Why do you do THAT?

18 May

Lately, we’re getting hammered by aid agencies as the Mississippi swallows up the heartland and tornadoes ravage what’s seemingly left.

Now all we need is a hard shake on the Coast… and we’ll have a hat trick.

Man, there is so much hardship out there…

As a result, I’ve getting my brain picked pretty hard and some of those corporate guys are trying to “understand me.” They don’t understand why anyone would devote the better part of their lives to something that doesn’t fill a pot full of gold.

“Alex, you seem like a really sharp guy. You could have made a LOT of money…” I was told…

People are asking me over and over again why I design and then build “alternative homes” for families and not “for profit”…

They just don’t “get” it.

I’m reminded of a letter I wrote to a dear friend (that I never even met – try to figure that one out…) after the passing of her husband.

Dear Karen,

(If I may be so bold…)

You don’t know me, but I’d like to share a story with you.

Malcolm Wells changed my life. I’m sure that it wasn’t his intention, and I’m sure that he probably didn’t even realize that he was doing it, but it’s true.

Many years ago, when I was just starting out on my “adventure into Architecture,” as a student at UCLA, I got to speak with Mac for about 5 minutes. I spoke about the difficulties encountered by people drawn to the earth, when architects seemingly drew monuments that sat on top of it.

I explained to him that I’d already lived in many countries, most of them in the third world, and we spoke briefly of the true nature of man, the one who lived with the earth, and not in spite of it…

Within moments of speaking to Mac, I knew I was “different…”

Fast forward…

I graduated with honors from UCLA and  went directly to work for a very prestigious Los Angeles Architectural firm, run by a “talentless tyrant.”

At the conclusion of a seminar on “Landmark Buildings and the Environment”  I remember that I compared those “monuments” to the “Red Corvette in the driveway of the middle-aged man…” I told my Architect boss (the aforementioned egomaniac with a drafting pencil) that I didn’t want to be “Stern,” I wanted to emulate “Wells.”

He thought I was insane.

He told me to “Shut up, and go get his dry cleaning.” I told him he needed to pick himself up off the floor – after I’d knocked him down. 

It was “the last straw” and I’d had all the “Steel and Glass Monuments to Ego and Stupidity” that I could stomach.

I left that building a “free man.”

It was a turning point for me. And I owe it to Mac Wells. If not for him, I’d probably have been “just another underpaid architectural slave in a cubicle” living under the thumb of a tyrant forever.

I suspect that Mac would have been disappointed in me for losing my temper, but I hope that he would have been proud of me, for the life I led, afterward.

You see…

Three weeks later, I was unemployed and standing in a rain forest in Northern California, cutting Shipping Containers apart with a grinder and a skill saw, to build an “alternative home” completely off the grid. “Net Zero” WAY before the term was ever coined.

And I’ve been “free” ever since. After too many Shipping Container and even (gasp!) Hybrid Homes for deserving families to count… I’m still reading Mac’s work, and getting lost in his drawings…

I never formed that big corporation (and I never even found a partner I didn’t want to kill at the end of the day)…

We just helped families that needed houses… build them.

We were content to be… “just guys.”

It wasn’t the money. It was the safety that we created for those kids.

And we’re still doing it today.

Mac Wells taught me that. It was all about “the future” by making changes to the “present.”

Some of his work has found it’s way into the projects we breathed life into and in several cases, his name is actually inscribed in some remote section of concrete, as tribute…  just to show that in some small way, he’d been there with us, even if just in spirit.

30 some-odd years later, I’m writing a blog that has become a cornerstone of the “alternative home” world, where Malcolm’s gentle spirit still speaks volumes… and drives most of my pencil strokes.

I’d have given anything to have gotten a note or a letter, or even a scrawled little drawing from him. I’d have hung it on the wall over my workstation, to draw inspiration from. I even wrote to him once, a long time ago, but he was simply too busy to answer me.

That’s the nature of dedicated men, and he was the best of them…

Please excuse my rambling here. The knowledge of his passing brought me to tears. I hardly knew him, yet he seemed so very much a part of me.

Please know that our thoughts and prayers are with you, in this time…

We will miss him, profoundly.


Alex Klein

I consider Karen a dear friend because she stood by a man that I idolize as his eyes grew dim and his body slowly failed, because she believed in him…and what he stood for.

Malcolm Wells taught me that NOW is the time for change. But first, you have to recognize that change affects EVERYTHING.

And then, you have to figure out how to make that positive change attainable to anyone that needs it.

I wish he was here now. I know that he’d have a pot full of pearls to inspire us with.

As Louisiana slowly floods… as more and more town and cities disappear under the Mississippi River’s cresting… we need that inspiration more than ever.

Over the next few days, I’m going to run some projects that inspire me.

You’re going to be amazed at the direction some people are taking, when using these wonderful metal boxes.

We have a LOT of work to do. I just hope that we are all up to the tasks set before us.


One Response to “Why do you do THAT?”

  1. Kim May 18, 2011 at 9:56 am #

    Loved the sharing of that letter. I have been similarly inspired by people in the alternative building community and the generosity of spirit I so often encounter. Looking forward to seeing the work you’re doing. Grateful you’re doing it.

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