Cabin Fever: Scheming in Preparation

I was talking with my friend Kim Werker about the process of making things a while back, and at one point she asked me what I would do with myself once the cabin project was finished. I chuckled a little and explained that this is the type of project that never gets finished. It’s an ongoing, everlasting affair—more of an evolution of many projects over time. This particular cabin we’ve been building is indeed Phase One of a longer-term goal to build something more permanent, but even Phase One will take a few years.

As Justin and I spent the winter thinking about all sorts of things we wanted to do this next year, our goals for the cabin became clear. If 2014 was the Year of Basic Shelter, then we achieved it. 2015 would be the Year of the Interior, allowing us to extend the cabin’s use into the early spring and late fall without freezing to death. Keeping this in mind, we split up the whole-year goal into smaller projects based on five expected trips while considering how much each part of the project would cost based on our overarching budget goals.

Nothing like a little whiteboarding to get that excitement going! This was our first draft of plans.

Trip A: Flooring and Wiring
Durable laminate floors, as well as rough electrical work to prepare for solar panels and a battery bank.

Trip B: Insulation and Heater
Fiberglass insulation throughout, and a propane heater/fireplace to keep us warm on the chilly nights.

Trip C: Walls and Ceiling
Drywall on the lower walls, tongue-and-groove siding up along the ceiling, electrical fixtures and outlets/switches.

Trip D: Furnishings & Solar
Sofa bed, table, storage shelves, and other furnishings, as well as installing the solar panel system.

Trip E: Kitchen and Paint
A prep kitchen for the interior with counter space, a sink, and cabinets, as well as paint and stain throughout.

With that in our brains, we got carried away talking about what the cabin might look like when we were finished with it, and I spent a few hours messing around in SketchUp to create an exterior vision. Adding a veranda/deck around three sides, an outhouse, a generator/propane enclosure, and an exterior cooktop were all high on the list. If all goes according to plan—and assuming we don’t change our minds, which has been known to happen—this is how the cabin might look at the end of 2016:

But with our feet planted firmly back on the ground, we focused on the next steps. We invested in rebuilding the truck’s transmission, fixing some oil and coolant leaks, and replacing the front brakes. We also did a lot of research into materials and heating options, bought a book on electrical wiring, and started scouring the internet for good deals and cost-effective materials and construction methods. And the hunt paid off! We ended up scoring big time on two major items.

Fire Sale

There are a lot of options out there to heat a tiny space, but a lot of the typical tiny houses on wheels expect to be connected to electrical service, which is not an option for an off-grid cabin. We considered a wood stove, but the space requirements really limited our layout, and there isn’t much for solid fuel in that area, so we didn’t want to rely on keeping a supply of firewood on hand. Then we learned all about marine propane heaters, which are highly efficient wall-mounted fireplaces that produce a hefty amount of heat. Incidentally, a tiny house tends to have about the same amount of volume as a boat cabin, so they’re becoming very popular solutions for tiny living.

Dickinson Marine makes two models, but we were having trouble finding what we wanted in stock, and backorders kept getting pushed out from the manufacturer. Frustrated by their timeline and worried that we wouldn't get the heater before our first planned trip, Justin took to Craigslist and happened to find a used model for sale at a local marine exchange shop that sells equipment on consignment. The heater itself retails for $1,495, but is usually on sale for about $800. This used model was selling for merely $400, and included a 28” flue extension, which runs another $115 if you were to buy it separately. You can bet we went straight to the store and snatched that puppy up! The unit needed a lot of cleaning, and we initially thought the circulation fan motor was bad, but it turned out everything worked great, and all for less than half the price.

Bedding Down

In shopping for a small couch to buy, we naturally started at IKEA. But the tricky part was finding something that would also convert into a bed. It’s important to us to be able to sleep four people in the cabin so we can invite friends to join us at the property without needing to worry about bringing a tent and potentially braving the wind. Once you start looking at sofa beds, size constraints become a major challenge—both in width and how long the couch stretches out when converted to a bed. Luckily we found the perfect solution in a slightly-less-than-full size sofa bed with a very low profile. Bonus points that it has storage underneath for linens and blankets.

The couch retails for $500, and we weren’t expecting to fork over that cash until the interior was a little further along. Whenever we go to IKEA, though, we always start in the As-Is section to see what they have to offer. During a trip for another purpose in February, we spotted a floor model of the same exact couch. When I turned over the tag, my eyes lit up—even though it had a minor broken part, whoever labeled it did so incorrectly, and the entire couch was priced for a whopping $98. Justin and I looked at each other, looked around, then immediately put the couch on a cart, wheeled it through the cash register, and swiped the credit card without saying a word. Score!

With a heater and sofa waiting to be carted up to the property, we set to work on other preparations—learning about basic wiring, mapping out power needs, shopping for kitchen cabinets, and calculating insulation square footage, among other things. The more we planned, the more excited we were to return, and the more we started watching the weather up there like hawks. It would only be a matter of time for our first trip of 2015…