Chat with Kevin Kelly and Lloyd Kahn: Tiny Homes and Mobile Dwelling

A few days ago I had the immense pleasure of being part of a video chat (“Hangout”) with two awesome dudes, Kevin Kelly and Lloyd Kahn, both heroes of mine and very inspirational people.

If you’re wondering who they are, Kevin Kelly was the publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, founded Wired magazine, and now does a million other cool things, including the recent publication of the awesome book Cool Tools.

Lloyd Kahn worked with Kevin Kelly as the editor of the “Shelter” section of the Whole Earth Catalog, then went on to start his own publishing company Shelter Publications, which has released classic titles such as Shelter, Shelter 2, Home Work, and Tiny Homes (I own and love all of these books, highly recommended!).

(Disclaimer: some of these links are affiliate links, meaning that at no extra cost to you, if you decide to purchase something I recommend I get a small commission, which helps keep this blog up and running! Thank you!)

He lives in a neat owner-built home in California, and is the liveliest, sharpest 79 year old I’ve ever seen!

It was exciting to have a chance to ask Lloyd and Kevin some questions, they both have decades of experience in building, design, technology, and writing/publishing between them. The webcast was broadcast live, and is available on YouTube to watch (and is at the bottom of this blog post!). Lloyd and Kevin started out by talking about domes and Lloyd explained how his book Shelter was a direct response to his years of advocating for and building dome homes.

He said that he had realized that perhaps domes weren’t the perfect buildings after all, and decided to showcase a myriad of other awesome homes and building techniques as a sort of resignation about domes. He explained how domes were still viable as some functional spaces, but that they aren’t ideal for residences for many reasons.

Lloyd and Kevin also talked about the “return to the 60s” that they had been witnessing the last few years, and how America was “rediscovering” the DIY movement of the 60s and 70s.

Lloyd mentioned how more and more people, young and old, were selling their suburban homes in favor of mobile, nomadic solutions such as buses, campers, vans, and house-trucks (I’m guessing many of these people are inspired by Lloyd’s books!). He sees this movement as a direct response to the economic downturn that we’ve been facing these last few years. Perhaps people are looking for stability in the form of intentional instability, or consistency in the inconsistent nature of being able to move freely.

 When the chat was opened up to questions, the first question that came up was for Lloyd, and asked whether or not self-sufficiency was possible in the city.

I enjoyed and agreed with all of Lloyd’s answers to everyone’s questions, and I especially appreciated his response this topic. He told the guy to just do the best he can.

You will never be 100% self-sufficient in this day and age, so just do what you can with what you have where you are. Don’t give up on finding some level of self-sufficiency just because you live in a city, you can still grow some herbs and park a tiny house in a driveway.

This topic got me thinking about the difference between urban and rural self-sufficiency. In my opinion, self-sufficiency can be as simple as cutting your own hair or riding your bike. Urban self-sufficiency might include more foraging for wild plants, dumpster diving, salvaging wood and building with “waste”, re-using waste veggie oil as fuel, and reclaiming the “trash” found in cities.

Reuse is the main theme in an urban environment. Rural self-sufficiency might involve more gardening, building from scratch, cutting down your own trees to make lumber, and gathering resources like rainwater and solar/wind power.

Self-sufficiency might mean different things in different environments, but that doesn’t mean that self-sufficiency, on some level, is not feasible in urban areas. It’s about doing our best.

We talked about the stress of couples building a home together. Lloyd warned one of the other guys in the chat that building a home together can lead to divorce or separation.

I thought this was interesting that he felt that way, seeing as my relationship gets better and better the more we work and build together. Of course, there are stressful moments, but at the end of the day we built something amazing together.

I’m sure it depends on your relationship to begin with, I’m sure if you are feeling strained already building a house won’t do you any favors.

 I asked Lloyd a question about tiny houses, and told him I was writing a book inspired by his work and that my own home was heavily inspired by his books.

The question I asked him was “Hey Lloyd, you’ve witnessed decades and decades of alternative and nomadic building styles, do you think the popular “tiny house” as in the “Tumbleweed” model is a fad?” His answer was spot on with what I myself had been thinking about.

We both agreed that the idea of smaller living spaces were here to stay, but that the idea of a “cabin” with a 6-12 pitch roof on a trailer was not the best option out there. He explained how there were many, many other options for achieving the same goals, without the difficulty of towing a building that is the opposite of aerodynamic, or leaving a house that is stationary 90% of the time on wheels. In my mind, the “tiny house on wheels” might be ideal for a VERY SPECIFIC lifestyle, as in you move infrequently, but just frequently enough to make it worth it to spend the cash on the big trailer.

But in most cases, I’ve noticed that people who want a “tiny house” actually want the mobility of a camper or RV, though the stigma around those vehicular homes makes them go “no no not that!”.

The other option we discussed, which I think more people should consider, is the small (tiny) home that is positioned on a pier foundation 90% of the time, but is within the size limits to be able to be jacked up and moved on a flatbed trailer every so often.

It is probably more cost effective to hire a truck to move your house on a flatbed trailer once in a while (infrequently) rather than purchasing the trailer and huge truck up front. The permit to move a wide load like that isn't too expensive.

Examples of this type of situation include Tiny Texas Houses and Reclaimed Spaces, both of which build “tiny houses” that are not on wheels, but are within the size limits so that they are technically portable. This also allows you to build a home in the range of 12’ x 25’, instead of being constrained by the 8 ft. width of trailers. I’m going to be going through all of these options in more detail in a future post.

 The thing about the “Tumbleweed” style tiny homes is that they are aesthetically familiar to people, and thus introduce the mainstream, and others who might not have otherwise found alternative lifestyles, into a whole world of small, nomadic dwellings.

It serves its purpose as a “gateway” to the small nomadic home movement, and that’s an important role too. So although they might not be the most practical solution or even a great design, they attract the attention of the media and mainstream, which is good for all of us in the alternative building world.

We also talked about the Prickly Mountain (in Vermont) and the design/build movement that happened in Vermont in the 60s and lead to the birth of the Yestermorrow school (from which I have a Certificate in Sustainable Design + Build). Lloyd said he had visited the Prickly Mountain in the 60s, and we had a few friends in common from that circle.

Lloyd will be releasing a new Shelter Publication book soon, titled Tiny Homes on the Move, which I am very excited to see. He explained how he had gotten an overwhelming amount of submissions for the book, photos and stories and writings.

Since not all of the homes made it into the book, they’re starting a Shelter Blog which will show off all of the amazing submissions they receive from awesome readers, builders, and designers.

The words of wisdom that Lloyd left us with, was to “Just Start!”.

He said that is you’re thinking about building something, go outside and do it. He takes a certain amount of comfort from knowing that , as prolific as technology seems in our lives today, “the computer isn’t going to do this for you, it’s a hammer and a saw”. So, if you’re looking at cool dwellings online, wishing and dreaming, go outside and just start. Why not see what happens?