Tiny Homes Simple Shelter by Lloyd Kahn

Full admission, I’m a bit of a Lloyd Kahn fanboy. So when he announced a new book Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter I knew I had to have a copy.

Kahn has profiled the alternative building scene since the 1960s and edited the building section of the Whole Earth Catalog. I often thumb through a tattered copy of his seminal book Shelter that I picked up at a garage sale. Want to live in a driftwood shack? Shelter will show you how.

I heard Kahn speak at Maker Faire and show photos from the new book Tiny Homes. He began his talk by describing the first two best selling books that he wrote, both about geodesic domes. To Kahn’s credit he pulled these books from print when he realized the folly of dome building: the waste of materials (plywood comes in 4 x 8 sheets), the fact that they are hard to add on to and their propensity to leak. As he put it, “I didn’t want any more domes on my karma.”Of Dwell Magazine, he says that he doesn’t believe that anyone actually lives in the fastidiously clean and sterile rooms shown in the lavish photos spreads.

In contrast to Dwell, the buildings shown in Tiny Homes look well lived in. And very diverse: there’s everything in this book from conventional frame structures, to intricate masonry, to cob, to yurts and sailboats. Plenty of inspiration and ideas here for the aspiring owner/builder. And Kahn has an eye for vernacular American architecture.

In a way my favorite building is Tiny Homes is the most modest–Tom’s cabin. It’s a a $4,000 Tuff Shed from Home Depot turned into a cozy caretaker’s cabin. Tom took the shed, which already has a built-in loft, converted that loft to a bedroom, insulated the walls, put in a small kitchen and covered the interior studs with 3/8″ particle board.  Ton’s cabin isn’t much to look at from the outside, but on the inside it’s a real home. And that’s the point. It may not actually be practical for many of us to live in really tiny houses (Kelly and I are happy with our current, and by the standards of this book, mansion-like 980 square feet). But size is not what matters. While limited to buildings of less than 500 square feet, Tiny Homes is really about the search for meaning and spirit in the places we call home. After years of bloated McMansions and the debt crisis that went with them, it’s no coincidence that this book has appeared at this time.

My Trip to Maker Faire


Getting ready for the earth oven workshop this weekend meant that I never got around to reporting on my trip to Maker Faire up in San Mateo on the 19th. I spoke in the low-tech “Homegrown” shed far away from the high powered tesla coil displays happening elsewhere. To add to the low tech/high tech irony, I was not able to use my PowerPoint and had to speak extemporaneously. This worked out for the better, as I was able to pull up a member of the audience to demonstrate her solar cooker–much more fun than showing pictures of solar cookers. And, after all, maybe it’s time we retire PowerPoint.

Some of the things I spotted at Maker Faire:

Long lines for the tiny house. I’ll review Lloyd Kahn’s awesome tiny house book later this week (he gave a talk just before me). Not sure what’s up with the white robe outfit in the foreground.

Also spotted: bamboo bikes!

Cornelia Hoskin, who curated the Homegrown Village part of Maker Faire, her husband and new bambino. Cornelia also runs homegrown.org.

Yes, there were paintings done by snails.

Solar popped popcorn.
A rep from Sweet Maria’s Coffee gave a great demo on all the ways you can roast your own coffee.

Expensive AK-47 toting garden gnomes.

And solar powered bikes. Not sure how this would work out on an LA street.

Someone in the Homegrown area was processing greywater in bulk containers planted with bamboo.

Overall I had a great time. It was a wee bit heavy on the robots and 3d printer gadgets but that’s to be expected. At least there were a few chickens present to balance out the proceedings. However, next year I’m coming with an overhead projector:

Our New Earth Oven and How We Built It

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The almost completed horno–waiting for its final plaster coat in a few weeks.

Kurt Gardella and Ben Loescher taught an amazing earth oven workshop at our house this weekend. Keep your eye out for classes these guys offer if you are interested in earth ovens, adobe houses or earth plasters and finishes. Contact information is below. Here I thought I’d briefly describe the process with a few pictures.

One of the nice things about this oven is that it was almost free. The only two expenses were for sand and some bags of gravel. The clay we mined from the backyard and almost everything else was scavenged. Total cost was less than $200 and most of that was the delivery charge on the sand. If I’d had a pickup truck I could have loaded the sand myself for much less.

In our backyard the ground beneath the top level of organic matter is almost pure clay. I found that a 50/50 sand/mined clay mix with just a bit of chopped straw thrown in for stability seemed to be about right for making adobe bricks. There’s no recipe for building with earth. You have to get to know the clay content of the soil you’re working with and test how much sand to add to it to make a solid brick. Ben and I made quite a few test bricks to come to this formula. Then I made 100 adobe bricks using just a simple wooden frame as a mold.

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A simple gravel pad.

To build the horno we started with a gravel foundation held within a border of treated wood. The base of the oven was made from adobe bricks that I made over the past few months and cured in the sun. I’m a big believer in adobe. Making so many bricks familiarized me with the soil I was working with and put me in touch with the original building material of the American Southwest.Though we only used half of those bricks, I’m happy to have some left over for other projects in the backyard I’d like to try. Also, after all of our lead trauma, its great to put the soil from our yard to good use. This was a healing project in some ways.

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Base nearing completion.

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Bottles acting as an insulation layer. We should have had Sierra Nevada sponsor this oven!

Once the base was built we filled it with leftover gravel and adobe bricks. The top layer of the base is a mix of clay, straw and beer bottles. This acts as an insulation layer to keep the base from soaking up the heat of the oven.

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Laying the oven floor.

The floor of the oven is made of standard red bricks set in a thin layer of sand. Fire brick is recommended for this application, but in Kurt’s experience it’s not really necessary. Plus fire bricks are expensive and we had a lot of red bricks laying around that we wanted to use. Again, we wanted to build this oven without having to buy a lot of materials.

Next we sculpted the shape of the oven in wet sand. This form will allow us to shape the clay dome and will be scooped out later.

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Kurt points at the completed sand form.
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Packing on the thermal layer.

With the base completed, on day two, we started to work on the dome. We packed a four inch thermal layer of more clay, sand and straw over the sand. Next came a insulation layer with yet more clay, sand and a lot more straw. The dome layers are cob–stiff and very difficult to mix. I think if I were building a house I’d use adobe bricks which can be made with a concrete mixer. At the end of the day we scored the dome to fit the door.

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Carefully cutting open the door. This is the completed thermal layer. The scratches in the clay will help the next layer adhere.
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Starting the insulation layer over the thermal layer.

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Stinky fermented cactus juice is added to give strength to the final plaster coat.

On the third day Kurt cut open the door hole and carefully removed some of the sand from the dome. In a dry climate all the sand might have come out on that day, but we decided that the dome was still soft and decided to leave most of the sand in for another week, just to be extra safe.

Next we mixed a coat of earth plaster–again, basically the same ratio of sand, clay and straw we used for the adobe bricks–with the addition of two stabilizers to help repel water: fermented prickly pear juice and wheat paste. The prickly pear juice we made by chopping up some cactus pads from our front yard, adding water and letting it sit in a five gallon bucket. The finished material is lurid green, slimy, and stinks to high heaven. The wheat paste is just flour and water.

We’re going to let the oven dry for a few weeks before applying the final earth plaster layer. That one will be as smooth as we can make it. And we’ll need to sand the dome opening to fit the door. Once that is done, we wait some more. The oven can’t be used until it is completely dry, which should take about a month.

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Applying the first of three earth plaster coats.

I find earth building, while labor intensive, very satisfying and meditative. It’s also something that is much better to do in a group. So thanks again to all who helped helped: Kurt, Ben, Brian, Jenny, Connie, Laurie and Leslie. We’ll post some more pictures when the oven gets its final coat of plaster.

For more resources and classes on how to build with earth see:

Three Days of Earth Oven Building Compressed Into a Short Video

We just finished a three day earth oven workshop taught by Kurt Gardella and Ben Loescher. Many thanks to all who participated: Laurie, Brian, Leslie, Jenny and Connie.We’ve got to let the oven dry for a few weeks before we put on the final coat. But it’s basically finished. The base is made with traditional adobe bricks and the dome is cob.

Don’t worry, we’ll explain the process in future blog posts. Right now we’re too exhausted to write about it. In the meantime, please enjoy our highly compressed video version of the past three days.