Remembering Ken Kern

Ken Kern was an architect who published a series of books in the 1970s starting with the classic The Owner-Built Home, and followed by The Owner-Built Homestead, The Owner-Builder and the Code, and The Work Book. The last, written with his sister Evelyn Turner, a psychologist, is a case study of people who built their own homes and the effect it had on their lives. Stewart Brand reviewed it in The Whole Earth Catalog. “About 80 percent of the couples I know who have built a house or a boat, they build it, then they split up,” Brand wrote. “Happened to me too.” I was concerned about that, since my wife and I were building our own house (that was 1977—we’re still together). I referred to The Owner-Built Home a lot. It is full of practical advice about building techniques, materials, tools, and contains useful references, many of them arcane such as where to get a soil-cement block press, for example or a squat toilet (Kern travelled the globe after graduating from architecture school). I never met him but we corresponded. According to John Raabe, who worked for Kern, the architect-builder died (in the mid 1990s) in one of his own creations. He had just fnished building an experimental dome using slip-formed concrete, and decided to spend a night in it. There was a freak rain storm, and the dome collapsed on its hapless creator. The perils of owner-building.


4 Responses to Remembering Ken Kern

  • I and my wife built a concrete home mostly designed by Ken Kern, a great man. Our home is a 50ft. dia. double wall construction. A great home for the poor. You can build as you can afford it and it does not lose value from not being finished. We built this home in Texas and would have lost three homes to bad finances if we had bought regular homes, down turns in the markets being the reason. Our walls are almost 12ins. high and would not take long to build if you have the money to fund. We were dirt poor. I did find work and kept it going. Still have not finished it today, because I never made much money, but I own a house with valve.

  • Lou Vogel says:

    Thanks Witold!

    His books made a huge impression on me, when I was just out of engineering school, thirty some years ago. One of the things I remember was that he had a chart comparing the pullout strength of various types of nails, ring shanked being the best.

    I was sad to hear of how he passed on, but he leaves a good legacy.

    Also, I have enjoyed your books, thanks. I told somebody about the small house book just the other day.


  • Brenna Kern says:

    Well written and well-informed article/review. Ken was my grandfather (dad’s dad) and his legacy and values continue on within the family. My father has adopted his passion and his work and since I was able to lift a rock I have done the same and will continue to do so and pass on to my one-year oild who already helps alongside the job sites 🙂

  • Thanks Witold,
    Ken helped me with telephone calls and correspondence when I was doing my Architecture Thesis on Self Help Housing, he turned me on to “Architecture without Architects” and most profoundly to “Hundertwasser’s Housing Manifesto” which Ken made up from the “Mould Manifesto”. He was one of my mentors. I still think of him often, particularly some of his observations in “The Healthy House”.
    As a result of Ken Kern’s guidance, I published “Self Help Solar Housing – Design and Construction Manual for Acadia House” in 1979.
    I know for sure over 500 versions of Acadia House were designed & built & modified by owner-builders for themselves as a first house and many of them went on to help others with their housing needs allowing them to share the joy of personal housing independence and the confidence that they can rely on themselves for things they thought only ‘experts’ could do; and, as a result of this new found freedom and independence they all have gained life full of confidence and creative energy.
    Yours truly, Charles.

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