From logs to straw bales to metal, the materials you choose will play a determining role in your cabin’s cost, quality and style. Find out the pros and cons of a number of different cabin construction methods.
Dream big, build small! Whether it’s a first or second home, at the lake, in the woods, on a mountaintop or at the ocean’s edge, a small-footprint cabin may be the perfect housing option for you.
The following is an excerpt from Compact Cabins by Gerald Rowan (Storey Publishing, 2010). You’ll be inspired to create the cabin of your dreams with Rowan’s exciting collection of 62 creative cabin floor plans that feature innovative storage, clever use of outdoor space, mix-and-match modular elements, and off-the-grid energy options — all in less than 1,000 square feet. This excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Design: Architecture, Logistics, Environment.”
The materials you choose play the determining role in your cabin’s cost, quality and style. Here is where building small has great advantage: Limiting the overall size of your cabin allows you to dedicate your money to building with quality materials that will serve you well over time.
I use local materials whenever possible, both because it’s the ecological thing to do (saving transportation fuel and stimulating the local economy), and because it makes sense aesthetically. Rough-sawn barnwood siding makes sense in northern forests; adobe makes sense in the American Southwest. Chefs talk about the advantages of preparing dishes using local ingredients and pairing them with local wines. The same can be said about building.
The use of recycled or remanufactured material may make a lot of sense if you live in an area where older housing or industrial structures are being either torn down or replaced with new housing. You may even be lucky enough to find a local business that specializes in used windows, doors, moldings, trim, lumber, brick and so on.
Using premanufactured components — such as whole-house modules, panels or roof trusses — may make sense if you want to build quickly or don’t intend to do much of the construction work yourself.
No single construction method is best. The design of the cabin, the complexity of that design and the accessibility of the building site are all important factors in choosing a construction method. Take time to sit down and cost out the building of your cabin in a number of ways. Consult builders or an architect, or do a lot of homework yourself.
The term stick-built refers to buildings constructed on-site from dimensional lumber. This term usually differentiates buildings constructed one piece at a time from buildings constructed with panels or modules. There is ongoing debate in the construction industry as to which method is best for constructing houses. Perhaps the best perspective is that no one method is better than the other. I’ve found that the best method often differs from project to project, depending on site, schedule and budget.
Post-and-beam construction is an old idea that has regained traction. Most Colonial and 19th-century barns were built using this method. In modern house construction, the house is supported with a heavy framework of beams (timbers) that remain exposed to the interior of the house. The charm of this method is that the beams, and their character, remain visible. Sheathing, insulation and siding are applied on the outside of the timber framework to complete the house.
The log cabin is part of the romance Americans have with the past. In pioneer days, trees were felled, hauled to the building site and notched to fit tightly together. The walls were stacks of logs piled one on top of the other. Any voids between the logs were chinked with whatever material was readily available to keep the weather out.
Modern log construction is usually done from a kit. Logs are carefully prepared, cut to size and notched in a factory, then shipped to the home site as a kit. Kit log homes go together on the site relatively quickly, as much of the labor took place in the factory. Log cabin kits may seem expensive, but they need no other sheeting or insulation. This consideration makes them competitive with conventional construction methods. Assembling a cabin from a log kit may be an exciting and cost-saving building method. If the romance of a log cabin appeals to you, a log cabin kit may be an excellent choice.
Straw bale is another construction method of pioneer days that is regaining popularity. Straw bale construction usually starts with a foundation slab. A simple framework is erected to help support the straw bales and the roof. The walls are then constructed from tightly packed bales of straw, with the bales set much like giant cement blocks. Electrical wiring and reinforcing wire lattices may be placed between the layers of straw bales. The straw bales are then plastered over with a layer of masonry stucco to protect the straw from the elements. Straw bale cabins usually have a large roof overhang to protect the walls from exposure to the elements. (Straw may not be a good choice in climates where dampness is an issue.)
Straw bale cabins tend to have an organic feeling, in the same way adobe buildings appear organic and sculptural. Straw bale construction lends itself to owner building, but it is labor-intensive. If sweat equity is your goal, this might be the construction method for you.
Pole buildings offer some exciting opportunities to the small cabin builder. They are relatively inexpensive to build and offer unobstructed interior space. Because of the truss system they use in their roofing systems, they need no interior support. The trusses can be custom-engineered for nearly any width up to about 36 feet, and all that is open interior space.
Pole construction usually employs poles set 8 feet on center, with the trusses attached to those uprights. Horizontal lumber, known as purling, connects the poles. This layout suggests that 8 feet would be a likely module to design on: A building of two modules would be 16 feet in length, three modules would be 24 feet, and so on.
Pole buildings can be very energy efficient. The uprights are usually 6-by-6 or 8-by-8 posts, so they produce thick walls that can be well-insulated. The flooring of a pole building could be a poured concrete slab with a radiant heating system cast into it, which is a very efficient way to heat a structure.
Pole building manufacturers generally design their buildings to work in farm or industrial settings. Because such buildings will never win an award for aesthetics, a pole-built horse barn may be more aesthetically pleasing. Manufacturers design these barns with standard poles and trusses but usually give them cladding (siding) that better fits the aesthetics of domestic architecture — in a word, socially acceptable pole building.
One of the oldest and most reliable construction methods is masonry construction. Stone, brick, cement block and even glass bottles and aluminum cans can be incorporated into cabin walls and held together with mortar. Masonry cabins tend to be impervious to the weather and very long-lasting.
Constructing a masonry cabin is labor intensive; as with straw bale, sweat equity can be a factor. The materials tend to be more expensive than conventional building materials, but if you have a good local source for materials, it may be the building method of choice.
I grew up right after World War II, when military surplus Quonset huts were common. They were cheap and easy to transport and erect without special equipment. Two men could set one up within a week. They were put to a variety of uses, from homes to body shops, storage buildings, retail stores, beer distributors, and so on.
You may think a metal hut would be too hot during warm weather and too cold in cold weather, but during World War II, Quonset huts were used throughout the Pacific and Alaska to house just about all the Army’s, Navy’s and Air Force’s personnel. The military developed insulation packages so the huts could house soldiers in reasonable comfort. Today, spray-on insulation made from recycled newspaper and a fire retardant is ideal for the curved surface of a Quonset hut.
Quonset huts and Quonset-style metal buildings are still available. The curved walls create a design challenge, but they lend themselves to a variety of applications and cabin building. The huts are usually built on a concrete slab. Depending on the climate, a footer may be necessary. Utilities are usually put in place and the floor slab poured over them.
Many cabin designers mix and match building methods to their ideas. Pole-barn methods are merged with post-and-beam construction methods. Stick building is combined with manufactured panels. For example, the classic Adirondack cabin is fieldstone on the first floor and frame construction above. A premanufactured ranch house may be placed on top of a first floor made of cement blocks to create the classic “Poconos raised rancher.” Generally a good rule to follow is that the construction method is dictated by design ideas. Arrive at a design you love and then select the building method that will best allow you to build it. And always, always keep an eye out for local materials and resources.
Reprinted with permission from Compact Cabins, published by Storey Publishing, 2010.
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