When you think of the hair and clothing styles and the “tune in, turn on, drop out” cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s, those times can seem an ancient memory. Then you hear a still-vibrant Bob Dylan song from the same decade and it hardly seems possible that a half-century has passed. Some things from that era have stayed fresh, and one of them is the deeply ingrained impulse to shape one’s home into a personalized environment.
Architecture writer and editor Richard Olsen’s recent book, Handmade Houses (Rizzoli, $45 in hardcover, 240 pages) reveals that the dream of designing and handcrafting an “artisan” home is very much alive, and he includes both vintage and modern examples to inspire another generation of owner/builders.
While he does include some particulars of technique and craftsmanship, Olsen’s book serves more as cultural history than as a building guide. Building one’s own home is actually a core element in the early American experience; it’s how much of the country was settled by European immigrants. But the 1960s and 1970s were a chapter unto themselves, and they represent a sort of golden age of the “build your own pad” tradition.
Those decades experienced a confluence of historical events and trends — the war in Vietnam, a burgeoning environmental and counterculture movement, experimentation with international influences and psychedelic substances — that gave the handmade house movement a unique new tone. In addition to the practical issues of providing shelter, these dwellings allowed for self-expression, a canvas for self-portraiture in wood, glass, steel and stone.
Some of the movement reflected an architecture of protest — a refusal to conform to societal standards, but it was inspired by plenty of positives as well. The pragmatism and economy of do-it-yourself effort, respect for natural ecology and the opportunity for creative expression led many adventurous owner/builders to dive headlong into what were for many unfamiliar waters. They salvaged, scrounged and bartered materials, assembled simple tools, and got to work. The results were as varied as the personalities involved, but some common threads can be found in many of their successes:
• The friends-and-family plan: Modest budgets, repurposed materials and self-taught builders were the norm, which meant skilled crews and heavy equipment weren’t an option. A communal ethic encouraged the sharing of knowledge, labor and tools.
• Materials-driven design: Salvaged redwood planking from wine tanks, old railroad bridge timbers, discarded windows, driftwood, cheap or free locally available stone, and miscellaneous materials diverted from landfills were harvested and used enthusiastically. Builders sometimes spent years assembling a store of usable materials and designed the house around them, rather than setting a plan to paper and buying goods accordingly.
• Working in stages, learning as you go: It’s common for these homes to evolve over the years, as families, budgets or visions for the project grow. Starting with just a small core structure lets owners develop building and design skills at a manageable pace, and they use those lessons for subsequent expansion. Building in incremental stages also suited sloped or rural sites that might have been problematic for large trucks or equipment. Owners liken the process to the organic growth of trees and other living things.