“If I Had a Hammer? What Do You Mean If?”

Downstairs seating platform

Shelves in house on Vancouver Island

Before I start, I’m asking on behalf of the owners of this house that nobody reposts or reproduces any of these images anywhere without my permission. Like a lot of people who have built their own houses in the woods, the owners, who are relatives of mine, appreciate their privacy and feel a bit negative about seeing their house all over the internet. Despite misgivings, they did say yes to a few photos of corners of their house. I wouldn’t have published these at all, except that when I set out to write about vernacular architecture I couldn’t find photos of another house that I liked as much as this one. That’s probably just because I’ve grown up around this house. You can see a few more photos of this house and environs here and here. Of course there are many other beautiful handbuilt houses in existence, and if you want to see more photos, see the section on handmade houses listed below (and see the comments). But the very first book on handbuilt houses I ever saw is Handmade Houses by Barry Shapiro. It is now out of print but you can find a second-hand copy on abebooks.

In the US these houses are sometimes referred to as “Big Sur vernacular,” but usually here on the west coast of Canada we just call them handmade or handbuilt houses, vernacular architecture, or hippie houses. They’re pretty common in British Columbia, most famously on the Gulf Islands between mainland Vancouver and Vancouver Island, but they exist everywhere. This particular house was built by hand in sections beginning in the late 60s, on a dry granite hill just above a lake. The piece of land was cheap at the time, and the house was built for almost nothing. The ownersai were artists at the time and had virtually no budget, so most of the materials were salvaged or bartered, and since the place was built with the help of friends there were almost no labour costs. The main section of house (in the photo directly below) was the first to be built. Then a side room was added on. After that, an adjacent studio building was built, and beyond that a round music studio with a roof made from an old conical shipwright’s form. All of these are connected by a continuous cedar deck. Later a bedroom was built to span over the gap between the house and studio, conjoining the two buildings in the process. There’s a woodshed in the complex too (the building with the large cog on the side) as well as a woodworking shop building that you can see in the video. The house as a whole actually makes visual sense, despite its many angles and eras, thanks to the owners’ design skills, the fact that all of the buildings are clad in cedar, and the way everything wraps around the natural contours of the hill.

One of the best things about the house is its smell. The milled cedar boards that clad almost all of the walls give off a kind of perfume. I’ve never been in a city house that smells that way, though I guess it’s possible.


The most beautiful door I've ever seen

Upstairs shelf

studio ceiling

If you’re interested in seeing more handbuilt houses, writer Lloyd Kahn is more or less the expert on this topic. Like the builder-owners of this house, Kahn understands that your relationship to your shelter is different when you’ve built it yourself. “The process makes you different,” Mr. Kahn said of building one’s own house, which he has done four times.” If you’re interested, see Kahn’s books Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter and Builders of the Pacific Coast. Or you can buy books straight from Lloyd on his site here, where there’s also an entertaining NYT article on Kahn, “If I Had a Hammer? What Do You Mean If?” It’s worth reading just for the short biography of Kahn, who’s interesting for his ability to change his mind. He got involved with the utopian geodesic dome thing in the 60s but eventually recanted.

“In a sense, Mr. Kahn and his wife, Lesley Creed, a gifted gardener and quilter, have stepped out of the pages of his own book. Their woodsy compound, where bantam chickens roam, is presided over by a 30-foot-tall hexagonal tower, its windows plucked from chicken coops. It is the lone remnant of a geodesic dome – “the most beautiful dome ever built,” as Mr. Kahn put it, which he constructed in 1971, heady with the ideas of the visionary builder R. Buckminster Fuller. He dismantled the dome four years later in disenchantment and eventually renounced domes altogether in a diatribe titled “Refried Domes,” self-published on newsprint and distributed throughout the dome underground.

Life magazine had featured the dome in a 1972 article titled “Room Galore but Hard to Subdivide.” Mr. Kahn told the magazine, “In an ordinary square house, vitality sits down and dies in corners.”

“I was young and foolish,” he now says, citing the leaks that the domes were prone to, and their impractical shape. “You shouldn’t make building a house a trip.” “

Studio bed


Door, rope handle

Window frame

Woodshed with old shipwright's form

Platform for plant pot to prevent rot

deck and studio


Lastly, we have been having increasingly extreme weather on the west coast. I was at the house during late March’s torrential winds and rains, and the Japanese-style chain downpipes or “rain chains” worked very well, despite a little splash from the sheer volume of rainwater. Building inspectors like to say these don’t work. Not true.  (In the background of the video you can also see the woodworking shop.)


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7 Responses to ““If I Had a Hammer? What Do You Mean If?””

  1. Emily Says:

    What a lovely home.
    I really love it.
    I would have reblogged this but I will abide by your and the owner’s requests.

    Are you aware of?:

    I believe he lives in BC and he posts some really great finds I think you might enjoy.

    Thanks for the inspiring post.

  2. LB Says:

    Emily, thanks – and yes, I’ve seen oldchum. There are some great houses there – many of the photos are in fact from Lloyd Kahn’s books. Thanks again.

  3. Sarah Says:

    What beautiful photographs. Thank you so much for sharing them.

  4. beth nelson Says:

    i lived in a joseph eichler house in northern california for six years.
    some of them had these lovely chains.

    there is only one left in the neighbourhood now.
    people seem to have forgotten what they were or are…such a pity.

    eichler was a genius.

  5. Elizabeth Currie Says:

    I find this article has a strong emotional effect.
    Is it the poetry of how the house was constructed, wrapping itself gradually around the hill (your description is vivid), or the way in which the house is holding its collection of belongings, or the detail of the Japanese-style rain chains? Or perhaps it’s just a little mal du pays, this could be nowhere but the West Coast…
    Many thanks to you and your family,

  6. Matahina Says:

    Thank you for these beautiful photographs of this much loved house. Thanks also for your book recommendation of Lloyd Kahn’s “Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter”, I ordered this book and it arrived today, so I can enjoy even more handbuilt houses! While being in Australia I have seen and photographed a few selfbuilt houses (never published for the same reasons you mentioned), which are still vivid in my imagination due to their sheer beauty surrounded by nature.

  7. rebecca Says:

    i fear you are a danger to my well being!

    this is so lovely. and while i can completely appreciate the ‘big sur-ness’ of it all, it does make me wanty (generally inversely proportional to budget). i grew up in california and there are still 1 or 2 things i miss.

    want a rain chain. have wanted a rain chain forever. and i wouldn’t say no to that home. so great.

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