DIY

Build a Small, Temporary Shelter For About $1,000

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Although the job of building with Starplate connectors may resemble that of assembling an overgrown Tinkertoy set, the 11-piece set can be used to construct a workshop, storage shed, small barn, corn crib or even (as seen here) a super-low-cost temporary shelter!
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Although the job of building with Starplate connectors may resemble that of assembling an overgrown Tinkertoy set, the 11-piece set can be used to construct a workshop, storage shed, small barn, corn crib or even (as seen here) a super-low-cost temporary shelter!
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We kept careful track of the cost of our Starplate cabin and, while our freebies and bartered items may differ from yours and prices will vary from one area to another, our cost list may be a useful guide. Here's how it worked out.

Like so many other home builders, my wife, Sherrie, and I
needed a quickly and easily built temporary shelter to live in while
our permanent house was being constructed, but we wanted
one that was sturdy enough — and of a suitable
design — to be used later as a workshop, small barn or
guest house. It had to be inexpensive, since most of our
funds had gone into a down payment on our land; but with
winter coming on, it also had to be warm and windtight. The
question was, what could we put together with these
qualifications?

A neighbor’s garage, built with Starplate connectors, was
our inspiration. After a speculative look at the triangular
walls, Sherrie decided that the pentagon-shaped dome
(actually a truncated icosahedron having 15 sides) had
potential as a heat-efficient, cozy temporary shelter with a loft.

Now, the loft idea was intriguing, but, as far as I knew,
Starplate buildings weren’t designed to be 15 feet
high, allowing for two floors. The 11 steel plates that
come in the kit are designed to bolt to the ends of
6-foot 2-by-2s or 8-foot 2-by-4s. Could they handle
10-foot 2-by-6s?

We called David Hamel, engineer and inventor of the
Starplate connectors to find out. “Nobody’s
ever tried building a house with them,” he told us. But, we
asked, if the roof peak was supported by an oak post, why
couldn’t it work? “Either that, or run a cable around the
eaves to tie the five roof struts together,” Hamel
suggested. Otherwise, he didn’t recommend anything larger
than a 9-foot strut. We considered the risks and the
options and decided to go for 10-footers.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Norm and Sherrie were fortunate to live
in an area where the building code requirements present few
problems. They needed a permit from the town in order to
put up a building, and an inspector checked their wiring,
but they had no other stringent rules to follow. Whatever
you do, check with your local inspector — call the town
clerk to find out who the correct official is — before
making extensive plans or buying materials.]

Frame, Footer and Floor

We used our VW camper to truck the struts to our building
site: 20 10-foot 2-by-6s for the walls, and 5 12-foot
2-by-6s for the roof (the extra length was to accommodate
the eaves). Drilling holes through the 6-inch width of the
timbers, 1 ½ inches from their ends, was easy as long as we
were careful to keep the drill lined up properly, and
assembling the roof was like putting together an adult-size
Tinkertoy set. In fact, the back-to-childhood nature of the
construction attracted a number of onlookers who wanted to
participate!

By the time we had the timbers bolted together, there were
enough hands to lift the entire frame and set it on its
base.

The foundation for the cabin was nothing more than five
railroad ties laid right on top of the ground and leveled
with flat rocks. No holes. No cement. No blocks. The cabin
has hunkered down on those ties for two years now, and
hasn’t budged despite the fury of mountain winds and winter
storms. The base struts are nailed
to the ties, which also serve to support the floor joists.
We laid heavy plastic sheeting on the joists as a moisture
barrier before laying down the subflooring.

Templates supplied with the kit’s instruction manual made
simple work of cutting the angles for the bracing nailers.
These additional timbers were fitted between the main
struts to support the side and roof panels. Since the frame
is somewhat flexible before the wall panels are applied,
the measurements are less precise than those found in
conventional frame construction. We soon discovered that
the best procedure was to tack the 4-by-8-foot waferboard
sheets right on the triangular frames and mark them for
cutting. There was very little waste: The scrap pieces
fitted neatly into the various little corners still left to
be covered. Roofing cement, liberally applied, made an
airtight seal along the seams before we applied the felt
tar paper to the walls and the roof.

Once we had the waferboard secured to the struts and
nailers, it dawned on us that we were building a cabin of
considerable strength. When four hefty men climbed on the
roof and it barely shivered, we realized that, in addition
to simplifying and speeding up the process of construction,
the metal plates at every joint were distributing the load
through the entire structure. We decided a center post was
unnecessary, so we dropped the idea.

We made a double-paned window by sealing together two
flea-market storm windows. Naturally, any opening in an
angled wall needs careful sealing, and we found that going
twice around the windows with caulking provided good
waterproofing protection.

Although one of the options offered in the instruction
manual is a “square front” wall to accommodate a door, we
chose not to use it. We decided it would be wiser to gain a
bit more space by adding a 4-by-8-foot entrance-way on the
southeast wall and then building the door and several
windows into it. This would make the cabin roomier and
would protect the interior from icy blasts whenever the
door was opened in winter; meanwhile, the southeast-facing
windows were a welcome feature on cold sunny mornings.

Tying the frame of the foyer to the angular walls of the
cabin was tricky, but once the floor frame was squared off
with the base strut and the corner posts were braced in a
plumb position, we had only to extend horizontal 2-by-4s to
the cabin walls and mark them for cutting. The angles
weren’t perfect, but they worked.

We made sure to put headboard insulation in the entranceway
floor; otherwise, its 32 square feet could make the room
uncomfortably chilly. After all, winter nights here in
upstate New York can reach -20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Loft, Insulation and Celotex

The 10-foot sides of our shelter gave us about 178 square
feet of floor space. This, plus the entranceway’s 32, gave
us a total of some 210 square feet of living space:
admittedly, not much for two people. The roof peak now
soared over 14 feet above the center of the room,
however, and there seemed to be ample room for a sleeping
loft. To avoid putting a load on the cabin’s nonvertical
walls, we first shored up the main floor to support extra
weight, then constructed a 10-by-10-foot loft frame and raised
it to sit on top of 7-foot-tall 4-by-4 posts. Flooring for
the loft was then extended with extra plywood and bracing
to fit out to the pentagonal walls. An opening was left for
access to the upper area via ladder. The additional room
thus created gave us another 153 ½ square feet of living
space for a much-needed bedroom and office, which greatly
enhanced the usefulness of the shelter.

Odd spaces left by the roof rafters and nailers were fitted
with 6-inch fiberglass insulation and covered with inexpensive
Celotex panels. (The walls did fine with 3 ½ -inch batts of
fiberglass.) Cutting and fitting the fiberglass was no
problem, but handling the 4-by-8-foot Celotex panels in the
small loft space did present a challenge. We finally cut
all the panels on the ground floor, then handed the pieces
up to the loft crew to be nailed in place.

Roofing and Siding…and Living

We were fortunate to have a friend with previous experience
who directed the application of our 90-pound roll roofing
so that it was done correctly. While less carefully
constructed buildings lost their tops to our fierce winds,
the Starhut’s roof held firm, and the building itself has
endured near-hurricane-force gales night after night with
hardly a quiver. The angled walls of our Starplate special
seem to split those winds in two.

The siding party was composed of a computer programmer, a
cook, two former nuns, an army major and a salesman…but
despite the lack of an experienced professional carpenter,
we managed very well. After we sealed the seams and applied
the tar paper, we started nailing on what’s known around
here as “Adirondack siding”: oak slabs with one edge
trimmed. [EDITOR’S NOTE: By an odd coincidence, it’s
called
Carolina siding hereabouts…and no doubt
it’s known as Rocky Mountain siding along the Great
Divide!]

Our plan was to apply the siding first to the walls that
leaned outward at the base; it should then be a simple
matter to trim off the ends and lay the siding on the walls
that leaned inward, allowing that oak to extend
an inch or two over the ends of the first-applied slabs.
Actually, as it turned out, a snowstorm caught us before we
could get the first day’s siding trimmed, and there the
project was left for the winter. We moved in, just the
same.

As of this writing, we’re still living in our Starplate
cabin. Apparently, the unfinished siding hasn’t affected
the building’s heat efficiency, because it takes a minimum
of firewood to keep the place warm. When winter night
temperatures are below zero, we keep the stove going around
the clock; when it’s a bit less frigid, we let the fire go
out at bedtime, then simply rebuild it in the morning. An
air-circulating fan blows the heat around, and within 10 minutes we’re sitting down comfortably to breakfast.

A few feet away, our under-construction pole home awaits
windows, doors and insulation: elements we can purchase
as our budget permits and install at our own pace. We don’t
require luxurious quarters, and our inexpensive, snug
temporary shelter allows us the real luxury of paying as we go on the
permanent home. When the time comes, it’ll be easy to
connect the electrical and water lines to the new house and
convert the cabin into an insulated, heated workshop.

In Retrospect…

If we had it to do again, we feel the only change we’d make
is perhaps to add light and headroom by putting a dormer
window in the loft. We’ve found ourselves using the office
space more than we’d anticipated, so the expense of a
skylight or window would have been justified.

And although there’s no precedent for it yet, I
think you could put up a Starplate structure that used
12-foot struts. Our domed shelter has proved itself to
be completely sturdy through the roughest weather, without
a deep foundation, a centerpost or a cable around the
eaves. In fact, we’re so pleased with our home that we’ve
gone on to use Starplate connectors for a greenhouse, a
tractor garage, a pony barn, a woodshed and a garden
gazebo. We feel it’s the ideal answer for the beginning
homesteader who wants to settle on his or her land and be
free of rental payments at last.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368