A load of clapboard

Constructing your own writing-room has an honourable history. Colin Ward reports on a shed experience

A Place of My Own: the education of an amateur builder by Michael Pollan, Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99

On the urban fringes of Latin America, a majority of families build their own houses using immense ingenuity and the recycled materials that come to hand. In the commuter belts of North American cities, plenty of families once put up their own houses from a mail-order kit out of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. In both continents, the methods were taken for granted. They were not thought worth writing about, even though both are intensely interesting from the standpoint of Britain's restrictive assumptions about housing.

But in the US now, there is a whole genre of we-built-our-own-house books in which lovably idiosyncratic carpenters, sensitive-to-their-fingertips architects and bubblingly inept clients are brought to life in predictable prose. The best was Tracy Kidder's 330-page House in 1986. Michael Pollan almost reaches that level of prolixity in this "captivating personal inquiry". An American critic assures us that Pollan's book has "the brilliant plainness of a piece of Shaker furniture". Sadly, it lacks that laconic Shaker economy.

For when Michael and Judith move into one of those Thirties mail-order houses, built in its "resolutely nondescript clapboard" way by a long- bankrupt farmer, they are awed by their architect, Charlie. Despite bringing their contractor to what Pollan calls the cliff of despair, Charlie "had succeeded in transforming our humdrum little bungalow into a house of real character". The crushing banality of this non-Shaker observation prepares us for the main plot.

With their first child on the way, and one room set aside as Judith's painting studio, they realise that Mike will need, as writers do, a shack of his own in the garden so as to meet his deadlines with Harper's and the New York Times Magazine. The rest of the book describes how he learns from Charlie and from carpenter Joe as this rugged fortress-for-one is built.

Bernard Shaw was content with an off-the-peg summer-house mounted on a turntable, Dylan Thomas with an asbestos-cement lock-up garage, Thoreau with his cabin of second-hand planks and Virginia Woolf with a room of her own. And for people familiar with the world of self-builders, this book is hilariously self-indulgent. British readers yearning to make a place of their own should turn to Broome and Richardson's The Self-Build Book (Green Books). They will learn there of the way that the architect Walter Segall has creatively adapted the American "balloon frame" tradition to the potentialities of self-build housing for poor and homeless people in this country.

The virtues I tried hard to discover in Pollan's book would include an account of that particular building vernacular, and a guide to worthy architectural mentors, from Lewis Mumford and JB Jackson to Vincent Scully and Christopher Alexander. The last of these gurus wrote a splendid book on The Timeless Way of Building. With all this accessible wisdom, I'm astonished that putting up a writing room became such a ponderous task and took such a time.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms