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A Carpenter's Life as Told by Houses by…

A Carpenter's Life as Told by Houses

by Larry Haun

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I wish I’d known Larry Haun. From his writing he comes across as one of those spry, sometimes cranky, remarkably ageless carpenters you meet from time to time who love their work and understand the deeper meaning of their craft. Best of all, his passion was for creating durable, practical housing. Not McMansions. Not ego-castles. Just shelter, a basic human need.

Here’s the purpose of the book in Larry’s own words:

I can’t help but wonder about the relationship between people and their homes. How do these vastly different dwelling places affect the people who live there? How have I been shaped by the houses I’ve lived in? Who and what would I be if I’d been born in an upscale mansion or a shack by the river?

His knowledge of practical housing came first hand. In western Nebraska his mother grew up in a sod house and later taught in a straw bale school. Larry worked as a production framer in the 1950’s tract housing boom in Los Angeles at a time when production framing was just being invented.

Larry avoids the cult of exquisite wood craft. He used power saws and drywall and makes no apology. At the same time he cares about sustainability and green values while laughing at the self-canceling concept of a 10,000 square foot house that was certified “green.”

In A Carpenter’s Life he discusses twelve houses in twelve chapters, from his mother’s “soddy” to the quonset huts he built during World War Two to post-war tract houses to Habitat to Humanity houses to his own small, simple house in which he raised a large family. Most interesting are his personal experiences with each form of construction. Least interesting are his occasional sustainable-ecology rants, which become a bit too frequent near the end of the book. Not that I disagree with him. It’s just that if you’re reading this book, most likely you’re already among the converted.

There are photos and drawings, but this is not a glossy book about glossy houses. It's a plain-spoken book about houses for the rest of us. ( )
  JoeCottonwood | Apr 1, 2013 |
This was an enjoyable book, if a little on the preachy side. Haun is a master craftsman/carpenter and tells the story of his life through the houses in which he has lived and those he has built. There are many fascinating stories here that make the book worth reading.

Where it breaks down a bit is in the incessant hearkening back to a simpler time and eco-lecturing. While he is absolutely correct in his sentiment, it reminds me of nothing so much as a crotchety old fart standing on the porch yelling at all the kids to "get off Mother Nature's lawn!" Again, he's right: we waste too much and think too little when it comes to our consumerist society. But counting the gifts opened at a 13-year old's birthday party (and a wedding reception to boot) don't serve nearly so well as his practical stories of how to reuse materials and the benefit (especially monetary) that entails. ( )
  ScoutJ | Mar 31, 2013 |
Sustainable practices, history, and memoir all combine in this lovely story. Haun mixes genres to complete a full-bodied book. Chapters are titled after housing types, from sod houses to green houses. The chapters then tell the stories behind specific and general houses. The sod house chapter, for example, both tells of the author's mother's home and the time period she lived, as well as details on how to build a sound house of this type. Also included are the author's thoughts on the topics, such as his belief about the necessity to reconnect to the earth and help others. Such a full book allows for a true connection with the author and the topic. ( )
  MartyAllen | Apr 29, 2012 |
I learned of Larry Haun's A CARPENTER'S LIFE from a piece about it in the Grand Rapids Press. While I would not normally read a book written by a contractor/carpenter, I was completely captivated by Larry's memoir of growing up poor on the cold plains of western Nebraska, his early efforts at making things, and then by his long and illustrious career out west building tract homes and raising a family. He turns it into a kind of history of home building from the 1940s forward, interspersed with tantalizing glimpses into his life, chosen profession and his personal brand of philosophy and environmentalism. I was especially interested in the too-short section about his time in the SeaBees and his tours in Newfoundland and Greenland in the Korean War era. A pacifist at heart, Larry nevertheless enjoyed his noncombatant years with the Navy and being able to use his skills as a carpenter during that time.

At the heart of this memoir, however, is Haun's gently introspective musings about how we've despoiled our planet and equally gentle urging that we do better. Here's an example -

"We are human beings and we know that we deserve more than we can ever get at a big box store, no matter if we go thee with a super-size shopping cart. They just don't sell what we really need. Happiness can't be bought. It is, as they say, 'an inside job'."

Haun is also apologetic for all he didn't know about how he may have contributed to messing up nature, telling of all the toxically treated building materials he quite unknowingly used during his long career as a builder. Indeed, he reckons that hisyears of handling lumber treated with arsenic and copper preservatives contributed to the cancer he first contracted several years ago.

Sadly, that cancer finally took Haun's life right around the time this book was published. And the frequent feelings of wonder and regret that he expresses here in such everyday and humble language suggests that he knew he was nearing the end of his life. Whether he did or not, A CARPENTER'S LIFE serves as a simple and eloquent eulogy to a creative and constructive life lived fully and well.

I'm passing this book along to a builder friend of mine who shares many of the same qualities of humility, thoughtfulness and generosity that Larry Haun exhibited, right down to donating countless hours to Habitat for Humanity. This is a fine book. I will recommend it highly. ( )
  TimBazzett | Nov 25, 2011 |
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"From one of Fine Homebuilding's best-loved authors, Larry Haun, comes a unique story that looks at American home building from the perspective of twelve houses he has known intimately. Part memoir, part cultural history, A Carpenter's Life as Told by Houses takes the reader house by house over an arc of 100 years. Along with period photos, the author shows us the sod house in Nebraska where his mother was born, the frame house of his childhood, the production houses he built in the San Fernando Valley, and the Habitat for Humanity homes he devotes his time to now. It's an engaging read written by a veteran builder with a thoughtful awareness of what was intrinsic to home building in the past and the many ways it has evolved. Builders and history lovers will appreciate his deep connection to the natural world, yearning for simplicity, respect for humanity, and evocative notion of what we mean by "home.""--… (more)

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