Book Review: A Carpenter's Life: As Told by Houses by Larry Haun

A Carpenter's Life book by Larry Haun (book review)

I just finished a book written by a highly skilled builder (who sadly is no longer with us) named Larry Haun. It’s called, simply, A Carpenter’s Life as Told By Houses. From the perspective of a builder, seasoned or new to the craft, there’s plenty to be gleaned from his commentary on method and various structure. For gardeners, those that love the planet and worry about our use of its resources and small house/sustainable living fans, there’s also much to keep the reader engaged.

Larry Haun was born in 1931 and grew up in rural western Nebraska. He offers many interesting reflections on growing up in an uninsulated wood framed house out on the plains (think COLD and WINDY!) and takes the reader on a journey through recent era architecture that is quite illuminating. While a lot of us are familiar with at least a few building techniques, including styles as far apart as straw bale and regular light frame construction, few of us have hands on experience with “soddy” buildings, pit houses, quonset huts, or genuine adobe. Getting a look into what these building styles offer and how they are created is one great reason to read this book. Larry’s gentle style and rambling story telling fashion will probably keep you hooked. The erudition in this volume is experiential and shared in frank fashion. I enjoyed it and was surprised by how non-dry it was.

I was also impressed by the range of Mr. Haun’s experience. How many people do you know who can claim experience building a pit house with friends of the family on the Nebraska plains, quonset huts on Greenland during the Korean War, adobe houses with friends in New Mexico, and was also a part of the huge transition during the Southern California building boom that commenced in the middle of the 20th century. Larry speaks with precision about all the little changes that were involved in the move from customized building that took a crew about a year to accomplish (the kind of building I’ve had some experience with) and the streamlined, subcontractor-centric version that has come to be the norm. Larry details little time saving tool developments in layout, marking and structure that people of a certain age (like me and many others) wouldn’t even think about, having never known the “old way.” A single case in point was his mention of the folding rule. I’ve come to know the folding rule because Shawn uses one at times, especially in areas where he needs to get measurements in between spaces where a tape might not offer enough precision. Imagine my surprise when Mr. Haun mentioned, casually, that the amount of time saved by a builder using the newly introduced retractable tapes vs. the old folding rules added up not just to a minute or two of saved time, but hours over the course of a job. I’d never thought of it in those terms. And there are other interesting insights made by this person of much experience, one more surprise being his emphasis of how much better even basic buildings are today than they were when he grew up on the Plains. His love of insulation, air sealing and concurrent use of least toxic materials in buildings evidences his understanding of houses as a whole, rather than bits and pieces, and reminds the reader that a house is meant to be built for humans and not just for profit.

 Larry Haun, author.

Larry Haun, author.

Along the way, there are numerous rambles and diversions that I suppose might drive you nuts if you were expecting a cut and dry treatise on particular building methods. But this book is as much a ramble as an introduction to styles; while Haun has written much more precisely about technique and method in other books and DVD’s this book is ruminative, sometimes a little sad, always thoughtfully engaged and evidently grateful in perspective. You get a great feel for the author and I ended the book feeling like if I’d lived in the same town as he, we might have been friends. At least, I like to think so! I also had the sense of a younger person listening to an older person speak and garnering the gifts of perspective that come with that. The book is full of casual insights that are of great interest to the reader but were just a part of growing up for Mr. Haun. For example, he shares an incredible story of his mother standing up to the “local chapter” of the KKK in his tiny town in Nebraska (the family was Catholic and hence incurred the wrath of this backwards group). But the other aspect of interest in this related story was the firmness with which Haun could at once note the horrible aspects of the group’s behavior while also noting that their town was so small that it was easy to tell the klansmen by their shoes, though they saw fit to hide their faces. I suppose he learned this skill of a firm opinion bolstered by wide perspective from his mother, who arrived next day at the local cafe where the perpetrators were dining and hit them with a newspaper and issue a stern warning not to mess with her family again. Thankfully, not many people have this experience nowadays, but it’s worth noting how an this impressed itself upon the author as a child and led him to grow up into a proper human, knowing right from wrong.

I should not give the impression, either, that the book is all about diversions. While there’s social commentary in varying forms (especially concerning our depressingly casual disregard for the planet and all of us living things upon it) throughout, the book really does illuminate the basics of myriad building styles and some of the associated drawbacks and benefits to them. For example, the table of contents includes the soddy, the straw bale, the dugout, quonset, pre-cut and tract house. There are a few others in there as well and builders of even the most basic knowledge level will appreciate the comments about building technique included that indicate a full understanding of the process from foundation work to flooring choices.

Mr. Haun has had first hand experience with all of it. His meditative commentary reveals a truly well experienced person…who grew up in hardscrabble times on the unforgiving Nebraska Plains (pre-electrification and grocery store!), and traveled, in his days, to Mexico, the Philippines, Greenland and Canada (during his war time service) ending up in Southern California before making his way up the coast to Coos Bay, OR where he retired into work for Habitat for Humanity and the pursuit of good gardening with his grandchildren. Does he have interesting insights? You bet!

I loved this book. There’s something, truly, to appeal to everyone. I enjoyed the non pedantic presentation of building facts, history and just general observation of human behavior. I enjoyed feeling a harmony with the author as he talked about why he admired small houses and simplicity rather than the giant mega mansions that we unfortunately see too many of (and at great cost). I enjoyed his memories of family, tales of life on the range (really!) and his first hand accounts of the incredible changes that were already mostly accomplished by the time I was born. There’s a lot to learn about much more than building in this book, and I’m glad the author chose to share.

If you get a chance to read this one, I highly recommend it. It should leave you with a smile. And an appreciation for insulated houses!