Category Archives: Houses

The Bone House, Texas

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Someone else I first came across through Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Publications was Dan Phillips of the Phoenix Commotion. Dan’s organisation, based in Huntsville, Texas, specialises in building affordable homes out of recycled and rejected materials.  When I met him at what is probably his most famous, the Bone House, he told me that, when people first hear about the rejected stuff concept, many think it is ‘icky’. However when they see the houses that preconception changes. By not only utilising, but celebrating the quirks and faults of the materials they have, and by being creative and ingenious about how those materials are used, Phoenix Commotion doesn’t make houses that are as good as anyone else’s, they make houses that are better.

The organisation does good on many levels. The first is to draw attention to the amount of viable building materials that end up inaccessible and no use to anyone in landfill sites. One material hits the landfill it is hard to get it back, but Dan has an ever-expanding network of enlightened suppliers prepared to donate ‘waste’ rather than dump it. Obviously the more firms that recognise the potential of their ‘waste’, the better.

They use apprentice labour, providing their workforce with the training and construction skills they can use to get better-paid jobs within the organisation or elsewhere afterwards. The combination of low labour costs and cheap, often free, building materials means the houses can be kept affordable – within the means of the growing category of would-be home-owners who are struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder and settle. All very good, and tidy.

Last but not least, they put some playfulness back into house-building. There’s a Tree House of course, some others have themes – like the License Plate and Budweiser Houses, and all have touches of ingenious brilliance that also make you laugh – like creating bathroom walls out of smashed mirrors, studio walls out of DVDs, floor surfaces out of metal bottle caps, wine corks, sheets of music, and counters and stair treads out of beef bones. Ah yes, the bones: Not sure about the patio suite, but I love the bone stairs and, as Dan says, the only difference between beef bones and ivory is that beef bones are free.

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Lloyd Kahn, King of Shelter

Everyone was building their huts, domes and homes from reclaimed material, but it was Lloyd Kahn and the first of the Shelter publications (Shelter) that put pictures and descriptions of the homes that people were building for themselves under the eyes of treadmill-weary workers. For forty years that book, and the DIY house porn that’s followed, has changed thousands of lives, triggering thousands of resignations, and turning accountants, doctors, dreamers and surfers into green builders. Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter – the prospect of designing and building a home plus the can-do spirit of ordinary people – was probably 78% responsible for me packing up and setting off in search of something or other. The books are a powerful mix inspiration and practical advice, and Lloyd, as founder and Editor-in-Chief, has played a hugely important and pivotal role by providing that platform for the exchange of ideas, pictures and success stories.

Yes, the books are great for providing ideas on how to construct yourself an affordable home, but what they do best is remind you that you have choices about where and how you live – and what you live in. The people on these pages have used their imagination and built houses that fit their character and lifestyle; houses that are homes.

He’s built five or so houses himself, and I went to meet him at the one he lives in, in the green and quiet paradise that is Bolinas, above San Francisco on the North Californian coast. We talked about how a new generation of 20-30-year olds is revisiting the ideas of the 60’s for a mix of spiritual, practical and economic reasons, the restrictions of regulations and land prices, ideas for building within disused urban properties, the benefits of constructing a house that is a home not a shell, and some of the amazing, inventive stuff that’s going on around the world. Not a day goes by without Lloyd getting emails from people telling him about their house project or plans, and he’s currently collating material for the next publication. I also got to stroke a bobcat, albeit the skin from a local road kill, and meet a wise, amusing and self-effacing man at the heart of a major worldwide house & home rethink.

I’ll be writing about Shelter, self-build and the small house movement (not necessarily the same thing), and will upload some edited footage once I’m off the road, (I could do with the converted bus / film lab featured in the Shelter book, Home Work). In the meantime, here’s a a few rough cut clips.  The back catalogue of publications is available from the Shelter website. Warning: Buying one of these books will cause you to either bemoan your boring life, or change it.

 

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Tumbleweed

I’ve seen tumbleweed (and coyote haunch weaving into the scrub) in Texas and New Mexico, but the tumbleweed catching my attention today is Tumbleweed the N. California based tiny house company who are holding one of their weekend workshops on the UCLA campus. I’ve admired Tumbleweed’s houses and evangelism from afar and have been trying to get hold of Jay Shafer who founded the company (fast forward as I get lost in LA and UCLA and hurry, uninvited, into the lecture room) here he is, in front of a group of 50 attentive would-be tiny home builders, describing how to cut window openings, choose sidings, install vapour barriers.

The tiny, or at least small, house movement is taking off – or rather moving mainstream, no longer appealing predominantly to people looking to get off-grid, but to people keen to scale down and simplify their lives, people interested in the sustainability aspect, revolted by excess and waste, and people looking for a home that they can afford and own rather than spend their lives paying mortgages. There’s also the attraction of custom-building and using money saved on space to buy high-end design furniture and fittings, and as one of the attendees, Rachel, pointed out, the benefit of being able to take your house with you when you move. Another Jack, who has already constructed a number of increasingly small houses, tells me he used to have a huge house which was all well and good until something needed fixing: “Where we live now there are many multi, multi-million dollar homes, and the first thing I think when I see them is maintenance and upkeep. It’s a full-time job.”

Throughout the day, there’s a cooperative sharing of ideas. Whatever the motivation for constructing or occupying a small house (and some here are planning to start their own ventures and build and sell), everyone is united in meeting or beating the outdated building codes and minimum size standards. While the International Building Code (which seems to govern building in only the USA and Canada) can be interpreted differently at local level, say Tumbleweed, they include the stipulation that all houses must have ‘at least one room of no less than 120 sq ft; ceilings of no less than 7ft (except in basements) and no habitable room of less than 70 sq ft, with no dimensions smaller than 7′ except kitchens’.

Back in Texas, Tiny Texas Houses and Reclaimed Space had also discussed their frustration with a system that seemed to reward construction on a grand scale and place obstacles in the way of people keen to reduce their environmental impact.

“When I found out it was illegal to live in a very small space” says Jay, when I corner him afterwards, “I had to do it.” Jay’s a pretty inspiring person, as is Tumbleweed’s new poster boy, Austin Hay, who aged 15, started building his own house and now lives in it, blissfully mortgage free for life. Tumbleweed do make self-build easy by selling the plans and offering a lot of experience and hands-on support although you can buy one someone made earlier if you prefer. The Houses to Go, designed to sit on trailer beds, range from 67 sq ft -117 sq ft, with more spacious cottages ranging from 260 to 880 sq ft.

By the end of the day, I’ve moved on from designing my house to choosing wood-burning stoves and deciding between locations. All pipe-dreams for now. If you want to be similarly inspired, take a look at the Tumbleweed website (images in the video are of house plans available in their catalogue).

Spending a day listening to people discuss building their dream homes was an unscheduled pleasure. It does mean that evening we’re not in Big Sur browsing through books in the Arthur Miller Library, but having a row in a Motel 6 in Carpinteria on US Hwy 1, which, I say, I can not and will stay in because it has wipe down sick yellow walls and not strip lights exactly, but something like it, and which he says is OK and will do.

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Palm Springs House-Hunting

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Palm Springs is desert modernism and desert modernism is the finest of all 2oth century architecture. In my opinion. The little city, lined with palms and backed by rocky mountains has more: pools, heat, bars with gardens and patios festooned with fairy lights, a history as the numero uno Hollywood playground, shows with leggy lovelies, interior design stores, restored vintage cars, dogs wearing kerchiefs and a big gay population, but the star attraction is the architecture.

Not only are the commercial buildings – the bank, the post office, the visitor centre / center  – eye-poppingly lovely, but there are dozens of houses dotted around the boulder-strewn hills, designed by such inspirational modernist greats as Richard Neutra, John Lautner, E. Stewart Williams, William F. Cody. And a few more worth oggling, conveniently located on the flat grid of central blocks, like the Frank Sinatra Residence.

A photo of the Kaufmann House is on the cover of a book that I’ve been looking at off and on for a decade. It was one of Richard Neutra’s final USA houses, designed in 1946. (easy to find at 470 W Vista Chino Rd). I may be getting confused here, but I think Barry Manilow was once an owner which means I’ll have to recalibrate my thinking about the naff crooner. Another one fairly easy to spot is the also-very-famous Edris House by E. Stewart Williams. Both houses are privately owned which means viewing on a self-drive tour means lurking reverentially at some distance, feeling shifty.

Good luck spotting the Steve McQueen, William Holding and Bob Hope Residences which are on the tour map, but also on a private road with various clear off signs and one saying You are being photographed – a pretty effective deterrent when you don’t like your picture being taken. But you can get a glimpse of the Bob Hope Lautner property from the parking lot just before you turn back to Palm Springs central in despair for a margarita.

I’m in Vegas just finishing off a quick video of a self-guided architecture tour which I’ll upload as soon as possible, but, without wanting to spoil the conclusion, book a place on a guided tour unless your navigational skills are excellent and your nature very calm and patient. Fact is that much of what makes the private houses so attractive to the people that own them, aside from clean, sleek lines, is that the public face is often nothing much more than a low wall; all the inside-outside, walls of glass and design features are revealed on the inside. If you have the cash you can rent a retro retreat, or stay in a mid-century modernist hotel. (I stayed at the Royal Sun Inn which isn’t one of the Special Ones, but is cheap, friendly and has a pool.)

Pick up a map of mid-century modern landmarks or book a tour at the Palm Springs Official Visitor Center, which was once the Tramway Gas Station designed by Albert Frey and Robson Chambers. I’m going back for Modernism Week that starts February 14 1913.

Details can be found at Visit Palm Springs and Modernism Week

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Prada Marfa

PRADA MARFA: a site specific, permanent land art project by artists Elmgreen & Dragset was commissioned by Art Production Fund and Ballroom Marfa back in 2005. Modeled after a Prada boutique, the structure includes luxury goods from the Fall 2005 collection. However, in true conceptual artsy fashion, the door doesn’t open and nothing is for sale. The building is located in the middle of nowhere, 36 miles west of Marfa. Yes, that’s 36, not, as the helpful receptionist at El Cosmico suggested,  ’20 miles towards the sun’.

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Reclaimed Space, Austin

And so to Austin (in a tow truck). Not, as I expected, for SXSW and drinking tequila, discussing funding for some kind of self-indulgent, non-commercial film and music project destined to fail and put me off media for life, but to Reclaimed Space and another take on the small, mobile house. The company was started by Texas rancher, founder of the DIRTCO construction company and environmentalist by training and nature, Tracen Gardner.  He wanted to build a house on his ranch but couldn’t afford to take the time out of the city to be in the middle of nowhere during construction. So he hit upon the idea of building one in Austin that was small enough to be transported  to the chosen spot on the back of a truck when finished. The idea of portable housing was so good and zeitgeisty, he turned an inspired solution into a business in 2008.

The buildings are not just small and portable but built using a fair whack of reclaimed materials, as the name suggests, and designed with inherent alternative energy capabilities for sustainable living. I could order a house here off the freeway, and live in style and comfort off-grid on the mountain or beach – or ranch, of my choice. Or I could stick one on a small urban plot, or at the end of the garden for visiting guests, if I had a garden. Small and sustainable is a plus here, not a compromise. Sleekly designed, these are aspirational dwellings, aimed at people who have wised-up, rather than dropped out.

I visited Reclaimed Space and spoke to Eric Bricker, there in an interesting multimedia capacity, about the appeal of the buildings – and there’s an excerpt of that conversation in the video. More to come in due course, including a visit to a site build, and chat with Tracen. In the meantime, there’s plenty of information and pictures at reclaimedspace.com.

Incidentally, Eric made the multi-award-winning film Visual Acoustics,The Modernism of Julius Shulman, a celebration of the photographer and the photographs that created the image of 1950s -60s Californian cool. The late, great Shulman has to be the most influential architectural photographer of the 20th century, introducing the mainstream world to Lautner, Neutra, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Pierre Koenig and R.M. Schindler and all, through photo books best described as building porn. Try reading Architecture and its Photography or Modernism Rediscovered without wanting to pack up and move to Southern California. I don’t know how I missed Eric’s film first time round, but I’m looking forward to being somewhere long enough to order a film and watching it.

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