Build a Home for $10,000 in 10 Days!

In the western New York back country, there's a man who has found a way to quickly and inexpensively build a home from "junk" timber that commercial mills would reject.

| February/March 2009

For half a century, William Castle has been building bridges, cabins, and shanties of all shapes and sizes. His favorite projects are right in his own yard. Woodland areas such as that of his native Belmont, N.Y., often have an abundance of “junk” timber that has little commercial value because of its small diameter, twisted grain, or other imperfections. The modified timber-framing method Castle has developed lets him build a home quickly and easily from this low-cost, local resource. His daughter’s cabin is a case in point. A crew of three to four adults and two children assembled the shell of the 1,000-square-foot house over an existing foundation in less than 10 days — for less than $10,000!

If You Build It …

Thirty years ago “Pollywogg Hollër,” as Bill and Barb Castle call their 30 acres surrounded by forest, began as a project to bring the family together. Bill had his own bridge building company, a seven-day-a-week work ethic and almost no connection to his growing children.

At Barb’s insistence, Bill began taking time off, and over the course of three summers, they and their three teenage children built a 20-foot-by-30-foot log cabin in their back woods. They dug the well and foundation by hand, dragged logs out of the woods with an old tractor, peeled the logs with a drawknife and placed them with the help of a homemade crane.

Other than mortar, hardware and roofing, all the materials in that cabin came from the land. Over time it became their home. Now, it’s a rustic bed and breakfast “eco-retreat” that they run with their son Mikael — complete with solar power, a sauna, bathhouse, picnic pavilion, wine bar, and wood-fired pizza oven. There’s even a stage for weddings and concerts. Most importantly, that cabin brought their family together.

As we walk through the enchanted village Castle has built, he points out the different local woods and the uses he puts them to: There are footbridges of larch (aka tamarack), which he calls “the poor man’s cedar.” Fence posts are rot-resistant black locust. Hemlock is used for sheathing; red oak, for floors; and fir, for log cabin walls.

Castle has used cedar for roof shakes in the past, but sustainably harvested cedar is getting harder to find at any price. These days Castle prefers to build low maintenance metal roofs or “living roofs” with a rubber membrane covered with moss and wildflowers.

5/11/2014 9:45:15 AM

This article's title is dumb and misleading. Roughing in a home is not the same thing as building one. Framing is about 20% of the cost of a home. With roofing and windows, the cost is still a little under 50% for the building envelope. A more accurate and funnier title might have been "How to Get a Cabin Half Way Built for $10,000 if you Already Have the Foundation Done." The main difference between standard stick building and what this guy is doing is that he is replacing a few 2x4's with half finished logs. That's great. But it is only a tiny fraction of the cost of the building. There are also some very serious structural concerns. This is not timber framing, which involves cutting out interlocking joints in the timbers. This is screwing timbers together, gives most of the look, but little of the strength, of actual timber framing. With stick building, the resistance to wracking comes from having lots of small framing members glued and nailed to the sheathing relatively close together (16," or 1.33 feet, on center) so that it holds its square shape and doesn't slowly become a rhombus. But what this guy has is a fake timber frame with structural members attached to a non-structural sheathing every 48" or 4 feet on center. That probably isn't going to cut the mustard in the long haul. I don't think the buildings are unsafe, or that they are going to come crashing down. But I suspect that quite a bit of shifting and settling will occur over time, and that if one of them starts to lean, and it isn't addressed very quickly, the lags will split the knee braces and the building will slowly wrack so far out of square that it can't be brought back. I could be wrong though... In any case, your $10,000 and 10 days will go a lot further at the lumber yard. Doing things this way might be cooler, or more DIY, or marginally more sustainable, but the cheaper and faster angles don't pencil out.

J Russell Bailey
3/4/2011 7:59:09 PM

I loved the article but being a very visually oriented person, an extensive array of 'step by step' photos for the general outline of the construction design would have made the article actually usable in this format. Without the photos, all I'm left with is wondering and the hyperlinks, which take me AWAY from the text of the article. Thanks

Russell - Idaho USA
3/20/2009 12:38:48 AM

This is a really great article. We have been planning to build a home on our land for 20 years or so. We have basically settled on the SIP (Structural Insulated Panel) method or the Double-Offset Stud (with blown-in cellulose insulation) method for highest energy efficiency but this is a method of timber framing I hadn't heard of before, most timber framed homes are 'high end' stuff I am not interested in. I really don't plan on a rustic look 'log cabin' (prefer river rock and stucco for durability and thermal mass) But if this method proves simple and cheap (small logs are basically free around here all you need is the equipment and a permit for about $10) and uses more local and less manufactured materials it might be an option for us. I too would like to find out more specifics of this type of construction, especially the floor. Insulation between the subfloor and floor and the floors made of home milled boards is another new idea for me, I wonder how the building inspector would feel about its soundness... Thanks for publishing it.

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