In the spring of 1983 I was finishing up my second year at Virginia Tech. When I entered college my intention was to become an engineer but that wasn't working out. After two years I still hadn't found a major that was right for me. I felt lost and frustrated.
I decided I needed to clear my head by taking on a big challenge and I narrowed it down to either hiking the Appalachian Trail or joining the Marines.
When I was deciding what to do I met a guy named Eddie, a local who owned property about 10 miles from campus. He must have sensed I was ready for a big challenge because he asked if I wanted to build a cabin on his property. His offer caught me off guard. I had zero experience building (save for the dog house I built while in high school). Building a cabin seemed like a huge undertaking.
I thought about it for one night and decided this was exactly what I needed.
Eddie agreed to guide me in the building process as he had experience with such things. I started clearing the land about a month before exams started and then moved all my belongings into storage just as classes ended. I set up camp next to the building site and began to work from sun up to sun down. My goal was to finish the cabin and move in before fall classes started (I moved in just 3 days before classes started).
I lived in the cabin from the summer of 1983 to fall of 1985. No rent. No phone bill. No electric bill. No water bill. No trash removal bill.
My agreement with Eddie was that I could live rent free while I was attending college. Once college was over I could start paying rent or move out.
Building the cabin and living in it was an incredible experience. I built the cabin for $1,100 and the investment paid off in more ways than I could ever have imagined.
The last time I visited the cabin was in 2000 and it was in good shape (dry and no noticeable rot). I have no idea if the cabin is still standing.
Some of the lessons I learned / looking back:
(In no particular order)
- It's not critical to have electricity, running water, and a phone to be comfortable.
- With no phone it made it hard for friends to contact me at the spur of the moment. With no phone I learned how to plan better.
- I learned how to conserve water. I learned the value of a clean and abundant water supply.
- I learned how to use a chainsaw without hurting myself.
- I learned how to be quiet and enjoy it.
- I learned that building a home is relatively easy (it's not rocket science). This knowledge has provided me with a great sense of security over the years.
- I wished I had built a cabin with half the footprint and built with a very steep roof to provide a second story. Building the foundation took an enormous amount of time compared to the rest of the building process. Building up (steep roof) would have been faster (I think).
- As soon as I was done building the cabin I found out about yurts. Had I known about yurts I would have built one of those instead.
- I learned how to become more self-sufficient.
- I learned how to ask for help after I injured my back and needed help stacking firewood.
- I learned how valuable electricity is.
- I learned how to navigate a dirt road under all types of conditions (deep mud, ice, snow) and learned when to park and walk.
- I learned how to stay warm in the winter. I learned how to cut wood and prepare kindling. I learned how to quickly start a fire in a woodstove and keep it going. I learned the value of a well built woodstove.
- I learned how to be super safe with fire. If my cabin ever caught on fire the whole thing would burn down in minutes.
- I learned how to play the banjo. My solitude and lack of distractions (like TV) afforded me lots of free time to explore and create. Even now, when I play the banjo, I'm reminded of all the hours I spent playing in the cabin.
Click on the link below to download the April 2010 MAKE Magazine article I wrote about this cabin build: