Hammering Home

A Carpenter’s Life as Told by Houses
by Larry Haun.  2011.  The Taunton Press, Newtown, CT.  264 pp.

With A Carpenter’s Life as Told by Houses, the versatile builder Larry Haun writes of Americana, hardscrabble and all.  He does this with an accessible narrative for non-carpenters, and occasional still photography for accent, some from his home life and others from job sites. 

Haun authored several articles and books, bringing vibrancy and historical authenticity to the discourse on built and natural environments over the arc of his career.  Readers familiar with the writer Philip Levine’s eloquent poems about putting one's heart into work may see this dynamic personified when learning about Larry Haun for the first time.  Haun’s journey through life took him to a multitude of house types and structures.  He had the gift of looking at homes and people on a variety of intellectual levels.  Haun wrote about a family friend, down on his luck, who landed a tenancy at will thanks to a rancher who permitted the family to build a dugout on a “worthless” piece of land, one of the house types Haun details in the book.  As a youngster, Haun’s parents suffered what I’ll call an appendectomy foreclosure, when they couldn’t repay a $600 bank loan used for the surgery.  Medical foreclosures still devastate households in today’s economy.  A Carpenter’s Life is a one-of-a-kind document of personal and social history, where Haun bestows houses with a script for telling the stories of carpentry and humanity. 

Haun recalls the impact of significant federal laws on people’s lives and real estate—the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Kincaid Act of 1904—before his birth, and the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 after his birth, to bring attention to the transformation of lands west of the Mississippi River, of numerous counties in Nebraska, and of the powering of rural America.

Haun’s thoughtful coverage of Nebraska is a testimony that stands out—not only its settlement and housing and Native people, but its geography and climate.  If you are relocating to Nebraska, please feel a sense of obligation to read A Carpenter’s Life on your Kindle Fire prior to applying for a driver’s license. 

Real estate agents in the Great Plains can build confidence among their clients by demonstrating a local historic perspective, if they hear you talking with relative ease about soddies, Nebraska marble, and Kalsomine.  Agents in the American Southwest, listing adobe houses for sale, can brush up on Haun’s insightful thoughts on thermal mass, vigas, and latillas.  Haun even writes about a “cousin” to the adobe, the cob house which, he points out, is experiencing a revival of sorts in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1951, Haun was drafted into the Navy, where he trained in the construction of Quonset huts.  Later on active duty, he reported to Quonset Point, Rhode Island, where he was placed in a battalion and shipped to Newfoundland, to construct a Quonset hut post office and a landing strip.  On duty in Greenland, he used his newly found knowledge to construct Jamesway huts, an arctic adaptation of the Quonset.  “We knew from the beginning,” Haun wrote, “that you can’t build directly on snow or ice if the building will be heated.  Heat from a stove will be transferred through the floor and slowly melt the ice, allowing the building to sink lower and lower.”

If you’ve got a thing for straw bale construction techniques, this is your hardcover book to bear the load.  Naturally, you’ll appreciate Haun explaining the difference between straw and hay.  If your teenager is pondering a post-high school line of work, Haun’s stories offer a rich breadth to construction far beyond the hardhat, thermos, and paycheck.  If you’re looking for an empathetic voice about toxicity matters in homes, such as the evaporation of volatile chemicals found in materials and finishes, pick up a copy of Haun’s book.  If you’re thinking of a holiday gift for that one handy person who has always baffled you on home improvement projects with skill, dexterity, and strength, you ought to wrap up A Carpenter’s Life.

You don’t have to embrace Haun’s worldview to at least appreciate his adaptability to changes in methods used to build houses, his humility, and his philanthropy through construction.  His respect for and constructive feedback on Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards is admirable.  “The problem is," wrote Haun, "I don’t see this list filtering down to the mass of us Americans.  For that to happen, we need a simplified approach to greenness that, even though it is not perfect, is easy to understand, doesn’t produce a huge increase in the cost of construction, and makes sense.  As a friend said, ‘Who can afford all the green bling the LEED list says I need in order to have a certified green home?’”     

While engrossed in A Carpenter’s Life as Told by Houses, I learned of Larry Haun’s untimely passing in October 2011 at the age of 80 as I read Penelope Green’s review of the memoir in the New York Times Reading his chronological construction schedule from the 1930s to the 21st century, you not only think you get to know Larry, but maybe by extension, you grow to know better the unsung tradespeople with whom you’ve had the pleasure of solving problems.  You know, those go-to extra-milers.  In the product of their labor, you can see that they care.

In a western Nebraska town where Haun lived in the 1940s—it's easy to conjure up wind-swept prairie grasses coating the landscape, thanks to his scenic prose—Larry described how in autumn he loved to observe the colorful leaves on the scant few trees descend from branches to the earth.  “They reminded me,” Haun wrote, “that I, too, am tied to a branch that will one day let me go.”

- November 2011