Category Archives: 1. Cabin Plans and Design

Mini Cabins and Building Permits

Zoning and building permits are both good ideas. They keep Vermont pretty so New Yorkers can enjoy it. They also help ensure public health and safety. Worthy objectives.

The problem is that most zoning codes can’t distinguish a nice little cabin for relaxing in the woods from a vinyl-sided shack inhabited by a band of misfits running a meth lab. But while the literal interpretation of codes can sometimes prevent you from doing nice things, it can also allow you to do what you want if you play by those literal rules. My solution was to read the zoning code very carefully and to find a building classification that literally matched what I was building. My local code defines an “accessory building” in a way that includes my little cabin, specifically “a shed that lacks utilities.” (Note that some building codes do not allow accessory buildings to be constructed on sites that do not include a residence. However, my code does.) So, I applied for a building permit for a “10′ x 16′ shed” and that permit was issued without any problems. (Never just ignore the permit issue. Your municipality can issue whopping fines…usually several hundred dollars per day…and you could potentially have a problem selling your property.)

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Cabin Cost Accounting

Here is what the Vermont Mini Cabin cost me:

Pressure-treated lumber (Home Depot) $100

Rough-sawn lumber (Eagle Saw Mill) $704

3/4″ plywood $568

Nails, screws, other misc. supplies $200

Tyvek $145

Ship-lap pine siding $600

Stain $100

Metal roofing panels and flashing (Fabral) $936

Clear pine for trim $180

Insulation $100

Steel door $100

Windows (12 Pella ProLine casements w/screens) $3623

Stove (Morso Squirrel) $1100

Chimney and stove pipe (Simpson) $500

Flooring (Forbo Marmoleum Click) $502

Cost before adjustments $9458


Forgone BMW purchase ($44,260) …’cuz that’s what my friends are buying instead of doing stuff like this.

12 days labor of high-priced innovation consultant (not thinking about that)

Net Savings $34,802

Incidentally, I purchased the site for $8500, plus another $1000 or so in legal fees and transfer fees/taxes. (One of a half dozen lots I was able to aggregate in a largely defunct development.) So, even including the land costs, this project was well under half the cost of the BMW, and I believe it will be around a lot longer than that car would have been.

Incidentally, Dunn Lumber has an excellent site with prices listed for most lumber-yard items. This is a great reference for cost estimating, even though you most likely will not purchase from them unless you live in their service area.

The Idea

In Summer 2008 I had the urge to build something from scratch. I have owned some land in Southern Vermont for several years, including a very lovely spot next to a stream that cascades about 100 vertical feet into a beautiful river. The land borders the Green Mountain National Forest and is quite secluded, yet is accessed with a decent year-round road. The site is a 5 1/2 hour drive from my home in Philadelphia, so I don’t get there more than about five times a year.

The idea I had was to build a minimalist cabin, roughly the size of Thoreau’s Walden. I sought absolutely zero maintenance, a place I could forget about most of the year, and if I didn’t use it much wouldn’t cause much guilt. My wife doesn’t much like roughing it, and my boys were entering the teen years in which they have heavy  commitments on the weekend. Thus, I was pretty sure this was going to be my place. I sleep on the ground quite a few nights a year in various outdoor adventures, so a dry enclosed spot in the woods is luxury living for me when I’m on my own.

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