Building Our Tiny Cabin


Here at Utah Safe Haven we’re fond of saying “it all begins with the land.”  That’s very true … but what’s the next step?  We began this adventure so that we might help with your “what’s next?” question.  While it’s all good, well, fine and dandy to have a place to pitch a tent or park an RV, that’s not necessarily enough … especially when you’re looking for a safe retreat or spot to bug-out to in  response to a catastrophic event.

Remember the “Rule of Threes?”  Consider them carefully.  While our accompanying survival-rules-of-three-infographic2infographic caveats “in extreme conditions,” disasters very rarely occur in perfect weather … say sunny and 82° with a slight breeze.  When it comes right down to it, your challenge in a bug-out situation is to maintain a constant 98.6° body temperature.  Our bodies have a nasty habit of shutting down their various components when the core temperature drops below 95°.  Now when you stop to think of it, 3.6° isn’t a very big buffer to play with, is it?

That perfect day of 82° with a slight breeze?  Now imagine that you’re stuck in a gentle rain without access to dry shelter or an added heat source.  This soft rainfall will eventually work its magic and begin to lower your body temperature to match that of your surroundings.  It won’t be long before you begin to shiver, stumble and grow lethargic.  That’s your body telling you that you’re in trouble … BIG trouble … and if your core temperature actually falls to match that surrounding 82° you’re probably not going to be conscious enough to notice it.  And all this can happen on a day that most would consider to be beautiful and balmy.

Granted, this example might seem a bit extreme but the point we’re attempting to make is that dry, warm shelter is extremely important in a retreat or bug-out situation.  While a tent or an RV are each a marked improvement over … well, having nothing … a snug, insulated and comfortable cabin is an order of magnitude better.

Utah Safe Haven, through our parent company Mountains West Ranches, is an authorized distributor of Cumberland Buildings.  We often refer to them as “(almost) instant shelter” or a “wooden tent” (as they’re delivered).  But that’s just a beginning …

Over the next several months, we’ll be presenting a series of articles (though hopefully, each will not be as long as this introduction) detailing the “build-out” of a Cumberland Building into that aforementioned snug, insulated and comfortable, albeit “tiny,” cabin.  It’ll be a toss-up as to whether we’ll be able to finish it before it’s time to secure it for the winter … we’re dependent upon both budget and time … but we’ll do the best we can.

wood-lofted-barn-cabinOur most popular building is the 12’x32’ “Lofted Barn Cabin” pictured at left.  Yep, that’s twelve feet wide and thirty-two feet long for ~384 square feet of living space (actually a bit less on the main floor, but we’ll explain that later).  Today’s master bedrooms alone average 309 square feet!  So how on earth can we expect a family to live … comfortably … in a home that’s only slightly larger?

First, remember that when you decide to build a permanent shelter on your property, you’re becoming a pioneer of sorts.  Early Utah pioneer cabins measured a whopping 15 feet by 20 feet or ~300 square feet … often housed more than one family and had neither bathroom, indoor plumbing, electricity nor a modicum of privacy.  With a Cumberland, you’re already starting with an added ~84 square feet and throwing in the area of the two included lofts (an 8’x8’ in the front and a 12’x12’ to the rear) you’ll have a total of ~592 square feet … in comparison that’s a veritable mansion!

Second, and perhaps most importantly in our estimation, the current average suburban home size of 2,400 – 2,600 square feet is roughly two thousand feet more that has to be heated … and if you’re the one cutting the wood for heat/cooking, etc. (as you probably would be in a retreat situation) that’s a significant reason to consider a tiny home, even several buildings to house your family if necessary.

Third, Cumberland Buildings offers a number of different sizes and styles, both painted and natural wood.  More to the point, they offer a three-year “Rent-to-Own” program … with no credit check.  They also offer a short menu of options at extra cost.  Order the building and 2-3 weeks later it’s delivered to your site.

But in the end, you’ll need to decide if “living tiny” might be right for you and your family.

Personally, we chose to go with a 12’x32’ “Side Lofted Barn Cabin.”  Our reasoning is thatwood-side-lofted-barn-cabin with the Lofted Barn Cabin, the 4’x8’ porch extends across the front of the building, shrinking the available living space by an additional 32-square feet.  It’s true that while the side porch still reduces our available living space by the same amount, the overall layout changes in such a way that it becomes more easily converted into our bathroom.

The building comes standard with a 9-light door and three 3’x3’ windows.  The placement as shown in the picture here is standard.  We made a few changes to the “standard” –

    • we reversed the overall floor plan (to match the image above);
    • we moved the front door to the short wall of the porch (the right side in the image above);
    • we moved the 3’x3’ window from the porch to the right wall, as well as specifying the overall window placement;
    • we added a second 9-light door as a “back door” on the left wall;
    • we added a 2’x2’ window to the front wall, and perhaps most importantly;
    • we selected the 8’ wall height option (the “standard” wall height is 6’-3”).

Oh, and we should mention this was after weeks of discussing the pros and cons of each building design as well as a few million trial floor plans (we used to play with the various layouts).

After we ordered the building, it was the start of some hard, physical labor on our parts during the 3-4 weeks it would take for the building to delivered.  While our property isn’t so much as “remote,” it is “private” and we intended to keep it that way, so … no hired labor (at least, as little as we can get away with).  We did have a contractor come and drill the ten 12” holes for the piers the building would rest on, but so far he’s the only outside help.  Meanwhile back home, we used 2”x8” lumber to construct 20 16”x16” boxes to form the top concrete platforms of the piers.

Then … back up the mountain (an hour’s drive away).

Ouch.  Even though the piers were initially drilled, the earth on the mountain is dry, rocky and very hard.   There were more than a couple of holes that did not meet the 4’ minimum depth requirement because of the conditions or the sides had fallen in to some extent.  All of them had to be cleaned out, and sadly, a majority had to be dug deeper … by hand … exercising our PhD (post hole digger) and a 20-lb steel pry bar to pound and break up the hardpack (I couldn’t close my hands for two-days afterward because of the bruises from the pounding … with 20/20 hindsight we should have rented a jackhammer, lol).

Observation #1:  I have a tendency to “over-engineer.”

finished piersIt was time to mix and pour the concrete.  Our contractor had dropped off the 80 bags of cement that we’d estimated we’d need, but as is usually the case … in the wrong spot.  Ouch again, as we moved the 80-lb bags to a couple of different locations around the site.  We set and leveled the top forms, then began the (note: insert wry sarcasm here) fun task of mixing and pouring some 3+ tons of concrete … by hand (my cement mixer was in storage 300-miles to the south).  I’d like to think this was a valuable “couple’s bonding” time, but I’m pretty sure my Bride of 28+ years would disagree.  With no water readily available to the building site, we brought it in using a 50-gallon barrel that we filled at home.  Two days later … it was done.

prepped siteWe let the concrete cure for a full week, then came back up the mountain to remove the forms, lay the plastic vapor barrier around the piers and stack four concrete blocks on each pier (ouch, sigh).  Oh, I neglected to mention that we had previously transported, unloaded and re-stacked a full pallet of block (continuing ouch).  At this point the only thing keeping me going (my Bride was a constant source of support and enthusiasm) was my OCD, the liberal use of Advil and my chiropractor.

At last we received the call that our cabin was on the trailer and some 2-hours out.  We scrambled into the truck and made the 1-hour drive to wait at the agreed meeting spot.  Not saying that we were a bit excited, but we parked so that we could watch for the first glimpse of it coming down the road.

first glimpseFinally!

We had to lead the driver “up the mountain” to our lot.  Martin was extremely patient with us, waiting as I climbed trees to cut away branches so as not to tear up either the roofing or siding as the cabin was brought in to the site.  Cumberland advises this be done before your building arrives, but we had no clue as to just how much needed to be cleared away for the 14’+ high building.  Although it really helps to do the cutting as the cabin in being brought in, the drivers are not required to wait.  Martin would have been perfectly in his right to back off and drop the building in the Mountains West yard, but he instead decided to take pity on “the old guy” (me) and hang with us.

Observation #2:  Don’t wear either shorts (cedars/pines scrape away a lot of skin) or a favorite shirt (pine sap does not wash out) when clearing away branches/trees for the building delivery.

setting cabinAfter going through the batteries on two saws-alls, the driver had the cabin ready to be backed onto the piers.  But …

Observation #3:  Never let anyone else take measurements for you.

set cabinOur pier layout was wrong.  Apparently, the measurement was taken from the width of the two inside skids, rather than the two outside … which bore the weight of the walls.  D’oh!  After some discussion with Martin, we removed the concrete block (sigh, ouch) and he was able to back and push the building into place … just 8” to one side so as to miss the misplaced piers.  The trailer used to deliver these buildings is amazing!  It has a complete 5th-wheel in the center which can be dropped and allows the entire setup to be moved to one side or the other.  These drivers can put a building into some incredibly tight spaces … and Martin was an expert.

Our cabin was home … just about 2’ lower that what we had wanted.  Now what?

raised cabinLuckily my Bride asked Mountains West for some help.  Brad and Nathan was caught in an unusual circumstance as they didn’t have anything more pressing to do so they agreed to come raise and level the building for us if we could provide the necessary 12’ 6”x6” beams.  We had the beams (12, just to be safe) as well as the necessary lumber to stud out the interior walls we were planning to build delivered the next day … albeit to our home an hour away.  I borrowed a trailer from a very understanding friend, loaded the lumber and beams (sigh) and drove them up to the property.  I have to admit that I was getting a bit slower when it came to handling all the heavy stuff (ouch … again), but I had planned ahead and already booked an appointment with my chiropractor.

The following day we received a telephone call.  “It’s done.”

Wow.  Raised to where we wanted it, leveled side-to-side, front-to-back and solid as a rock.  We couldn’t thank the guys enough.

Unfortunately, previous commitments began to fill up our time and we weren’t able to make as much progress on the interior buildout as what we would’ve liked.  I went up one Saturday with my son-in-law and studded out the two bathroom walls, but beyond that … not so much.  We were able to spend 4-days over the 4th of July weekend “camping out” where the only major addition was a set of steps up to the front porch.  To the side, we built some temporary (we’ve plans for a wrap-around deck) steps from the unused concrete block (ouch, again) as well as a temporary outdoor kitchen with a rocket stove and a temporary sun shower area.  Notice:  I use “temporary” a lot so that I can convince myself it really will be just that.  All too soon, it was time to board the cabin up for the winter.

I can’t adequately describe how peaceful it is to sit outside early in the morning with the puppies and a cup of hot tea, just to watch a small herd of deer pass by about 30-feet away.  Or to watch the stars and count the satellites at night … possible without all the light pollution of civilization.  We absolutely can’t wait to get back at it!

Next:  Lofty ideas