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Gimme Shelter 

Lloyd Kahn documents wildly creative, sustainable living spaces

click to enlarge CREATIVE BUILDING GURU In addition to chronicling unusual living spaces, Lloyd Kahn lays out all of his books by hand.
  • CREATIVE BUILDING GURU In addition to chronicling unusual living spaces, Lloyd Kahn lays out all of his books by hand.

There he was, in the middle of vendors shilling organic raw fair-trade quinoa bars and yoga pants made out of recycled tires: a white-haired man in a Thrasher Skateboards T-shirt, manning a booth stocked with oversized glossy, colorful books. "Oh my God, it's Lloyd Kahn!" declared my friend Torie, a radical librarian who's always dreamed of building her own house on a compound in the woods.

I followed her through the 2008 San Francisco Green Festival to the Shelter Publications booth, where I ended up buying a copy of Builders of the Pacific Coast, Kahn's full-color exploration of wildly imaginative hand-built houses from San Francisco to Vancouver Island. Not only did it capture the beauty of a creatively built house, but the book itself was a work of art—and with that I became a fan of Lloyd Kahn, documentarian of owner-builders and their sweet, sustainable world.

Kahn's latest book, Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter (Shelter Publications; $26.95), explores the recent boom in houses under 500 square feet, a movement lead in part by Jay Shafer, the Sebastopol-based owner of Tumbleweed Houses. "I noticed that tiny homes were getting media attention, so I started assembling information," says Kahn, on the phone from his home in Bolinas. "I always have several ideas for books revolving in my head, and I sort of wait to see which one will take."

Sustainability and green building may be worn-out buzzwords in 2012, but Kahn was writing about this stuff, out of his own singular passion for owner-built houses made from natural and sustainable materials, before it had any mainstream clout. Still, the 77-year-old publisher and writer considers himself a journalist rather than a leader of the sustainability movement, even as he acknowledges that self-sufficiency and sustainability have always made sense to him.

"The idea of being smaller rather than larger is the important thing here," he explains, adding that he's heartened to see mounting interest from the younger generation for this style of minimal, scaled-down living.

"We've been talking about these things in our publishing business for 40 years—sustainability, doing things yourself, organic gardening, building and ecological consciousness," says Kahn. "All these things were sort of 'Whole Earth' concepts back in the '60s, and it has come around where I see that 20-year-olds, the children of the baby boom, are now of age, and among other things they are discovering our books."

A few of these younger folks grace the pages of the latest book, including Jenine Alexander, a young woman builder from Healdsburg, who's completed and sold two tiny houses since 2009.

"Tiny, tiny homes are not for everyone," explains Kahn. "The little Tiny Tumbleweed places, a lot of people would feel like that is too small, but there is the idea that it's not permanent. Maybe you need to do it for a few years, or you can start small and add on."

This is exactly what Kahn and his wife did at their Bolinas homestead when they first started building 40 years ago. They began with a kitchen out on the deck and a small bedroom that was only about 6-by-6-feet, and built the house out from there. "It worked out fine," says Kahn.

For the book Builders of the Pacific Coast, Kahn traveled up and down the West Coast in his trusty 2003 Toyota Tacoma, taking 1,000 of the 1,200 photos himself. For Tiny Homes, he relied more on technology, specifically web research and email, to complete the project.

"Maybe for a year, and maybe an hour or two a day, I'd search out stuff for follow-up on leads, and then I'd print out the photos and anything that looked interesting, and maybe some text, and put that stuff in a folder."

  • Lloyd Kahn documents wildly creative, sustainable living spaces

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