Portable Building Cabin

Who doesn’t long for their own piece of terra firma (or soil), or more specifically bonne terre (good soil), to call their own? If you’re a regular visitor to Homestead.org you’re likely either dreaming and/or planning toward buying your own land or you already own your own piece of the planet.

In the first installment of this four-part series, I talked about how owning your own property is a goal for many people, but also about how accomplishing that step often sparks another dream—spending time on your land. And eventually, day visits just aren’t enough. The draw to be there intensifies to the point you want to spend nights or prolonged periods of time there, many even make it your permanent home.

As a longtime follower of Homestead.org, I’ve seen many submitted stories and comments about how to transition from owning land to spending more-and-more time there. I enjoy seeing how different folks work and dream and scheme to make that dream come true. The lucky few have the tools and a construction background, or family or friends with such skills, to build some sort of a dwelling. But, then again, time after time I’ve read and watched as men and women with no formal building skills have circumvented traditional materials and skills with old-fashioned desire and creative use of what they have in their hand.

Recently I attended a small farm conference. The keynote speaker spent a couple hours talking about how to overcome fears of farming and getting something started. “Just start” was his first piece of advice. He reminded of the old analogy of how a piece of machinery is easier to steer if it’s rolling. “Do something, anything,” he said. You’ll never reach your goal sitting in front of the television or sitting idle dreaming of “what if …!” Another interesting statement he made was, “If something is worth doing it’s worth doing poorly (at first).” Mastery takes time, and in most instances in life perfection is not required to accomplish a task or create something. It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you just dive into a project and keep telling yourself that you will reach your goal, especially if you back that up with a serious dose of persistence.

Our Portable Building Cabin

That’s where my wife and I found ourselves. We had recently inherited the family farm (a piece of abandoned, overgrown property which once was my grandparents’ farm, but had since begun reverting back to woods). After years of visiting the property only for hunting, picking blackberries or cutting firewood, eventually, the desire to spend more nights there and get more work done with each trip began to consume me. And although I had spent many nights during hunting seasons in the old abandoned farmhouse, my wife made it very clear that she would not be cohabitating with the mice, squirrels and any other rodents or reptiles or bugs that could regularly be found there.

We wanted to “be there” instead of spending the next year of weekends and holidays “working there” to build some kind of small acceptable dwelling. We have hopes for a rustic log cabin there someday, but with our daughter getting married this summer that wasn’t in the budget this year and will likely take us a couple years to build when the time comes.

The process of how we came to the conclusion of going the portable building route was discussed in Part 1 of this series. With our basic 12 X 20 building purchased and being built to order, the next step was to choose and prepare a site. Then would come the dreaming, sketching and planning for how we would finish the interior to best suit our individual needs.

The Site

One major benefit of a portable building, and a key factor for us going that route, was the ease of locating (and potentially relocating) the structure on the land. I mentioned in the first story that we are not sure we’ll always want a cabin in this particular place on the property since the prime location might become more valuable for other uses in future years. And while I had long envisioned sitting on a hill overlooking a semi-wooded field with no other buildings in view, there’s also a couple places tucked back in some wooded valleys that would be great locations for a secluded cabin. What if two years from now a neighboring landowner chose to clear and build on that distant hilltop and ruin our wooded view? We might decide our cabin would be better suited nestled in a valley facing a different direction.

We opted to situate the cabin in the middle of the 80 acres and facing away from the county road that skirts the northern edge of the property. There’s an access lane leading from the county road through a long overgrown field edge. At the end of the field is a small pond my grandpa dug nearly 100 years ago. The pond is skirted by a few huge oak trees, with the rest of the area filled in with cedars, blackberry vines and multiflora rose—the latter being an invasive species that spreads like wildfire and makes it nearly impossible to walk through an overgrown field.

My dream was to position the cabin to overlook the full width of the overgrown field and distant wooded ridge. But when we went down and looked at it from the perspective of what we’d like to see out the front windows, and what the cabin would look like perched on the ridgetop, we decided to move it some 40 yards to the west and nestle it in beneath one of the big oak trees, and overlook the field and distant ridge from a quartering perspective. It was my wife’s idea, and while I first balked on not seeing every part of the field, after sitting in a lawn chair for 30 minutes or so and looking at it from that perspective it started to grow on me. And now that the cabin is in place I can’t imagine it would have been better where I had wanted to place it.

With that decided, the next step was widening the path through the field and clearing the site before the cabin arrived in two weeks. I put the cutting blade on the trimmer and sharpened the chainsaw chains and blades on the riding mower. On a Sunday afternoon, my wife and I drove down and tackled about an acre of the overgrown field. First I used the chainsaw and cut out all the small cedars and oak sprouts, as well as a few sassafrases, pine seedlings, and the larger thorny bushes. We hauled two trailer loads of brush down the hillside to a place we could make a brush pile either to remain for animal habitat or to be burned sometime in the future. After a break for some ice tea and snack crackers, we picked back up with the trimmer and lawnmower to finish up the job. To our surprise, we cleaned up and transformed the overgrown field corner into a park-like setting in only a couple short hours. I finished by spending another 30 minutes or so widening the opening we use as a road along the edge of the field to allow for the 12-foot-wide load and the truck that would be hauling it.

White stakes mark the orientation of the cabin once the area has been cleared of undergrowth.
The “Cabin” Arrives

Our cabin was built by some Mennonite craftsmen about 80 miles away. About three days before it was to arrive I received a call from a young man who identified himself as the driver who would be delivering my portable building. We talked about directions to the property and access once on the land. I told him the only issue I saw was that the direction he would be approaching might not allow him to position the building where we would prefer—you know, nestled in beneath the big oak adjacent to the pond bank some 20 yards off the main path leading through the field. “That shouldn’t be a problem,” he assured me. “I can maneuver it and put it pretty much anywhere you want.” This I would have to see to believe!

That next Saturday we headed to the property. A few miles away, my phone rang and the driver said he was approaching the county road and would be there right on time. Shortly after we pulled up and parked at the entrance to the field we heard the low rumble of a diesel pickup, and soon we saw the arched barn-style roof of our new building coming up the road towering over the pickup towing the specialty rollback trailer it was perched on. After some quick greetings and conversation, the young guy expertly navigated the truck and trailer through the gate and down the lane to the clearing.

The new portable building is delivered to the property.

First, he unchained the building from the trailer tie-downs. Next, he lifted the front of the trailer and the building rolled back on steel rollers and slid partially off the back of the trailer. He slid the trailer slightly forward and pulled out from beneath the end of the building. He was still 15 yards from where we wanted the building to sit. So he unloaded his secret weapon, a gas-powered two-wheel hydraulic dolly which could lift the building and turn more than 90 degrees. A few minutes later he had turned, shifted and shuffled the building into place without even breaking a sweat. He had us stand back a bit and then go inside and look out the door and windows to assure it was exactly where we wanted it to sit. My wife felt the west-facing end should be a couple feet further to the south to give it just the right stance and view. No problem! He hit the starter on his powered dolly and side-shifted it right into place.

The first step is rolling it back off the trailer.

Once we were pleased with the placement, the young guy went to work leveling the cabin and setting five 4-inch concrete blocks spaced evenly beneath each of the four treated timbers which made the runners for the building. He shoveled soil and moved blocks, checking for levelness at every step, until some 30 minutes later the building was rock solid and level both front-to-back and end-to-end. With handshakes and the exchange of an invoice the driver and his family were back in their truck and headed down the road, and we were standing looking at our new cabin (to be) with all kinds of ideas going through our heads of how we would finish it out and, better yet, all the enjoyable days and nights we would soon be spending on our land.

The young delivery man maneuvers the 12-by-20 cabin into place using a specialized powered dolly.
Making Something Out of Nothing

We had already spent the past two weeks envisioning and scheming about how we would finish out the interior of our new cabin. But all those ideas were just conceptual until we took some good measurements and snapped a few pictures to reference when we were back at home.

For our particular instance we knew we wanted the following:

  • A kitchen area with a narrow countertop that would support a two-burner propane cooktop, food prep area, and sink of some sort, and a small table for eating and playing games;
  • A composting toilet (It took a lot of talking for me to convince my wife that a composting toilet utilizing sawdust would not stink and be nasty inside the small cabin. While she would prefer a flushing toilet, the addition of a septic tank and drain field would greatly increase the cost of the project. An outhouse was her second option, and while I intended to build an outhouse eventually for nostalgia I knew that she would not be a fan of going outside to take care of business on a frigid winter night – especially when the coyotes were howling and other animals were stirring nearby at night);
  • Wood stove for heat;
  • A full or queen bed;
  • Sitting area with lighting for relaxing and reading;
  • A deck for summer sitting and to keep from tracking in dirt when walking in the front door;
  • An off-the-grid power supply. (The old farmhouse was on the grid, but we wanted to locate the cabin away from that area. And we wanted it self-contained so we could be comfortable with the cabin anywhere on the property;
  • Rustic décor which pays tribute and looks in place on the property.

Of course, the first step was getting some graph paper and drawing out the basic footprint of the building. Next, we looked at where to place the kitchen counter and composting toilet. Those two items would be the only real “built ins” at this time and would determine where we would put a window over the kitchen sink, the wood stove, and accessories and connections for the solar and propane systems. Eventually, I would hard wire the cabin with plug-ins and lights for convenience. We planned to use (and have already used) oil lamps and candles for accent lighting.

The Build-Out Begins

The first addition to be built for the cabin was a composting toilet. Sure, you can buy a commercial composting unit which uses chemicals or heat to keep down odors and break down waste, but there’s a much less expensive and simpler way to handle your “business”, pun intended.

A throne fit for a king… at least the king of this portable castle. The composting toilet was built of scrap lumber, a bucket, and toilet seat at a total cost of $7.

Following a lot of searching on the Internet and watching YouTube videos, I hit on a simple plan which uses a wooden box containing a 5-gallon bucket and topped with a toilet ring and lid. The lid of the box is hinged and has a hole cut in it which matches the top edge of the bucket. The only other component needed is a supply of sawdust. We also use a plastic trash bag as a liner for the bucket to make it even easier to deal with when we’re headed out after a stay at the cabin.

The toilet took only about two hours of my time and $7 for a new toilet seat and lid. I already had the scrap plywood and plastic bucket. And I created enough sawdust building the unit to use it the first several trips. A cabinet shop down the road from my house and my in-laws’ sawmill operation has supplied more than enough sawdust to keep our little toilet going for years to come.

How does it work, you ask? Amazingly well, my wife would tell you. She’s become a believer in the simplicity and benefits of the sawdust composting toilet. In fact, her skepticism pushed her to try kitty litter as the medium on the first visit, but all that did was leave the cabin smelling like a litter box. But the use of sawdust leaves no sewer odor and only a faint hint of a fresh wood smell.

Here’s how it works: You start by putting a liner inside the bucket and dumping in enough fresh sawdust to cover the bottom of the bucket a couple inches deep. The put the lid down and drop the ring into place. When the time comes to use it you simply do your business, and then cover it with a thick dusting of sawdust via a small scoop and supply of sawdust kept in a small trash can beside the toilet box. In keeping with full disclosure, you can even put your toilet paper in the toilet. But it works best to do your duty, sprinkle in a coating of sawdust, then drop in the used paper, and cover with a second coating of sawdust. Do it that way, and I assure you a visitor would never know there was a non-flushing toilet hiding in that small cabin.

With measurements and a simple sketch in hand, I delved into building a kitchen counter unit at home. I have far more time to work on such projects in the evenings than I have weekend days or holidays to build such things on location. Besides a simple counter 8 feet wide, 2 feet deep, and about 42 inches tall could easily be hauled down and carried and slipped in place by the two of us. I built the frame for the counter out of 2X4 lumber and a couple 2X6 boards I had laying around. No doors were needed since my wife planned to make curtains to cover the area beneath the counter. I built in a few shelves in the center and left both ends open to accept the sink plumbing and solar equipment.

The first work weekend finds some insulation, the kitchen counter, and composting toilet installed.

For the countertop, we considered stained plywood, ceramic tile, stainless steel, hardwood or vinyl flooring. But we wanted a rustic look to go with the planned barn metal backsplash while retaining ease of cleaning and use. After much thinking, we hit on using the rubber plank flooring which can be installed floating (not glued down) and can handle water and mild cleaners. We had installed similar flooring in a soup kitchen as a mission project in western Montana earlier in the year, and I had been impressed with the flooring’s properties. We found a single box of barn wood-looking flooring (a special order which was never picked up by the customer) at the local home improvement store for less than $20.

Once installed, I put down a small square of sheet metal used for making heating ducts as a heat barrier beneath the antique cast iron two-burner cooktop which would sit on the counter. We found a small galvanized tub at a farm supply store to use as a sink. I cut a hole in the countertop to partially countersink the tub. Eventually, we plan to plumb a small 12-volt pump and water line from a 5-gallon supply bucket beneath the counter to supply a stream of water. For now, we use a glass crock with a spigot. As for draining the tub, I cut a hole in the bottom and installed a simple drain which runs into another 5-gallon bucket beneath the counter. At the end of each visit to the cabin, we simply dump the gray water a short distance away from the cabin.

On the next weekend trip to the cabin, we delivered and installed the kitchen counter. First, we insulated the wall, then installed the counter. Next, I installed a backsplash of used barn metal from a deteriorating barn built by grandpa in the first half of the last century. I used horseshoe nails to hold pots and pans and a match holder. Grandpa did much of his farming with a team of horses. He had a blacksmith shop on the farm to do repairs and the occasional hired repair for a neighbor. I used an old barn door hinge he had forged and hammered and modified it to hold a roll of paper towels above the sink. We also installed a small window over the sink. It matches the windows which came already installed in the cabin but is much smaller – and cost less than $25 on eBay.

The kitchen area is coming together.

I built a 4-foot wall at home in my garage to be installed at the end of the kitchen counter and frame in a small area for the composting toilet. That first weekend we used oil lamps and flashlights for lighting. By the next trip, I had purchased a nifty little solar power setup and deep-cycle marine battery. I plumbed the cooktop with a rubber supply line to the outside of the cabin where I keep the propane tank when in use. I also ordered a quick-connect fitting for the tank. We also installed the curtains my wife made and I used saplings from around the cabin to form the curtain rods and brackets.

Over the next few visits we installed a small wood heating stove and chimney pipe, replaced it a month later with a more efficient antique heating stove when the first one failed to work as hoped, and installed the solar power setup and hard-wired the entire cabin for lighting and plug-ins. My entire solar power system cost about $300 and supplies us with more power than we’ve ever come even close to using, even during visits on cloudy weekends. The use of LED lighting in both 12-volt and house current using an inverter keeps power usage low, and we’ve often also used a corded drill, small saw or my wife’s sewing machine, and charged our cellphones or tablet without the system ever dropping below 10.8 volts.

In the third installment of this series, I’ll go into detail about the solar power system, propane, woodstove installation, and hard wiring. Admittedly, I’m not an expert or even a tradesman in any of these areas, but I’ve done them all … and if I can so can you!



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