Building a cabin in a remote setting?
"It could be that the only purpose of my life is only to serve as a warning to others".
Back in the early 80s money was tight; every time we got a few dollars ahead; something would break and need replacing, or we'd take on a new bill like the Orthodontist for one of the kids. We wanted a cabin on our remote property, but we didn't have the money to have it built. Eventually we found the courage to build it with the help of our friends.
Upper left, my Wife reflects, Lower right, children at play in Mt St Helen's ash, ....... remember that ?
Over the years we have learned about Flickers, Porcupines, Red Squirrels, mice, bats, and opportunistic thieves. Had we known more about these vermin, we would have build it differently versus modify things along the way.
Here are some things I think are very important when building in the high country or in other remote places.
Flickers are close cousins of the wood pecker. They're smart enough to recognize that a cabin gable can provide a good shelter. They really like it if you extend the ridge pole through the gable end where they have a nice place to perch out of the weather. Often times they get bored just sitting there and decide to make a bunch of holes in your cabin. One time, we had a flicker make a hole through the T-111 exterior, and then she pushed the insulation aside and pecked a big fat hole through the interior wall board. She had all winter to perch there looking out with her back side looking in. Having found a perfect home; she raised a family inside the wall. Her family grew up with an affection for cabins.. probably went on to raise their own families inside the walls of cabins.
My neighbor has a cabin sheathed in horizontal cedar siding, the Flickers love his place above all others. One gable end looks like Swiss cheese. Irving nails up metal fabric on the inside to discourage them.
Then there's Mr. Porcupine. I had no clue that T-111 siding was this guy's favorite snack. Some say it is the glue and resins used to hold the laminations together. Porky comes in the middle of the night and spends hours eating your cabin. He usually peels off the siding in layers chasing the delicious glue. You show up in the spring to a cabin that has big Pokka dot patterns in areas porky cared to chew. One night I woke up around 1:30 AM to hear this loud chewing noise and realized it was Porky, I ran down stairs, got my gun, and ran around the back side of the cabin to confront him. My wife was yelling don't shoot! don't shoot! Porky took off; I fired three shoots in the air, and followed up the assault by throwing a rock at Porky's back side. Porky's smarter now... if he hears me get up, he's off and running before I can get down stairs. Don't let anyone tell you Porcupines are stupid. I have been doping up the lower parts of the cabin with a mix of copper sulfate. Although this is nasty stuff, Porky is still snacking.
Added Note: 6/29/07 As I study this T-111 (Tee One Eleven) siding thing, I know for a fact that Porky loves the stuff, I also note that the people that make this stuff have done nothing to make the product less appealing to porcupines, they will go out of there way to eat it! It doesn't matter if it's 30 years old, or made just last year. There's a new outhouse on the hill made of T-111 no groove, and Porky is already busy eating the new outhouse. Hats off to the people who make this stuff, they've formulated a perfect food for a porcupine.
Our Pet Cheeks is a Golden Mantle Squirrel, he has the same marks as a chipmunk, Cheeks is a ground squirrel and has absolutely no thoughts about living in your cabin. He thinks he's smarter than you having his home deep in the ground where it's warm and where predators can't reach.
Red Squirrel on the other hand sees the world differently. Red makes a lot of noise, sometimes you'll be out walking and he'll think it's his job to tell every creature in the forest of your presence. He'll look down at you from a tree and scold you for being in his territory. When it comes to your cabin; Red thinks it's his, after all; he may spend far more time there than you do. Red often exploits holes started by Flicker, he can run up and down T-111 siding and reach a gable end in a split second. My wife sticks up for Red and often tells me I don't like him because we have similar personalities. I tell her we should be eating Red Squirrel stew three nights a week. Don't try and make friends with Red, don't encourage him to visit, unlike Cheeks he'll prove to be the friend from hell.
Red got into another cabin we have off grid... pretty soon he had holes in gable ends, through the bird blocks and places in between. He was making so much noise up in the ceiling, we could not sleep, a guest from hell for sure. I won't tell you how I got rid of Red; I think he's a protected animal here in Washington State. I'd love to drop off a truck load of Reds at the Governor's Mansion, we would soon see how protected they were.
Mice can be another problem, making your cabin tight is the first defense, plug holes, put sheet metal behind areas you suspect as entry places. Don' leave food where they can be attracted to it. No matter how much effort you put into your design, they could get in. If you plan to control mice with traps, good luck! In my experience, it is best to do all you can to keep them out, and then place d-Con in areas that children, cats, and critters like cheeks can't reach. When the few mice that get in snack on your d-Con, they leave in search of water, (according to users of this stuff).
Yellow Jackets enter your cabin for two main reasons, it's warmer, in there, or they are hunting for food. If your cabin is tight to the weather, they'll have less access, and you'll have less of them in your cabin. I'll share a typical construction mistake you should avoid. Since we found a great deal on T-111 siding, I decided to put the face down and use it to sheath the roof. The idea was to create the illusion that we had done the roof in expensive tongue and groove decking. It worked great and we get a number of compliments as to how cool it looks, peeled poles, a log for the ridge pole, and that wood on the ceiling, it all adds up to a rustic look we wanted.
The problem you ask? every one of those little grooves cut to form the pattern in the T-111 hangs over the gable end and acts as an open door to bugs and hornets... I certainly didn't think about it, and after 20 years, I haven't made the time to fix it. Another note worthy mistake? I watch the Hornets in the fall, their food supply shrinks and the temperatures drop, they seem to be attracted to the metal roof and the heat it gives off. They crawl up near the ridge cover and discover easy access because I did not see the wisdom of laying a few layers of tar paper over the ridge. In fact, I thought the open ridge could have some advantages, a great way to allow your cabin to breath. Well... whatever those advantages might be, they are off set by hornets coming and going as they please. Hornets also find refuge in the cabin for the winter, in the spring they can fall from the overhead into your bedding and sting you! There have been a few years where we've opened the cabin and removed two dustpans full of dead or near lifeless hornets.
Bats are good things, I like them around and would go out of my way to make a home for them. If they find a place to live under the eave, that's great.. if they're in the cabin flying around desperate to find a way out, that is not good. The same efforts you use to keep mice, hornets, and flies out will keep Mr. Bat out too.
There's still a few lessons learned I haven't shared. I remember discussing the whereabouts of my cabin with Bob Meyers, a local who owned lots of high timber and grazing land above the south fork of Cowiche creek. He said... "OH... you mean the cabin on stilts?" His reply shook my confidence, I was asking myself if I had done the wrong thing? When it was first built, it sure looked like it was on stilts. I used post and pillar with plenty of triangulation to take the winter winds. There's nearly two feet of crawl space on one end and almost four on the other. After the skirting, and deck were added it looked far more appealing. Some of the cabins in the area were built with no access to the foundation, and there's no way to make adjustments for settling. This is something done right, if you create a place under you cabin you can't reach, this is where the foundation will fail....it's Murphy's law.
Another thing to remember, calculate your wall thickness with the siding in place! This has a real bearing on how your bird blocks are positioned. It also has a bearing on how the rafters are cut if you care enough to form a 'birds eye where the rafter meets the wall. You want things to meet flush, you don't want your bird blocks recessed, they should meet the siding flush or hang further out. If you have any kind of ledge, a flicker could hang on and roost there at night... of course he'll get bored sooner or later and start making holes just for entertainment sake.
Our ridge poles hanging out the gable ends became such a draw for wildlife, that I finally designed a sheet metal covering for them. It's steep and slick with no place to hang on. All the problems in that area ceased!
A final note when it comes to thieves. In the Cowiche area, the M.O. is always the same, they don't bring their own tools, if you have a weak spot, like a missing shutter, or a door that's easy to kick in, they'll make the effort. If it's too hard, they'll pass. When you consider that these folks are often too lazy to work, it stands to reason; it's got to be easy for them to steal your stuff. This spring, a thief broke in and took all the dinnerware that Upchurch had bought at the salvation Army, cracked, chipped, nothing matching.... they took it all! They even took a well worn pair of slippers he left at the cabin! Hell to pay for the fellow caught wearing them.
I once left a crow bar down by my spring, a thief found it an used it to pry open my door, ruin the lock, he then drug my $20 barrel stove across the floor leaving deep scratches. It was two days work to fix the door.. and we were there with young children and no heat, not what we had planned to do for the three day weekend.
The golden rule... never leave tools around, or things like ladders that will allow thieves to gain access to high windows that may be less protected. Always remember that thieves rationalize everything... if things are neat and tidy, they may think you visit more often, they may note that you respect the place enough to leave it neat and clean and they may show your place more respect because of it. If you place shutters or an outer door on your cabin, use carriage bolts or signs that the things are bolted all the way through from the inside. Curt Chenoweth studied my cabin construction and came up with a superior idea for his own shutters. He bought some hardware that is often used for sliding barn doors, or garage doors. the track was bolted up under the eave across the front of the cabin above the door and windows. The shutters and outer door hang from this track. Shutters are framed in heavy angle and carry places for heavy padlocks. when they arrive, the shutters and outer door can be pushed aside, or even pushed off the track and stored! This is one of the best designs I've seen to date, it's just too much work for the common Thief to mess with.
Another major error folks make is laying out the floor plan with no consideration for the Chimney and snow loads. Snow and ice can do some amazing things, your chimney and the flashing around it can survive for a number of years... then one bad winter can bring the whole works right off the roof. If you are in snow country, it's best to avoid making valleys in the roof, keep things simple as possible and put your chimney right at the ridge. The further you move down from the ridge, the more problems you'll have with snow damage and down drafts that can fill your cabin will puffs of smoke. There's things you can do to reduce the problems, but nothing works better than a chimney located at the ridge.
Beware, the woman of the house is almost always the best space planner, she is the one who usually pays the biggest penalty when a living space is poorly planned. Only a fool would plan or design a cabin without the help of a woman. If you sit down together and plan the location of the wood stove, and assure the chimney exits straight up through the ridge, (or very close) you'll avoid all kinds of problems. If your wife misses the point of this, and insists that you need to place it elsewhere, ask her to sign an agreement that she will never complain about smoke in the cabin; or the fact that you spend some of your precious 3 day weekends on the roof repairing damage to the chimney created by snow and ice; then, make a copy of it; frame it, and screw it to the cabin wall.
I remember the very first time I went to Church, I think I was about 7, the Minister was giving the famous 'foundation sermon' I was in the second row and looked upward as he bellowed out the Bible's wisdom; "we must not build our house on sand". "We must take care to build a proper foundation or the whole house will fail". I never forgot that lesson, even at 7, I knew what he was trying to convey, but I spent most of the trip home looking at porches and other building parts that had settled, and looked neglected. Much of the lesson was taken literal.
But here I am talking about lessons I have learned and have carried for a life time. How did I do on the cabin foundation? Not very good; it's settled, and I need to get under it and square things up. It's one thing to learn the lesson, and yet another to practice it. I bet a whole bunch of those tilted and twisted porches were built by people that knew better too. The difference is; they were building for other people, we build for ourselves, and we'll most likely be the ones doing it over if we decide to take short cuts.
2003 Elk Hunt, more lessons learned. There's a big difference between a cabin wintering well, and a cabin functioning well during the winter. During the Elk hunt, we experienced a drop in temperature from 72 degrees down to nine degrees in a 24 hour period. We had snow, and an ice dam formed just above the gutter. I did not fully understand ice damming till I watched it this year, some folks live with this all the time, others have never seen it. For those with no first hand experience, the heat from the cabin causes the snow to melt and move down the roof, once it moves past the outside wall and onto the overhang, the water freezes and builds a dam just above the gutter. This dam holds water and that water can run up under the roofing material and do all kinds of weird things, it can even freeze and lift your roofing right off the roof. For me, it was a lesson to caulk the metal roofing at the seams so this dammed up water won't enter thru the seam and freeze between the roofing and the sheathing on the roof. 'Do it right, do it once', but if you don't know what right is, how do you do it right? Fact is, everything is more complicated when you build where temperatures swing and you have snow and ice.
More than a week in the cabin brings another thought, we are using d-Con to control mice, and other pests that get in. These critters can get in and make a huge mess of things in a hurry. d-Con does a great job for us, but is there a downside to using it? We have two cabins where d-Con is used, we have indeed eliminated mice, rats and other critters, but I have noted that we have a higher fly population than other cabins. Upchurch's cabin (a mile away) was fly free this year, I swept out a dust pan of flies in ours, and noted new visitors each day till the temperatures plunged. I have thought about this long and hard, I think some of the mice that die do so inside the cabin, (maybe in the walls?), when they do, their little bodies may host fly larvae and create more guests. The hornets I've talked about may be finding the cabin a haven for more than one reason, it's out of the weather, but it may also be a good hunting ground for flies? Now a person has to make up his mind, do you want mice and the possibility of getting a virus spread by their droppings, or do you want to chase a few flies? Will your walls eventually become full of dead little mice, or should you allow the little critters to strip the insulation from the walls and drag it off to build their nests where they please? Not to mention the total destruction of any bedding, stuffed chairs, or mattresses. I think this whole issue should be a lesson to the cabin builder, maybe you throw in a little sheet metal in any area where you think the little critters are going to try and enter your cabin? maybe you get some of that green copper stuff.. and paint the wood so they won't chew in a possible point of entry. If you use siding similar to T-111, do keep your nail spacing short, maybe use some construction adhesive to keep things tight and seal off typical entry points. You can address these things as you build, or you can live with an ongoing problem later on.
You can read more about our building site here Cowiche Project
Expect more lessons to be added, I'm always learning what I should have done differently.
All the best,