-resistant, and moisture-resistant.
  • Use some kind of non-toxic insulation (not available when I built). Wool, denim, cellulose made from recycled paper products. Research it. “Roxul” is a very good non-toxic, non-water absorbing, non-rodent and non-insect supporting type of batt insulation.
  • Have a central core, including kitchen/bathroom back-to-back (for plumbing simplicity).
  • Locate the hot water heater in a central core area, including a wood (or gas) stove for space heating, with a coil for heating water in winter, plus a solar-heated water panel on the roof for summer hot water.
  • Consider a small 5-gallon hot water heater under the kitchen sink. We have one, and it provides almost instant hot water, with no waiting, and doesn’t use much electricity.
  • Consider facing your kitchen south. I’d get the kitchen floor as low as possible (concrete slab with stringers, plywood, then linoleum). (Don’t have wooden floor in kitchen if you really cook; linoleum is easy to clean.) The reason for the low floor is so that you easily step out to:

    a) An outdoor cooking/eating area with a roof (maybe double-wall polycarbonate), right outside the kitchen. Weber barbecue, table, sink. This is cheap square footage, and you can do a lot of cooking, eating, and socializing outdoors in warmer weather.

    b) A vegetable garden easily accessible to the kitchen

  • Don’t install a kitchen-sink garbage disposal unit. It’s a bad practice to grind up food, especially if it’s going to a septic tank. Rather, compost kitchen scraps using a composting tumbler (which is varmint-proof).
  • Consider washing dishes by hand; don’t install a dishwasher. Here’s a video of my technique:

  • Have a window at the kitchen sink, so you can look outside while doing dishes.
  • Install a Blue Star range (made in America) if you are serious about cooking. The one we have has no digital controls. It cost $3100 and is one of the best things we’ve ever bought.
  • Consider getting a tank to collect rain water off the roof.
  • Set up valves to divert greywater for wash basin, bath, and shower.
  • If you are interested in gardening, in providing some of your own food, consider where a vegetable garden might best be located.
  • Plant some fruit and/or shade trees. (If I was starting over again, I’d plant half a dozen olive trees.)
  • Avoid architectural cleverness. Watch out for architects trying to make a statement. Quite often, tried and true designs produce economical, practical homes. The wheel needn’t be reinvented.
  • Wire your house for Internet access.
  • Set up the Cloud to automatically back up your computer, smartphone, iPad, or other digital devices. Also, back up all photos on the Cloud; you can set up your smartphone to automatically back up all photos you shoot. This way, all your data will be saved even if the devices are destroyed in a fire (or stolen or lost).

Note: Here is a link to reprinted pages with a lot of design recommendations from our book Shelter II: www.dropbox.com/…

Copies of Shelter II can be purchased here.

This document is available in downloadable/printable form at shltr.net/afterfire.

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Long House by Bruno Atkey

Bruno built this 30′×50′ building on a remote beach belonging to the Hesquiat tribe in British Columbia in 1999. It’s used in a “rediscovery” program, and now run by Hooksum Outdoor School, which educates young First Nations people about their history and heritage.

The entire building was framed with beach­combed logs — posts, beams, and purlins. Roofing is 3′-long split-cedar shakes; siding is also split cedar — 1×12’s and 1×15’s six to twelve feet long(!). His crew was mostly from the Hesquiat tribe…

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Vin Gorman's Hand-Built Sauna

…The beams are recycled old–growth redwood, and the interior panelling is Port Orford cedar from a forest that is sustainably managed. Plaster on the exterior is a plaster mix with 80% of the sand replaced by vermiculite and fiberglass. The base consists of poured concrete ribs. It’s actually portable…

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Stunning Treehouse



There is something about the idea of a treehouse that truly captures the imagination. For builders, it’s a licence to let their creativity run wild and construct something which is playful and adventurous. For years now the team at Nelson Treehouse and Supply (better known as the Treehouse Masters from their hit TV show) have been doing just that. This week we were fortunate enough to be able to visit one of their latest projects in Seattle, Washington.

The treehouse is accessed by a rustic set of stairs which wrap around the trunk of the tree and curve down to the ground below.

The exterior of the treehouse is exquisitely finished, with spectacular yellow cedar shingles. A large porch area provides plenty of space to relax, entertain and enjoy being up amongst the trees…

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My America

trips

On a trip to Nevada, Utah, and Arizona in 1989

This political nightmare we’ve been going through for some months now may have led me to choosing the subject for my next book.

I’ve been trying to figure out what to do after Small Homes:

  • 50 Years of Natural Building
  • A book on my trips
  • A book on barns

Some kind of context for the 10,000+ photos I’ve taken over the years.

The idea about a book on the U.S.A. popped into my head a few days ago. This would be my version of America. It would start with me riding the rails and hitchhiking from San Francisco to New York in 1965, along with a copy of Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous — seeking enlightenment, if you will, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life — as the cultural revolution of the ’60s–’70s unfolded. (Upon return a month later, I quit my job as an insurance broker and went to work as a builder.)

I would show the America that I love, the people in every state who were kind and friendly and helpful, Pop’s Diner in Page, Arizona; pressmen at Courier Printing in Kendallville, Indiana; squirrel hunters in Tennessee; the waitress in an Oklahoma diner serving me coconut cream pie with coffee at 2:30 AM; farmers, surfers, skateboarders, lawyers, and bankers (yes — there are some good ones); book lovers, musicians, builders; makers…

This just may be the next book: the glass-half-full take on America.

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