After that first cold night camping at our brand-new 12.5-acre property, we decided that our first step going into 2014 would be to build some sort of basic shelter to extend the tolerable season from about four months out of the year to six months or more. Our long-term goal is to build a more permanent structure served by a well, a full septic system, and a solar power grid, but we know that pursuing something that fancy will take several years of planning, designing, engineering, and building (along with a significant cost associated with it).
For the time being, we set out to design Phase One—a tiny DIY cabin with some key features, all keeping simplicity in mind:
- Simple shelter—protection against the wind and cold so we can have restful sleep when we’re there
- Simple power—a solar panel and battery bank with capacity to charge our phones and/or computers* and provide lighting
- Simple cooking—a sink, stove, and prep space for basic meals
- Simple lodging—an extra bed so that we can invite friends along with us, and, once the larger cabin is built, extending the life of this structure as an auxiliary bunkhouse for friends and family
Over the winter months spanning the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014, I set to researching how to build something that would meet these basic needs. The tiny house movement was a great place to start, but I quickly found that so many of the blogs and articles about tiny houses were focused on year-round, mobile living with critical access to utilities. While the design solutions and innovation around tiny spaces were helpful, the basics for what we needed weren’t quite addressed.
* I know, I know, you’re probably saying, “Phones and computers!? This is supposed to be a retreat!” That’s true, but we look forward to being able to do some work from the cabin if we want to. There also happens to be decent cellular signal there, which will help us stay connected if we choose to be. Bonus points for being able to make everyone jealous in real-time via Instagram.
I was able to find a few references to using DIY shed kits from the big box home improvement stores and modifying them for use as a hunting cabin or backyard artist studio. A few trips to the parking lot display models helped us really envision what we could do with one of these part-and-parcel solutions, but there was one major problem—I’m 6' 4" and many of the shed doors and ceiling heights were far too short for me to comfortably move around in. Luckily we were able to find a few models that had 7' ceilings, and we selected a 10' x 12' gambrel-roof (barn-style) kit that offered a small loft up above and much more headroom in the open attic space. Based on the kit, I started planning a few modifications that would make the structure a little more cabin-like—an actual entry door instead of a double-wide barn door, a larger loft with better supports to accommodate a full or queen mattress and two people sleeping on it, and framing in a few small windows.
I’m a huge fan of spreadsheets, but once I started adding up the costs of the $2,000 kit, the modifications, those materials that the kit doesn’t include (roofing shingles and exterior paint), and the costs of the trip and equipment, we were looking at over $3,500 just to get the basic structure built.* Costs aside, there were two other factors that were giving me pause in my planning:
- Reviews for the shed kits were mediocre at best. Some people reported super-green or very low quality lumber and broken or missing pieces. Others reported that the OSB (oriented strand board) platform developed rot issues within a year or two, something we definitely didn’t want to deal with despite the dry climate. Since the property is an hour’s drive from the nearest big-box home improvement store, contingencies for trips into town need to be minimized. And since we were planning on picking up the kit in Wenatchee to save on fuel mileage rather than picking it up in the Portland area, we wouldn’t be able to inspect it fully before hauling it up there.
- The kit itself comes bundled up on a 4' x 8' pallet and clocks in at 1,322 pounds! We had already planned on enlisting my brother, Alex, and his truck for building and hauling, respectively, but that’s a lot of weight to haul in a single package, not to mention the additional tools, lumber, and supplies we’d need to bring with us. There would also be quite a bit of excess material from the kit that we didn’t need, adding unnecessary weight.
As I was going over the modifications to the shed kit with Alex, he finally asked, “So why are you getting the kit anyway? I bet you could do it for cheaper from scratch and get exactly what you want from the get-go."
Fair point, Alex! I’ll admit that I was seeking the easy way out of the project. The kit had everything we needed, step-by-step building instructions, and the modifications seemed to be within reason. It seemed to be a sure bet in a world of unknowns on a piece of dirt with no utilities and limited access. I also didn’t fully trust myself to design something from scratch, even though I’d taken four years of drafting and architecture electives in high school (I know, right?) and still had a good sense for how to build things. And when it finally occurred to me that Alex’s own history working for a few years in construction would supplement my design knowledge with practical experience, it was all too clear that this was a no-brainer.
* The goal for us on the initial build trip was to get the basic structure of foundation, platform, walls, and roof completed, then continue improving it on subsequent trips.
I dusted off my quarter-inch grid pad (that I think I’ve hung onto since high school), broke out my drafting pencils (okay, typing this now makes me realize how silly it was to even start with the shed kit), and started drawing. To be fair though, I kind of cheated. It turns out that the shed kit manufacturer has downloads of the instruction booklets on their website, so I dove into the PDF for the 10' x 12' gambrel shed and used it as a guide.
It was liberating to start from scratch! I could just design my modifications right in from the beginning without needing to accommodate an existing structure, and where the kit design clearly cut corners, I could confidently beef up the construction with standard practices (8' ceilings would eliminate trimming all the studs) or upgrade the lumber to thicker plywood and two-by-sixes instead of flimsy OSB and two-by-fours.
When all was said and done (and after several phone calls and a few review sessions with Alex, we were confident that we could do this ourselves and ditch the kit altogether. And once I compiled the materials list and started pricing it out, it looked like we’d indeed be saving at least $500 and ending up with less waste overall.
The most complicated part of the design was the roof. Gambrel roofs include five mitre joints across four panels, and the angles are totally variable based on how much clearance you want at the peak and along the sides. Then add to that the structural gussets that tie each of the individual pieces of lumber together to both support the weight and withstand lateral movement from wind. That kind of angle math goes way beyond my calculation skills, but luckily Alex found an online calculator that allows you to input the span, the size of the lumber you’re using, and delivers an interactive plan that allows you to visualize how the cross-section of the roof will look at various truss lengths. The resulting diagram provides detailed dimensions and angles for each piece of lumber, as well as for all the gussets that tie them together. Perfect.
Two Additions to Our Family: Zeus and Cody
In January 2014, Justin and I finally gave ourselves permission (after years of talking about it) to get a dog, and we adopted Zeus from a shelter in Yakima, Washington. At two-ish years old and 55 pounds, we were certain our energetic, blue-eyed husky/red heeler mix would absolutely love roaming around on the property. That also meant we needed to factor in space in our vehicle for our new-found companion.
Flynn, our trusty Chevy Sonic, gets great gas mileage, but with front-wheel drive, low clearance, limited cargo space, and no rating for snow chains or towing, we knew that it was time to consider buying a second vehicle that could serve as an all-weather hauling companion. Honestly, up until this point I had never imagined myself buying a truck, but it started to make more and more sense as we continued planning for various trips to the property and our need to take lots of things with us (not to mention yard-work hauling at home). In March 2014 we added Cody, a 1996 GMC Sonoma with 230,000 miles on the odometer, to our growing family of boys. (Say what you will about naming vehicles after girls, that just seems ridiculous to me!)
Between my brother’s full-sized pickup and our new-to-us small truck, we felt reasonably confident that we’d be able to haul everything we needed up to the property. The new built-from-scratch spreadsheet was complete, the total budget clocked in at right around $3,000, and we laid our plans to visit the property as early as we could justify in 2014 and get this tiny cabin project underway.
Note: If you're interested in doing something like this yourself, I'll be posting the detailed plans I drew, justification behind some of the design decisions, budget, and other materials and equipment considerations in a separate article down the road.