Compact Cabins: How to Make the Most of Small Spaces

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You’ll be inspired to create the cabin of your dreams with the exciting collection of 62 cabin floor plans in “Compact Cabins.” These creative cabin designs feature innovative storage, mix-and-match modular elements, and off-the-grid energy options — all in less than 1,000 square feet.
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A loft increases living space without increasing a home’s footprint.

Most of us dream of having a place where we can get away, and one of the most economical options is to build a small cabin. No matter your lifestyle or location, you can find the small cabin you want among the 62 creative floorplans in Compact Cabins (Storey Publishing, 2009) by Gerald Rowan. In this excerpt from the chapter “Design: Architecture, Logistics, Environment,” Rowan offers ideas for how to make the most of small spaces, as well as a small cabin floorplan that puts those ideas to use.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS STORE: Compact Cabins.

Small cabins are small because they have a small footprint. Though cabins may have a small footprint, with good design, they can offer a comfortable living space. The challenge is to create that feeling of space in a small cabin. I find that, in particular, high ceilings and strategically placed windows are a good way to make the most of small spaces, creating a comfortable space in even the smallest cabins. (Take a look at a
compact cabin plan and
exterior design to see these principles at work.)

High Ceilings

High ceilings give a sense of roominess and space in even a small footprint. They also let in more light and make ventilation easier. And increasing ceiling height yields space with less expense than adding floor space.

The additional ceiling height can be used for storage. (After all, small cabins, by definition, have small storage spaces.) For example, two rows of cabinets could be hung in the kitchen, one over the other, doubling the kitchen storage. A small folding kitchen stool provides access to the higher set of cabinets. In the bedroom, additional shelving could be mounted on the walls; using clear plastic storage tubs on this shelving would add visible, climate- and insect-proof storage. In the living room, a kayak or canoe could be stored by hanging it from the ceiling with a pulley system. That same pulley system could double as a wash line to dry wet clothing on rainy days.

One drawback with high ceilings is that warm air rises and collects near the peak of the roof during the heating season. Installing a simple auxiliary duct system can overcome this problem. Install a duct with an air intake near the high point of the cabin roof and extending down to near the floor. Equip that duct with a small circulation fan that is reversible. In the winter, the fan is set to draw warm air from near the ceiling and recirculate it to the floor. In the summer the fan is set to reverse the airflow, drawing cool air from near the floor and circulating it near the roof. Install a thermostat near the top end of the duct and airflow will be changed automatically.

Window Placement

Strategically placed windows open up living spaces. Windows can be positioned to take advantage of a good view or to hide a bad view. In the 1950s, the hot design idea was the picture window — a large window designed to be the focal point of the living or dining room. The implication was that the view through the window was a work of art. This idea is not a bad one to keep in mind when building a small cabin. If a view of the beach when you get out of bed in the morning is important to you, then a window placed to take advantage of this view is appropriate.

If your cabin is in the woods, on the beach, or lakeside, it’s nice to be able to see your surroundings from inside. Windows bring the outside in, establishing a link to the environment. Windows in primary living spaces are more important than those in lesser spaces. Windows in halls and entrance foyers, for example, are not as important as windows in living, dining, and sleeping spaces. The bathroom is an exception to this general rule: natural ventilation is a necessity in bathrooms.

Window placement also plays a key role in cross ventilation and passive heating. Good natural ventilation can greatly reduce the need for fans, which in turn reduces your electrical needs. Generally, this means having windows and doors situated across from each other to promote the flow of air; you may, for example, want windows in the southwest and the northeast if the prevailing winds are in that direction. As a general rule, north-facing windows are of little advantage: little light and little access to prevailing airflow are available from the north, and winter’s cold blast is usually from that direction as well. South-facing windows, on the other hand, are an important factor in passive solar heating, as the sun’s rays will hit them directly in wintertime, helping to heat the cabin.


Lofts adapt well to high ceiling heights and are useful as sleeping spaces. Lofts increase living space without increasing the footprint of the cabin, helping you to make the most of small spaces. As an additional benefit, cabin lofts and second floors cost less per square foot than the same space on a single floor.

Safe access to a loft is a necessity. Ladders, library ladders, ship’s ladders, spiral staircases, and steep steps are the usual accesses to loft spaces. Good handrails are a must for stairs, as are safety rails at the edge of lofts. If privacy is an issue, you may want to attach a canvas panel to the loft rails, or you may dispense with rails entirely in favor of half walls.

Sliding Screens and Doors

Much of the architecture in Japan deals with small spaces, and one design element I saw a lot of there was the shoji screen, a paper screen serving as a sliding wall or partition. Shoji screens have been a part of Japanese architecture for many centuries. The oldest Shinto shrine in Japan, located where the Tone River empties into the Pacific Ocean, utilizes shoji screens. Nowadays shoji screens are used in everything from domestic housing and apartments to restaurants and hotel rooms.

In a small space, shoji-like sliding walls or screens are ideal. They allow you to divide off a sleeping area from the living space at night and then slide back the screens to maximize living space during the day. When building a small cabin, also consider sliding doors or pocket doors for any doorways, interior or exterior. Since they don’t have a swing, or radius of opening, they take up little space. A wall of patio sliding doors could be an integral part of a passive solar heating system. Those same patio doors could be opened in hot weather for natural air conditioning.

Make the Most of Small Spaces with RV Innovations

Anyone beginning to design a small cabin should take a look at recreational vehicles (RVs) and travel trailers. This industry introduces an endless array of small-space design features each year. The competitive design race among RV and trailer manufacturers is fueling a great amount of innovation, and these inventive ideas can benefit your small cabin design. Recreational vehicle shows and dealers are good places to see a variety of models with a wide range of equipment available. Look at the different brands and sizes. See how they use space and place appliances. You’ll find simple yet practical ideas, such as:

• Queen-sized beds that lift up to provide storage space under them
• Beds with a small triangle of mattress removed from the foot to better allow traffic past in a small bedroom

• Additional storage space made available by adding shelving over the head of the bed
• Wall cabinets placed high against the ceiling to allow bedroom access but increase storage

• Bunk-sized beds mounted on the wall over a full-sized bed that folds down for additional sleeping space or up for more living space

• Flat-screen televisions mounted into a shallow niche in the wall so as not to protrude into the room

I have spent the greater part of my life building and refurbishing cabins, houses, cottages, and other structures. Nothing has ever been done the same way twice. Your skills get better as you build. You learn new things. Building materials change. Building methods change. Local building codes change. It has been an evolutionary process. Learning new things has kept building interesting. Sharing what I have learned with others has also been rewarding. I hate to get Zen on you here, but the journey is as important as the destination. So take the time to design, and design again, and again. As your design evolves, so will you and your quest for the perfect compact cabin.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Compact Cabins by Gerald Rowan, published by Storey Publishing, 2009. Buy this book from our store: Compact Cabins.