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From mansions to mud: American housing evolves

New book celebrates environmentally conscious building

Learn the New Luxury Playbook at Luxury Connect | October 18-19 at the Beverly Hills Hotel

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 copi...