John Raabe's CountryPlans.com
- Langley, WA USA
DBA: Country Plans
LLC (our 33rd year)
the house we built on
Whidbey. Click here for more
Place I ever lived.
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.
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.
person I ever met
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
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.
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
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
It's not such
a bad way to go — fully engaged with life and going down with
your current project.
you taught me how to do more with less, and how to not get
caught up in the architectural ego-trap of over-designed
I ever had
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.
I learned from
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 1967: Five years of architecture
and economics at Whitman College and University of Washington.
Books and Manuals (partial list)
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)
Guide To 1986 Washington State
Energy Code; J. Raabe, T. Lenchek. Energy Business
Association of Washington, 1986.
Efficient Construction Techniques;
J. Raabe, T. Lenchek, C. Mattock. Washington State Energy Office, 1984.
Efficient Multi-family Construction;
J. Raabe, T. Lenchek. Washington State Energy