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The King of D.I.Y. Dwellings


BOLINAS, Calif. — Self-sufficiency is like perfection, said Lloyd Kahn, the guru of guerrilla architecture and dean of all things D.I.Y. “You never quite get there, but you’re moving toward it all the time.”

On this late February morning, the chickens had been fed, the sourdough loaves baked and left cooling on a rack. The seedlings had been watered and the lunch lettuce was picked. And a batch of dye, made from sunny-petaled coreopsis, was bubbling on the stove in the outdoor kitchen, one of the many handmade outbuildings on this half-acre compound that is home and laboratory for Mr. Kahn and his wife, Lesley Creed.

Before cabin porn and van life were hashtags on Instagram, before tiny houses were a movement, Mr. Kahn, now 84, was the indefatigable champion of their funky, D.I.Y. antecedents.

For the last half-century, he has collected examples of owner-built, unarchitected dwellings — tree houses, wigwams, yurts, straw bale structures, soddies, bothies, Earthships and Gypsy caravans — in books like “Tiny Homes on the Move,” “Builders of the Pacific Coast” and “Home Work.” All of them were assembled by Mr. Kahn in the headquarters of his company, Shelter Publications, which is also housed here on the property in a sky-lit workshop. (It’s built from lumber recycled from old Navy barracks, with windows harvested from chicken coops.)

Mr. Kahn was once the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, the hippie bible and survival guide lauded by Steve Jobs as the Google of its time, but it was his 1973 opus, “Shelter,” that made his reputation.

Poetic and practical and laid out in an agreeably jumbly zine style, “Shelter” was a world tour of vernacular habitats, as well as a social history of hippie housing that proposed a new world order. (“I revolt against anything, everything and even that,” said one Dr. Tinkerpaw, then a curmudgeonly 76-year-old living in an undulating castle fashioned from beach salvage, on page 55.)

More prosaically, “Shelter” offered lessons in shed building and septic systems. To date, it has sold nearly 300,000 copies.

This handbook for the utopian-minded libertarians of the ’60s and ’70s has continued to inspire new generations of back-to-the-landers, along with the anti-consumerist adherents of Europe’s “degrowth” movement and, recently, the tech bros of Silicon Valley. As the world unravels, the practical lessons and homespun philosophies of “Shelter” are more urgent than nostalgic, drawing pilgrims to Mr. Kahn’s still-groovy abode.

One of them is Zach Klein, 37, a founder of Vimeo and the man who coined the phrase “cabin porn,” a catchall title for attractive sheds that was born on Tumblr, morphed into a hashtag and, finally, found its way into a book, released in 2015. “He’s the living embodiment of the lifestyle,” Mr. Klein said of Mr. Kahn. “Most of us making books glorifying it appear phony compared to him.”

With a nimbus of curly white hair, a bushy white mustache and cheerful, beat-up features, Mr. Kahn invites encounters, a scruffy celebrity. “Hey Lloyd,” he’ll hear a stranger call out in some improbable locale, like the streets of Edinburgh. When Mr. Kahn took up skateboarding at 65, it added to his allure, though a bad wrist break two years ago made him retire his longboard.

“I still have a board in the truck,” he said. “But I think I made the mature decision.”

Ms. Creed raised an eyebrow. “Don’t call me if anything happens,” she said.

Recently, the art world came calling. Lukas Feireiss, a German artist and curator, and Leopold Banchini, a Swiss architect, have designed an entire exhibit around Mr. Kahn’s early oeuvre for the Architecture Biennale in Venice (a May event that has been postponed until late August). The show’s title is “How Will We Live Together?” and that question prompted the collaborators to examine, as they wrote in an email, the ideals and practices found in Shelter. The current pandemic notwithstanding, they are flying him out for the opening. (Mr. Feireiss added: “So how will we live together? It seems more clear than ever: in fear and anxiety!”)

Back in Bolinas, succulents glistened on the roof of the chicken coop; within, the hens vaulted from nests that were festooned with blue and white paisley curtains stitched by Ms. Creed. (For decades, the arrival of the couple’s mail-order chicks has been heralded by a call from the flustered local postmistress, to say that there’s a package and it’s peeping.)

Sprouting from the main house was a hexagonal tower, a vestige of an early experiment in geodesic dome living — “circle madness,” as Mr. Kahn put it — of which he was an early booster, and then passionate renouncer. In 1971, Life magazine touted him as an exemplar of that particular counterculture.

“In an ordinary square house,” Mr. Kahn was quoted as saying, “vitality just sits down and dies in the corners.”

That was the year Ms. Creed and Mr. Kahn met, and “it was homestead at first sight,” Mr. Kahn said, though they were with other people. But after an unusually wet winter, all the couples in the area broke up and Mr. Kahn, then 39, and Ms. Creed, 27, got together.

Bolinas at the time was as much a philosophy as a place, said Orville Schell, a longtime resident, former rancher of grass-fed cattle and author who is now the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. The town was notorious for its aversion to strangers — residents have long been in the habit of removing state signage — and for having curtailed development by limiting water permits. “We were a close network of people who got together around the whole land use question,” Mr. Schell said of the community. “Of the idea that you don’t have to be consuming on a massive scale to be an American. Lloyd did the operating system: How do you build your house, and here are the tools.”

Their materials did not come from a lumber yard or home-improvement store. In the ’70s, Mr. Kahn said, you could find redwoods floating in the ocean, escapees from logging operations up north. He would ride them with a kayak paddle at high tide and drag them to the beach. After hauling them home, he’d split the wood into shakes for cladding. Windowed doors came from dumpsters in San Francisco, and flooring came from a school gymnasium there.

At first, Mr. Kahn and Ms. Creed hoped to make a living as farmers. They tried goats, wheat and bees. But the economics and appetites of the times did not add up. They didn’t have enough land to farm to scale, and people were unwilling to pay a premium for, say, organic goat milk yogurt or honey or Ms. Creed’s English muffins (15 cents each). But they had no mortgage, no children yet (their sons, Evan and Will, are now 38 and 40). For some years, they said, they were raising enough of their own food to get by on $300 a month.

Then Mr. Kahn read a review of a book on stretching in the “CoEvolution Quarterly,” a spinoff of the Whole Earth Catalog, and sent away for it. When it cured his back problems, he collaborated with its author, Bob Anderson, who was printing it out of his garage, to expand its exercises for waitresses and carpenters and truck drivers, Mr. Kahn said. They sold 50,000 copies that first go around.

“Stretching,” with over 3.5 million copies sold, has been the economic fuel for Mr. Kahn’s activities ever since. Other titles that didn’t fare as well included a book about athletes over 40 called “Over the Hill But Not Out to Lunch” — perhaps not the most winning title, Mr. Kahn admitted.

He hopes his new book, “The Half-Acre Homestead: 46 Years of Building and Gardening,” out this month, will have broader appeal. A memoir of sorts of this hard-won idyll, it is also a love letter to Ms. Creed, a skilled artisan and gardener whose glorious handiwork is vividly portrayed.

“When I do something,” Mr. Kahn said, “I’m constantly telling people about it before I do it. And she just quietly goes ahead and makes pine baskets.”

There are lots of tips for do-it-yourselfers, from pantry stocking to dishwashing (use baking soda and a Rubbermaid dishpan), gray water diversion, rain catchment and insulation. There are thoughts on road kill (a win-win situation, Mr. Kahn writes, for its organic meat and beautiful fur, if you live in a state that allows you to pick it up), and lots of pelt portraits.

The lifestyle is not luxurious, but it is still out of reach to many, Mr. Kahn said. “You couldn’t do what we did now. The land was $6,500 in 1971. The building permit was $200.” But there are lessons in their homestead’s seat-of-the-pants flourishes.

For the last two years, solar panels have supplied the couple’s electricity. A wood stove warms the living room and kitchen, but the rest of the house is unheated. They dress in layers and “sleep cold” in the tower, though they are toasty under Ms. Creed’s richly hued, hand made blankets and quilts. “Heat the person, not the room” is a mantra.

Coziness isn’t sacrificed. The couple’s Costco toilet has a heated seat, among other embellishments. “We’re not rural,” said Ms. Creed firmly.

If the legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog was the early internet, a riot of free information and D.I.Y. experimentation, Mr. Kahn still manifests that promise. He’s eager to teach you about his septic system, or how to build a Gypsy-roof shed, or show off his new Fiskars splitting ax. When he was still skateboarding, his videos transfixed thousands of viewers.

Mr. Huntington’s Instagrammed life looks rougher than those of his cohorts, and you’ll see Mr. Kahn among his posts. The two have become friends and co-conspirators, both in search of quirky makers to put in their books.

A photographer and former van dweller who happens to be responsible for #vanlife, Mr. Huntington is, like his mentor, an author of lush chronicles of alternative dwellings. “‘Shelter’ had an enormous impact on me, and I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing if it wasn’t for Lloyd,” he said. A few weeks ago, when Mr. Huntington was unable to save a deer hit by a car near his property, the second person he called after the vet was Mr. Kahn. “I hope you kept the liver,” he said, ever practical. “It is really fabulous with red wine.”


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