text by Jim Yount
Here's the link to our sister site. Other links are given at the end of this text.
What is a Mini Cabin? A mini cabin, (also spelled mini-cabin and minicabin) is a small cabin, intended to be used (at least part of the time) for human dwelling, which has 120 square feet of floor space or less.
One hundred twenty square feet is the maximum size building which many zoning authorities will allow to be built without a building permit.
Because a permit is not needed for a building of this size, there is considerable savings in engineering and architect's fees, and in the cost of inspection, and permits. A wider latitude in experimental building procedures are also available, since no inspector must be satisfied that the structure conforms to "code."
Accompanying this freedom from county or city control, is a responsibility to construct such buildings in a safe, durable, and aesthetically pleasing manner.
In 1845 Henry D. Thoreau went to live in the woods near Waldon's Pond. He lived in a 10 feet by 15 feet (150 square feet) cabin, wrote extensively, and became an advocate of simplifying one's life.
The author has done Mr. Thoreau one smaller, by
building his own 8 feet by 15 feet cabin in the
This mini cabin was made from 4 ft. by 8 ft. Duratemp panels, framed on 2 x 4 lumber and partly prefabricated in town before taking it to the country for "house raising". It contains three windows, a door, and two skylights. One section of the roof is constructed to open to "the great outdoors" for ventilation and views.
This "niche" or "loop-hole" in the otherwise over-regulated building industry, gives the average person a way to economically own a retreat of her own. We advocates of the American mini cabin, need to stand together to do what we can to insure that at least this bit of creative space continues to be allowed. By the same token, we must encourage others to act with the utmost responsibility in building methods, and in safety. A mini cabin is a place to have fun. We never want anyone to be hurt in the construction or use of our tiny houses.
Because "small is beautiful" and small is all we have, careful planning is needed so the mini can be used to its fullest. This need for thrifty use of space is not unique to the mini. The same problems are encountered in the design of cabins in sailing boats, and in Recreational Vehicle ("RV") construction. Many of the same innovations from these small space designs can be adapted to the mini cabin. A variety of appliances, including the kitchen sink, can be bought "off the shelf" in Marine Supply, and RV Supply stores. Good utilization of space is always a good idea, even with larger log homes or mini-mansions!
The Author has not yet added up his receipts to determine the cost of construction of his mini. Current estimation is $2,000, not including heating stove or kitchen appliances.
Originally I had estimated a cost of construction of just $500, which was based upon unfinished interior and using some materials native to the site for the foundation. As construction progressed, my original plans changed from wanting a cheap occasional cabin, to desiring a bit more comfort, and a higher degree of "finish." I also added a small deck or "porch," not originally part of the design.
A mini could cost a lot more, for example, if one were to use expensive interior panels or tile. Because of its small size, an owner can be relatively lavish in her choices, and still afford the indulgence.
If you build your own mini cabin, or have it built in stages, you need not put out much money at once. In my own construction, I paid for it as I went along. When money was scarce, I would work on parts of the project which were more labor intensive, but required little capital outlay. Unlike larger building projects which require sophisticated financial schemes, to build a mini you may simply use a credit card for those times when you want to move the project along, but are embarrassed by a temporary lack of funds.
Because you have a wide range of possible choices of materials for both exterior and interior; and because for most of us, there is no particular deadline when the mini must be built, it is often possible to take your time and look for good buys on construction material. I was able to buy the Duratemp panels used for my siding for about half the going rate, and to get a good buy on my windows. Most other items were bought at whatever the hardware store was charging at the time.
I am embarrassed to disclose how many hours I spent on this project, but would tell you anyway, had I kept good track. It was certainly well over 200 hours. I have no doubt that someone with other than rudimentary carpenter skills could have finished the job in a fraction of that time.
If you use the prefab technique which was employed by me, time can be spent at night or on rainy day week-ends prefabing the panels. On the other hand, if you build in your own back yard (not a bad plan if you have the room), then the more traditional on-site construction techniques may be preferable. After going through the process, I am of the opinion that on-site construction is less labor intensive than prefabing, unless several cabins are prefabed at once.
Bill Rockhill's Bear Creek Carpentry, located in the Adirondack mountains of New York State, has a number of true mini cabins, as well as small cabins which are available in a pre-fab package, to be sent to your site for construction by you or your contractor, or the company will erect the cabin on your site (probably only practical for owners living in the area). While Bear Creek will customize to your specifications, their "off the shelf" minis are high-gable board-on-baton structures, often with gable-end covered porches.
The cabins sit on skids made of pressure-treated lumber, so, in spite of the high-gable roofs, make a low profile and (under most conditions) need no more in the way of foundations. Of course owners may prefer to do a perimeter foundation or (my choice) build on pressure-treated or cement piers (also called "posts").
Bear Creek’s website gives complete specifications on the company’s mini cabins, larger cabins, sheds, and barns. It also shows floor plans, which can be a great aid in planning your own mini, whether or not you order from Bear Creek.
Before ordering, if you are in regulated areas where keeping under 120 square feet is important, check with your city or county building department first. Some regulators will add the porch area in calculating square feet, others will not.
Bear Creek Carpentry
Woodgate, NY 13494
In most regions of the country there are companies which specialize in constructing small buildings, usually intended as back yard sheds. To the best of my knowledge, none of these companies suggests that such buildings be used, or modified, as mini cabins. Neither the author, nor this web site, has any connection with any of these manufacturers.
One such company, Tuff Shed, highly advertised in the west and midwest, builds small structures, sheds and garages, not for human habitation. These buildings are intended primarily for storage, and as such do not meet the building code for living structures. In ordering a shed, you can specify changes in their usual construction to attempt to bring the shed into conformity with construction standards for a dwelling unity. For example, the spacing of structural support studs in the walls can be on 16" centers, rather than 24" centers. These changes will add to the cost of the unit, but are highly recommended.
Remember, we always want our mini cabins to be structurally sound and safe. If we start building inferior cabins, just because a building permit is not required, we are inviting government regulation, which will make the American Mini a cabin of the past.
Another way to achieve the same end, is to have the manufacturer erect a shed, then you as an owner modify it to increase the structural integrity (putting in additional wall studs, for example).
The advantage to starting with such a contractor built unit, is the savings in time and trouble. Disadvantages include the rather limited number of designs and materials available, added costs, and loss of control over the quality of construction.
As discussed above, Bear Creek Lumber will sell it’s mini cabins as a pre-fab "kit".
Several other small buildings can be bought as prefabricated kits, which should be suitable as a mini cabin. To the best of my knowledge, the smallest of these units (at 150 square feet) exceeds the 120 square feet we must work with. However, with some field modifications, or if the manufactures will trim their dimensions slightly, we can "mini-fy" them.
These units seem a bit pricey, but may well prove cheaper to build for the unskilled carpenter if allowance is made for the value of your own labor. A couple of manufacturers who have been in business a while are:Timberpeg
Timberpeg began its operations based upon the notion of what it called the "clustershed". "Clustersheds" were a series of 4 buildings that ranged from 12' x 16' to 16' x 32'. The smaller of the sheds makes an attractive small cabin, but is well over the 120 square feet to qualify as a mini. Timberpeg now specializes in larger custom timber framed homes, but will still provide the (now unadvertised) original cluster units upon request.
Shelter-Kit also uses the modular unit concept for its cabins. It’s basic unit is 12’ x 12’ to which the smaller "enclosed porch" unit (9’ x 12’) may be added.
Because the mini is small, design can be relatively simple. I used both paper and pencil as well as a simple computer architect program in my design, but ended up making considerable "field modifications" as I gained experience in the building process, or simply changed my mind. For one reason or another, I didn't like any of the plans for small building or sheds I found in my library search. It was also my experience that as my cabin was built, there were various problems encountered, or disadvantages of the original design discovered, which begged to be corrected. For example, my original design called for just two windows. I had planned on purchasing a door with a window in it to add to the illumination. I didn't like any of the doors with windows which I found, so a plain door (hinged to swing out, not in) was purchased. I then put in a skylight, liked it so well I put in another, but still wasn't satisfied with the lighting. Finally, with the structure largely finished, I cut in that third window, and am now fairly satisfied with both natural illumination and views. All these changes would have caused a contractor to pull out his or her hair, and drove the building inspectors up the wall.
I liked the experience of computer generated design, but can't recommend a program. The one I used is called "Architect", is very limited, and (in my exprience) crashes easily. I don't believe this particular program is currently available for purchase, but there is other computer design software programs which I have seen in electronics stores and big hardware stores. The advantage of computer design, even with a simple-minded program such as I used, is it enables the builder to experiment a lot with layout with less time and mistakes than paper and pencil.
When I decided to add a small deck (not originally in the design), I did the design with the computer software, and found the program quite helpfull. In the case of the porch or deck, the deck "as built" turned out much closer to the computer drawing than did the mini cabin itself.
As far as I know, it isn't the intention of any building authority to allow folks to use the 120 sf. "loophole" to construct units for people to live in.
discussing the mini cabin concept with one of the regulators in my county, the
gentleman remarked: "of course you can always
It appears that plumbing your cabin for hot and cold running water and sewer or septic is against regulations, and of course should not be done.
Sanitation is a very legitimate concern. Even if you find that there are no laws, rules, or regulations, which prevent plumbing your cabin, no shortcuts or experimental techniques should be used, unless supervised by qualified sanitation engineers or other appropriate experts.
Remote mini cabins can be equipped with solar cells and batteries. Many R.V. equipment sales shops carry small solar power systems which are fairly cheap and easy to install. Be aware, however, that a cabin with power cells atop its roof may be more inviting to thieves than one without. Also the solar array affordable and practical for such applications will (at best) generate enough power for lights and a TV and radio. No pop-up toasters or electric hair dryers. Even then, the installation of energy efficient lights is in order.
All of the usual suggestions on securing any building apply to your mini. If you build your cabin in a remote location you might simply make a point of never leaving anything in it which has much value. Get to know your neighbors. I have found that good neighbors are the best defense against the would-be thief.
If you are building a larger structure, the building authority will insist that a fire protection plan, and proper equipment, be in place before you are allowed to start to build.
As your own building authority, insist upon proper fire protection. Write up your own fire protection plan, which should include escape routes should there be a fire, the installation and maintenance of fire extinguishers and other fire-fighting equipment, and notification of the fire department of the location of your building. In my area, volunteer firemen will meet with the property owner and draw up a site plan which is filed for future emergency use. As part of your plan, review the building code regulations as they apply to fire protection. Always err on the side of safety when it comes to matters which could threaten your life.
If you are building your mini in your backyard, check with your fire insurance company BEFORE YOU START TO BUILD. You will want to make sure your structure is covered, even in its construction phase.
Like a lot of would-be builders, I have collected a fair sized library of books and pamphlets on various innovative approaches to construction. One book I found particularly helpful is Stephen Taylor's "Building Thoreau's Cabin" which is directed to the novice builder who wishes to make use of conventional framing techniques to construct a small structure.
A good source of low-cost information on building materials is:
American Plywood Association
P.O. Box11700 Tacoma, Washington 98411-0700
(206) 565-6600/ FAX (206) 565-7265
The American Plywood Association (a.k.a. "The Engineered Wood Association") has a variety of brochures and study guides including "Panel Handbook and Grade Glossary" (form no. X505Q). I found that a quick study of such information was very valuable in enabling me to purchase the proper building material and to understand "mill marks" etc.
This company also has some inexpensive ($2.00) plans for a couple of attractive out buildings, and a video showing construction of mini barns. Ask for form no. Y630S.
The small cabin has long been admired and romanticized. Where else would Presidents be born? What could be a more perfect "love nest?" Could there be a better setting for quite contemplation? To think great thoughts?
Where would Thoreau be without "Thoreau's cabin?" Could there be a "simple life" without a simple structure?
Peace, tranquillity, freedom from the mortgage, are yours with a mini cabin.
The famous Irish poet William Butler Yates celebrates the mini cabin thus:
of Innisfree Lake Isleby W.B. Yates
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,And a small cabin there, of clay and wattles made:Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;There 's all a glimmer, and a purple glow,And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day,I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,I hear it in the deep heart's core.
Perhaps the romance of the mini, follows from its simplicity, its efficiency. Americans have always appreciated thrift, and admired the efficient use of resources. The person with a small, well-ordered cabin is respected. Large houses are drafty and require significant energy expenditure to heat or cool. The owner of a large house may find that the house owns the person.
So, here's to the mighty mini. It's small. It's efficient. It's beautiful. It's paid for! Long may it shelter us, welcome us, protect us, keep us warm, keep us dry, keep us snug, keep us simple!
The author claims no authority on laws, codes, or other rules and regulations, which may apply to construction of size buildings. The reader is advised to check out laws and codes thoroughly for his or her self. The comments above are based upon the author's own opinions, and understandings which he believes applies to his own situation and should not be generalized. The reader is advised to consult local building authorities, and/or attorneys before driving a single nail.
The author is also not an expert on construction or construction techniques, has never worked as a carpenter, or in the construction industry, and has only limited building experience.
"There is the same fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's building his own nest." (Henry David Thoreau)
A mini cabin is a whole lot of work, and there are times, with this or any sizable project, when the frustrations and problems make the project seem not worth the effort.
On the other hand, there is a lot of satisfaction of accomplishment in building a mini cabin. One hundred twenty square feet is small enough to be a practical project for most people. Start building. Initial accomplishment will be enough to carry you through to completion. Happy building, friend; and happy camping!
To comment on this page, email the author at: jimyount@JPS.net.
You are invited to submit text or pictures on your own mini-cabin.
Use the Amazon.com search engine below to find books, tools and hardware, kitchen items, lawn and patio furnishings, wireless phones and security systems, and other useful products for building and living in your mini cabin.
are suggested keywords for your search:
-Under “Tools & Hardware” try: cordless tools, hand tools, and woodworking tools
These books may now be ordered directly from this site www.minicabin.com, with Amazon's usual 20% discount to book buyers on many items. Books will be sent directly from the Amazon warehouse, or (in the case of out-of-print books), from various used bookstores or even individuals. I have marked several with an asterisk (*) to indicate books that every would-be minicabin builder "must have".
Adobe : Build It Yourself Design & Construction
Adobe and Rammed Earth Buildings: Design & Construction
Build It With Bales: A Step-By-Step Guide to Straw-Bale Construction, Version Two
Buildings of Earth and Straw: Structural Designs for Rammed Earth And Straw Bale Architecture
The Rammed Earth House (Real Goods Independent Living Book)
The Straw Bale House (A Real Goods Independent Living Book)
Construction: Contemporary Natural Building Methods
Build Smarter With Alternative Materials
Earthship : How to Build Your Own
Handbook of Alternative Materials in Residential Construction By Richard T. Bynum, Daniel L. Rubino
The Alternative Building Sourcebook: Traditional, Natural, and Sustainable Building Products and Services
*The Homestead Builder: Practical Hints for Handy-Man
A reprint of original 1872 Guide! (about $10)
* American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the
(if you own just one book on American Architecture, this should be that book) "a must own"
An important historical study with illustrations of Thoreau's cabin and discussions of a variety of rustic cabins.
Building Materials: A Guide to Product Selection and Specification
Low-Cost Green Lumber Construction
(out of print but well worth Buying Used)
*Building Thoreau's Cabin by Stephen Taylor
"a must own" (out of print, excellent book for novice builder who uses conventional platform framing)
*The Foxfire Book: Hog Dressing, Log Cabin Building, etc.
(The original Foxfire. Old-timers show log cabin building techniques. "a must own")
Rustic Retreats : A Build-It-Yourself Guide
Cabin Fever : Rustic Style Comes Home
*Handy Farm Devices and How to Make Them
A reprint of the original 1909 book! (about $10)
Homesteading Adventures: A Guide for Doers & Dreamers
The American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook
The Encyclopedia of Country Living
The Woodburner's Companion: Practical Ways of Heating with Wood Eliot Wiggington (Editor)
the Cordwood Home
(out of print, a how-to book by one of The first cordwood builders)
Complete Book of Cordwood Masonry Housebuilding: The Earthwood Method
Cordwood Masonry Houses, A practical Guide to the Owner-Builder
(out of print but well worth owning)
Water Systems : An Out-Of-The City Guide To Pumps, Plumbing, Water Purification
Independent Energy Guide: Electric
Managing 12 Volts : How to Upgrade, Operate, & Troubleshoot 12 Volt Electrical Systems
The Easy Guide to Solar Electricty: For Home Power Systems
The Home Water Supply : How to Find, Store & Conserve It