Dream of building an artisan home still alive


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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.

•  Celebrating the bones: Structural elements, especially massive timbers or heavy stonework, were featured prominently rather than covered with drywall or decoration. This “what you see is what you get” approach echoed a preference for personal authenticity over social niceties.

•  Mixing indoors and outdoors: Open or fluid transitions between indoor and outdoor spaces not only allowed for more direct contact with the natural world, it meant that small structures would feel more expansive. Popular California locales such as Big Sur and Malibu provided a hospitable climate for these features.

Though handmade house adventures are friendly to small budgets, simple tools and untrained practitioners, Olsen’s examples aren’t limited to neophytes. Noted architects Bernard Maybeck and Charles Greene are in the lineup, as are woodcrafters Art Carpenter and Lloyd Kahn, poet Robinson Jeffers, and even Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist. These and other professionals reflect the diversity of this discipline.

Olsen also features recent examples of handmade houses from around the globe, not just the cluster of dwellings that sprung up in coastal California a half-century ago. Granted, those early “pioneers” enjoyed much more latitude in building permit restrictions than do current builders, and they were allowed at little or no cost to salvage old-growth timbers that nowadays command premium prices when a post-and-beam barn, vintage warehouse or railroad trestle gets dismantled.

For these and other reasons, following the exact template of those heady days isn’t really possible for 21st-century dreamer/builders, but the spirit that inhabits such efforts seems to have remained the same. “It was a real scene, man,” says one of the survivors from the 1960s. Yes, it was, and it still is for those with a sense of adventure.

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