DIY

Best Resource for Building a Cabin

Reader Contribution by Kellsey Trimble
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Photo courtesy of Getty Images/franckreporter

I come from a long line of outdoor enthusiasts, and we spend every summer vacation at our family log cabin in Colorado. My grandparents bought a 2-acre lot in the mountains back in the 70s, and built the family cabin in 1994-’95. Ever since then, the cabin hosts a constant stream of family and friends all summer long.

In the years since the log cabin was built and the younger generations have married, had kids, and we continue to bring friends with us, sleeping space becomes a premium. We don’t spend much downtime inside during the day, because if the sun is out, we’re either fishing, hiking, swinging in the hammock, or sitting around the fire. But when it’s time to stumble sleepily off to bed, the majority of us prefer a spot inside four walls. Tent camping is great, but to fully recoup our energy for the next day, a soft bed close to the woodstove fits the bill.

We’ve started tossing around ideas about building a cabin or bunkhouse with just a woodstove and beds, enough to sleep extra bodies. But I’ve been thinking that if we’re going to the effort of putting another structure up on the lot, we might as well make it another cabin with a few more amenities and a bit of living space for those occasional rainy days when we are indoors playing board games and reading.

We knew we wanted something small, and when I started researching tiny house plans, I ran across the book Compact Cabins by Gerald Rowan. It pretty quickly became a staple on my nightstand for nighttime reading. I spent many hours perusing the pages of this book, and then pestering my family with ideas from it. This little bible of small cabin plans is full of design ideas for all kinds of terrain and environment, and author Rowan draws from his many years of experience to consider a multitude of variables to take into account in order to build a cabin or cottage that best suits a person’s need, location, and budget.

Probably a bit wide-eyed of me, I figured we could just pick a tiny-home design we liked aesthetically, decide the square footage we needed, and go with it. But there were some things to consider that help determine the final design, like did we want a three-season log cabin, which materials we plan on using, and what we wanted out of it. Rowan helps get the wheels turning toward a tiny home design that the owners will not only love, but a design that is also comfortable and functional. He lays out the decisions that a person may have otherwise forgotten to consider, and he offers suggestions as far as labor, cost effectiveness, and where to go looking for materials. He’s just there to guide the reader through the process.

We wanted to build a log cabin with a few of the amenities we were missing in the first cabin, but with a design and style similar enough to the first that it felt like a continuation, not a departure from the original. We knew we wanted to be able to sleep quite a few people comfortably, and we’d need some decent bath space – maybe not a full bath but at least a half bath. (The original cabin didn’t have a bathroom, but rather an outhouse away from the cabin. We wanted to plan some bath space in the new cabin with just a sink and a solar shower.) And we usually only spend our summers there, but we’ve talked about snowshoeing in for Christmas, so we’d need good insulation and a hefty fireplace. Several of us love to cook for the whole gang, so kitchen and counter space is a priority. And last but definitely not least, a porch or deck for everyone to sit and enjoy their coffee in the early morning but that would be undercover when the sun starts getting hot midmorning. The only thing we really didn’t need was a lot of living room space, since we’re outside so much; and if we’re ever there in winter, we’ll want a pretty compact and cozy common room anyway.

As far as building materials, we want to source the logs from a local mill, just like we’d done for the original log cabin. Rowan talks about energy options, which was helpful because our lot is off the grid, and he had a couple suggestions for just such circumstances. The original cabin has no electricity, but we’ve talked in recent years about implementing solar or wind energy, just enough to run a few lights, a miniature refrigerator, and a small hot water heater. (No more frigid mountain river baths! Although, that is half the fun.)

I really appreciated Rowan’s encouragement to build in stages over time, for a couple of reasons, namely to save on costs and to modify the design as we go so we don’t rush through it and end up with decisions that can’t be changed or will be costly to change down the road.

Our family is the type that has a lot of fun working together on labor-intensive projects. I relish stories from the years the first cabin was built. So spreading the building out over a couple of years sounded like a great plan to get us all up there together at the same time, making memories for stories to tell in another 25 years. This book got the whole family excited about a project we had only been talking about for years, and we’re several steps closer to making it happen.


Compact Cabins presents 62 design interpretations of the getaway dream. Whether it be a small cabin on a sparkling lakefront, a breath-taking mountaintop, an expansive beach, or some other peaceful location, there is something in this book to please every taste. Best of all, the small-footprint designs are affordable and energy-efficient without skimping on comfort and style. The cabins range in size form a cozy 150 square feet to a more spacious but still economical 1,000 square feet, and all include sleeping accommodations, kitchen and bath facilities, and a heat source. Complete chapters on low-maintenance building materials, utilities and appliances, and alternative energy sources supply you with the options for living efficiently in small space.

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