There's something so very satisfying and primal about going back to the basics, getting in tune with nature and building your own shelter. Pam Daniele, who with husband Chris, is co-creator of thecabinpedia.com and the de facto authority on all things cabin and adventure. So when they began constructing their own DIY cabin in Vermont back in 2019, we knew we'd have to check in with her to see how it was going. Turns out, even as novice carpenters, with a little help and a lot of grit, building your own dream cabin is a very realistic goal.
Ready to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty, or just want to admire some killer handiwork? Read on to learn more about Pam's Do's and Don'ts (but mostly Do's!) of building your own sustainable, off-the-grid, tiny cabin...
If you had told me ten years ago that I would be the proud owner and builder of a tiny cabin in Vermont, I suppose I might have believed you. I didn’t choose the cabin life, the cabin life really chose me. From an early age I had an intrigue in all things small, private and in the woods. It started with the tiniest treehouse that has ever existed, a noble effort on my fathers part. It stood about five feet off the ground and barely had enough room for two small children. A few years down the road with a some roadside pieces of plywood and the gusto of being 10, my sister, me, and a few neighborhood kids built our first fort. One room, a bench, and endless imagination.
Since those early days and into adulthood I have always lusted after cabins. A cabin has been a constant companion of mine throughout my life. When my husband, Chris, and I began dating it was only about a month in when we were booking our first trip to a tiny cabin in the woods. It quickly became our passion, and that passion became a full blown career.
When someone sets out to build a cabin the usual first step is to purchase the land. We did not have to do that. We were lucky enough to find someone with a passion like ours to help us build on shared land. Derek “Deek” Diedricksen was that someone and I do not think we could have joined forces with a better person. He just happens to be an expert in the field of Tiny Homes. He wrote the book(s!) on microshelters. The property is in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, so while most people choose their land, ours chose us! On top of being an incredible source of reading material, Deek also hosts (in a non-covid life) Tiny Home Building seminars.
Designing Our Dream Cabin
Our first designs were ambitious to say the least. We had great plans of a step down bed and massive wrap around porch, a treehouse with drawbridges, two wood stoves, floor to ceiling windows, and absolutely no reality of our capabilities whatsoever. It wasn’t until we stayed at our Vermont neighbors, Stonecity Treehouse that we had an epiphany about the base structure. The single pitched roof design with a loft bed was very appealing to us. As well as the shape of the cabin, the amount of windows was a dream. We wanted lots of windows! Our first sketches always had ample natural lighting. Shortly into the design phase our landlord was replacing all the windows in our 1920’s apartment. With dozens of old drafty windows and nowhere to put them, he was elated to unload a few on us. With our big and beautiful windows in front of us, the design really took off.
Our design is set on a 12x8ft platform. The front of the cabin is 12ft tall with a pitch down to 7ft in the back. This makes for a very comfortable loft with plenty of headspace. It made for a compact space but still with ample room with the addition of our loft. The living space of the cabin is 192sqft. We knew that space would work perfectly. The layout has become the perfect flow for such a small space that we are constantly making changes to in order to maximize our space.
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A large aspect of designing this small cabin was the woodstove. As with the initial designs we had very lofty dreams of what wood stove we could have in this cabin. The first thing that comes to mind is that image of a huge, castiron, potbelly woodstove. Huge and heavy! I should mention now, but will touch back on it later but our cabin is set 1/4 mile away from where we park. This means that a gigantic stove wasn’t making its way out. With a bit of internet research we settled on the Winnerwell Nomad, a stove that is meant for large canvas tents. We were able to haul in the stove and parts and put it together up there. It is efficient, easy to clean and does a terrific job of keeping the cabin toasty. During our last stay it dipped down into the negatives at night and we would not have known!
We broke ground in May of 2019. Our first task was to clear some brush and dig holes for the foundation. We went with a platform foundation per the advice of Deek. This makes for a sturdier base especially because the land up in that area is very soft and settles. It utilized field stones for support in the holes to hold the posts in place. This also set us up with a level start. Due to our schedule we were only able to get small pockets of work done at a time. From there on out our summer was focused on getting our base prepared for a big build at the end of September of 2019.
When we planned our trip that corresponded with Deeks big cabin build seminar, we had no idea what help we would receive and we also had no idea of how big it was. We had dropped off all of our building supplies prior to the week so when we arrived everything had been hauled over for us and the cabin already had four walls framed out and ready to go. It was the greatest help in the entire world. Our cabin had become a community project, it felt very special. After that week we left with four walls and a roof! We learned so much about building during that experience. Since that week every project has been the two of us working together and troubleshooting, and constantly learning.
A lot of our wood for the cabin has been sourced from a local lumber yard in our area of the Northeast Kingdom, supplemented with lumber from the larger chains when we have to. Most of our additional wood needs is upcycled. We are constantly striving to reuse and reduce especially in this day and age. There are so many places to find good and usable wood, community forums, classified free pages, free on the side of the road, dumpsters, etc. Get creative! Most recently we built amazingly comfortable chairs out of decking material that our landlord tossed out. Unless you have a very specific design that requires very specific material I would recommend trying to source recycled materials.
Without a doubt a huge obstacle of building is acknowledging what you are capable of. More often than not when we set out to accomplish large projects, especially multiple projects at once, it is important to realize that you may not be able to do it all. Up until recently we would set out to conquer multiple projects every time and we usually aren’t there for more than three nights at a time. Without fail, every trip we would get one thing done and because of setbacks, lack of planning/materials, or weather, we would have to drop a few tasks. As long as you are ok with waiting this isn’t the biggest issue to have. However due to a global pandemic many of our big projects were put on the back burner.
As I mentioned earlier our load in for materials and supplies is 1/4 mile hike through a very hilly area. It is not a huge distance, however, when you have to carry in large amounts of lumber, tools, etc. it is the actual length of a marathon. This experience has been the most physically strenuous one. Even on non-build trips we are hauling in firewood, food, water, and basic necessities. It can be a lot, but we have figured out some ways to lighten the load. In the winter an ice fishing sled simplifies transporting a lot of small items that are awkward to carry or don't fit in a bag. Similarly, in the summer we use a sturdy cart to help us make less trips and carry more.
The last obstacle is the acceptance that we can’t be up there all the time always and forever. A few quiet days with great food, books, games and tunes is therapeutic. We are working on building a shower and potentially a wood burning sauna so I suppose I can anticipate that desire to grow!
Building our cabin has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. No amount of obstacles or setbacks will ever be greater than the feeling of building this cabin. I have met and made so many new friends through working with Deek, people reaching out online to chat about it, and making videos about it for YouTube. This little slice of paradise will always be evolving and will always be worked on. As soon as this summer we hope to have a wrap around deck and if that does happen you can be sure that I’ll be talking about it online!