Tiny Cabin and Spring Break
Spring break at Harding comes early in March, so we were hoping for good weather. Some years we’ve had snow.
This year we were lucky. Not only was the weather clear, it was also unseasonably warm. On Saturday we had a team of five: Chuck, me, Geoffrey (my stepson), Angel (his girlfriend), and my brother Gabriel, who drove down from Jonesboro for his first peek at the cabin in person.
Our main objectives:
- Hang the back door so that the seams all fit tightly.
- Install the large glass window (a task for the whole group).
Chuck and I got the back door hung fairly quickly. Meanwhile, Geoffrey, Angel, and Gabriel were busy trimming back the ever-insidious Bradford pear trees. We needed to move a small scrap pile to the big scrap pile that we didn’t realize was on the land when we bought it. Our team cut back the Bradford pears to make that possible.
The glass window is actually a ¼” thick glass tabletop we weren’t using. It isn’t tempered, a process that both strengthens the glass and causes it to shatter in smaller, more harmless pieces should the glass break. However, we plan to place a clear or slightly-tinted film on the glass, which will offer extra support and hold the glass in place if the worst happens.
Installing the window meant one person on a ladder holding the glass, another person holding the ladder, someone trimming the window in foam, and another cutting and nailing up trim. It was truly a group effort.
We left just before sundown, everything picked up and clean except the new piles of Bradford pear branches.
On Spring Break, Chuck and I finished the trim on the side of the house. The lines running up and down the siding don’t match perfectly with the puzzle pieces around them, but we were out of both siding and stain. We had had some stain mixed for the final piece of siding, but the color was slightly off. Then the siding got wet and moldy anyway. I decided I’d rather have mis-matched lines than multiple colors, and that was that. We’ll put up some trim to help cover the seams.
Our other accomplishment: start the bathroom. We brought the composting toilet from our storage room at home. The composting bin is bigger than I realized. I had also envisioned it going just outside the house, but the instructions recommend “no more than 70 feet away from the house.” Granted, we have to dig a trench for the piping, so we aren’t planning on putting it too far away. The bin also has to remain sheltered from the elements, so we’re pricing some inexpensive sheds as a quick fix. Sure, we could build one and possibly save $10, but more than that we are ready to have a functioning cabin!!!
Our goal is for the cabin to be livable this August. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we live an hour away from where my husband teaches, and he has to commute over 100 miles a day during the school year. Our goal is to live in the cabin part time until my stepson graduates high school in 2018, after which we hope to live in the cabin full time during the academic year. So, if the cabin could just be livable by fall, we could continue putting on the final finishing touches the following year. We hope to have a screened-in back porch eventually as well as a side porch for non-mosquito weather.
Now that the weather is mostly nice, there will be more updates soon!
Tiny Cabin Update: Exterior
After posting grades, Chuck and I went to see a couple movies and then outlined our cabin goals for the break. We had two nice days before Christmas and two the week after, during which we were able to nearly finish the exterior.
Though the shingles were nearly done, the final two rows were the hardest because every piece had to be cut to fit. Much of the scoring I did by hand since the tips of the shingles were relatively thin.
Meanwhile, Chuck, his dad, and my stepson Geoffrey worked on framing the transom window and trimming the front door to fit with the weather strip. The transom window might not have taken so long, but the glass was slightly too big. All we can guess is that some settling had occurred since we measured and ordered the glass months ago.
My brother Jared was able to help after Christmas. He’s really great at putting things together, especially when the pieces have to fit a certain way. He is also the only person I’ve ever known to successfully build a house out of cards–and one that supported weight. He was nine.
While Chuck installed the doorknob, Jared and I finished the shingles. Maybe it was the cutting, or maybe it was the wood, but we ended up with a couple dozen splinters each. Those took a bit more engineering to remove than the shingles took to put up.
We then moved to the side of the house. We finished the OSB with the random pieces we had and then put in the loft window. Our next move was to tack up the foam board. I painted the trim, and while it dried we covered the windows with plastic and painted the eaves.
We then nailed up the trim so Jared could begin the puzzle of matching the siding with other pieces.
Chuck and his dad got the back door hung, but we will still need to make some adjustments. The great window was close to being finished, but we had forgotten our plan to use the 1″ trim to frame it. The 1/2″ that they used was not quite wide enough to hold the glass in place.
We were running out of time: as soon as the sun sank behind the treeline, it got cold and increasingly hard to see. We were so close to our goal of finishing the exterior. Still, we were happy with what we had accomplished, especially compared to where we were just one year ago:
Tiny Cabin: Building the Bathroom Walls
I surprised myself by nailing together the bathroom walls in less than thirty minutes. However, we immediately realized that the 8′ studs were so tall that our loft would be cramped. (Though we are following a set of plans, we have made modifications, which indirectly affect other things…)
The walls came apart quickly. Chuck trimmed them down once we had settled on the best height. I put them back together, undaunted–time was on our side. Or maybe the act of banging nails was so deeply satisfying that I didn’t care.
In fact, later, as Chuck went to buy the 2′ x 6′ boards for the loft, I nailed down an additional sub-floor. The OSB we originally used had too much give, so we decided to add a layer.
We raised the bathroom walls and connected them with a small metal plate. One of the bathroom walls will brace the 2′ x 6′ loft boards in the middle. No bigger than the loft is, the boards (which will be nailed into the studs of the front and back of the cabin) would have held us without the additional support. Still, it certainly can’t hurt, and we like the aesthetics of it.
Building the bathroom frame has inspired us to do more research into how we will get water to the bathroom. We have vague ideas of how to catch, filter, and heat it, but soon we will need to fine-tune our logistical plan. Luckily for us, so many others have solved these problems and generously shared their experiences. We know that it isn’t a question of if, but how.
A <2 minute video on off-grid plumbing
An article on tiny-cabin plumbing
Rain was in the forecast, so we spent nearly an hour getting the tarp over the walls. With tired arm muscles, such a task is all the more challenging.
The Grasshopper and the Ants
As a child, I watched Disney’s Silly Symphony (1934) based on Aesop’s fable and learned that the ants had it right: be prepared so that you don’t find yourself hungry and cold when winter comes. In other words, be industrious in anticipation of impending doom. The grasshopper was lazy, I was told, and only cared about himself. The ants mercifully took him in, but the Queen declared he must play his fiddle to earn his keep, a deal the grasshopper gladly accepted.
Being a productive member of society should mean contributing something. Often, however, being “productive” is translated as earning money rather than finding a vocation. Earning and spending money is the best way to contribute—keep the movement going, the motor running. Never mind the beauty passing along the way.
But for me, the greatest commodity is not money, but time.
Earning money is only “worth my time” insofar as it pays my bills and keeps me from defaulting on my debt. Because I value my time, earning money for the sake of having money to spend doesn’t feel like a good trade. I would rather not spend money in exchange for more time.
People who know me well see that I struggle with balancing the industrious ant and the creative grasshopper. Can one be both? Is the grasshopper’s laid-back attitude the very material from which his music is made? Were he more industrious, would the music be as sweet?
Sure, the ants took in the grasshopper and fed him with food they had worked hard to gather, but when it was snowy and too cold to go outside, when it was impossible to leave and gather and be industrious, who do you think was entertaining the ants with his fiddle? The grasshopper provided a valuable service—something that could enrich the ants’ lives.
I suspect that the fable presents two extremes. One group suffers a spiritual hunger, the other a physical. It takes both groups to satisfy the needs of the whole.
I’ve never been afraid of hard work, but I am drawn to something simpler. Life in a tiny cabin will mean less expense and less debt. With less house to maintain and less pressure to earn earn earn, I’ll have more time—more time to notice, more energy to love, more space to write.
Friends have been curious about the logistics of building a cabin while not having access to water or electricity. Our power tools are battery-operated, and we charge them at our other home. But what about when we spend the night in our camper, which we don’t currently have a generator for, much less water hookups?
Our Coleman lantern serves us well.
Sometimes we shower at a friend’s.
But there’s one thing we didn’t want to live without: a toilet.
We had a broken chair that Chuck reinforced with boards. He borrowed a jigsaw and cut a hole for a toilet seat. What’s beneath? A bucket with a little peat moss in it—magic, organic material that eliminates odor and helps with the composting.
I admit I was skeptical at first, but days later there is no smell, nor are there flies (and we’ve had some warm days). This potty chair currently sits in a private spot in the woods. We cover the chair with a tarp, but otherwise it’s open to the elements.
Most of us have heard the euphemism “when nature calls,” but an outdoor bathroom brings a whole other level of meaning to that expression.
Finishing the Tiny Cabin Frame
First of all, I’d like to thank everyone who has encouraged us on this long journey! For those not privy to Arkansas weather, the rain has returned—and it likes to fall on weekends. That has put a damper, so to speak, on building, but we’re working around the weather, even though it’s mostly a couple of hours here and there. Continue reading
Before we could break ground, we needed more of it. Dirt, that is. Lucky for us, there’s a mound not far from the building site.
A wheelbarrow worked for the potholes, but not to the extent we needed.
The Conway Home Depot rents Bobcats for $249 + tax, and we would have had to haul it an hour both ways. We hoped we could do better by going local, so we called the first place that came up on a Searcy Google search and reserved one at a considerable discount, quite proud of ourselves.
Saturday morning Chuck and his best friend Dan pull up to a sketchy-looking house surrounded by a fence and a series of piecemeal shacks. It was a junkyard minus the Rottweiler.
The exchange went something like this:
Chuck: “Hello, I’m here to pick up the Bobcat.”
Chuck: “Yes, I called yesterday to reserve one for this morning.”
Man: [Blank look.]
Chuck: “I spoke to Curtis?”
Man: “Oh. Well, I’m Curtis.”
It turns out that the Bobcat was ready, but the trailer was in a shack, parked behind a forklift that, they soon discovered, was out of gas. That wouldn’t have been a problem had Curtis not directed Chuck to fill it up with a gas can that turned out to contain pink liquid and that would have to be siphoned before the forklift could be moved.
We were lucky that our work day turned out to be cloudy and an unseasonably cool 86 degrees because it took two hours just to rent and load the Bobcat.
Driving one of these things is a lot harder than it looks.
And for future reference: they won’t go in reverse unless you first pull forward. It was sort of a metaphor for our day: going in the opposite direction before any ground could be gained.
While the guys figured out how to operate a machine whose switch labels had long worn off, my friend Laurie gave me ideas for laying out the future garden, taking a page out of the permaculture playbook, such as planting parsley, Echinacea, eggplant, and other herbs around trees to create their very own microclimate. We also scouted out strategic places for a fir and a fast-growing hardwood to create greater seclusion in front of the cabin. She also advised that the number of old, rotting trees on part of the land will make great fertilizer at the bottom of a raised bed. I could almost feel my brown thumb turning green.
Once the guys got the hang of operating the bucket via pedals and the right angle at which to charge the pile, we spread the dirt.
It took surprisingly little time to complete the task, so after a hard-earned lunch break, we finished out the driveway. Like the foundation of our cabin, the driveway will need gravel, but now it’s at least level with the ground around it.
We left feeling pretty triumphant, even if later I discovered that I had provided a host of mosquitoes with their daily dose of iron. I had so many bites that they blistered—it felt like chicken pox all over again or the time I somehow managed to get poison ivy on my back. I’ll remember to re-apply the bug spray more frequently, and in the meantime, I’d like to give a shout out to my new best friend, the oatmeal bath.
Bradford Pears and Clearing the Cabin Spot
In the book of Genesis, God tells Adam, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.”
And then God created the Bradford Pear, or at least the cross-bred variety covering our land like a plague of locusts.
Imagine if thorny vines grew into trees. Imagine a super-plant that can perniciously sprout out of its own roots and grow in a cluster. Imagine interlocking branches and no smooth surface to grab when dragging them away. Imagine inch-long thorns jabbing arms, legs, and abdomen, leaving a tetanus-shot soreness and a purple bruise.
Granted, in spring they blossom white—they’re lovely if you can get past the stench. In autumn, the leaves are breathtaking shades of red, yellow, and orange. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrus_calleryana
But unless cultivated, they’re literally a thorn in the side.
Nevertheless, we’ve cleared enough to put down a sheet of plastic roughly the dimensions of the tiny cabin. This sheet is 10’ X 25’, and our cabin (with porches) will be 16’ X 22’. We still have to remove some stumps, and the impending rain should work in our favor for once–hopefully softening the ground enough for us to pull them out.