Lloyd Kahn’s new book highlights not-so-tiny homes

David Briggs
PEOPLE: Bolinas builder, publisher and author Lloyd Kahn in his studio, where he assembles his books by paste-up and stretches regularly.   

Lloyd Kahn is a journalist at heart, but on paper he’s a craftsman.

“I like to tell people what’s going on,” said the author, publisher and longtime Bolinas resident. Since 1970, when he founded Shelter Publications, Mr. Kahn has promoted hand-made homes through a long list of books, inspiring people across the world to build their own homes. Some have focused on green building or international home design. He said his newest book—titled “Small Homes” and focused on abodes between 400 and 1,200 square feet—is his most relevant.

“In terms of being relevant, it’s the best,” especially to all the people having trouble renting or buying, he said.

The book, which was released this month, details 65 homes throughout the world, including a few in West Marin, that substitute size for sustainability and were built on a budget. The book’s 200 pages brim with expansive photos and the stories of the homeowners provide context. West Marin homes that made it into the fold include Bolinas residents Mark Butler and Meg Simond’s full-functioning coastal farm, as well as Dino Colombo’s nautical oasis in Stinson Beach. Vin Jon Gorman of Bolinas maybe best illustrates the book’s ideology with his colorful and uniformed craftsman home which he built by hand for about $35,000. The book also traverses international borders and highlights homes in Lithuania, Turkey and a “Hobbit”-inspired home in Colorado.

“Small Homes” follows up on Mr. Kahn’s previous two books that explored “tiny” homes, or homes smaller than 300 square feet. In his introduction, he writes that it is not the exact size of homes that’s important, but rather that they’re scaled back and simplified. 

Mr. Kahn has been a steadfast believer that you can use your hands to create your own home using mostly natural materials since working on his first home alongside his father. At age 12, the San Francisco native was helping the elder Kahn renovate the family’s weekend home in the Central Valley. He said he was immediately hooked.

“They let me nail down the roof and then somebody gave me a carpenter’s belt and I was done,” he said. “I love the smell of wood, working outside on a sunny day and the feeling of accomplishing something.”

He joined the Air Force in 1958 at age 23 and for two years he edited a military newspaper in southern Germany. After returning to California, he worked as an insurance broker in Mill Valley, where he soon built his first house, a sod-roof studio, and developed a practical philosophy of building.   

“The important thing I learned was if you don’t know what to do, start,” he said. “If you wait around until you’ve got everything figured out, you won’t do it.”

In the mid-1960s he relocated to Big Sur and began building geodesic domes. He took inspiration from Buckminster Fuller, an architect and systems theorist. Mr. Kahn sought to solve mankind’s housing problems by creating a new kind of abode that was ecofriendly, experimenting with plywood, aluminum, sheet metal and cedar shingles to create his domes. 

He became an authority of the dome movement of the late 1960s, and said that questions he fielded from scores of dome builders led him to write his first book. 

“I kept answering the same questions and that’s why I got into publishing initially,” he said. 

He had been working as an editor for the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture magazine that focused on self-sufficiency and ecology, and had access to its production facilities. He published “Domebook One” in 1970 to explain the craft and followed up with “Domebook Two” the next year. The second book sold over 160,000 copies, but Mr. Kahn quickly began to see the problems associated with dome design.

“I have many reasons for why they don’t work: the whole building is exposed to weather, it’s hard to subdivide inside and they leak. I learned there’s beauty in rectangles, as far as housing goes,” he said.

Turning his back on his initial publications (“I don’t want any more domes on my karma,” he said), Mr. Kahn released “Shelter” in 1973, to worldwide acclaim. The oversized, magazine-style book, which chronicles the history of hand-made homes, offers illustrated instructions and an abundance of notes and graphs. “Shelter” has been translated into multiple languages, sold over 300,000 copies and was re-released in 2013. 

Mr. Kahn keeps in touch with the homeowners he’s met over the last four decades. This constant engagement informs him, and helps him discover new homes all the time. He met Nicasio resident Elaine Doss after a yoga class in Point Reyes Station two summers ago; her solar-powered Quonset hut home is featured in “Small Homes.”

“When he heard I lived in a WWII navy surplus Quonset hut, with a remodel designed by Val Agnoli, he became very interested,” Ms. Doss wrote in an email. “I’m delighted to have my Quonset home featured in Lloyd’s new book.”

When Mr. Kahn purchased his half-acre plot in Bolinas in 1971, the price of his building permit was $250 and there was no California Coastal Commission. Half of his house is comprised of used materials, including driftwood logs from Treasure Island he sourced from Agate Beach. The office for Shelter Publications is a family business: his wife, Lesley, does the mail orders and his son Evan helps with a bit of everything. 

Mr. Kahn approaches his books with the same craftsmanship that he puts into homes. He lays out each page himself before turning them over to Rick Gordon, his digital coordinator since 1995.

“The way Lloyd works is he’ll do these pasted-up, very rough layouts. And I’m able to take any rough thing he hashes out and move it into a digital format that I know works,” Mr. Gordon, an Inverness resident, said. “He’s very intuitive in his approach and while he doesn’t have real strong digital skills, he knows what he likes. What I try to do is basically accommodate that.”

Limiting his time on a computer when crafting his books is a continuation of Mr. Kahn’s lifelong philosophy that working with your hands is always the best. It’s a process that takes him years to complete, but he couldn’t work any other way. 

“I design the pages with scissors and scotch tape,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who does a book this way.”


The book is available on Shelter Publication’s website: www.shelterpub.com