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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
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.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory