1. What are three basic steps I can take to build a solid but affordable getaway cabin?
Keep it simple. It’s amazing how quickly the most basic plans can grow into money-gobblers if not kept in check. Relaxation doesn’t have to mean individual baths, granite countertops and custom trim. Some of the best cabins consist of little more than a great room, bath and sleeping area.
One good way to begin your cabin plan is by studying recreational vehicle and trailer designs. Shining examples of fitting a lot into a small space, they often incorporate appliances and furnishings specifically designed to save space and money. Minimizing size also reduces maintenance, and simplifies heating and cooling.
If you like to work with your hands, consider building your own retreat. Most cabin plans are simple enough for someone with basic carpentry and handyman skills to handle. Building it yourself also offers an opportunity to build at your own pace; working with out-of-pocket cash rather than a bank loan, your cabin can grow as finances allow.
Once it’s complete, furnish your home with bargain finds. Matching furnishings and uniform trim not only add cost, they’re out of place in a quaint cabin atmosphere. Instead, create a distinctive home using a hodge-podge of recycled pieces from flea markets and salvage yards. Let the three “C”s rule — comfort, cost and convenience.
Don’t limit bargain-hunting to furnishings, either. There are plenty of quality used building materials available, too. Beyond initial cost savings, a cabin built from recycled building materials starts life with the look of a rustic retreat that’s been part of the landscape forever.
2. What are some less-expensive materials I should consider?
Check the Internet and classifieds for used or salvaged building materials near your home. Everything from lumber to appliances is available for far less than building-supply stores offer. Because new building materials are often purchased in larger quantities than necessary for a specific job, surplus flooring, plywood, siding and carpet often find their way to salvage stores or to Internet sites such as eBay and Craigslist at discounted prices.
Logs fall under this category, too. If there’s a sawmill located near your building site, you may be able to purchase framing lumber, as well as rustic wood flooring and trim, for far less than from a retail outlet. Locate mills through classified directories or your state’s agriculture, forestry or commerce departments.
Structural insulated panels (SIPs), although not necessarily a low-cost solution, offer several advantages for cabin-building as well: They are easily and quickly installed, and don’t require a host of expensive, specialized tools — two or three people can erect the walls of a small home in less than a day. Maintaining a simple roofline allows you to use smaller panels to avoid the expense of a crane. (If your roof has hips and valleys or dormers, conventional framing is probably a better bet.)
Another item worth splurging on is a metal roof. Although it costs more than shingles, it will last a lifetime. Look for the metal used for agricultural buildings rather than the high-end materials used on primary residences to save some cash.
Save money on maintenance, too, by making sure your cabin has large roof overhangs to protect logs and wood siding, and by covering areas exposed to rain and moisture with moisture-resistant materials such as artificial or natural stone. (Tip: Gather these materials from your building site to save money.) You also may want to consider synthetic decks and railings to eliminate the need for periodic chemical treatments.
3. We want plenty of natural light in our cabin, but windows can be pricey. Is there a way to buy inexpensive windows without getting stuck with junk?
Current energy prices and concerns about energy efficiency are drawing many home- owners to upgrade to more efficient windows, creating a supply of salvaged windows. Salvaged windows in good condition will usually fill cabin requirements admirably — and add to the rustic atmosphere in the process. Contact remodelers or replacement window installers for availability.
If you decide to go the new window route, choose builder-grade windows, which are the least expensive windows a manufacturer offers.
4. What are the most affordable heating and cooling options for my cabin?
Heating and cooling options depend on climate. In a moderate clime, blankets and open windows alone may provide sufficient warmth and cooling, respectively. However, most cabins will require some heating or cooling appliance to keep the home comfortable year-round.
Woodstoves — especially when combined with well-sealed log walls or SIPs — may be all you need to efficiently heat your home. A well-located woodstove can heat a surprisingly large area, and will be less expensive and much more efficient than an open fireplace.
If your cabin sits on a concrete slab or is located in a severely cold region, consider installing radiant floor heating with a propane tankless hot water heater. Be mindful, though: The system will cost more than a good woodstove, and lacks the attractive crackling-fire aesthetic. If you do decide to go for it, consider coloring and finishing the concrete to eliminate the cost of additional flooring. The warmed slab will be comfortable to bare feet, and a few well-placed rugs can provide cushioning.
In hot climates, consider a window air conditioner — which is far less expensive than a central system — for additional cooling when needed. Swamp coolers that rely on evaporation also are useful in regions such as the Southwest. You might be able to pick one up secondhand from someone who’s switching to central air conditioning — check with air-conditioning installers in your area.
5. Some manufacturers tout really affordable 4-inch and 6-inch log cabin kits. Is one size better than the other?
Either size can produce a good cabin, although design plays a role. For all but the smallest cabins, 6-inch logs will provide the strongest walls and higher thermal mass. If you decide to use 4-inch logs, add some corners for additional strength and make sure they’re covered by a simple roofline; otherwise, you’ll defeat your low-cost goal with added maintenance.
6. Our home site is deep in the mountains, with lots of natural landscaping already in place. We still want the property surrounding the cabin to look kempt, though; any tips on low-maintenance landscaping?
Avoid a lawn, if possible — it hogs money, time and energy. Instead, try to fit your cabin into its natural environment with minimal disturbance. Native plants usually require little maintenance and are already suited for their environment. Consider transplanting wildflowers, trees and shrubs from other parts of your property to cover areas disturbed by construction. If available, use local stone for walkways and borders.
If you must have grass, consider native grasses or low-maintenance varieties such as buffalo grass. Local bookstores, nurseries and state conservation agencies can provide assistance in finding the best type of grass for your yard. In some areas, conservation agencies may even provide free seeds of plant species that will provide food or shelter for wildlife.
Jim Cooper is author of Log Homes Made Easy and a LEED Accredited Professional who consults in energy-efficient and sustainable building.