My First Building Project


In 1961, a surfing friend, John Stonum, was studying to be an architect at UC Berkeley, and designed this small building for me to build in Mill Valley, California. I wanted to build a sod roof (now called “living roof”), and we had journeyed up to the Heritage House on the Mendocino Coast to see their two sod-roofed cabins.

This was a post-and-beam structure, with posts 6 feet on centers, and oversized precast concrete piers for the foundation. A lumberyard in nearby Olema, California was going out of business and I bought a truckload of “merch” grade rough redwood two-by-fours for $35 a 1000. Not $350, but $35.

As you can see, there were two 2 × 10 Douglas fir rafters bolted to each post (which had notches). The roof decking consisted of the two by fours on edge, nailed together. I knew very little about building, but with this building started out a process that I follow to this day: when you don’t know how to start, simply begin. As you go along, you’ll figure things out.

I used a hammer and saw — no power tools — until I got the roof deck completed and had to cut it off evenly at the edges. I started cutting what amounted to a 4-inch slab of wood about 12 feet wide with a hand saw; I got impatient and rented a Skilsaw. Boy, did that make a difference.

I nailed plywood down over the rough 2 × 4 roof deck and had roofers come and do a hot-mop tar-and-gravel roof with three layers of tarpaper. A sheet metal gutter at the bottom. On top of that went 3 inches of coarse gravel, then 4 inches of soil. We planted it with chamomile. In the springtime, the roof was covered with white blossoms.

We sold the property in 1967 and many years later I went back and discovered that a young couple and their child were happily living in the building. I took a photo of them, which appeared in our book Home Work. Some time around 2000, the property was sold again, and the new owners bulldozed all the buildings and built two large homes.

After building this, I never looked back. From that point on, I’ve lived in owner-built homes (over 50 years now), and have never paid rent or had a bank mortgage.


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