Letter Re: Building Cabins on a Shoestring Budget

Dear CPT Rawles,
Thank you for SurvivalBlog, and best wishes to all of you at the Rawles Ranch.  

My wife and I have written to once before about retreat locale recommendations, and you were so very helpful.  We are, I guess what you could call “late preppers” because we’ve only been working on this for about the last year, & part of that with admittedly a certain skepticism. Time has proven you right however, & now we are doing all we can.  It’s tough to prioritize when you need so much, and everything is like an emergency right NOW kind of need because of so many new regulations, and doors being closed.  I’m sure you understand how all of that is.  We have taken your past advice seriously, and are moving to the Redoubt in June of 2014, hopefully things will hold together that long…  Last year we purchased 10 acres in Boundary County in the general vicinity of [locale deleted, for OPSEC], and it is about that that I am writing to you.  To put it plainly, an appraisal of our situation is that we are very poor, financially speaking.  We have however managed to reach zero debt, but have only one income, plus whatever I can scratch up.  I am a disabled veteran, injured in the Gulf War, and no longer able to work in my chosen profession (LEO), so I am now finishing up learning to be a locksmith.  Our land purchase depleted most of our savings, but it is fully paid for.  Our land is undeveloped, save for a gravel driveway/access road and a leveled and cleared building site.  It has a small creek that flows through it.  I was told that the creek is seasonal.  According to my neighbor it has not gone dry in several years.  The property is timbered and also has some pasture land.  That is what we have to work with.  We currently live in [locale deleted, for OPSEC] with our three teenage sons (18, 16, 14).  Our plan is to get moved to the Redoubt as soon as possible.  That relocation is our top priority, as we feel time is of the essence, and it will at least give us the best fighting chance with what preps we have been able to put into place, as opposed to back here.  To make that happen however is requiring a lot of bailing wire, duct tape and “McGyverisim”.

As we will be unable to build a home, we are thinking of taking storage buildings (from a provider in Ponderay, Idaho) and setting them on concrete footings, as “roughed in” structures that we can then insulate and finish out as finances allow (double pane windows, 60 psf snow load, steel roof, etc are givens).  We would start with two, one for my wife and I, which would also contain the family common areas, and a second for my son’s, as a bunkhouse, if you will.  The plan is to eventually have five, which we will inter-connect via breezeways for lack of a better term, with an inner courtyard.  The buildings will be 14′ x 40′ (560 sq ft) each, with the ability to be added onto if later desired).  The long term thought is that if things hold together long enough, each of my children will be able to have their independence in their own “wing” of the house, much like an apartment if you will (independence but common security & mutual benefit being the goal here). The plan is of course that this will all be off grid.  

Q:  Have you heard of anyone doing such a thing before?  In your opinion is such a plan viable? Is there any advice or cautions that you would offer?

For cooking and heat we will obviously want to use wood, but are debating if it would be best to try to cook on a wood stove (which I see as more of an emergency adaptation than practical for daily use) but would be much cheaper initially, or would we be better off buying a wood cookstove such as the Heartland Sweetheart stove, which would be more than ample to heat our space (if it is efficient for that purpose I am not sure), warms water and uses a thermo-siphon to provide it for showers, etc I’m told but have not yet confirmed, and allows for all forms of cooking and baking, but is much much more expensive (i.e. $6,000-7,000.)

Q:  Do you have any experience with, or thoughts on this?

Q:  As you are obviously a well thought and researched person, do you have any thoughts and/or recommendations on efficient wood stoves, other wood cook stoves we should perhaps be considering, the use of propane for a cook stove and refrigerator for the short term, and any recommendations for an emergency generator (our electronic needs would be small).

Q:  Lastly, regarding drilling a well, according to area well reports we have discovered that with the exception of 1 or 2 wells, most are really deep (400 to 500 feet deep at roughly $37 per foot) so are there any options you may have experience with know about that may allow us to use the surface water from the creek that we could check into?

Thank you for for your time, and any input you may be able to provide us to help us along the way.  We always take what you have to say with the utmost seriousness.  Once again thank you for all that you and your family provide to the preparedness community. 
God bless you and your family! – B.D.

JWR Replies: If you have enough level ground, a “spokes of a wheel” arrangement for the cabins should work fairly well.   Just keep in mind that North Idaho can get up to 6 feet of snow, so allow room for the snow that comes off the roofs to pile up.

For heating, rather then burn fires in five separate stoves, you might consider an outdoor furnace in its own little shed, right next to your wood shed.  (With metal roofs for both.) In addition to hydronic (radiant) floor heating, these can also be used to provide domestic hot water. This approach creates less chimney fire hazard, and just one chimney to clean, twice a year

Creek water is of course not safe to drink untreated, but a lot of folks make do with constructing ponds or cisterns and then using two-stage filters and an ultraviolet water line light on the service line. (These are commonly used to sterilize the bacteria in the water circulated through fish ponds.)  If you can divert the creek and establish a pond or cistern at least 30 vertical feet uphill from the house, then that avoids a huge set of problems.  (There are no pumps in the system if you have gravity feed.)  OBTW, the pond must also have a stout, tall fence around it to keep out all livestock and wild game.