Lloyd Kahn's good advice on how to rebuild after disaster

california fire
© David McNew/ Getty Images

After the California fires, the building expert has some suggestions that really make sense for anyone building.

Decades ago, Lloyd Kahn was the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, and he is still at it, writing books, the Shelter Blog, and his own personal blog. Recently, after the terrible fires in California, he wrote:

I would like to offer some suggestions to people whose homes were destroyed by the California fires of 2017. I have built three homes of my own and, as well, been publishing books on building for some 45 years now. From this experience I’ve come to some conclusions about practical, sensible building.

But his suggestions are really good for anyone building anywhere, whether or not you are recovering from a disaster. He offers good, sound advice for people on a budget and in a hurry. Some of my favorites with my comments:

Stud frame construction. Straw bale, cob, timber frame, and other natural materials each have their benefits, but the stud wall system, with insulation, wiring, and plumbing within the walls is by far the quickest way to build.

There are all kinds of different technologies for building out there, but stud framing is still the fastest and cheapest, and if done carefully, can be as well insulated and air tight as any other method of construction.

Rectangular design. Stick with rectangles. If you get into building curves, or polygons (e.g. hexagonal, octagonal) you’ll end up spending a lot more time and money.

This also makes it easier to insulate and seal the house; every jog and joint is a potential thermal bridge and air leak. That's why the Passive House people promote #BBB or "Boxy But Beautiful.

Use some kind of non-toxic insulation (not available when I built). Wool, denim, cellulose made from recycled paper products. Research it. “Roxul” is a very good non-toxic, non-water absorbing, non-rodent and non-insect supporting type of batt insulation.

Even good old fiberglass, available when Lloyd built, is now formaldehyde free and less toxic than it was. Cellulose has the lowest embodied energy, and Roxul is no longer Roxul; they recently rebranded as Rockwool, the name they have used in Europe for 80 years. I think it is a dumb move, given that they were just getting really well known as Roxul, but nobody asked me.

I do not agree with all of his suggestions:

small homes© Lloyd Kahn/ Small Homes

Avoid architectural cleverness. Watch out for architects trying to make a statement. Quite often, tried and true designs produce economical, practical homes. The wheel needn’t be reinvented.

One could look at Lloyd's sites and his books and see more "statements" of a different kind than any architect came up with; he has a different taste, but shouldn't conflate style with substance. Architects are often clever at doing things efficiently and cheaply. Full disclosure: I am an architect.

Consider the possibility of radiant heat — pipes under the floor (or in concrete slab) — with water heated by solar panels (will need backup heater most likely.)

I do not think Lloyd goes nearly far enough in his discussion of insulation and doesn't mention windows. But lots of insulation and quality windows is a lot cheaper than a boiler and a radiant floor, which in a super-insulated house will never even feel warm.

But otherwise, all good solid suggestions for anyone anywhere: plant trees, have a vegetable garden, keep it all small and simple. Consider orientation, roof design for future solar, use non-combustible cladding and roofing, especially in California.

Words to live by at Lloyd Kahn's blog.

Lloyd Kahn's good advice on how to rebuild after disaster
After the California fires, the building expert has some suggestions that really make sense for anyone building.

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