Off-Grid Corten Cabins in the boonies! Good times!

9 Aug

Dear Ronin,

I can’t tell you how much your blog and our books have inspired us!

After years of talking about building an alternative home, we’re actually doing it! In just a few hours on the telephone, you basically walked in and slayed all the dragons we thought would consume us.  By the end of that first consulting session, we were chomping on the bit, wanting to bolt out of the barn and start running toward our future!

And now we’re doing it using your favorite thing in the whole wide world… 20′ High Cube ISBUs!

We have purchased some land (5 acres) and a pair of 20′ containers and we’re getting ready to start building an off-grid cabin that we’ll use at first simply to test ourselves as we work toward a “life lived sustainably” in a rural location. You beat us to death about securing an adequate water source and NOW, we finally get it. Our little chunk of heaven is right on a small river and we can irrigate our 5 acres by dropping a pump into the river to move water. There’s a big garden of heirloom crops in our future! 🙂

Our cabin is going to be pretty basic. It’s going to be approximately 16’x20′ on sonotube pilings, just like you’ve taught us.

20'd Homestead - WYWe love the idea that placing the cabin up off the ground like that will allow us to capitalize on the views and also to allow us to use the cooler air under it as a plenum to draw from.  We got this idea from your discussions about the cool air created under a bank of photovoltaic panels (framed on risers off the metal roofing) on the roof, that actually help keep them cool and running efficiently.

We’ll also use cross-ventilation to help heat and cool the cabin. Can you suggest a roof pitch or style for us to use?

We’re also going to build in a small kitchenette with a woodstove/oven and a small dorm refrigerator instead of a full blown kitchen. We don’t cook much and a lot of what we eat comes out of bags or cans. Admittedly it’s not Julia Childs, but it does the job and we’re happy with it.

Any basic tips you’d like to share with us?


20’d in our 40’s…


Dear 20’d,

Congrats. I wondered when you’d take the bull by the horns and start forging your future, As we talked, I just “felt” like you were headed for great things and NOW… you’re going to prove me right.

First. Stop thinking so “small”. I remember how you talked about your painting and “jigsaw puzzle marathons” and grandkids. Separate those boxes by at least 4′.  (Personally, I’d go 8′ if I was tasked with deciding.) If you follow my suggestions, you’re going to build a “slightly larger” cabin, but you’ll see in a moment why it will pay off in spades.

(And remember that “reclaiming space” is far less expensive than “building” it. By setting ISBUs apart and then connecting them using “standard” construction in-fill practices” you’ll gain square footage quite cost effectively, by simply “capturing” it.  )

You haven’t mentioned WHERE you are dropping your boxes (I’m assuming you’re building in America – probably Wyoming – from your IP address) , but your Corten Cabin will be far more energy efficient if you orient it on your site properly. Your site looks lovely. Truly peaceful and relaxing! Nice!

solar orientationOrientation: OF course, I’m talking about facing the long walls to the North and South.  Many people make the mistake of facing their long walls East and West and this orientation leads to “summer scalding” in the form of overheating.

Remember to take advantage of your environment when you build. Warm air rises when outside air is cooler. I can’t tell you how many Corten Cabins we’ve built with clerestory windows for venting  heat out of the house. We usually place them in the south wall where they can be accessed by either a pole or a loft for opening/closing.

(I’d have to say that if I had to pick one solid roof style for an ISBU cabin, the “Clerestory Corten Cabin” wins hands down, every time.)

Our Corten Cabins usually have a nice sleeping loft or an office/library/crafts/sewing room in the clerestory and this allows easy access to the clerestory windows. Use awning windows and you’ll get the added benefit of having windows that will shed rain and snow.

TIP: Don’t face large windows to the East or West. It’s best to most all of your windows on the South wall in a way that allows you to shade them from the summer sun.   Now, place small windows and doors in the North wall and you have your cross ventilation established.

In the Late Spring, Summer and early Fall, these upper windows are usually left open (or at least cracked) to bleed off collected heat.

A properly placed ceiling fan (we really like the “Big Ass Fan” guys) will help siphon off the heat so that it can be vented out to keep your cabin cool.

From their website:

Big Ass Fan Company is the preeminent designer and manufacturer of 6 ft. to 24′ diameter high volume/low speed (HVLS) ceiling and vertical fans developed to provide significant energy savings and improve occupant comfort year round in large commercial, industrial, agricultural, institutional and residential buildings. In the U.S., we are based in Lexington, KY and occupy a 100,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility, a 33,000 sq. ft. administrative office, and a LEED Gold Certified, 44,000 sq. ft. R&D facility.”

In other words, they’re “Made in America”, “cooler than the coolness they create” and frankly, we just love the fact that they think through every single aspect of their work with precision and professionalism. Their fans really ARE works of art. It doesn’t get better than these guys. Seriously.

And we know what we’re talking about  because we’re “hot air experts” – as most of the readership can attest… LOL!

Another cool thing about building a cabin in this clerestory style is that by adding that loft to your increased volume, you get more living space and storage in the same footprint. The idea is to build as much structure as you need… not more… and not less. UP is better than OUT, especially when it’s a loft.

 clerestory  cross-section
Clerestory roofs lend themselves to both rainwater harvesting AND the location of “solar farms” – photovoltaic panels placed to harness the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity.

About your kitchenette;

Nix the “dorm refrigerator” idea. Seriously. Don’t do it.  I say this for a number of reasons. The fact that you’re building a small cabin doesn’t diminish the amount of food storage you’ll need, in comparisons to the home you live in now.  No matter where you are, you still need to eat. I’ve never found an efficient dorm refrigerator. Ironically, they use the same amount of power as a full sized refrigerator in most instances. Shop for a decent full sized, energy efficient refrigerator and you’ll be way ahead in the long run. A refrigerator is nothing more than a “big cold pantry”. You can actually keep a lot of things in that larger refrigerator and that extra capacity won’t take up any more space than standard kitchen cabinets.

I’ll also point out it’s much more cost effective to buy and place a full sized refrigerator than it is to buy and install a base cabinet, countertops and then upper cabinets in equal sizes to duplicate that space..

This probably sounds crazy, but it’s true. Do the math and you’ll discover it for yourself, quickly.

For A/C and Heating in “the crunches”, you’re talking “mini-split” units. These units are energy efficient and are quite capable of heating and cooling a small cabin in a hurry. And a properly configured and sized mini-split won’t kill your photovoltaic panel/battery bank operation either.

I have a series of posts slated for later this summer that will discuss mini-split units in depth. Stay tuned for the series…

Until next time…
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