In response to a number of posts at other survival sites on land purchase and settlement I have decided to do a series on building and outfitting my cabin. Each week I will explore a difference aspect of the process covering what I went through and most importantly, mistakes I made.
In May of 2003, I purchased five acres of land in the foothills on the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado. The land borders the eastern side of the San Luis Valley. The pinon and sage covered parcel runs up the North Slope and over the top of Bear Ridge at an altitude of roughly 8650 feet. The land offers stunning views of the Mysterious San Luis Valley, The San Juan Mountains to the west, Mount Blanca, Mount Lindsey, Mountain Home Reservoir and Chate Mesa. The night skies are filled with stars and the remote location guarantees virtually no light pollution.
A year earlier, I decided that I needed a place to get away. Living in Denver was great it is a wonderful city. But I have always had a need for solitude so I decided to buy some land in the mountains and build a small cabin. My needs were simple; I wanted a few acres with a mountain view, solitude and close to Denver at a reasonable price. Additionally, I wanted to design and build the cabin on my own. Reality set in after a few months when the realization came that you could not buy land anywhere in Central Colorado at a reasonable price. So, after broadening the search I found a place in Southern Colorado that meet my criteria.
Granted the land was three and a half hours south of Denver and there is a neighbor right down the road but the views are spectacular and the climate is great. The San Luis Valley is high desert valley; it is dry and moderately temperate most of the year. At first, the idea of having a neighbor so close was a bother, solitude was the goal. After a few weeks down there, it became a blessing. It is nice having someone down the road to watch over your place and be there if you need anything. The neighbors have never been a problem; in fact, we have become good friends.
The Small Cabin
Construction started on the first cabin within weeks of acquiring the land.The 8x10 foot cabin, built in the parking garage of an office over a long weekend, was broken-down and transported to the land. A period of intense surveying lead to selecting a small clearing on top of Bear Ridge for the cabin, chosen purely for the view.
Logistically the cabin site was a nightmare. From the roadside to the cabin site was roughly five hundred feet up a steep incline covered with waist high sagebrush and thick pinon trees. The cabin was completely hand carried up the hill. This was a huge mistake; you were so tired after carrying lumber to the site that reassembly was impossible. Water, coolers, sleeping bag and other supplies also needed transporting. The job would have been easier with a powerful ATV but the money tightened after buying the land. After the first summer, we abandoned the original cabin site for a more accessible cabin site lower on the ridge.
Let us talk about tools. Before you start any construction, get a good rechargeable tool set at least 18 volt. I bought, and still use, an inexpensive Ryobi set from Home Depot for about $150. It came with a drill, circular saw, reciprocating saw, shop vac and flashlight. Consider buying a couple of extra batteries, you will need them. Buying the tool set was one of the few good decisions made during that first year. In addition, you will need a chainsaw. Get a couple of good powerful flashlights and a durable kerosene lantern. I have a large 72 hour lantern that has allowed me to work and read through many stormy nights, I have two at the cabin and one at the house. If you get a kerosene lantern look into getting a small kerosene heater/cooker. They use the same fuel and really heat a small cabin well, plus you can cook on it.The Small Cabin at Bear Ridge known as the Cub House is still not completely finished. Future plans include windows and reworking the roof to accommodate an observatory.
The Big Cabin
The biggest problem encounter the first summer was the inaccessibility of the building site. Over the course of winter 2003, the building plan changed and adapted to a small expandable cabin lower and closer to the road. Construction began in the garage on a small 10 x 12 foot cabin in January 2004. This small cabin consisted of wall and floor panels bolted together with a lightweight roof. It was a shed style cabin with the north 8 foot wall sloping to the 7 foot south wall. There were two 5 x 7 foot opening in the north wall with screened doors and the south wall contained two 3 x 3 foot windows. The design allowed the wall panels to be unbolted and moved this flexibility made modular expansion possible.
Transporting the floor panels to the site was done in April 2004. After clearing a driveway and small area for the cabin, all by hand, cinderblock footings were positioned and the floor deck installed. There are several problems here. First, hire someone with a bobcat to clear the driveway and cabin site. Clearing the sage brush was backbreaking work and took two days to complete compared to roughly 20 minutes on a bobcat. Second, do not use cinder blocks for footings. It is very easy but they crumble over time and are a pain to fix. Get cardboard tubes and a wheelbarrow and make concrete piers. The following weekend installation of the walls and roof completed the small cabin.
Late springs 2005 a set of 5 x 7 foot French doors and a 5 x 4 foot window replaced the two north screen doors. In May 2005 a 16 x 10 foot addition added to the west increased the living space and added a small bedroom. A 14 x 8 foot deck on the north side completed Mays construction. July 2005 an 8 x 16 foot addition added a kitchen and bathroom to the east side. In both cases, the existing walls moved to the new end of the room. Summer of 2005 saw useable space increase from 120 square feet to 408 square feet. Installation of kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures occurred throughout the fall of 2005.
Let us look at building supplies. Most of the lumber used in building the big cabin came from the local lumber yard, Home Depot or Lowe’s. The three and a half hour drive to the cabin passes three Home Depots and two Lowe’s so it was very convenient. Ethically local lumber yards need support and when possible that is where we should shop even through they sometime more expensive. Find and utilize your local used building supply store. All the cabinets, bathroom fixtures, doors and most windows came from a used hardware supply store. Habitat for Humanity runs a couple of local shops additionally there are a couple of businesses that strip old buildings and resell the fixtures. This is a very economical choice. The French doors used in the cabin came from an alley behind an old shoe store going through some remodeling so keep your eyes open.Summer 2006 was a lazy time relocating the big north deck to the east side of the cabin was about it. The deck needed moving because a large 20 x 10 addition was to be added on the front side of the cabin. Completed in January 2007 the main living area was now 20 x 20 foot with a sleeping area to one side and the kitchen/bathroom on the other. Four 6 x 5 foot picture windows allow unobstructed views of the mountains and lake to the north. Additionally the first lockable door gave a great sense of accomplishment.
Summer 2007 saw a 28 x 10 foot sun room on the south side of the cabin and much needed roof and pier work. Future projects include expanding the kitchen to the east another 10 foot or so and adding another sleeping area.
Next week we will look at the various options I explored and mistakes I made in choosing a heating method for the cabin.