Fixing the Hole Where the Rain Gets In, Part I

One of the most striking features of the culture of both Shummians and mainstream local residents is the degree to which both are predicated on owner-built homes, including owner-built shacks. Both groups have been politically active in opposing the efforts of the county Planning Department in stifling this impulse to build. That argument is still going on. Meanwhile, a few examples of Shummian owner-built or conglomerated homes. . .

The structure on the left, like my first off-the-county-road residence, may be another example of a rough shelter made from one of the portable logging offices obtained from Burrill Keating’s junkyard. It, too, was occupied at one point by a single mother with a small child. However, this one was much more vulnerable to red-tagging by the building inspectors or harassment in general because it was on a logging flat just off the county road. It was eventually removed.

The house on the right was not built by arriving back-to-the-landers, but by earlier settlers in Shum. It is a log cabin built with actual logs, once part of the Holmgren Ranch near Miranda. The ranch was turned into a public park after the death of its original owners and this particular house burned down after a long history of occupation by renters, one of which was a commune arriving from Minnesota in an old school bus. Various additions were made to the original log cabin by the commune, including the porch and a two-story wing in the rear, not visible in the photo.

To the left, an owner-builder looks out from his second floor under construction. Seen in the background is one view of Bear Butte, the mountain I stipulated as the center of Mateel in my book, Beyond Counterculture.

Below is the last owner-built house I lived in, under construction. It was built by myself, my ex-husband and a licensed builder. Though it never had a building permit, it was built to specifications far beyond what is required in California “Code K”, the portion of the state building code enacted during the first term of Governor Jerry Brown in response to the activism Shummians. Among other things, Code K made “pit privies”, aka outhouses, legal, and removed requirements that buildings be wired for electricity. This house, though, was wired for alternative electricity and had both a solar-panel system and a generator, neither of which were entirely satisfactory.

My ex, who created the unusual C-shaped design to incorporate passive solar heat, works on the roof from inside the second floor. As it turned out, the house was assessed for taxes at a much higher rate because, as the assessor explained, it had angles in it that were not right angles. Such ridiculous rules, inhibiting the use of passive solar or other innovative designs and recycled materials, are one reason Shummians resist getting building permits. The ongoing struggle with the building inspectors continues to the present time. It is the single issue most uniting back-to-the-landers and residents who do not consider themselves to be back-to-the-landers.

To the left is our house further under construction. Shown is the temporary front door and one wing, including one angle of the three-sided C. At the suggestion of the builder, the continuous concrete foundation, extra thick because we both feared earthquakes (and wisely, as it turned out), was turned into a walk-in basement under the entire house. We thus ended up with three stories of usable space. Being novices, we did not realize how much our extra large rooms would add to the bill, so that we ran out of money and the house was never finished inside.

We, a family of four, lived in the house under construction. The first winter, an El Nino year, was a nightmare as we tried to survive in the basement with black plastic sheets on the floor over our heads and the framework of the rest of the house on top of that. Periodically, we would go out into the storm and roll the water, a two-inch deep house-wide wading pool, off the side of the first floor. An old trailer and our various vehicles, functional and non-functional, served as additional storage.

To the left is the building that came to be referred to as The Octagon, designed by Shummian architect Jeff Knope and the late Jan Iris and built by innumerable volunteers as a community center on land bought by Beginnings, Inc., a community non-profit organization. This is a very early shot–possibly the building is still under construction. This building, too, has numerous non-right angles, the floor plan being, actually, an octagon. Wings and decks were later added, as well as several other buildings on the same land, all built by volunteers. The Octagon was intended as a community center but served as an alternative preschool for several years before the other buildings were built.

To the right, inside the Octagon, years after the photo above. It has been set up for a pot-luck community Thanksgiving meal. The Octagon has served as a meeting place, boogie hall, performance venue and rental hall for private parties, weddings and funerals. It has been a spiritual center for community generated ceremonies for decades now. For a very long time, it was the center of my world, being much more permanent than any of my residences in Shum. Located as it is in a valley, surrounded by mountains logged over far enough in the past that they are covered with secondary growth, it is geographically at the center of one Shummian community and in a spot conducive to their activities modeled after tribal rites.

On the right, an owner-built home is cradled in the shadow of Bear Butte.

Below, two more owner-built homes, one with a solar panel on the roof, the other in the later stages of construction. It is a running joke in the Land of Shum that no house is ever finished. The quickest way to the heart of an owner-builder is to ask for a tour and be open to a detailed account of future plans. This organic approach contrasts neatly with the developers’ approach, for which most of the building code was written. Another reason why building permits are resisted is that no one ever knows at the beginning what the house will look like “finished” and no one wants to pay more fees and haggle with the building department over each new deck, porch, loft or lean-to kitchen.

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