hacking cabin construction
August 5, 2020 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Let's say I want to build a small very cheap off grid cabin* and am reasonably intelligent, if ignorant in the ways of construction. I have access to land already and a large building near the construction site that can house material and tools securely. Are there smarter ways to construct a small off the grid cabin quickly as a single adult?

Is anyone developing/writing about/coming up with smarter ways to quickly build a small cabin? Has this been, for lack of a better word, "hacked?"

*small = ideally, twelve feet by twelve, a second floor or secure roof access, and no real need for electricity or plumbing.
posted by history is a weapon to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
There are cabin kits specifically to be easy to put up; plans and all parts. I seem to recall however that all of them say that "with a few friends or family members." i.e. some steps of the process might be nigh impossible to do well on one's own. However, if there are adjustable supports setup/built, it might be possible to do it all with one person.
posted by nobeagle at 10:50 AM on August 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

It may be difficult to do alone. I just read a rather compelling article on Outside Online about building a cabin that wasn't so easy.

There are actually a number of articles on Outside Online about cabin building that I found with a search on "cabin".
posted by ceejaytee at 11:00 AM on August 5, 2020 [6 favorites]

I found it difficult to assemble an 8x10 play house by myself as a 6'4" adult (hard to hold beam rigidly in position at one end while also fastening that beam); doing an entire cabin without another person will require some means of holding large objects -- I would definitely look at buying, renting, or jury-rigging some kind of jib crane or work hoist, as well as a few adjustable braces. If there are large trees nearby you can wing a lot of this, as long as you've got enough rope, some tackle, and are willing to run back and forth adjusting.

Studio Shed is fancier than you probably want, but their installation books are online if you want to get a handle on some of the details (like sill plates, drip edges, etc.).
posted by aramaic at 11:08 AM on August 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

I came in here to link to that Outside Online article above. Def. worth a read.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:24 AM on August 5, 2020

Some people will use shipping containers as a base and then install things like flooring and wiring and cut out openings for windows and doors. You would need a way to get the shipping container(s) on site though.

I've built an 8x12 shed almost all by myself but at a couple of times I did have assistance for moving the base onto the concrete footings I had poured and holding things like walls and my roof trusses in place until I could fasten them. You could change how you did things so that one person would be able to safely do them but they'd take a fair bit more time to complete. An extra set of hands or two is a great help.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:29 AM on August 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

Yes, the TinyHome or TinyHouse subculture is massive, with hacks galore, and there are both pay and free sites for designs. If your land is relatively level and you are sufficiently funded to have room for mistakes you could probably build what you want from youtube videos and some basic designs you obtain or create yourself. A popular alternate option is to buy an older RV or travel trailer, remodel it for comfort (and probably for mold remediation) and park it while you build any desired outbuildings, small barn, shack, stable, outhouse, etc.

I do think they tend to be harder work than people like to make it look. It is very difficult to do without at least 4 if not 6-8 hands to get most of the structural work done, and it may be unavoidable to need a backhoe or excavator to get a flat starting point/support posts sunk, depending on terrain.

But you could certainly start with youtube to get a feel for the skills you'll need, tools you'll require, and some idea of the scope of labor involved.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:36 AM on August 5, 2020

The building trades program at my local community college builds and sells tiny houses. You might consider if there is something similar available near you.
posted by rockindata at 11:38 AM on August 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

Ha. I've been looking into options for an off-grid thing too.

I'm no carpenter, but my coworker (also not a carpenter, but very handy) and I (medium-handy) bought an old-but-not-rusted-out hay wagon off of Craigslist and constructed a 9x22 chicken house on it.

Essentially, we built the shell of a tiny house on wheels. We bought plans online, and had Lowe's cut the wood to length. I'd say we had it framed out and roof on in about 2.5 weeks of daily work? We definitely cut corners, paid minimal attention to detail, and cheaped out on materials, because... it's for chickens.

We just walled it up in particle board—not for humans—and stopped there, because... again, chickens. But I was very tempted to keep going on insulation, drywall, half-ass cabinets, wood stove, etc. (She says, not having the experience. Ha.)

There were definitely lengthy parts of the build one of us could do alone, and definitely lengthy parts during which we needed two people.

I think it cost, including cheapo materials and the hay wagon, $8,000ish?

Also to note: living in a chicken house could be a terrible idea.

Or really fun. Or both. I don't know.

I snooped, and it seems you're near NYC. If your land is somewhere near-ish the Hudson Valley, I'd love to lend that second hand to Operation Cabin 2020.
posted by functionequalsform at 11:58 AM on August 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

I think to an extent that stick-framed housing is already kind of a hack, in that it is really quick and easy for a crew to frame a house with not a lot of equipment - all you need is a saw to cut the wood to the right length and a hammer and nails to fasten it together. The other hack here would be to use power tools to reduce the amount of physical effort you'd need to put in.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:15 PM on August 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is an assignment we do every fall at our uni. For the coming semester, I hope to engage with a factory, so we can actually develop a commercial product for self-builders, but even if we succeed, it won't be ready before February, and it might be prohibitively expensive to ship it to the US. You could look for build-studios at American universities, I know there is a famous one in Alabama.
posted by mumimor at 12:18 PM on August 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you're going to work by yourself, this book probably can offer some suggestions: Working Alone, by Carroll.
posted by maxwelton at 12:33 PM on August 5, 2020 [5 favorites]

A shed to tiny house conversion is a thing. Alternatively, you could use a non-traditional structure as your cabin (e.g. school bus, RV, shipping container, yurt, etc.).
posted by oceano at 12:33 PM on August 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

I built a small log-cabin style workshop a couple of years ago, from a kit. Single storey, about 14' x 8'. I definitely couldn't have put it together alone. It took two of us a day to put it up (a concrete slab was already in place). Kits are great, because everything's pre-cut and just slots together. Painting it took much longer than assembling it.

I did spend time treating each log before assembly, though, as it wasn't pre-treated.
posted by pipeski at 12:46 PM on August 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Not sure if it counts as a hack or not, but this video details a way to avoid levelling a slab or digging foundations. In summary you bore a set of holes then concrete-in threaded bar to get adjustable points to build from.

There’s loads more details in the video but I wouldn’t call them hacks, rather a lot of hard work and coolscary tools. I do think it could be done solo though.
posted by paulash at 1:12 PM on August 5, 2020

The classic one in Ontario is from Cottage Life, the plans include the parts list etc.
posted by saucysault at 6:26 PM on August 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think constructing something like this for a handy solo amateur would be difficult.
The quick solution is to shop around for an inexpensive trailer cabin to tow in.
posted by ovvl at 8:59 PM on August 5, 2020

A straw bale house you could maybe do alone, if you were crafty about lifting techniques for setting the one-ish beam that you would need.
posted by janell at 9:13 PM on August 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is an amazing set of responses. The only thing I want to clarify is that while perhaps 90% of it would be done by a single person, I can definitely find another person, even perhaps in this very thread, to help with tasks that require two people (for example, setting a beam). I don't want to fixate on the need to jerry rig a single person dangerously lifting beams because I am friendless and unloved, but amazing responses so far.
posted by history is a weapon at 5:45 AM on August 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Think about the orientation on site for solar purposes. Building and/or living solo is difficult; try to recruit help.
Sanitation is a big problem to solve; sometimes ignored by glowing articles about tiny houses. Research and plan. It's solvable but non-trivial.
posted by theora55 at 6:39 AM on August 6, 2020

Came in to suggest checking out Earthships. Here's an example in California that was built by one couple for $10k.
posted by acridrabbit at 9:03 AM on August 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ooo, that's a good point about Earthships, and there's a related approach called Earthbag that may also work depending on your environment, and with much less time spent tamping the dirt. Still gotta do beams, but the walls are comparatively easy this way.
posted by aramaic at 9:36 AM on August 6, 2020

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