We Had So Much Fun Building The First Cabin, We Built Another
By Chris Bordeleau
OUR OFF-GRID ADVENTURE started in 2007. Little did we know that building cabins was fun and that our place would sprout four additional structures in the next six years.
My day job is in the IT industry, so we had a steep learning curve. At the start I could barely hammer a nail straight or cut a board square. I spent several months reading books researching online on forums and YouTube. Our goal was to build structures that would last, but not break the bank. It’s a delicate balancing act in both adventure and an education.
Construction started on the main cabin in the fall of 2007. We contracted local Amish to build the 20-by-32 foot shell and paid $5,000. We spent the early fall clearing the land and preparing the site for the cabin. This included removing several trees, using our old Ford 8N, middle buster and back blade to level the location, and having gravel brought in.
The hemlock logs for the cabin were felled on our landand brought to a local Amish sawmill using a team of horses. There the boards were milled, cut to length and planed if needed on a diesel-powered sawmill. The boards were then brought back to our site by horse and buggy. I am positive the Amish laugh to themselves at our version of off-the-grid living.
By spring the cabin shell was completed and we started on the interior. Over the next six years we have slowly finished the cabin. The interior walls were covered with a combination of commercial pine tongue and groove boards and locally milled larch that we ship-lapped ourselves.
In keeping with our main goal, the flooring, windows and doors came from a combination of dumpster diving, family and friends, and a couple of purchased windows. Looking around the cabin you will not find more than two windows that match. In the end it all works and looks like we planned it that way.
When it came time to power the cabin, we had options. We could tie into the power lines at the road 1,200 feet away, but the cost to run the power lines was going to be substantial. We started looking at alternative energy options. We have a good location for wind, but as this is mostly a weekend place and I did not want to worry about it being damaged by a winter storm. In the end we settled on a small solar power system that I designed and installed myself.
Like other aspects of our project, building something affordable that would last was important. When I built this system I sourced two, 180- watt solar panels for $540 each (similar sized panels can now be found for under $200). I opted for a large MPPT charge controller planning for expansion. The one we have will handle more than 1kW. I plan to expand our array soon, so this will come in handy.
The inverter is a used 1500 modified sin wave inverter/charger that can charge the batteries from a generator if needed. For batteries, we chose four 6V 225 amp golf cart batteries. We are still using the original batteries five years later, with the only maintenance being filling them with water about once a month.
When I built this system, I figured we spent about $2,200. I could build a similar system today for about $1,200 if I sized the charge controller for the two panels and not for the planned expansion.
For heat we found an old wood stove on Craigslist. It was rusty but solid, and after hitting it with a wire wheel, high temp paint and replacing the door gasket, it has served us well. We had a local Amish craftsman build a custom double wall chimney, which we installed. We have not installed running water yet, but will someday (it’s always “someday”).
The kitchen is a combination of custom-built lower cabinets and an upper cabinet that we found discarded in the trash. We installed a cultured stone tile countertop and sink that empties into a grey water system. For the stove we converted an old natural gas stove to propane, but the oven has never worked. We have a small propane oven and a custom-built stainless steel oven from the Amish that goes on the wood stove for now.
We estimate that the total cost of the nearly 1,000 square foot cabin (with solar power system) was around $13,000. Finishing off the remaining tasks will probably add a couple of thousand more, and we plan to someday add a small addition so we can move the sawdust toilet indoors. When we get water we would also like to add a shower (really living large now).
At this point the main cabin is a livable structure. We built a small tool shed/outhouse with a sawdust composting toilet then a 20-feet by 30-feet pole barn for storage, with an attached 10-feet by 30-feet covered area for firewood and to house our future water storage from a planed rainwater collection system.
Over the 2011-12 winter we started planning our second off-grid cabin. This was going to be a smaller 12-feet by 24- feet cabin with two rooms on the first floor and a sleeping loft on the second, overlooking the main living area. The idea was that guests who come to visit would have the option of sleeping indoors rather than in a tent.
Just like the original cabin, building an affordable well-built structure was our main goal. We had also learned a couple of things since that first build. We designed and built this one ourselves. We built all doors, planed our interior wallboards, milled from our timber, and found all windows discarded in the trash.
We are still in the process of finishing the interior of the guest cabin, but have had guests stay over the past year. At less than 500 square feet, with the sleeping loft it cozily sleeps six.
The guest cabin is also heated by wood. This stove is a nice sealed unit donated by a family member. Compared to the older stove I use, it burns much less wood. We had the local Amish again build us a double wall chimney, which we installed. All the chimneys have an easy to clean design that allows us to clean them from the bottom (a huge plus).
For now the floors of the guest cabin are painted plywood and we still have not decided what we will do in the end with them. This is a cabin where most people don’t remove their boots when entering, so we need something that will stand up to that along with the heat fluctuations that come from a building that is not heated throughout the winter.
We plan to add a small 12V DC solar power system to provide lighting, but have been getting along with kerosene, propane and Coleman fuel lanterns. The kitchen area consists of a small hand-built cabinet and countertop with a kerosene Butterfly cook stove.
On this cabin we thought ahead a little and added a small closet that has a sawdust toilet. Guests looking for more privacy can use the nearby outhouse. The guest cabin, being smaller and more primitive, we were able to keep the costs down. So far we estimate that we have spent around $3,000 and will probably spend an additional $1,000 before we are finished. (Are you ever really finished?)
For us, off-the-grid living is a weekend and summer vacation getaway. Working 7-5 in a windowless office on a computer all day would drive anyone to seek a little unplugged time.
Our off-grid adventure started so innocently. We were going to build a small single-room cabin with just a woodstove and lanterns for light. Then we got started and had so much fun building, we haven’t stopped. But we are approaching the point where new buildings are not needed and we’re looking for additional projects.
In the short term, adding an orchard and gardens along with digging a pond. Long term…I don’t think in long term very well…let’s just get through the short term.
You can follow my progress on YouTube at http:// youtube.com/buffcleb, our blog at www.bethnchris.com and Facebook http://facebook.com/buffcleb. Most of the projects mentioned above were covered in detail on either our blog or YouTube. Chris Bordeleau [Chris@bethnchris.com]