Building an Island Cabin

I had intended to come back to the island once more before building the cabin, but the timing didn’t work out. I nervously climbed up the hill to check the spot that I had decided to build on. Was it as clear as I remembered it? I forgot to take pictures.

At first it looked fine, but when I brought the tape measure out, I realized that the area wasn’t nearly big enough to build the cabin. The builders were coming the next day.

I went back to the yurt, the main structure on the island, to get the loppers to continue clearing. But before I left the yurt, rain started to pour down. A few minutes later I also realized that the yurt roof was leaking badly.

Then the lumber company called me, told me that some of my special order items were running late, and that due to a complicated situation involving the credit card preauthorization, they couldn’t get me any materials at all for a couple days at least.

Sitting in a folding camping chair in the yurt, I thought about canceling the build. I was already nervous about it, and it was a rough start. As I left my condo in Vegas I thought about writing myself a note that said, “did you actually build that cabin? Hard to imagine it right now”.

What stopped me from canceling was that two actual builders were coming to help. I had invited Mac from Wool and Prince to help me build, as he has built a cabin before, and he casually asked if his professional builder friends could come. Yes, of course, I replied.

From my brief emails with those guys, I got the impression that they weren’t interested in messing around and sitting in a yurt for a week. I figured that I may as well start the build, at least, and that if we couldn’t finish in time they’d know how to choose a good stopping point and how to store the materials.

The rain stopped and I got soaked from the wet trees while clearing out the small pine trees in the way. Several large dead trees still remained, but it wasn’t a ton of chainsawing to do.

We picked the builders, William and Adam, up at the dock the next morning. I nervously showed them the site, expecting them to laugh and say that it wasn’t possible. They acted like it was a totally normal place to build a cabin. I asked if they knew how to chainsaw and they laughed. Yes, of course they do. In what was to be the first of many times I would feel totally useless, I was suddenly embarrassed that I couldn’t use a chainsaw.

The last trip, nine months earlier, was a slow-paced one. It followed a frenetic trip where we built a dock, loft, outhouse, and shower, so we were happy to rest on our laurels and relax a little bit while finishing up small odds and ends. I took a walk through an unexplored part of the island, which involves a lot of pushing through hundreds of small pine trees, and I came across a small clearing.

I just knew that was the spot for my cabin. It had a beautiful view, was pretty close to my favorite tree (one of only a few birches) and the dock, but wasn’t so special that it should be reserved for a common building.

I found our chainsaw, the cheapest one Home Depot sold, and Adam began to refurbish it. He changed the chain and the oil, did some other things I didn’t quite catch, and headed out to the site.

What happened next made me immediately confident that the build was going to go better than I had worried it might. With the chainsaw in one hand, pushing over trees with the other, Adam went to work. William began throwing the dead trees into a nearby pit of other dead trees, and the site was done in no time.

I got on the phone to figure out a way to get some of the materials, and by the time I got back they had already dug most of the holes where the posts would go. It seemed like an impossible amount of work to do in such a short time, a theme which would repeat for the entire week.

I had imagined myself working side by side with them, but that illusion was quickly shattered when I realized just how competent they were and how incompetent I was. Amongst normal people, I’d put myself in the top 5% in terms of being able to build things. But compared to professionals, I’m nowhere in the same ballpark. Brian, a fellow island owner who’s probably better than me at building, also found himself in the same spot. So we became the grunt labor.

The next few days were a flurry of digging and hauling gravel, making extra lumber runs, loading all of the wood onto our little 16′ boat, and coordinating with others to haul it up to the site. I have never carried so much weight in such a short amount of time, and Brian probably carried twice what I did. It was exhausting work, but the reward was that every time I brought something to the site, it was much further progressed than I had imagined it would be.

Luckily Mac, his friend Geoff, and William’s wife Kyleen came a few days later. Right as our energy was flagging, they brought a lot of new enthusiasm and muscle.

From the driveway of our mainland neighbor, Ray, we had to load materials onto a trailer. It was an old trailer they had sitting in the bushes so only two of the wheels worked, both on one side. Then we’d back it up down their steep and bending gravel driveway to the docks. From there we’d hand carry to the little boat, which could only hold 500 pounds at a time or so. If it was high tide it was pretty easy to load, but at low tide we’d have to pass stuff down six feet.

After a short drive we’d get to our dock. From there we’d pass stuff up on top of a five foot rock that we used for staging (the path doesn’t go to the water) and then hand carry up to the site. The walk to the site was entirely uphill, beginning on loose slippery dirt with a bunch of roots in it, and ending with a wiggly path past a rock, which made carrying long pieces difficult.

Due to the weight, the hardest things to carry were the concrete pieces and the big sheets of plywood. But the part I worried about most was the 21 foot long metal roof. We had to build an extension to the boat to hold it flat, and it took some serious coordination to get it up the hill, but it actually went better than I expected.

It took us six days of nearly nonstop hauling to get all of the materials up. We prioritized based on what would be needed next. On the seventh day, the cabin was finished. I couldn’t believe it then, and I still can’t believe it now.

My sister and I designed the cabin together. I had an idea of what I wanted it to be like, and she added her own suggestions, made it physically possible, and then designed it in CAD.

The footprint is 12 feet by 16 feet. Downstairs, the front ~9×11 (taking into account wall width) section is going to be a tearoom. The floors will be tatami mats like my Vegas tearoom, and the side part will have a small sink, single gas burner, and tea storage. The remaining seven feet of the downstairs will be the entryway and have a small couch.

Upstairs is approximately 12 feet by 14 feet. I’ll have a bed up there and a big desk. The only thing I don’t like about the island now is that I don’t have a good work setup. Once I have one I can go there much more frequently.

The wall facing the forest has no windows, and the side walls only have two small windows for ventilation, both upstairs and downstairs. The wall facing the ocean is nothing but windows, roughly 19 feet by 12 feet. It looked cool in the plans, but it’s absolutely breathtaking in reality. I chose the grid layout to mirror Japanese shoji screens, keeping with the teahouse theme.

Right now, of course, the whole cabin is an unfinished storage shed for our excess materials. Everyone left the day before I did, so I spent half a day vacuuming and cleaning so that I could sleep there for one night. I wanted the cabin to highlight the beautiful nature outside and to feel like it was part of it. I can’t believe how well it does that. The two-story high window wall constantly draws your attention to the ocean, the birds, the sunset, and even the stars at night.

All tallied up, the cabin cost me about $10,000 to build. That includes all material, tools I needed to buy, paying the builders (Mac heavily subsidized this part because he’s awesome and wanted to use the event as a photoshoot for Wool and Prince, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t charge us market rates). I’d hoped to spend less, but it was hard to justify cutting corners when I knew this was my one chance to build this cabin.

In the end, the money, the sweat, the time, and the favors I now owe everyone were all worth it. I absolutely love the cabin and it has tremendous potential to be a great spot to get work done and drink tea with friends. I’m grateful beyond words to all of the people who put so much effort into the cabin. Without them I’m not sure I could have even built the platform the cabin sits on.


All of the photos of the site/cabin are from roughly the same spot. I hope this was interesting to read — sometimes I’m hesitant to write posts that aren’t actionable.

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