Machine Shed Conversion Helps Family Achieve Debt-Free Dream

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The author, Eric Breitenbach, recognized the potential of this machine shed and turned it a home — he believed it would be a more economical and environmentally friendly tactic than building a brand-new abode.
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The Breitenbachs used locally sourced lumber to form their family home.
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As their children got older, Eric and Jen Breitenbach decided to add onto the existing home to free up more space for the family.
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Loft beds are a great option for smaller homes.
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With their debt-free house, horses, a dog, cats, chickens, a pond full of fish, and 50 fruit trees, the Breitenbachs have carved out a comfortable and productive homestead.

We always yearned for country life and debt freedom. In 2010, our son, Jasper, was turning 10 years old and becoming ever more horse crazy by the day. We decided that if we were going to realize our dream of living and working on a debt-free, self-sustaining property and giving Jasper the opportunity to pursue his passion, now would have to be the time. We had driven by property in Cortez, Colo., for years to get our raw milk and for Jasper’s riding lessons.   

One day, the light came on. This is where our new home of four — my wife, Jen, our son Jasper (10 at the time), our daughter Kylie (8 at the time), and me — should be. The property is a little more than 37 acres, with 360-degree views of Mesa Verde National Park, the San Juan Mountains, the La Plata Mountains, Ute Mountain, and the Abajo Mountains. Most of the land was originally grass hay, although the pastures had been neglected for decades. There was an existing tin roof, a bat and board, a 20-by-60-foot machine shed, and two smaller dilapidated buildings, but it was the 3-acre pond that sold my wife. Unbeknownst to Jen, it was the machine shed that I was eyeing as our future home.

Our then-current home was 15 miles away. With Jasper spending more and more time with horses and with the prospect of him owning his own animals, we knew we had to find a way to live on this property. After heated debates over whether to build a small cabin or to buy a Tumbleweed-style home, we decided the most economical and environmentally friendly thing to do was use what was already here. As near as we could find, the machine shed was built in the late 60s. It has a concrete floor and hand-built wood trusses, and proved to be wonderful shelter for coons, skunks, owls, birds, snakes and any other stray critter looking for a home. Needless to say, we had major eviction issues. Wind whistled through the walls, but the patinized barn wood was beautiful. The tin from the south-facing doors became wainscot. We used salvaged windows and doors, reclaimed Douglas fir trees for the ceiling, soy-based stain for the concrete, Icynene insulation, and locally sourced timbers. We didn’t use any VOC paints.

We chose to convert 400 square feet of the machine shed into livable space, which would have a shower, urine-diverting sawdust toilet, kitchen, loft beds for the four of us, wood cookstove, and a dining booth that converts into a queen bed for our 23-year-old twin boys, Christopher and David.

The main bathroom is an outhouse that sits just southwest of the shed. The remaining area of the shed we converted into a garage/shop. The labor was a unified family effort, including friends and neighbors. Mike, a great friend and hand, was hired when needed.

We lived in the 400-square-foot, one-room “cabin” for two years, but in the summer of 2013, we added an additional 800 square feet, as the younger kids were getting older and needed more privacy, and more importantly, so did we.

We continue to try to sell our house in Dolores, Colo. At the beginning of renovation, we rented the house short-term via Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) and now rent it long-term to cover expenses associated with that home. The progress out here has been very slow, but we have done it out of pocket as we could afford it. We now have horses, a dog, cats, chickens, a pond full of fish, and 50 fruit trees. We baled nearly 1,000 bales of hay in 2013, lease the pastures in winter as a trade for Kobe beef, and have many plans for increased self-reliance.

Although our home is anything but traditional, we often have to pinch ourselves to remind us that we have no mortgage. Through patience and hard work, it is possible, and this is true freedom.

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