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John Raabe's CountryPlans.com - Langley, WA USA
DBA: Country Plans LLC (our 35th year)
360-221-5535 - email us


My house

John Raabe

Here's the house we built on Whidbey. Click here for more info.

Hiding behind my shades.

Most Interesting
Place I ever lived.

In the dry mountains of Northwestern Iran is the province of Kurdistan.The Kurds are a proud tribal people who's homeland has been carved up between Iran, Turkey and Iraq. I was there as a Peace Corps architect working with village elders and local government officials. We built schools, bath houses and public water systems for the local villages. If the village could supply the labor for a project, then the Iranian government would buy the materials and our office would design and supervise the construction. Some interesting projects were built using the simplest of materials.

I was there for the better part of two years. This was before the Islamic revolution and I often wonder if old Iranian friends and co-workers made it through.

Progress there was very slow. I spent 6 months working on a beautiful set of plans (in arabic script!) for a new earthquake-proof school. The only thing that was non-standard from normal village construction (mud walls, 12" thick flat mud and brick roof) was a steep lightweight metal roof with clearstory windows at the peak (for ventilation and to get light to the center desks — village schools have no electricity). This roof had the advantage of being a lightweight and stable triangular truss that could ride out an earthquake. It was never built because it didn't have the traditional heavy flat mud roof (the ones that come down on your head when the beams slide off the shaking walls). The major problem seemed to be, "what will the fellow who sweeps the snow off the roof do if we build this?" Mentioning that the snow would slide off did not appear to be the right answer. I think about that unbuilt school every time I hear about thousands of people dying in an Iranian earthquake.

Most Important
person I ever met

One of the reasons I've never gotten registered as an architect (registration involves taking a long state exam) is because I've never met one I'd trade places with. I always thought one would come along who would inspire me to "get the professional label". It never happened. Ken Kern was the architect I learned the most from, but then Ken never got registered either. Perhaps we share this disregard for state sanctioned credentials.

After he got out of architecture school, Kern traveled around the world documenting the house building techniques of indigenous peoples. He learned many low-tech ways to get the most out of simple building materials and later incorporated these ideas into his many books. I went down to see him after I was inspired by his first self-published book, "The Owner Built Home". I stayed on and ended up working with him for almost two years.

During the time we were together, we built many experimental projects and ended up designing perhaps 100 owner-built homes. Ken had a mail order custom home design service. These projects ranged from a house for a couple in Arkansas with $500, an axe and a chain saw (we designed a shingle-sided teepee), to a Unitarian minister in Vermont who wanted to grow orchids (he got a stone house with a two story solarium).

Ken was always experimenting with new and better ways of building. A stone mason at heart, he often pushed concrete and rock to its structural limits. He's gone now. He died when a concrete slip form dome house collapsed during a freak wind storm. He had just finished it and wanted to spend the first night in the new structure. 

It's not such a bad way to go — fully engaged with life and going down with your current project.

Thanks Ken, you taught me how to do more with less, and how to not get caught up in the architectural ego-trap of over-designed style. 

Most interesting job
I ever had

For several years I lived on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Mt. Haleakala is an extinct volcano at the center of the island. At 10,000 feet on the rim of the crater is a white dome run by the University of Hawaii. It 's a solar observatory, and for two years I ran telescopes and tracked the sun from there looking for sunspots and solar flares. I would drive up a winding mountain road early each morning to be on top as the sun came up out of the ocean. All day I'd study the sun's mood and take photos.

This was where I learned the nature and power of the sun and fell in love with clear air and high elevations.

What I learned from
school

Architecture school was a mixed bag. I was never really comfortable with the modern definition of an architect.

The term, the profession, and the educational system to train architects was defined by concepts developed in the Beaux Arts school of 18th and 19th century France. The Beaux Arts school was an academic art school where the idea of the architect as a cultural and intellectual artist of space was first separated off from the earlier concept of the master builder. Most of our great historic buildings where not designed by architects, but by master builders. (There were no architects, in the modern sense, before about 1850.)

Master builders knew the skills of construction intimately and worked with them daily to evolve their designs for the cathedrals, castles and the other great buildings we now consider the cornerstones of architecture. Not considering themselves to be intellectual artists, they didn't hold themselves separate from the work and didn't fall so easily into the ego traps of style, prestige and personal glory. Because of this, most go unnamed by history. Master builders experienced their buildings as evolving interactive creations of material and spirit. Many modern architects seem to have forgotten that buildings are anything more than an intellectual exercises in abstract esthetics and engineering.

I personally find myself more comfortable with the master builder concept than the French idea of the architect as an intellectual tastemaker of buildings.

There is one very good lesson I did get out of architecture school. Was it worth five years of college? Probably. Here's the lesson: "Always work from the general to the specific." That's it! Start with the broadest questions you can ask and solve those issues first before going on to the next level of detail. For example, fully understand your site — its soil, views and weather patterns before you layout the rooms and long before you decide what siding to use. Work your way down from the most general to the most specific. It's good advice that will keep you from making all kinds of mistakes and omissions.

The Timeline

2005 to Present: Started PlanHelp.com, a subscription based website that allows for design collaboration between owner/designers, builders and interested professionals. This community is exploring ways of helping each other develop "open source" plans and details that can be downloaded and assembled for specific design projects. The site sponsors design contests and provides details and design/build help for smaller, simpler, more energy efficient buildings that can be built affordably.

1997 to Present: Started CountryPlans.com, a free website to support owner-designers, owner-builders and small crew home builders with smaller, more resource and energy efficient home plans and building ideas. The Forum has become a very active community that both helps and entertains anyone interested in home building issues.

1978 to Present: Started my own home design studio, first as Cooperative Design and later as Country Plans LLC. My interest has always been in practical, cost-effective and energy-efficient homes. Over the years I have designed many custom homes that utilize sun and light to feel larger than they really are. I am not currently doing custom home design or consulting work. I focus now on developing simple to build smaller house plans that can be sold inexpensively and modified as needed by and for the home owner.

1988 to Present: Construction, design and energy writing. Consultant to Puget Power, Pacific Power and Light, and other electric utilities. Writer and illustrator of publications and building related articles. Topics include energy efficient ventilation, designing the right house for your lot, energy codes, advanced framing, energy efficient manufactured homes, kitchen design, planning for solar, and many others.

1986 - 1988: Founding partner of the Columbia Group: a building technology and training company. Project manager of a $1+ million contract with Bonneville Power for support of the Super Good Cents energy efficient home program. This project involved training architects, builders and inspectors on home construction techniques and energy efficiency issues at workshops in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

1980 - 1987: Taught classes on practical home design and construction to homeowners, architecture students and owner-builders. In the "Shelter Class" students would develop a workable custom house plan for their site, budget and space needs.

1977 - 1978: Worked with author, architect and stone mason Ken Kern on the second edition of his book "The Owner Built Home." Designed small houses for owner-builders who contacted Kern for help.

1969 - 1977: Worked at various architectural firms in Seattle, Washington and Maui, Hawaii. Worked for two years in solar research at the University of Hawaii solar observatory on Haleakala Crater, Maui.

1967 - 1969: Peace Corps in Iran. Rural development architect for an Iranian public works program. Designed and supervised construction of schools, bath houses and public water systems for Kurdish villages in Northwestern Iran.

Education

1961 - 1967: Five years of architecture and economics at Whitman College and University of Washington.

Published - Books and Manuals (partial list)

Superinsulated Design and Construction; J. Raabe, T. Lenchek, C. Mattock, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1987. Still one of the best national books on high efficiency home building techniques. (Out of print but view a search HERE)

Builders Guide To 1986 Washington State Energy Code; J. Raabe, T. Lenchek. Energy Business Association of Washington, 1986.

Energy Efficient Construction Techniques; J. Raabe, T. Lenchek, C. Mattock. Washington State Energy Office, 1984.

Energy Efficient Multi-family Construction; J. Raabe, T. Lenchek. Washington State Energy Office, 1984.

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