In June of 1999, my wife and I desperately needed a survival cabin. How to build it on our shoestring budget–and a thoroughly frayed shoestring at that–was another question.
We didn’t even have a place to put it.
In truth, we were desperate to get a place of our own. My long established business was fading, bankruptcy was being held off by nothing but a long stick and a lot of determination, and my sisters wanted us and our several cats out of Mom’s house ASAP.
We understood. Mom was 86 at the time. We were only there for a week, but that was more than long enough under the circumstances. Every day, I left my little redheaded honey to visit, watch soap operas, and nap while I searched for somewhere we could settle. The first place was on Fish Creek near Butte, and that story may be told in a future post. We thought it would be good at first. But soon, oh so soon, we were looking again.
It would be another decade before we’d find our permanent landing pad near the Mexican border, in southern Cochise County, Arizona. There, I would single handedly build a full sized home (shown in the top photo), dub it the Border Fort, and we’d settle in for the duration.
But we didn’t know that yet. Nor, that time, were we quite ready for the remarkable experience of off grid Arizona. Pam was disabled, and I needed some seasoning.
Instead, that time, we bought an off grid 20 acre parcel of land near Craig, Montana. For $500 down, we were in business, but what we had purchased was bare land, limited by covenants that mostly forbade goats and pigs while offering nothing in the way of shelter. We had very little cash to spare and no available credit. We did have creditors galore, but that’s hardly the same thing…although one certainly does lead to the other,.
Fortunately, we moved onto the land in midsummer, on July 12, so we could get by for a while in the tent I had purchased in Missoula, Montana, prior to moving to Fish Creek. Hm. Winter would be right along, but the money would not. Still, we knew what to do.
Pam had a plan.
Put A Tuff Shed On Skids, She Said
A simple shed would work as a survival cabin. She knew how to make sure we kept it “ours” in case we had to leave–since the skids meant it would not be attached to the land–and it fit into the shoestring budget category, more or less.
We Build A 12′ X 16′ Castle
Pam knew about Tuff Sheds from her many years in Arizona. There were covenants on our new property–no mobile homes permitted, for example–but rough-and-ready cabins “on the mountain” were more usual than not. She was quite ill already, but her knowledge remained intact. We planned on a 12 by 16 foot cabin, a palatial total of 192 square feet. On skids.
Looking around in a 200-mile radius for the best deal, we stumbled on a true treasure: Just a few miles from our location, there lived a retired man named Al who built sheds as a sideline. Our shed WOULD have cost around $2,200 from a commercial shed dealer, plus delivery charges. Al would build us one on site for $1,750 with a house type slider window at one end, plus two small holes cut into the sides (into which I would put window glass and screens.).
His part would be to erect the shell only. All finish work would be mine to do.
The day it was completed, Pam watched from a chair under a shade tree next to our tent, roughly 100 yards from the bench I’d selected as our homesite. Just at dusk, Al and his helper packed up their tools and headed out. I carried my lady from her seat to our new home. When we met, she had been homeless for 2 1/2 years. As I carried her over the threshhold into a secure, four-walled enclosure that was OURS, she looked up at the ceiling and exclaimed,
“It’s like a dream come true!”
Which it was, even though the work had just begun. Our living room couch came out of storage in Deer Lodge, hauled all the way to Craig in the back of our 1984 Chevy Citation with the hatchback up and ropes keeping it from bouncing out. That became Pam’s bed.
The county dump became a source of many treasures, including a three foot piece of counter top that flanked the toilet…which in turn was made up of a five gallon pail with Pine Sol water in the bottom and a perfectly fitting standard toilet seat snapped to the top.
We opted for R-11 insulation and cheap paneling to finish the interior. Friends we had met before even selecting our land parcel donated a four-burner propane stove top, and I built a stand for it out of 2″ x 4″ lumber. Similar wood produced two tables, one of them permanently resting next to Pam’s bed-couch for her things and to give her something to hold onto while getting out of bed.
Eventually, I got around to building a long table that stood along the same wall as Pam’s couch. Bingo! A bed-table, with my sleeping pads now up off the cold wooden floor. Our old 2″ x 12″ waterbed frame became skirting for the cabin. A coat of paint was applied.
And then the wildfire hit.
It would take too long to tell the entire “fire story” here. Maybe in another post, later. For now, suffice it to say we saved nearly everything, and did it with nothing but a single shovel and a whole lotta action. Neighbors and professional firefighters saved the rest of the mountain, but we saved our own residence single-handed. Okay, double-handed.
It came so close to “getting us” that the entire south wall of the cabin was bowed several inches out of line by the heat. But everything held.
The Cabin Kitten As A Senior Cat In Colorado, 2008
Despite The Fire, We Stayed Within Our Budget
With all of the finish work inside, including the purchase of a used propane refrigerator for $75 and a used propane furnace for $25, the money did add up. Still, Pam had managed to save every piece of new lumber when the fire encircled our place. We each did our part and, unbelievably, lost nothing other than a few less-than-essential things that were still in the tent at the time.
That did encourage me to finally take down the tent and roll it up for storage, though.
Our super-special Moe Key Man cat joined us as a young kitten just a few weeks after the fire. He loved the cabin as much as we did. As long as Pam and I are within a few feet of each other in a small, somewhat enclosed space, he is one happy camper.
Oh, you want to know how we cleaned up? During that first summer, we rigged a high framework attached to the front of the cabin, used the four-foot door and a mountain ridge for privacy, and showered under a ten gallon solar bag of sun-heated water.
By winter, however, I’d found a way-too-large bathtub–awfully big for the size of the cabin, but on sale in Great Falls for $79. Then after cutting a hole in the floor, I got some help from a neighboring teenager to dig a hole just east of the cabin into which we planted an old (free!) 55-gallon drum with many holes drilled through the sides and bottom. A drain pipe ran from the tub though the floor, out through a trench (which was then filled in with dirt) and into the drum.
To complete the drain field, we then simply lugged a LOT of round river rocks, dropping them into the hole around the empty drum until the hole was full to the brim. Replace the lid, cover over the top few inches with dirt so that the installation becomes invisible to visitors, and bingo! Instant gray water disposal. From that time forward, we could heat water on the stovetop and either fill dishpans in the tub for washing dishes…or fill the tub itself for a hot soak.
For a shower, we hung a solar bag full of toasty water from the ceiling. No chilly wind that way, and a WHOLE lot more privacy.
Pam and I have grandiose dreams for the future: We intend to build on 35 acres of land we’re currently buying in southeastern Colorado, and we’d like to have around six thousand feet of workable space (counting garage and shop). [Note: This did not work out. After making payments for more than two years, we hit a financial pothole and lost the acreage in early 2009.] But we lived in our 192 square foot Montana cabin for three years, warm and cozy, with no complaints in heart or mind.
To wrap up, though: How did we do when it came to staying inside our original budget? In early July, before construction began, we had targeted a total of $3,000 and hoped we could have our new mountain cabin home all winter-ready for no more–or little more–than that. Despite the challenges of organizing paperwork in such a small space, we kept meticulous records.
We did more to the place as time went on and funds became available, but we were comfortable and ready to face cold weather by October 15. As of that date, our little cabin had cost us exactly $2,987.15. Thanks to several key treasures from area dumps and a few donations (like the stovetop) from new friends, we owned a survival cabin free and clear for under three thousand dollars.
Nor was it on skids by accident. Since it was not attached to the land, the developer who sold us the place could not claim it to be his when we left. Oh, he would have…except our neighbors on the next parcel helped me load our stuff out when the time came. In return, we gave them the cabin, which they promptly hooked up behind their pickup and towed over to their adjoining parcel.
Which made their survival cabin, obviously, an even better bargain than we had managed to obtain.
And Of Course, There’s Always The Traditional Log Cabin
Another Interesting Alternative
Update as of 10/05/09: My friend Red Elk has for some time been involved in a fascinating experiment. He decided to build a Mini-Dome from scratch, using mostly salvaged materials and sweat equity. As of this writing, the project is close to completion and has received numerous compliments from those who’ve been fortunate to visit the little structure in person…and he’s accomplished this with a total cash outlay of no more than $300!
Fortunately, Red Elk has been kind enough to give me permission to post a few of his photos here. He believes that the hard economic times we face today are nothing compared to hard times that are yet to come. With this in mind, he hopes that people will learn from both his successes and his mistakes. His overriding point is that you don’t need a lot of money (or for that matter a lot of space) to produce a livable structure in which to survive, that there are building materials available everywhere if we simply open our eyes and “see”.
He began this endeavor with nothing but a single truckload of dirt dumped in a pile, added a good bit of hard work with a shovel, and went from there.
Update, March 22, 2010
Red Elk just forwarded three more photos of his mini-dome as it exists today. The difference between the earlier photos and the three he just forwarded (the bottom three, above), is truly remarkable. These are absolutely stunning.
Red Elk: October 15 Dome Photos
When I just now scanned this survival cabin page prior to posting Red Elk’s newest batch of min-dome photos, I noted that when the piece was first written, Pam and I’d planned to eventually build on 35 acres in Colorado. Things change. We lost that piece before we could finish paying for it.
However, we’ve since built an earthbag-walled “border fort” in Arizona. We’re pretty proud of it, and it’s sturdy enough to withstand even an armed attack by Mexican drug cartel goons–if it comes to that, and it could. If you’re curious, feel free to click on the link.
In the meantime, here are the latest views from Red Elk. Enjoy!
Red Elk 6.
Red Elk’s health is failing, but his knowledge about mini dome construction will not die with him. His grandson, Sky, who lives with Red Elk and his wife, has now built a mini dome of his own.
Interior Shots of Sky’s Dome, October 2010 Update
Dan Phillips of Texas
Update 11/06/10: Red Elk has done (and continues to do) inspiring work, both learning and teaching how to build survival domes for almost nothing. Today, he sent me a link to a YouTube video about Dan Phillips…who essentially builds homes from recyclable materials. While Dan doesn’t get it done quite as cheaply as Red Elk does, he’s right on the same page with me when it comes to money.
That is, he feels the cost of an “affordable” home should be in the $20,000 to $50,000 range. I’ve single-handedly built our Border Fort in southern Arizona at a cost that looks like it will finish out (including all plumbing and appliances) at right around $35,000–dead center in Dan’s “affordable” range.
The Phillips homes are definitely more imaginative and innovative than anything I’ve ever built, though. Gotta give him that!
Red Elk’s Mini-Domes: Update 2011
Vasso Skezas, after journeying to see these mini-marvels for himself, sent us a couple of photos with the following text:
I was/am amazed at the beauty and character of these domes. Very well put together for such a low budget, which is actually ideal for what they are supposed to be an example of (“back to the (our) future” living). I plan on building at least one dome like this back in Ithaca, NYwhere I live, and will post pics/tell of it as i go along. thank-you Ghost, and thank-you Red Elk for building these awesome examples of what can be done with what is available for next to nothing.
The photos are posted below.
RETRO UPDATE as of AUGUST 7, 2015!
Huh? What the heck is a “retro” update?
Good question. In this case, it’s the happy discovery that Leonid (commenting a few days ago) informed me that he’d preserved a copy of this entire post and more than 800 comments–nearly half of them from Red Elk himself–and would be willing to email me a set so that many if not all of the missing comments (from when I migrated all my stuff from HubPages to my own website) could be restored to visibility for the reading public.
So I’m going to start copying and pasting that material (hundreds of comments, some quite lengthy) below. It may be slightly confusing in that WordPress will automatically show the date I do each addition while the original date of each comment will also be posted. Addditionally, I’m going to be starting at the beginning (more than 6 years ago)…but Red Elk’s commentary is worth it.