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Lloyd Kahn's Radical Honesty

Lloyd Kahn's Radical Honesty

Building a Life: Lloyd Kahn's Radical Honesty.

"Part of any experimentation is that some things work and some don't," Lloyd reflects. Later, he will tell me, "I'm not afraid to say I made a mistake. Most people can't admit that, but I can. I thought one way before, and now I think differently. Here are the reasons why I've changed my mind." This matter-of-fact honesty, along with his deep curiosity and desire to share, is one of Lloyd's defining qualities.  His pursuit of honesty extends to his love of natural materials and vernacular methods of buildings. Having read his books, and blogs, his substack and his instagram for years - I think that his openness to try and to fail is also part of what allows us his reader to feel connected to him.

One of Llyods greatest moments of radical honesty came when he rejected the “dome”. In the late 1960s and early 70s, Lloyd was immersed in building "domes" when he realized that they simply did not work. Deciding he "didn't want any more domes on my karma," he made the very bold move of taking his bestselling books (Domes I and Domes II) out of print to embarkon a different odyssey—studying and sharing vernacular and traditional buildings. This journey resulted in "Shelter." He smiles and shares, "Today, 'Shelter' is everyone's favorite building book. It's amazing—I find people all over the world who have been influenced by it."

But first, I have to ask him about finding the courage to turn his back on his own research work.

In the year 1971 you published Domebook 1 and then in 1972 Domebook 2 which went on to sell 175,000 copies, partly inspired, I think, by Buckminster Fuller. And then you were building domes, teaching domes, talking and writing about domes… So much of your life was focused on domes. You were a dome evangelist and then you had the realisation that domes just don’t work? How did that realisation strike you and how did it feel to turn your back on your own work?

Yes, Buckminster Fuller had inspired us to make domes, though it turned out that he was not the inventor of the dome at all (link). I was running a program at a hippie high school in the mountains on 40 acres. We built 17 domes and tried all kinds of experimental things. The first Dome book was published and was very successful. And we had maybe a quarter of a million people who thought that domes were the cool way to build, they were hip. Domes were new … we were going to “do more with less”.

But, I'd been having doubts about domes for a little while when we went out into the country to do Dome Book Two. We had rented an old resort, on a lake, in the Santa Barbara mountains in the offseason. And as we were heading out to the mountains, as we were driving along, I was looking at farm buildings by the side of the road. I was thinking …that is so simple. You have a vertical wall and you have a roof - that's one plane on top of the wall. The overhang keeps most of the water off of the windows. And it's simple to put a roof on it. Those buildings are all designed out of practicality and not from an abstract concept. 

By then I knew that domes leaked and are hard to subdivide. I started me thinking.  With regular buildings if you want to have a vertical wall, say to add another room, you just make a roof off of that wall. But, if you have a dome, it has so many changing facets, you have to connect the roof to all those facets to add to it. It's very complicated.  We went ahead and did Dome Book Two.  But by the time Dome 2 sold 160,000 copies, I realized … that domes didn't work. 

What did you do?

I called my agent—by then, Random House was distributing Dome Book 2—and said, 'Don, I'm going to take the book out of print.' He said, 'Are you crazy? But I replied to him, 'No, I don't want any more domes on my karma.' I took the book out of print. Then I took the cameras and traveled across this country [USA]  and across Canada. Then I got $200 roundtrip flights to Shannon with two cameras, one with color slides, and one with Tri X black and white film. I traveled around Ireland and England, studying buildings.

And looking back on that time now are there things that you learned and brought with you from your time working with domes.

Part of any kind of experimentation and testing is that some things will work, and some things won't.  One of the best things about my experience with domes was understanding geometry and the basic solids and the Archimedean solids. I've never been good at mathematics. But the fact that I could see that there's only five shapes that you can make where all the faces angles and edges are identical … a tetrahedron, an icosahedron, a dodecahedron, an octahedron and a cube. Learning about that was a wonderful thing. 

Also, with a dome there is a nice thing - a circle.  We call it circle madness. There is a nice feeling being in a circular room. But also,  I find that being around materials that have the least amount of molecular rearranging are the ones that feel the best. Like a straw bale just feels so good. It's not something that you can verify scientifically. But adobe or wood feels so much better to be around, opposed to say plastic. But a problem was the dome doesn't lend itself very well to natural materials. 

The dome that I had here [in Bolinas]  I think was the nicest dome ever built. There was even a two-page colour photo of it in LIFE magazine in 1976. I remember I was in London when the magazine came out and that issue had Mick Jagger on the cover of the magazine! 

That must have been some moment!

It was. That dome [that they featured] had a wood feeling to it and the connectors were silver stainless steel strap and pipe that I galvanized. It was covered with shakes, all hand split shingles, on the outside.  The materials were all good in that dome.  But again I tore it down. I took it apart and sold it. There were just too many things about it that I couldn't add on to it. I couldn't subdivide it. Beds and refrigerators and dresser drawers are rectangular so when you try to fit them into a round space you've got a problem.  

We were going down the wrong path with domes. Then coming to Ireland and England and studying the roots of building was all so exciting to me by having gone so far in the other direction with these dome for so long.

Tell me more about your time in Europe and how this trip feed into the book that became Shelter?

In Ireland and England I had my 12 year old son Peter with me and we hitchhiked around and rented a car part of the time. I was just so excited. We had maybe a couple of weeks roaming around in Ireland and then we took the ferry across to England. I had some friends who had rented a house in a small village on the Thames River near Reading, which was maybe 20 miles up the river from London. The village was kind of dilapidated. There was the main manor house,  a church, the alms house and the the mill on the river.  They had rented what had been the baker's house. It was just perfect - like stepping back into the Middle Ages.  The buildings were all built keeping in mind the weather and where the wind blows - it was eye-opening.

Then, one day Peter and  I were hitchhiking and we got a ride from a salesman in England, heading east, and he found out I was interested in old buildings.  He said to me… “you see that building over there - The reason it looks so good is because the bricks are made from the area right around here, and they're the color of the of the landscape. The roof is slate from nearby”. And it was kind of the first time I thought of that of local materials. And it made me think about how appropriate they are, as opposed to taking a design based on an icosahedron and using plastics and mathematics to build a dome house -  which takes no account of the weather or the landscape or traditions. It all resonated. After all of this travel we came back and did shelter in 1973.

And what was the response amongst your peers to your move away from Domes? 

A lot of people were really upset with me when I gave the thumbs down to domes. One of the things about domes is they're very photogenic, especially the domes we built at Pacific High School.  I even used to do dome slide shows playing the Rolling Stones!  

I remember going to a big building conference in Los Angeles called Habitat for Humanity. I was one of the scheduled speakers there and at my appearance, they all expected to see slides of domes.  But at the time I had come back from the Europe trip. So I showed, a picture of a thatched cottage in Ireland. The cottage was built somewhere along the coast. And I said .. so, you see the stone walls around the field? Okay … so they picked up the stones when they cleared the field. And with them they built the enclosure walls of the field, and they also built the walls of the house. And then … they took the barley that had been harvested, and they used the stalks to make the thatched roof. And, the reason that this looks so good, is because it's built of local materials, and it's built from tradition, and not from wise-ass mathematics, you know, using polyhedrons! And the audience… they practically threw tomatoes at me, you know, they were so upset with me.

But some people just will never admit that they made a mistake. But once I admitted that I was wrong, in front of all those people, it was kind of like… it's a relief. So now I'm not afraid to say I made a mistake.

Some people just will never admit that they made a mistake. But once I admitted that I was wrong about domes, in front of all those people, it was kind of like… a relief. So now, I'm not afraid to say I made a mistake. You know most people just can't admit that they made a mistake. But I said okay… that's what I thought then, that's not what I think now. Here are the reasons why I've changed my mind. 

Then I wrote a newsprint publication called Refried Domes  and so it was kind of like Okay! …if you want to build a dome here are my five years experience building domes and why I think they don't work as homes.  But, if you want to build, here are the mathematics”.

Now today, Shelter is kind of everybody's favorite building book. It's amazing - I find people in all over the world who have been influenced by it.”

It's one of my favorite books! What are your favorites of your own books?

Shelter is kind of in a category of its own. Then “Homework” is the sequel to Shelter, it came out in 2004. But for me “Builders of the Pacific Coast” is kind of the best book because it's an odyssey. You get to ride shotgun with me and meet these people and see the things that they built, mostly up in British Columbia

I get the sense you really enjoy meeting and spending time with  people who make their own buildings? 

Yeah. I really like builders. It's like farmers - I've never met a farmer that I didn't like. Builders and farmers have to deal with real things -  it's not like they're buying and selling pork bellies stocks. The farmer has to deal with the weather and with all kinds of elements. It's a really a different thing from this large group of people who deal in contracts, stocks, bonds, insurance policies and you know banks and all those things and so the same thing you know builders and farmers you know something.

And this continues to appeal to people today.  It is an aspiration for many younger people to build their own home, to be self-suffienct, to ‘deal with real things’. 

It's been really encouraging to have all these people coming up and saying, we're interested, you know, we like what you were doing back then. But, I have to say to them, that's not really possible anymore in America. 

When I came here to Bolinas (a small town across the Golden Gate Bridge on the ocean) in the early seventies, the land that I built my house on was $6,000, and my building permit was $200. At that time, there were maybe 30 of us in this little town and the outskirts, building our own homes. The prevailing idea at the time was to get 10 acres in the country and to build a log cabin or an adobe house, and be as independent as possible.  You know, I've never had a mortgage, and I've never paid rent. But that's not really possible anymore in America. Now, the building permits are probably $60,000, and it’s not possible to build a home the way I did in the seventies. If you're close to a great city, if you're within an hour or two of New York or San Francisco or LA or, or Austin or, you know, Chicago, the building codes are going to be so restrictive and expensive. 

Another thing, in the sixties and seventies, it was so cheap to get by.  That also made it possible to build your own home. Back then in America, things were cheap, and we used up all our resources. Now, we have used up the easily extractable coal and iron resources."

What is your advice for young people today?

The main thing that is still the same and hasn't changed is to use your hands. Use your hands to create shelter. You have to think outside the box now, but I still encourage people to use their hands to do whatever they can. 

If I were young now, I would look around in the cities and in the towns for an old house that needs fixing up. I would look at getting a house that's got a good foundation, in a neighborhood maybe where the crack dealers have just been chased out and, where you've already got water, sewage and power. That's one option nowadays, 

I also tell people that self-sufficiency is not attainable, it's like perfection. You never quite get there, but the more you can do for yourself, the better. Maybe you're just going to grow parsley on your fire escape in New York, you know, but that sort of spirit. And that's why I'm excited by the 30 year olds today showing this interest in our work today.

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