Progress on my Eco-Cabin Build:
A Retro Post from 2021

 

My Dear Readers,

One of the challenges with off-grid homestead living is that I am so busy with the basics of life that it is difficult to find time to write. For the past few years, time for writing has been particularly hard to find, as I have also been building my permanent cabin.

As I am making significant progress on the build now, I wanted to take some time to write about the build, the house design, and the successes and challenges I have faced since I began the process to apply for a build permit over three years ago.

My little off-grid cabin is designed in the spirit of my half-acre homestead: I strive to live lightly on the earth and be happy with less. At 18 by 24 feet, it is 432 square feet. It has a spacious great room, a bathroom, and a utility room in the rear of the bathroom. There is a partial attic over the bathroom and utility room. This will be great for storage. Because the Ontario Build Code has a regulation requiring a minimum size for a multipurpose room for cooking, eating, and sleeping, my cabin is approximately the smallest house you can legally build in this province. Although I live in a rural area "in the middle of nowhere," my land is all visible from the road. I did not want any future worries about the legality of my home, so I chose to do everything "by the book," getting a legal permit and all required inspections. 

One thing I learned from living in my tiny house on wheels was that a vaulted ceiling can create a sense of spaciousness even in smaller spaces. I used this principle in my cabin design, with the front ceiling at 13 feet. The roof slopes down only one direction, towards the back, so the back ceiling is a more traditional 8.5 feet. This high ceiling creates a wonderful sense of space in the great room. I will be able to use the extra space on the front wall above my windows to store items, possibly keeping them on pulleys to be retrieved by rope as needed, like an extra chair for a guest. This photo gives some sense of the spaciousness of the room. The height of the ceiling where the small woodstove is (isn't it cute?) is about 9 feet high.

 

 

The cabin faces due south, as incorporates some aspects of passive solar design. Two large picture windows look over the gorgeous pond and woods to the south of the cabin. In the winter, the cabin will collect a great deal of solar energy through these high solar gain windows. For one recent example, while the temperature outside was minus 5 Celsius, one sunny day had the temperature inside the house at 10 degrees, only from the sunshine! In the summer, the 18 inch overhang will block quite a bit of the high midday sun from entering the windows.

While I am quite handy, I have not built the cabin myself. I felt that it would be too time consuming to learn all of the skills related to framing the house, so I paid a builder to frame the shell. I wanted a well installed steel roof, so I hired a roofer with more than 40 years of experience to install the roof. As I am on a budget, my contributions to the build have been to work as the general contractor, coordinating all the different trades (plumber, electrician, tiler, concrete, framing), organizing inspections, ordering all materials as required. In addition, I am doing almost all of the insulating of the house myself, and will do almost all of the interior finishes.

The Build

I am going to share a few photos of the build progress along with a rough list of the progress on a timeline:

2017 – November – purchased a half-acre of land in a rural area for $10,000 plus $1,000 of legal fees

2018 – summer and fall- applied for build permit

2018 December – installed septic system, helping my friend

2019 – unable to afford to frame in the first cabin design, I decided to shrink the house and redesign to lower build expenses, choosing a smaller footprint on a concrete pad, with a monoslope shed roof. The spanning beams in the new design, called LVLs, are much less expensive than the full set of roof trusses for the previous design.

2019 – concrete pad was dug and poured. 

2020 – Framing was started in July and completed in August

2020 – Roof was installed in August

Fall 2020 – Plumbing and electrical rough-ins completed, HVAC rough in completed, insulation started

 

Build Challenges

Lack of Experience – While it has been necessary to function as the general contractor for this build, it has been an enormous and difficult learning curve. Lots of mistakes made! It has been a time consuming job to add to my duties on the homestead, in addition to doing a lot of construction work on the house since the roof was completed. Early on in the build, I caved to pressure from contractors regarding scheduling and fees. Over the course of the build, I have learned to be a better advocate for my interests and have negotiated more effectively, learning how to stand my ground when required.

Lack of Funds – Building a house on a shoe string budget is not for the faint of heart! As I am not an appealing risk to the banks or credit unions, I have had to get creative with how to finance the build. Home Hardware offered a financing package that got the project rolling, with no interest no payments on the full amount I needed to buy materials to frame the house (approximately $10,000). In addition, family and friends have stepped in to support the build. Once I sell the tiny house I am currently living in, I should be able to pay them back. I am grateful that they were willing to help me realize this dream!

Difficulty Attracting Contractors - Smaller projects like this home can be less appealing to contractors. It has been challenging to attract contractors to this build. There have been a lot of non-responses. Because good contractors are always busy, it has been difficult to distinguish between a non-response because someone is very busy and a non-response because someone is not interested. As time went on, I gained confidence in persisting to call contractors with good reputations to find out which one it was.

Build Successes

Gaining Knowledge – I remember one day where my contact at the company that would construct my engineered roof beams called me with their engineer in the room. They had a question about where the beam would be placed in the house and couldn’t locate a number on the plans. I walked through the drawings with them over the phone and made a decision right then about the placement based on my interpretation of the scale on the drawings. After the call, I continued poring over the drawings and found confirmation of my decision in the drawings on another page. I realized that day that I had learned a lot about construction to do that so confidently.

Great Contractors – I am so pleased that I have been able to attract some high quality and committed contractors to this project. They make my job so easy and it has been a pleasure working with them and getting to know them. Their input has changed my home for the better. This is a great feeling!

Almost having a house – Yes! This is the ultimate goal. Three years ago, this was just an idea on a few pieces of paper. Today, I go in this house every day and work towards my next inspection. I buy materials at the hardware store for the next stage of the build. I coordinate the comings and goings of my electrician, plumber, tiler, roofer, and window installer and schedule and coordinate the next stage of the build. I find it hard to believe that all these years of work are coming to fruition. Here is the house today:

What remains to be done?

-Finish small amount of attic insulation

-Finish vapour barrier (one main wall and ceiling, some smaller pieces)

-pass insulation inspection

-insulate weight bearing wall, block for cupboards, drywall it and hang cupboards 

-installation of permanent front door and sliding glass door

-adapt current floor cupboards from Habitat Restore for my floor design

-drywall back wall of great room to allow installation of propane stove and range hood by HVAC

-tile bathroom

-installation of well pump and water system inside

-installation of all surface mounted copper plumbing for kitchen sink, bathroom sink, and bathroom tub, install toilet

-plumber and HVAC sign off on township documents 

-pass water test

-pass occupancy inspection

I look forward to sharing the rest of the journey with you, my readers, as well as some of the homestead successes from 2020 that I was able to SQUEEZE in in the midst of all this work! Wishing you a healthy new year. This is a year where we may need to make a concerted effort to look for the happiness in small things and moments, and cherish more than ever those people in our lives that we love, and who love us.