how to design a small cabin to build myself
September 15, 2005 9:23 PM   Subscribe

I want to build a shed-sized cabin, but don't know how to design it, in terms of making it attractively-proportioned and inviting to be inside of. It must be shed-sized (treehouse-sized) in that its floor plan can't exceed 120 sq ft, so we can make it without planning permits or beaurocracy.

The site is on a steep hillside with a wonderful view south down a wooded valley out over the ocean; the hill is right behind at the back, and there are trees at the sides. So the cabin should probably have a big window in the south wall, and a door at the west. It will sit on a deck/platform, which I'm making now on a foundation of reinforced concrete piers on rock. There will be some deck on the south side of the cabin.

The cabin should be wood-frame, because that's what I can do. I've a Skil saw, hammer, and similar basic tools, although my construction experience is limited to a bit of Habitat work and helping friends with projects. Things like the Loftcube are out of my range. Cost has to be kept minimal, too; I expect I'll do interior finish work later. Outer walls and roof will be enough to start with.

The cabin will be used mainly as a place for escape, writing, meditation, and art, not a permanent living space, but it would be nice to sleep there (I've often camped there in a tent). It's about 100 yards from our house, up a steepish trail. It won't have electricity or water.

What I need now please is advice about the design, and how to make it a pleasant space to be inside of. What proportions would work? I can do layout plans and figure the contruction details once the space itself is designed. General ideas of what's easy to build (flat roof sounds simple, but pitched roof could allow a sleeping loft) would also be great.
posted by anadem to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I really love this guy's work- many of his houses are less than 120 square feet, and he puts rough floorplans up on his website. You can certainly get an idea of how to design an office/bedroom-type-place that's invitingly cozy, as opposed to cramped.
posted by kalimac at 9:33 PM on September 15, 2005

Teddy, is that you?
posted by davy at 9:36 PM on September 15, 2005

I've always thought this ReadyMade shack would be an awesome project. It's 100 square feet and all the materials are meant to be easily found at Home Depot-type places and costs about $1500. Simple materials, clean look, nice windows, easy instructions. They recommend a contracter in places, but I think if you've built structures before you'd be okay. I personally think the clean design is gorgeous without being expensive. Sounds like a great plan to me!
posted by fionab at 9:46 PM on September 15, 2005

I'm seconding the 'ReadyMade' shack, some of its (slightly large) brethren even have sleeping lofts, so maybe you can figure a way to include one.

There is a little more info, and more photos, on the ModularDwellings site, look for MD100 under Buildings (look right down the bottom to see one with a sleeping loft).

If you do end up building one, I'd love to hear how you get on.
posted by The Monkey at 10:12 PM on September 15, 2005

I came here to say that the ReadyMade shack looks nice. But I'm the third person to do so.
posted by Vidiot at 11:08 PM on September 15, 2005

Andy Sheldon has some interesting designs here.
posted by Marky at 11:13 PM on September 15, 2005

The simple rule of thumb for making things proportionally pleasing to the eye is to use the golden ratio.... 1.6:1, if memory serves. Base your measurements around that, and you'll start seeing an instinctively pleasing proportion.

I've seen (photos of) this used in an occult lodge setting: every single part of the room, from its size to the placement (and design) of furniture and other objects, was based entirely on the 1.6:1 ratio and logarithmic spirals (the classic nautilus shell, the one Michaelangelo used on David, etc). When looking at the images, there's a sense of very deep rightness about how everything fits together. And this was done by people with very little to no design background at all.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:03 AM on September 16, 2005

Tumbleweed Tiny Houses

These are the best designed small spaces I have seen.
posted by Corky at 3:25 AM on September 16, 2005

Finnish Puuinfo has construction info, simple blueprints and step-by-step instructions (in finnish) for building a 65 or 105 sqft shed(pdf). They say it is designed to be easy to build, solid and not-too-expensive. It doesn't fit your specifications exactly, but maybe you can at least get some ideas from it. If you want some translation help, e-mail me.
posted by lazy-ville at 5:49 AM on September 16, 2005

The steep hillside is the real challenge. You are going to need to sink some posts into the hill to level off your cabin. To avoid these posts getting too seriously long, I would dig out part of the hill as well. You may want to dig out the hill and lay a cement slab, then the second half of your cabin will be supported by the posts. You will need to sink the posts very deeply to prevent them from washing out (eventually they will wash out unless you drill those posts to the fricking core of the earth).

Erosion is inevitable, you should expect it and try to figure out ways to avoid it.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:53 AM on September 16, 2005

Response by poster: Forgot to add this link to a few photos of the job so far. The ocean's about four miles off but the photos are too low-res to see well.

Fwiw the concrete foundation posts are dug well into the rock of the hillside. All materials have to be carried in by hand (long, steeply sloped, narrow, rough trail) so I avoided the slab suggested by Pollomacho.

Still looking at the suggestions -- many thanks all! I'll do some sketching over the weekend while recovering from the hauling. The ReadyMade shack looks nice, so maybe I can use its ideas and adapt them to golden section proportions.
posted by anadem at 9:54 AM on September 16, 2005

Not just you but everyone should get the Dover Books version of "Basic Construction Techniques for Houses and Small Buildings Simply Explained" by the Naval Personel Board. It has much more than the title indicates (like, falling trees and making lumber out of them). Made for the Navy, it has tons of great info. Also, Sunset Books publishes several books of cabin plans (I have a reallly old one at home that's not listed on Amazon, I think it's called "101 cabin plans")
posted by 445supermag at 12:31 PM on September 16, 2005

The Modern Shed is pretty neat.
posted by greasy_skillet at 2:00 PM on September 16, 2005

You really need to read A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan. He did exactly what you are doing and wrote a novel about it. He built, with his own hands, a small shack just for writing and what-not. It's an entertaining read and it's full of information I'm sure you would find pertinent. He goes through all the siting and design and construction and all that stuff. It serves as good primer to the whole architectural process and is a good meditation on the motivations for such a project. It would be a real shame if you built this thing without reading his book!

Here's an amazon link for more information.
posted by iloveit at 5:30 PM on September 16, 2005

Some extremly good comments in this thread. Having been brought up in a small cabin, I can only say a loft is indespindable. Private spaces are nice, especially in the restroom if children are invovled. We heat our 16x14' with a 100lb propane, which lasts all winter (Nov-Apr). The key here is to design around what you want. Loftspace, window space, floorspace, etc. It's not too hard, your tools/skills as a developer will get you far. Basically, sketch it out and go. Be sure to add enough windows to make the space feel open, without too many to make the environment unmanagable. A basemet is a sure plus, but judging from your photos - not possible at this point. Have fun with it and realize you can always add on. Our small cabin added a 40x24' section, which made it amazing. Perhaps something later, with thie grandchildren... Enjoy your property, keep up the amazing ideas. It looks great!
posted by sled at 5:22 PM on September 17, 2005

Response by poster: As a followup: a very small cabin is nearly built. It's about 6'x10' with most of the (10') south wall glass, a window in the east wall, and a door in the west. We're at the sheetrock stage now, sheathed but no siding yet. I was given a chop saw for my birthday, which has been invaluably easier for framing than the Skil saw.

The site is really fabulous, but the cabin is very minimal, just enough space for a bed and a desk (plus the deck of course.) There are some more very low-res pics on flickr, but no pics of the latest stages yet.

Next project is a biggish treehouse, perhaps along the lines of bradth27's though higher off the ground, in a group of redwoods. No view, but very cool in the heat.
posted by anadem at 8:43 PM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

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