Catching Up With A Pioneer Of The DIY Movement

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Lloyd Kahn at his home in Bolinas, Calif. He built his home from reclaimed materials. (Nicolás Boullosa/Flickr)
Lloyd Kahn at his home in Bolinas, Calif. He built his home from reclaimed materials. (Nicolás Boullosa/Flickr)

If you've ever dreamed of being self-sufficient — living off the grid, in a home you built yourself — meet Lloyd Kahn.

He's an advocate of building your own shelter. His 1973 book, Shelter, is considered one of the seminal works in do-it-yourself building literature. (Here's a list of his other books and his blog.) 

Kahn is 78 now. He lives with his wife Leslie on a small homestead in northern California. Reporter Jon Kalish dropped in for a visit.

Note: You can watch a film about Kahn at the bottom of this page.

Lloyd Kahn was 12 years old when he helped his father build a house in California's Sacramento Valley.

Kahn's garden. (Nicolás Boullosa/Flickr)
Kahn's garden. (Nicolás Boullosa/Flickr)

"I still remember the day they said I could nail the roof down, the sheathing on the roof," Kahn says. "They gave me a carpenter’s apron and hammer and nails. I remember kneeling on the roof and the sunshine and the smell of the wood. And, 'I like this.'"

After high school, Kahn served in the Air Force, then got a job as an insurance broker. But in 1965 with the counter-culture percolating, Kahn took off to hitch-hike across the country and when he got back he parted ways with corporate America.

"I got a pick-up truck and I thought, 'Oh, man. I don’t have to wear a suit anymore. I can wear Levis,'" Kahn recalls. "And I liked cruising around and finding used stuff. I mean, that was just so much fun!"

In the nearly half-century since then, Kahn has made finding used stuff and building homes a way of life. He got salvaged lumber from an abandoned Navy barracks and used railroad ties to build his home in Bolinas, California, about 20 miles north of San Francisco.

Kahn lives on the half-acre homestead with his wife, Leslie, and a bunch of bantam chickens. There’s a small building for his book publishing business, a tool shed, greenhouse and his wife’s craft studios. During a tour, Kahn showed me an outdoor solar shower that’s been going strong now for 15 years, and an organic garden that keeps his pantry brimming.


"So, grains and jam and storage in here," Kahn says listing off the contents of his pantry. "Flour grinder. Those are oats. I make oat pancakes using the whole grain, all the bran and the germ and everything."

Lloyd Kahn is pictured at his home in California. (Jon Kalish)
Lloyd Kahn is pictured at his home in California. (Jon Kalish)

The Kahns haven't bought bread in years. Leslie bakes her own. Lloyd Kahn is also a scavenger of sorts. He forages for seaweed. And he — how to put this — also retrieves members of the animal kingdom who have had fatal run-ins with motor vehicles.

"Every animal, including the weasel and the skunk, I must say, they’re beautiful little, organic natural food animals and they all taste good," Kahn says.

The roadkill harvest has included large four-leggeds, one of which is a critter you wouldn’t want to run into on a mountain. I asked Lloyd Kahn what was in his freezer.

"Uhhh, there’s a couple of squirrels, the fox," Kahn says. "I’ve got a few animals in there. There’s some I don’t want to talk about on the radio," he says, chuckling.

Lloyd Kahn is a short fit man with long white hair and a walrus mustache. He's is also avid skateboarder. He took up the sport at the tender age of 65. His wife thinks he’s an idiot to still be doing it now at the age of 78.

In a short documentary by Dogpatch Films, Kahn is seen traversing down suburban streets in Marin County, wearing camouflage pants, knee pads, elbow pads and a helmet.

"I just love it," Kahn says. "What I enjoy doing is trying to be graceful. You know, trying to make graceful turns and get my body into it like an athlete and a dancer."

Kahn’s interest in sports extends to his publishing business. He spent the 1980’s and 90’s doing fitness books. But he got his start writing about geodesic domes.

"I was the person who introduced domes to the most people with 'Dome, Book 2,'" Kahn says.

When he first arrived in Bolinas in the 1970’s, there was a house down the block selling for $17,000. He knew he could build a better house himself for that kind of money, so he constructed a dome that was photographed for Life magazine.

But eventually he tore it down and built a house with stud frame construction. By 1972 he came to the conclusion that domes had some serious shortcomings as shelter, not the least of which is that they tend to leak. Kahn took some flack for badmouthing Buckminster Fuller, the architect and futurist who popularized geodesic domes. Kahn so regretted jumping on the dome bandwagon that he took his second dome book out of print.

"I hate to think karmically how many domes got built out of that book," Kahn says. "When I got discouraged with domes, I was still on the dome circuit. I went to a big architectural conference in L.A. They all came, all the dome groupies, and I showed slides of thatched cottages in Ireland. But, you know, nobody is pissed off at me. I’ve never met one person who said, 'You led me down the wrong track.'"

In 1973, Kahn published the book he is best known for, "Shelter," an 11 by 14 inch paperback with hundreds of photographs and detailed drawings. It covered everything from Bedouin tents to hay bale homes. When "Shelter" came out, the counter-culture was still going strong.

"People were in their youth and trying to do something and this book came along and it gave them permission to make their own home," Kevin Kelly, a friend of Kahn's says.  "And that’s often a radical idea for most people and that can be life-changing."

Kelly worked with Kahn in the 1970’s when they were editors at the Whole Earth Catalogue and its spin-offs.

"The main message I’ve always gotten from his work is that it’s not that hard to make your own shelter, particularly if you keep it on the small side and people all over the world have been doing their own shelter forever and if they can do it, you can certainly do it," Kelly says.

Kahn estimates that a quarter million copies of "Shelter" have been sold in the last 40 years, some of them to a whole new generation of young people eager to build their own homes. But he also hears from people who bought the book back in the 1970’s and say it changed their lives.

"A guy came up to us at an energy fair where we were selling books," Kahn recalls. "Big guy and he picked up a copy of 'Shelter' and he said, 'I got this book at a party and I got in the corner with it and I sat all night and read it and I quit my job the next day and I went to work as a builder and now I’m a contractor.' And you know, it makes me feel fabulous. It makes me feel happy," Kahn says, laughing.

These days Kahn says happiness may be found in the tiny home movement, which is the subject of his latest book. He’s not the first observer to point out that the economy is providing an impetus for people to build their own homes and tiny homes at that. Continuing with the small is beautiful aesthetic, Kahn plans to do a book on the half-acre homestead, a subject he lectures on from time to time.

"I’ve learned about all these things over a long period of time and I’ve got some really unique tools around here that I would like to tell people about so they can pick up where I left off and not have to start from scratch," Kahn says. "I learned a long time ago that you never can be self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency is a direction. So, don’t be discouraged because you can’t be self-sufficient but just do as much as you can. You know, maybe you’re just going to do a couple of things. Like people are making pickles now, people are making sauerkraut. It’s so simple!"

Kahn’s next book will focus on homes that roll or float. It should be out next spring.

  • Jon Kalish is a New York-based radio reporter, writer and producer.

This segment aired on August 29, 2013.


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