Introduction: Thoreau Off-Grid Cabin Design Under $1000
Picture 1- Thoreau's 10x15 Cabin (replica) at Walden Pond front view (courtesy of Wiki)
Picture 2- Thoreau's cabin (replica) side view (courtesy of Wiki)
Picture 3- 10x16 Cabin Design inspired by Thoreau
Picture 4- 10x16 framed model of the cabin
Henry David Thoreau; July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist. He is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay Resistance to Civil Government (also known as Civil Disobedience), an argument for disobedience to an unjust state. -wiki
In 1845 at the age of 28 Thoreau traveled to Walden Pond, Massachusetts where he built a simple cabin and began writing the works that inspired Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and millions of people.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Thoreau built his cabin from recycled and hand cut materials for $28.12. It was 10 feet by 15 feet and he described the interior in his book "Walden" as having a fireplace, table, desk, bed and 3 chairs.
“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”-Thoreau
I have read Walden and admired Thoreau's simple cabin lifestyle and after much research I wanted to determine if that same cabin could be built from conventional materials for the same cost at today's inflation rate. In 1845 his $28.12 adjusted for 2014 inflation would be $852.12. Thoreau purchased a shanty (hut) and recycled much of the materials so if we come in under $1000 it will be close enough. You can shave even more off that cost if you do as Thoreau did and use recycled materials and hand-hewn materials.
I have attempted to follow the dimensions of the Thoreau cabin however because conventional lumber is not sold in 15 foot lengths I have opted to make the cabin 10x16 which would eliminate waste from cutting off excess lumber and is keeping with the spirit Thoreau exemplified. I don't think he would mind.
The cabin can be built for under $1000 based on US prices for lumber at large home supply stores. That price does not include windows, door, insulation or interior furnishings. In place of a brick fireplace I have recommended a recycled steel barrel stove and stove kit from Vogelzang that would be more efficient.
If you would like to see more inexpensive house, cabin and cottage plans designed for off-grid living, vacation, office, or other uses please visit: http://www.simplesolarhomesteading.com
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Legal Disclaimer: These plans are for a do-it-yourself replica of a 10x16 Thoreau style off-grid cabin and does require basic construction experience. Your use of these plans is voluntary and you assume all risk for your use of these plans. If you do not agree to that DO NOT use these plans. Always check with your city/county before building any construction project. This cabin design is not approved for grid utility connections.
I am not connected to any Thoreau project and all actual pictures of the Thoreau cabin were found in public domain or are the property of their publisher and are fair use.
Step 1: Video Slideshow Thoreau Cabin Replica
Step 2: The Foundation
The original Thoreau cabin was most likely placed on rock or bricks as a freestanding structure as was common in those days. Wood must be kept at least 8 inches off the ground to prevent termites and rot.
Today we have deck block (Dekblock) that is designed to be used for sheds, decks and small structures and that is what I recommend for this structure. You will need 9 deck block to form your foundation.
These deck block must be placed on solid packed soil and a 3 inch bed of gravel is recommended but not required.
Picture 1 shows the placement of the deck blocks and these blocks must be level.
Picture 2 shows a common deck block available at building supply stores for around $7.00 each.
Step 3: Framing the Floor
Thoreau purchased a house (shanty) in disrepair and salvaged much of his materials from that structure and also used rough-sawn and hewn lumber from local trees. 4x4 and 4x6 rough-sawn timbers were commonly used for floor framing.
We will use 2x6 dimensional lumber for the frame available at any building supply store. You could use 2x4 lumber to reduce costs but a floor might support a lot of weight and 2x6 lumber will provide safer support.
You will need thirteen 2x6x10 floor joists and two 2x6x16 frame plates. These are toe-nailed together on 16 inch centers using joist hangers.
Picture 1 is the framing shown siting on the deck blocks. You must square all corners.
Picture 2 is a common joist hangar available at any building supply store.
Step 4: Sheathing the Floor
Thoreau used recycled plank flooring for his cabin. Many old cabins of that time had no flooring and only dirt.
We will be using 7/16 x 4 x 8 OSB Sheathing. Alternate the sheathing seems and apply wood cement between the frame and the sheathing to reduce sagging and squeaking.
The picture shows sheathing applied and alternating seams.
Step 5: Building the Side Walls
Thoreau used mortise and tenon construction and 4x4 and 4x6 rough-sawn beams for his cabin walls. Mortise and tenon requires a lot of skill and special tools but is an extremely strong way to hold wood together without nails.
We will be using 2x4 lumber and nails for our walls. The side wall is 8 feet high and 16 feet long with a single bottom plate and a double top plate.
You will need fifteen 2x4 studs (92-5/8") and six 2x4x8's for the plates.
The window placement and size is optional but in the Thoreau cabin they were centered in the side wall and approximately 2 feet wide and 4 feet high. The header above the windows is either a 4x4 or two 2x4's.
The picture shows the side wall with window placement and dimensions. California corners are used to increase insulation space in the corners if you will be insulating this structure.
Both side walls are identical and use the same materials.
Step 6: Building the Front Wall
Thoreau probably hand-built his door out of planks but he did say there was no lock on the front door.
The front wall is constructed of 2x4 lumber and is a gable design to reduce materials.
The pitch is 12/12. For every 12 inches horizontal the pitch rises 12 inches vertical.
The door is a standard 3'x6'8" opening. Door placement is optional but Thoreau put his door centered in the wall and there were no windows in the front entrance wall.
The picture shows the dimensions, pitch and door opening.
Step 7: Building the Rear Wall
The rear wall is constructed the same way as the front wall and there was no window in Thoreau's design.
The picture shows the dimensions and pitch of the rear wall.
Step 8: Build the Roof
Thoreau used poles for his roof and poles were a common rafter material in those days and still used in many areas.
We will use 2x4 lumber on 24 inch center. The roof has a 12/12 pitch and is tied to the wall plate using a bird-mouth design.
Picture 1 shows the roof from the top. The roof is 16 feet long. There is a 6 inch overhang off the sides and no overhang on the front and rear as Thoreau's cabin was designed.
Picture 2 shows the rafter cuts. Rafters are toe-nailed to the wall plate and attached to the center beam using rafter hangers.
Picture 3 shows the birds-mouth angle cut.
Picture 4 is a rafter hanger available at any building supply store.
Step 9: Sheathing the House
Thoreau probably used planks for the side wall sheathing and he covered these with wood shake shingles which were and still are a common building material.
We will be using 4x8 7/16 OSB Sheathing over a wind and vapor barrier. To prevent wind and rain infiltration it is recommended that you use a wind and vapor barrier under the sheathing.. Tyvec can be used but to reduce expense we will use 15-lb roofing felt for the vapor barrier and under the roofing material. Staple this roofing felt over the wall frames under the sheathing to provide a secure envelope.
OSB sheathing must be sealed against the weather and an oil based exterior paint or stain is recommended. As long as you seal it with good water proof exterior paint and repaint as needed it will last a lifetime and looks good.
Picture 1 shows OSB sheathing applied to side wall and front with door and window cutouts.
Picture 2 shows OSB sheathing applied to side wall and rear wall.
Note: if you want to fancy it up a little apply 1x2 strips on the wall vertically at 8 inch spacing to create a board and batten look shown in picture 3. This was a common practice to stiffen the walls in Thoreau's day.
Step 10: Roofing the House
Thoreau used planks on the roof covered with shake shingles as was common to that time.
We will use 4x8 7/16" OSB sheathing, 15-lb roofing felt and asphalt shingles to keep costs down but you could use galvanized roofing or other roofing materials if you want.
Picture 1 shows the roof sheathed with 7/16 OSB. Full 4x8 sheets are used to reduce cutting and waste.
Picture 2 shows the roof sheathing covered in 15-lb rolled roofing felt.
Picture 3 shows asphalt shingles applied. You could use metal or other roofing if desired.
NOTE: to reduce expense we will use 3x36 rolled roofing but shingles or metal roofing are recommended
Step 11: Exterior Finishing and Trim
Thoreau used shake shingles on walls and roof which are left natural and age to a beautiful gray color. He probably would not like adornment for the sake of looks but he worked in his family business of pencil making and he mentions in his book the fine craft of mortise and tenon construction so he probably appreciated fine wood craftsmanship and would want his house to last. So I recommend painting the house but you could leave it to age naturally. I also added in some optional trim that would prevent moisture from entering the walls, doors and window framing.
Again, these are only options and not necessary but recommended.
Pictures 1 and 2 show the house panted and wood trim applied to the corners, eves and bottom of walls and around the door and windows. Trim could be any good quality material and recycled Cedar fence boards makes nice trim.
Step 12: Adding Door and Windows
Thoreau did not mention where he acquired his doors and windows but most likely they were from the house he purchased for salvage and that is how I recommend you get your doors.
New doors and windows are very expensive but you can get these for free or cheap by visiting door and window installers and looking through their salvage and dumpsters for doors and windows they have removed from houses. Look for good quality doors and windows but don't be afraid to repaint and do minor repairs.
If you will be using the structure to live in I recommend steel insulated doors and double pane windows.
The picture shows ideas for exterior finishing. Door and windows can be recycled or salvage
Step 13: Interior Finishes
Thoreau used lathe and stucco to finish the interior and that is still used today. He did not mention any insulation in his house and in that time period insulation was generally not used or was a material like dirt or straw. Commercial fiberglass insulation was not yet available.
Insulation and interior wall finishings are not included in the cost for the this Thoreau replica because there are many options and you may not be using this as a house and insulation may not be needed but if you will be using it as a house then insulation is recommended.
R13 Batt insulation is recommended in walls and ceiling and I prefer formaldehyde free insulation. You could also use foamcore board, spray in foam, or cellulose for insulation. Spray in foam works well to insulate the floor.
Drywall, breadboard paneling or any good quality paneling can be applied to the interior walls over the insulation.
Picture 1 shows the interior finished with drywall over R13 batt insulation.
Picture 2 is the interior finished with hardwood flooring and wood trim.
Step 14: Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!
Thoreau's motto was "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" and that was how he lived in his Walden cabin. He kept the furnishings to the bare essentials. A bed, table, desk, and fireplace for heating and cooking. Three chairs- one for solitude, two for friendship and three for society.
Picture 1 is the interior of the Walden cabin replica.- wiki
Picture 2 and 3 are my replicas of the interior of Thoreau's house based on his descriptions.
If you want to keep your cabin simple as Thoreau did then furnish it with recycled and salvaged furnishings and you can live a comfortable minimalist lifestyle with no debt and no bills as Thoreau did.
If you want some creature comforts the Thoreau cabin can be easily modified to make it suitable for modern living.
Picture 4 is the modern Thoreau cabin. It has a 10x6 living area complete with queen size fold out bed and dining table for 4 people. A 4x9 kitchen area with mini-fridge, range, cabinets and a desk. A 3'6x5 laundry area with stacked washer dryer and propane/NG wall furnace. A 5'8"x5 full bath with tub/shower, toilet and vanity.
Picture 5 is a close-up of the living area. The couch converts to a queen size bed.
Picture 6 is a close-up of the kitchen area with a mini-fridge with freezer, range, double tub sink and cabinets above for storage and a desk and propane or NG wall heater.
Picture 7 is a close-up of the laundry area with a stacked 24" washer dryer and storage above and to the side.
Picture 8 is a close-up of the bathroom with full 5' tub/shower, standard or composting toilet and vanity with storage above.
Thoreau's cabin could also use more storage so I designed it with a loft above the bathroom and laundry area. If you include the loft as a sleeping area I would recommend adding a small window above the bed on that end wall for ventilation.
Picture 9 shows the loft with a single bed or it could be used to for additional storage.
These are just ideas for how Thoreau's cabin could be modernized to include indoor plumbing and modern appliances and should not be seen as an attempt to improve on his design. The cabin could be designed many ways and used for off-grid housing, vacation, mother-in-law apartment, workshop, office etc.
Step 15: Take It Off-Grid
Thoreau lived in a time when houses did not have electricity and modern utilities. The first grid electrical station (Pearl street Manhattan NY) was not put into use until 1882. Therefore, Thoreau lived in his cabin much the way everyone else did in the countryside. They used oil lamps or candles for light, a hand pump or open well for water and outhouses or chamber pots.
Thoreau was a writer and worked in his families pencil factory and was a creative and forward looking philosopher. I have no doubt he would have accepted electricity, indoor plumbing and a few conveniences had they been available as long as they were simple and not owned/controlled by governments and corporations.
I have been living off-grid in my 14x14 cabin for over 15 years and I use the same system described here:
Small cabins like the Thoreau cabin can be easily taken off-grid using a small solar electric system for power. Indoor toilet can be a commercial composting toilet or sawdust toilet. Water can be stored in a tank from a well and heat and fuel for cooking can be wood stove or propane.
Picture 1 shows a 405 watt solar array (three 135 watt panels) and a passive solar water heater on the roof and the battery and controller power box next to the cabin. Next to the battery box is a propane tank.
Picture 2 is a close-up of the battery box with 4 deep cycle batteries for storage, a power controller and AC inverter. The propane tank is used for an on-demand propane water heater, stove and small wall furnace.
Picture 3 is the on-demand water heater above the propane wall furnace.
Picture 4 is a 25 gallon fresh water storage tank and DC water pump stored under bathroom vanity.
Picture 5 is a commercial composting toilet made by Sunmar. A sawdust toilet or other system could also be used.
Picture 6 is my 14x14 off-grid cabin showing my solar array just to show that I use this same system every day.
Step 16: Material List and Summary
Thoreau built his cabin from recycled and salvaged materials and from rough hewn lumber from trees on the property but he did say the cabin cost him $28.12 to build and in today's money that is $852.12 (2014).
Thoreau did not have to deal with sales tax, fuel tax, shipping etc. and he recycled much of his material from an existing shanty. So to be fair we will eliminate any costs except the exact material cost as shown on the invoice. All prices are from USA, Utah store Lowe's.
(9) Deck Block $6.85 ea. $61.65
(13) 2x6x10 Fir $7.14 $92.82
(2) 2x6x16 Fir $11.10 $22.20
(5) 4x8 7/16 OSB $10.97 $54.85
(42) 2x4x96 studs Fir $3.28 $137.76
(14) 2x4x96 studs Fir $3.28 $45.92
(8) 2x4x12 studs Fir $5.66 $45.28
(17) 7/16 4x8 OSB $10.97 $186.49
(18) 2x4x96 studs fir $3.28 $59.04
(3) 2x6x16 fir $11.10 $33.30
One Roll 15-lb roofing felt $17.50 $17.50
(8) 4x8 7/16 OSB $10.97 $87.76
(4) Rolled roofing 3x36ft $53.39 $213.56
Nails and such $25.00 est. $25.00
I recommend you buy all your materials from the same store and ask for a builders discount which can take 10-15% off that total and get them to throw in free transportation to your building site. With a 10% builders discount the total would be $974.83.
Thoreau used many recycled and rough sawn materials and you can to. I recommend recycled doors and windows and trim work can be salvaged or bought cheap at your local lumber mill.
I think Thoreau would be proud to know he inspired so many people with his work and cabin and it is a fine cabin that could be used for off-grid living, vacation, mother-in-law apartment, office, workshop, etc. It could be made fancy or keep it simple and minimalist as pleases you.
If you would like to learn more about Henry David Thoreau and his cabin and philosophy his book "Walden" is in public domain here: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/thoreau/thor...
I am a long-time off-grid homesteader and that is my 14x14 cabin in the picture. I am a writer, videographer and designer of off-grid houses and homesteading projects and I have dedicated my life to helping people to have affordable and sustainable shelter everywhere. My cabin designs have been featured in Mother Earth News, Treehugger, Inhabitat, Dwell and many other publications.
My vision is to produce low cost housing and homesteading project designs so that everyone everywhere can have safe and sustainable housing. Our future depends on it!
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