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Homebuilding as self-portraiture

Architecture writer and editor Richard Olsen’s recent book, “Handmade Houses,” 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.

— 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.

— 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.

– 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.

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.

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.

About

Paolo Cisneros

Paolo Cisneros joined The Sheridan Press staff in August 2012. He covers business, energy and public safety. A Chicago native, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2011.

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