Builders of the Pacific CoastIt’s a land of blue and green: the blue of the water ocean, bays, estuaries, inlets, rivers, and creeks; the green of the trees cedar, fir, hemlock, balsam, alder, and spruce, all fed by abundant rainfall; it’s along the Pacific Coast of North America, from San Francisco up to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It’s in this relatively small geographical area that I discovered most of the buildings in this book.
In 2005, a year after publishing Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter, I set out to do a book titled Builders, covering carpenters in the U.S. and Canada. I started by shooting photos in Colorado, Vermont, and Northern California. Next I headed up the Pacific coast to British Columbia. For years people had been telling me about builders in this area. One person said to me, “You don’t have any builders in Home Work like these guys,” and that got my attention. Plus an old friend, artist and sailor of the seas, Godfrey Stephens (see pp. 10009), kept emailing that I had to see the builders of Vancouver Island and surrounding islands.
In July, 2005, I took off in my truck, heading north along the coast. In Northern California I photographed Tony Anderson’s mountain homestead, next the rammed-earth house and farm of Greg and Margie Smith. Then on up to Canada.
First stop was Godfrey’s house in Victoria, where he was having a “Summer Artists’ Gathering” party. He introduced me to people who in turn gave me additional names and addresses of island builders. After a few days in Victoria, I headed north on Vancouver Island, following these leads. One builder would refer me to another, and so on.
I was astounded at the quality of design, imagination, and craftsmanship in this part of the world. It was apparent there could be a book on this area alone.
Over a two-year period, I made four trips, with cameras and notebooks, of about three weeks each, shooting these photos and talking to these builders. I expanded the territory to include the coast down to San Francisco.
Specific locations are usually not given here, in order to preserve homeowners’ privacy. Suffice to say, it’s a coastal marine environment, latitudes 37 to 49 degrees, with boats everywhere. Many of these buildings could be reached only by water. You get to the islands on ferries.
Due to high rainfall and fast-growing forests, there’s a large amount of wood available for building. Its abundance (although more so 30 years ago than today) has given many of these builders the material and inspiration to create these structures. A lot of the wood used in these buildings came off the beach, or at least from very close by.
About 80% of the builders in this book are Canadian. Some are Americans who emigrated to Canada to avoid being drafted for the war in Vietnam.
Many of these buildings were built in the ’70s and ’80s, some in the ’60s, a singular period in North American history. This group of builders, the Whole Earth Catalog guys, were acting out their dreams. You could live on very little money, land was cheap, building codes few. It was a period likely to never be duplicated, a 20- to 30-year span of inspiration and freedom, and of spirit made manifest in a number of handmade homes.
Much of this, by the way, was green building 30 to 40 years before it became Green Building. Using natural and sustainable materials. Practicality. Small-scale technology. Power from sun, wind, and water where possible. Fitting buildings into natural surroundings. Working with one’s hands.
I grew up on the Pacific Coast, so I felt at home in this region. Not only was the territory familiar, but here were people who shared many of my interests: building, growing food, fishing, using natural materials, renewable energy, doing as much for yourself as possible, treating nature with respect, beachcombing to name a few. I had a wonderful time. I camped out on beaches, in the woods, or in my truck, sometimes staying with the builders or in motels. The food was consistently great and I made a lot of new friends. Each trip was an adventure.
And an amazing thing unfolded as I traveled: time after time, builders would tell me that this or that building was inspired by our 1973 book Shelter. In fact, just about every builder I ran across was familiar with the book. Wow! I had no idea. This added a new dimension to this book.
A lot of my coverage occurred by chance. I followed up on referrals, people were around or they weren’t, houses were accessible, or not. I’d see buildings while driving down the road. There’s a great deal of randomness here. It wasn’t tightly planned and it’s not comprehensive, even for this small area.
“Why these buildings?” People often ask me this. Here’s what I look for:
- How does the building look in the landscape? Does it fit in?
- How does it work? Is it practical? (Well, not always!)
- Are the building materials sustainable? Local?
- What do the materials look like? How do they function? How are they to live with?
- The aesthetics how does it feel inside?
- Craftsmanship how well are things put together?
- And, of course: joy, wit, and harmony of design and construction.
On the Road: I love going down new roads, hunting for buildings. As I drive, I’m constantly thinking about showing people what I find, a habit that started with a high school journalism class, and continued when I ran an Air Force newspaper for two years, then kicked into high gear, years later, working on the Whole Earth Catalog. I ended up being a compulsive communicator. It’s the journalism bug: I no sooner discover something wonderful than I want to show everyone what I’ve found. It gives me a purpose, a focus. It makes traveling more fun.
So come along and ride shotgun with me, going down these roads, riding the ferries, walking the beaches, talking to these builders, and seeing their creations. Here’s what I found in my travels to this land of blue and green, of water and wood.