Lloyd Kahn is one in many million when it comes to the fascinating people we have met In the course of our lives. Our friendship with him has been largely built around the books he publishes. His company, Shelter Publications, publishes books that are filled with innovative, outside the box, small, inexpensive, natural, and moveable buildings. In essence, Lloyd is the champion of vernacular, homemade homes, the kind where architects and professional builders are not to be found. Our work appears in two of them – Homework and Tiny Houses.
Lloyd has been involved in publishing since the original Whole Earth Catalog for which he was the shelter editor. He went on to publishing the ever so popular Domebooks One and 2, followed by the sequel, Refried Domes, in which Lloyd advised people not to build domes, describing the pursuit as “smart, but not wise.” I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that entire structure was essentially a roof and inevitably, sooner or later roofs leak.
The book that really put him on the map was the cult classic Shelter, published in 1974, was one of those great old large format books (11×14) that featured just about every kind of interesting and alternative building he could find or that caught his interest. In recent years, Lloyd has done a series of very fun building books that include the likes of Homework: Handbuilt Shelter (basically a sequel to Shelter), Builders of the Pacific Coast and Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter. In many ways, his books have become an informal social history of the counter culture. In between Shelter and his recent books, he also published a series of very successful fitness books. http://shelterpub.com
Our lives have been clearly connected to Lloyd in a number of ways. Besides having our work featured in two of his books, unknown to us at the time, our straw bale work was indirectly tied to it was an article that appeared in his original book Shelter entitled Baled Hay, written by folk historian Roger Welch. In that articled he told the story of houses built from baled straw and prairie grasses in the Sandhills of Nebraska during the early 1900s. Without a doubt, it was that article that gave birth to the modern movement of building straw bale houses.
Athena, our son Benito and I recently spent a day with Lloyd and his wife Lesley at what I will describe as their ½ acre urban homestead in Bolinas, California. Lloyd has been to visit us numerous times in Canelo, but we had never been to visit him at home. And consequently, we had never met his wife Lesley Creed.
To give you a little background, Bolinas is a place known for it’s collection of eccentric residents, who have become famous for tearing down any road sign on State Route 1 that pointed the way into town. I’m told that that the issue was finally being resolved by a county ballot measure that stated a preference for no more signs. In essence, it’s not your average little town. Lloyd’s street doesn’t have a sign either.
We found Lloyd, quietly at work in the Shelter office that was built from recycled Navy barracks. He was laying out pages for his upcoming book, Water and Wheels: Tiny Homes on the Move. He still does it all by hand, pasting copied photos and text onto paper before turning it all over to Mac Wizard Rick Gordon for the digital layout. He loves his trusted old copy machine and a small wheel allows him to scale his copies to size he needs for his layouts. The Shelter Publications office is tiny, packed full of computers, books and archived material from projects that are long since a part of the past.
The ratio of fascinating stuff to look at compared to the actual space was off the charts. One could spend the day in there. One of the highlights was looking at 1970s vintage, hand-done books Lloyd had done on his travels.
I also filmed this short video with Lloyd demonstrating his workout setup at his standing computer station.
Lloyd’s dedication to fitness is readily evident. At 78, he’s in tremendous physical shape. He still works out, runs with a group once a week, surfs, skateboards and hikes. He just finished a 4-day trek between the towns of Bolinas and Pt.Reyes, which has to be well over 20 miles and that has plenty of up and down rock cliffs. He told me he was planning another trek to the city of San Francisco, swimming the last 1 ½ across the channel, to arrive at the city.
Ok, so much for the kind of facts that are available in the public domain, the kinds of things you can learn from a Google search. In my opinion, there is nothing that will tell you more about Lloyd than a visit to his little homestead. Approaching the house from a distance, you immediately get the sense that you’re in for something unique and special.
As soon as you step through the front door, you discover Lesley who had been previously missing from our lives. It’s always amazing to me how easy it is to detect the touch of a woman’s hand in a home. I’m pretty sure that without her, their home would not look the same. What is so very evident is that their home is a work of love and dedication to their lifestyle and reflects the values they have built their life around.
Their home is built on the site that once was the location for what Lloyd calls “the most beautiful geodesic dome ever built.” Losing his fascination with domes and tired of leaks, he disassembled and sold it. In its place stands a beautiful, handcrafted home, pieced together over many years from recycled and used materials. Prefabricated, off-the-shelf, easy to assemble building materials are nowhere to be seen. In the center of the house stands a 30-foot plus octagonal bedroom. However, throughout the rest of the house, the ceilings are low, I love low ceilings, especially on a cold rainy day with a fire in the woodstove. The house is “classically cozy” in every sense of the word and with what you could call a Victorian twist. We never got to see the workshop where Lesley makes exquisite quilts, which Lloyd describes as “really beautiful and not cheap,” but they are in evidence throughout the house, in particular, making the window bed that much more tempting and inviting.
There is no doubt that the kitchen is Lesley’s domain although Lloyd did an impressive job serving us a lunch of fresh crab legs, her homemade bread and salad from the garden. I do suspect that he could produce some pretty good fare himself, his specialty at the moment – wild foraged foods.
One piece stainless steel kitchen sink and counter.The kitchen was like a little museum in itself, all sorts of little knickknacks, useful utensils along with a mill where they grind all the wheat they use in the breads Lesley makes.
One minute you feel like your back browsing the pages of the old Whole Earth Catalog, turn a corner and you’re reminded of Lehman’s, the Amish flavored catalog of homestead supplies for country living and those who would like to think they live in the country. Particularly nice was the dining nook off the kitchen, the table made by local craftsmen and a very low ceiling, clearly evidenced in the photo below.
Surrounding the house are the sauna and solar shower, chicken coop, greenhouse, vegetable garden, Lloyd’s shop and taxidermy operation (for road kill) and the quilt shop.
At this point I’m realizing that describing their place is a process that could go on and on. Therefore, I think a fun and easier thing for me to do is to refer you to this interview from You Tube where you can meet Lloyd in person, complete with his commentary about their place and lives. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xrKR2YUyH8
And if you would like to stay updated with Lloyd’s activities and Shelter Publications news, check out his blog at: http://lloydkahn-ongoing.blogspot.com/
Another good read is the newsletter he does periodically called Gimmie Shelter. http://www.shelterpub.com/_gimme/_2012-08-07/gimme_shelter-2012-08-07.html
I wrote this piece basically to say thank you to Lloyd for years of inspiration, laughter and good work. Without a doubt, my life is richer for having known him.