A few days ago I got a serendipitous lesson in the extremes of American housing. Just for fun, I’d been leafing through the plans for a new mansion–there’s no other word to describe it–being built in one of San Francisco’s toniest suburbs. The work of a very fine neotraditional architect, the design included every lavish detail and contrivance known to man. Moreover, it managed to do so within the confines of an impeccably traditional idiom. I counted 153 sheets of drawings in the building plans, each of them brimming with extravagance worthy of the Vanderbilts.

By coincidence, on the same day I received a promotional copy of Lloyd Kahn’s new book, “HOME WORK: Handbuilt Shelter,” a compendium of unique owner-built homes, most of them in the western United States. Kahn is the Bolinas, Calif.-based publisher whose 1973 book “SHELTER”–about handmade dwellings built “efficiently, ecologically, and artistically,” in the author’s words–has sold more than 250,000 copies.

In the three decades since, Kahn has stuck to his convictions about socially responsible building. “HOME WORK” presents a new generation of handmade dwellings, variously built of mud, straw, brick, boulders, branches, and other natural materials. In form, they run the gamut from more-or-less normal houses, through domes, yurts and treehouses, all the way to rolling cabins built on pickup trucks. Though an unusual number of the builders pictured are in their late fifties and sport long gray hair and beards–the male ones, at least–Kahn’s book isn’t just a paean to aging Hippies. On the contrary, in this era of suburban sprawl and SUVs, its message is timelier than ever.

The offbeat pages of “HOME WORK” celebrate the energizing power of a social conscience, not to speak of the amazing fertility of the human imagination.

One can’t help but admire the creativity of these builders, some of whom cling proudly to the furthest fringes of society. As for the dwellings themselves, despite their primitive materials–or perhaps because of them–most appear eminently livable, and more than a few are downright enchanting.

Strangely, the seemingly opposed ideals I gleaned from these two examples–culture versus counterculture, regal versus rudimentary–spring from the very same traits in our national character. American individualism on the one hand inspires people to build an ingenious array of environmentally conscious homes, while on the other it moves millionaires to build 10-car garages. At one extreme, it drives people to reject the cult of consumption; while at the other it helps sell Hummers and hot tubs.

I finished Kahn’s book suppressing a smile at its kaleidoscopic portrait of human ingenuity. By contrast, after I’d taken in the last of those 153 sheets of drawings describing a single dwelling–replete with its eight bathrooms, two kitchens, eight furnaces, acres of hardwood, and custom-made-everything ranging from fountains to foundation vents–I was left feeling as if I’d just eaten a two-pound box of Godiva.

I love an over-the-top mansion as much as the next guy–probably more–but it’s plain enough that the world of the Vanderbilts is passing. What kind of world will replace it is still up to us.


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