This is the story of how two middle-aged city dwellers became weekend homesteaders, and how we bumbled our way through planning and building an off-grid survival cabin. Top to bottom, the project took about two years to complete, working only on weekends. We started out naïve but ambitious, and learned everything as we went along.
Our off-the-grid plans actually began with an intriguing documentary. The program posed a series of questions: What would you do without power for two days? For two weeks? For two months? The show went on to explain how incredibly fragile the power grid is, and that two months without electricity isn’t really far-fetched given the right set of natural disasters. My husband and I were stunned. What would we do without power for two months?
“I guess we’d camp out at my parent’s farm and freeload,” he said. Neither of us liked the sound of that.
Over the next few months we continued to talk about retreating to the family farm in case of disaster. The idea of building our own survival cabin began to form. It would need to provide long-term emergency shelter plus be a place for weekend recreation. Above all, it must be easy and inexpensive to build and maintain. Mortgage-free.
We were very fortunate that my in-laws donated a corner of their property to our project. The land includes about 7 wooded acres, and an open field. The site is isolated from neighbors and has incredible views of rolling meadows and tree stands. Deer and wild turkey are regular visitors.
We researched building options for months. We bought books, visited trade shows, spent countless hours on the internet, and talked to every knowledgeable person we could find. Many building techniques were reviewed and rejected because they violated our prime objectives; inexpensive, non-electric, easy to build, and weather-proof. We dismissed building a regular frame house immediately. “I don’t know diddly about construction,” my husband said. “Way over our skill level,” I agreed.
We looked into Earthships or rammed-earth structures. Nope. Too much labor to fill old tires with 500 pounds of dirt and stack them ten feet high. How about a straw bale home? Nah, too much painting and stucco upkeep. We explored a blown concrete monolithic dome – interesting, but so expensive! Maybe a pre-fab underground shelter? Well, you won’t get any natural light unless the whole roof is glass.
Finally we found our answer in cordwood masonry. Here was a technique we thought we could handle: cut logs into 12 inch sections, make mud balls with mortar, and piece it all together. Heck, even we could do that! Plus we had acres of woods with fallen trees to collect free lumber. A cordwood cabin met all our requirements – a low cost, permanent structure that we could design to be off-the-grid, and build it ourselves.
I spent many nights drawing floor plans on graph paper, and ended up with a 32’ x 40’ open design to allow heat from a central wood stove to radiate throughout. Three-foot eaves keep the cordwood walls dry, and provide shelter from the summer sun. A north-south orientation allows maximum light through 11 windows. The north wall (the coldest part of any house) is half buried to insulate us from winter storms.
On paper the design looked simple enough, but I began to imagine all sorts of problems. With our limited skills, how could we possibly build 40 feet of walls in a straight line using a technique we had never tried?
“Post and beam,” my husband decided. “We’ll build the roof first. Then fill cordwood between the posts.” That solved everything. We would only have to construct 8-foot long sections at a time, and I felt sure we could stay straight and plumb with the roof posts to guide us.
Knowing your own limitations is really the best asset you can have. My attempts to engineer a roof design resulted in guffaws and my father-in-law thanking me for the best laugh he’d had in years. It was a great relief when we hired a local builder to construct the trusses. About the same time we realized that pouring a 10” deep concrete floor was probably beyond our capabilities, so that job was contracted out as well.
We opted for a metal roof on the cabin because (a) it was cheap, and (b) we intended to collect rainwater for our drinking source. Asphalt shingles will shed debris that pollute your water storage.
That first year, while the floor and roof were being built, we collected wood for the walls. We bought a chainsaw and an old pickup truck and began to cut and stockpile cordwood from our property. Each weekend we’d locate fallen trees, peel off the bark, mark 12 inch sections with a yellow crayon and cut the logs to size with a chainsaw. Then the wood was stacked to dry.
Unlike a traditional log cabin with long timbers running parallel to ground, a cordwood house is made of hundreds of short fireplace-size pieces stuck in perpendicular. From a distance, it almost looks like a fieldstone house because you see the round, exposed ends of the logs. For me, cutting the wood was the toughest part of building our survival homestead. It was hot, dirty, hard work, and then later became cold, muddy, hard work. We cut and split wood every Sunday, through the fall, winter, and into the next spring. This city gal developed a good set of muscles that year!
During the week, when we were back in the city, I collected a wide variety of furnishings and fixtures to be used in the cabin: sinks, countertops, cabinets, an old claw foot bathtub, sofa beds, tables and chairs, doors and windows. Everything was bought at auctions, flea markets, or garage sales. Or it was simply free. Friends and family donated all manner of furniture. I trash-picked some great coffee tables from my own neighborhood. It became a grand game to see how cheaply we could acquire building materials and furniture for the cabin.
By the following May we had cut enough cordwood to complete the cabin. We began building the walls Memorial Day weekend, and optimistically took the the whole week off from work. But by Wednesday we were so exhausted we had to quit. It was then we decided that small spurts of exertion are better than one long stretch. Thereafter, we worked on our log and mortar walls every weekend from June to December.
The basic construction technique of cordwood masonry is simple and easy to master in a few minutes. You make a mud ball out of the mortar you have mixed, slap it down in two parallel rows, sprinkle a little sawdust and lime between the rows for insulation, and set logs on top. You fill between the logs with more mud balls until you can start another row. Then you repeat. A thousand times. Every weekend from June to December.
In his excellent books on cordwood masonry, Rob Roy stresses the importance of hand mixing the mortar in a wheelbarrow with a hoe. With all due respect to the ambitious Mr. Roy – that’s crazy! We didn’t have the stamina to labor for hours with a hoe in the blazing summer heat. Instead, we attached an antique mortar mixer ($75 auction find) to a borrowed farm tractor. That piece of equipment was the critical difference between success or failure for us, and another case for knowing your own limits.
A constant parade of friends and family showed up nearly every weekend to help. We passed out work gloves and buckets, along with a few quick instructions. The cabin was really a community project, and each finished wall now reminds us of the folks who so generously contributed their time.
The walls became more elaborate as we gained experience. We included all kinds of oddities along with the wood; bottles, marbles, coins, fossils, shells, crystals, and knick-knacks. Artistic forms developed, like a log clock with old pocket watch dials to mark the hours.
Our construction site soon became a tourist attraction. People would show up saying they’d heard about the place and just had to see it for themselves. They’d marvel at the logs stuck in sideways and all the bottles in the walls. “You should build these cabins for a living,” many suggested. We would smile patiently. You couldn’t pay us to build another one. It was truly a labor of love, and we planned to do it only once.
By Fall we were coming down the home stretch. Most of the walls were finished, and the doors and windows had been installed. The mortar around some of the larger logs had shrunk, which we expected. Gaps were filled with clear silicone caulking. My husband often jokes, “We built this place with a chainsaw, a mixer, and a caulk gun!”
When our Vermont Castings wood stove arrived, I watched the installers carefully. I was curious about how they would seal the chimney pipe through the metal roof. They tossed me a tube of Chem-Caulk 900. “It will seal anything!” they vouched. With it we’ve patched holes and leaks in metal, plastic, fiberglass, and concrete. It’s expensive and fairly toxic, so it wasn’t good for sealing gaps around the logs. But it was great for lots of other jobs.
I was a happy camper when the composting toilet was delivered. No more bathroom trips to the woods! Since we had just watched the chimney flue being installed, I knew how to get the toilet vent pipe through the metal roof. Chem-Caulk and tin snips would do the trick. I stopped at a local hardware store after work, all dressed up in skirt and heels. When I explained why I wanted the shears, the owner eyed me up and down. “Pardon me, lady,” he said. “But you don’t look like the type who would climb up a ladder and cut a hole in a roof.”
I laughed, “You’d be surprised at what I can do!”
It was true. Building this survival cabin had given me incredible confidence and life-long skills. No longer was I intimidated by simple home repairs or mystified by all that stuff in the hardware store. I knew how to use a circular saw, power drill, and a crowbar. I could drive a straight nail and read a level. I knew the difference between 2 x 4s and 4 x 6s. I knew how deep a footer should be, and where to buy 5/7 gravel. And I could talk about furring strips, backer rod, and re-bar like I was born to it.
In November, with the walls nearly finished, we spent our first night at the cabin. The air was brisk, and then became downright cold. Even huddled around the wood stove, I could see my breath indoors. It was a low point for me. I was cold, miserable, and discouraged. “We’ll never be able to stay here during the winter,” I wept. Foolishly, we hadn’t planned a ceiling. We thought we could keep the interior open to the rafters as a kind of cathedral effect. Yeah, well, everybody knows that heat rises. Right out the roof vent in fact. And even our big new wood stove was not going to heat 1,280 square feet without a ceiling.
It took a while to find the right solution, but we finally settled on galvanized barn siding for the ceiling – an inexpensive material that reflects huge amounts of light from the windows during the day, and shines back all the candles and oil lamps at night. When you don’t have electric lights, reflective surfaces are the next best thing.
By New Year’s Eve the kitchen was finished and we had moved in all the odds-and-end furniture. Thirteen people stayed overnight, and we kept the cabin a cozy 68 degrees with our new ceiling. A propane stove cooked up a turkey with all the trimmings for the feast.
Okay, so we have a propane tank. The cabin functions completely off the electric grid, but we decided to spoil ourselves with a little LP. It’s a deliberate luxury that runs a range, a good-sized refrigerator, and an Amish-made chandelier. A tank of fuel lasts about 15 months, and the fill cost is about the same as one month’s worth of electricity at our city house.
The water supply is a 1,400 gallon concrete cistern buried behind the cabin. It feeds two pitcher pumps, one in the kitchen and one in the bathroom. We’ve also added a small solar panel that runs a power pack for light-duty use, like recharging batteries and cell phones.
Our survival cabin has all the comforts of a city home, only with a rustic, old-timey charm. We stay cozy in the winter, and at least 10 degrees cooler than the outside during summer, due to the foot-thick walls. The cabin has a peaceful, natural atmosphere and many remark how restful the place feels.
For the past 10 years we have used our off-grid homestead as a weekend house, a gathering place for family and friends, and emergency refuge. It’s fully stocked with freeze-dried food and firewood, and twice has saved us a week’s worth of hotel bills when we needed to evacuate our city home because the power grid went down in the dead of winter.
We’ve never regretted the time and effort we spent building the place. And now when we watch those disaster shows which ask, “What would you do if…,” we have the answer.
Hopefully our story will entice you to become a weekend homesteader as well. If a couple of fumbling middle-agers can build a comfortable survival cabin, you probably can, too!