When we started building our house, we weren’t restricted by a tiny budget, but we had fallen in love with my mom’s 1930’s cabin in North Carolina and made it our inspiration. The cabin’s simplicity shines surrounded as it is by vibrant forest. It’s a temperate rainforest in that part of the state, and my mom’s property is up a winding road past waterfalls high in the heart of the Nantahala National Forest, a place the Cherokee called “Land of the Noonday Sun” because of the stunning gorge that runs through the heart of it.
Michael and I had spent several week-long vacations there, getaways during which we replaced a wood stove, hauled loads of gravel to shore up a slushy driveway, opened the cabin up for the year in the spring and closed it down for the winter in the fall. Essentially, they were work vacations that hit us like food for the soul.
The house is as primitive as you can get with electricity and running water: Single wall construction (wormy chestnut boards with batten strips on the inside to keep the wind out), stacked (un-mortared) river stone foundation piers, uninsulated plumbing that comes straight up through the floor (which is not insulated, you can see dirt through a couple holes) piping in the clearest brightest water you’ve ever tasted from our spring up the hill.
All around you, the forest breathes and rustles and the stream burbles by. Sitting on the porch is the best. After a week there, if you don’t fight the lack of cell phone, t.v., or internet input, something in you relaxes deeply. After two weeks, you start to go native.
“Let’s build our house just like this,” we said to each other. With modern updates, of course. But our hearts were set and we never really wavered from our vision. At its core, it was a vision of simplicity as well as a core design that works remarkably well for two.
“It’s going to be a challenge to keep it simple,” I said more than once. I knew we would be tempted to upgrade the details now that we were building. Granite countertops are so seductive. As are fancy sinks, stainless steel cable, and lots of glass. But something about the stripped down essence of simplicity had caught hold of my heart and I didn’t want to let go. It would take self-discipline and diligence to keep it simple. But I relished the challenge!
Luckily, Michael was committed to the vision too–probably more because he wanted to build the house on the cheap–he’s famous for that. But also because he too wanted to get away from all the layers of artifice that climb up around us the longer we get along in society. We were both sick of it. The first things we banished were:
- Upper cabinets!
Oh hallelujah! That was the best choice we ever made!! Next to go were:
- Vinyl siding
- A shingle roof
- Exterior stain or paint
- A complicated layout, tricky rooflines or anything else too “clever” – we were building it ourselves, so it needed to be within our skillset.
- A second story, or really anything other than a simple small rectangle.
- Rain gutters along the front covered porch – we now get to watch the rain fall down in a waterfall, while the foundation is still well-protected by the porch roof.
- Ordinary low flat ceilings – I had to fight a bit for this one. It wasn’t “simple” strictly speaking, but I thought I’ll be damned if I build a house with low flat ceilings on purpose! We didn’t do any exposed beams or fancy glazed gable ends, so that was how we kept it simple. Michael agrees with me now that the vaulted ceiling makes the space. Well, he still mournfully mentions about once a year that he thought we were going to build a shack half this size and way less pretty… closer to a hunting cabin lol. A man can dream…
Right around the time we were drawing plans and breaking ground, our financial situation changed dramatically and we suddenly had to build on a very tight budget. So it was lucky our vision lined up with our circumstances. Oddly enough, we rarely felt terribly limited by resources.
There are a few things we don’t have that I wish we did, parts we haven’t finished. But most of them Michael needs to build and he either doesn’t have the time or can’t see it/feel it because the vision isn’t there. Which is fine. Because we live in a beautiful house! It’s small but feels spacious at the same time. It FEELS amazing! I am so happy. And we built it for less than $100,000 (I think…part of this project will include digging out every receipt and reconstructing all of our costs).
This is not a tiny house, but it is a small house. And it rejects a lot of conventions by going for beauty while keeping things very simple. It was three years in building, and we made a few mistakes, but I think it offers something to anyone looking to step away from contractor grade housing or a giant mortgage–we owe almost nothing! That’s why I’m going to spell out how we did it so that anyone who wants to give it a shot in their own way has a few more landmarks to help them find their way.