Hut Raising

As it turns out, building a hut, even a small one, is pretty hard… especially if you’ve never built an enclosed structure of any kind before, and you just sort of sketch together a design using Google SketchUp and your imagination and no other reference, then decide to improvise the rest as you go. But it’s also a ton of fun, and I’m sure my helpers for the weekend, Keith and Josh, would attest to this fact.

We all met up in Chico on Friday night, then spent most of Saturday buying supplies and figuring out logistics. After making a brief stop at Keith’s parents’ house to talk to his dad (an actual engineer) about the rough design I had, we headed over to Lowes to pick up supplies. Based on my rough design, I’d estimated that we’d need something like four 2x6s, at least a couple dozen 2x4s, and twelve sheets of 4 foot by 8 foot plywood boards. Since we weren’t sure how much would fit in each car, we initially bought all the 2x4s and 2x6s, somehow fit them all into Josh’s Prius, then bought six sheets of OSB and six sheets of cheap pine plywood, all cut in half so that they’d fit in Keith’s SUV. In addition, we bought paint, painting supplies, several tubes of caulk, cement blocks, nails, and a roll of asphalt roofing material, at a total cost of around $304.

The two cars heavily laden with lumber, we returned to Keith’s place to chop as much of the 2x4s as possible into their final dimensions using the miter saw I’d brought up from storage in Mountain View the previous day. We then loaded all the lumber back into Josh’s car, packed up our gear, and headed out.

It was dark by the time we got to Serenity Valley, and slowly made our way up the dirt road. Josh left the Prius by the paved road, and we walked ahead of Keith in his SUV, the dark woods ahead of us pierced by the stark light from the car’s headlamps. Fortunately, the dirt road didn’t prove to be too much of an obstacle for the truck, even in the darkness. Before long, we were by my campsite, sitting by a roaring fire, with cups of hot chocolate in our hands. Despite the frosty cold, we spent the hours away staring into the fire, wandering away into the darkness only to gather more fuel. It wasn’t until close to 1am that Josh agreed to stop adding more wood to the fire, and with the flames dying down and the cold setting in, we retreated into our respective tents for the night.

On Sunday morning, after filling our bellies with hot oat meal, scrambled eggs, and bacon, we started off the day by moving my camp another 30 or so yards West. Unlike my previous solo-trailer-moving adventures, with a little huffing and puffing, the three of us managed to push and pull the trailer into place with out any mechanical assistance. And with that task completed, we moved on to our primary task: hut buildin’.

I don’t know much about construction, but I know you generally build from the bottom up. So that’s what we did. Sort of. Normally, you’d start with a foundation. Except, in my case, since the hut is so small, I decided to build the floor first, then plop that onto cinderblocks instead of putting down an actual foundation. The floor is basically a 2×6 frame, with 2x4s and 2x2s supporting sheets of OSB on top, and mylar emergency blankets sandwiched between for insulation and weather proofing.

With the floor completed, we assembled a couple of wall panel frames, and put together the rafters. The rafters are my original design, and somewhat unique. Since I’ve never built a roof before, I tried to optimize for ease of assembly, and for the most part, I think I succeeded.

We ended the first day of construction by taking a hike through my property to my supply cache on the northern end, to pick up some spare lumber. By the time we got back to camp, light was fading fast, so we cooked up some rice and chili for dinner, and shortly after that, Josh headed out on his long drive back to San Jose.

With Josh gone, it was just Keith and I the second day, working on perhaps the most challenging part of the whole project: the roof. We spent most of the morning putting up the 3rd set of rafters in the middle, and reinforcing them all until we were satisfied with their strength and rigidity. The ultimate test was for the two of us to climb onto the frame of the hut, and hang from the rafters, to make sure nothing moved. Satisfied, we then moved onto the difficult task of putting up roof boards. Unsurprisingly, things didn’t seem to line up quite right, and our work was further hindered by the fact that we were working 7 or 8 feet off the ground, with one not-quite-tall-enough ladder between the two of us. But we managed, and by the time we wrapped up around 3pm, we had the entire roof covered, with all the seams mostly sealed. Unfortunately, we didn’t get around to putting on the waterproof roofing material, but that will have to wait for another time.

There’s still more work to be done, but I’m very pleased with the progress and quality of the work so far. And when I say I’m pleased with the “quality” of the work, what I really mean is that I’m happy there’s a structure that probably won’t collapse. That doesn’t mean the walls are straight or square, or that there aren’t big gaps everywhere, or that the whole thing is even on level ground. But for three first timers, I think we’ve done well. Now I just need to go back and finish putting up the siding, paint it all before moisture seeps into the plywood, and put on the roofing before the wet season starts in earnest…

(Also, see more photos from the build. I also shot hours of video, but it’ll probably be a while before I get around to editing it…)

News from Serenity Valley – Episode 5: stuff!

Here’s the latest episode, in which I talk about some of my favorite and/or most useful pieces of equipment. (If you don’t see the embed, the video is on Vimeo.)

The sub-$300 Hut Project


I’ve been hinting at how my Serenity Valley adventures may be coming to a close very soon, at least for this year. There are a couple of reasons. The first reason is financial: I’ve burned through most of my cash, and I’ll need to either start making more, or start liquidating non-cash financial assets1. The second reason is more complicated, but mostly comes down to the fact that, as the days become shorter and the nights colder, I’m spending more and more time crammed in a tiny backpacking tent. This is so detrimental to my quality of life, that at some point, it simply won’t be worth being out there (since I’m doing this for fun).

So, I have two options. I can either come down from the woods, or I can stay in the woods a little longer, but not in my tiny tent. I’ve thought about these two choices, and decided I want to try the latter, before I inevitably resort to the former.

I then thought about what exactly it was that I didn’t like about being in a tiny tent. First of all, of course, there’s the fact that the tent is tiny (about 3ft by 6ft). Specifically, there’s only enough space to sleep in, and I can’t even stand up. The other problem is that the tent doesn’t offer much insulation, so once I get into my sleeping bag for the night, I’m not coming out until late-morning; not even if I need to pee really badly.

To make life out there more comfortable, I need shelter that has enough room for a cot and additional living space, with ceilings high enough such that I could stand up straight. It needs to have good insulation, ventilation to allow the use of open flames inside, and also windows to let light in. It needs to be easy enough to build (say five Ryo-days), using materials that I can haul onto my property myself. It should be capable of withstanding the elements, and remain inhabitable for at least two years. And it has to cost less than $300.

I am currently considering competing designs: a Hexayurt, or a more traditional timber frame and plywood construction. I saw a lot of Hexayurts at Burning Man, and can see their draw for that specific event, but I’m not sure they’re suitable as longer-term permanent structures in colder climates. A timber frame structure, on the other hand, is a lot more complicated to build, and potentially more expensive as well as susceptible to termites. Right now, I’m leaning more towards timber frame, but stay tuned…

Damn Neighbors…

my neighbor

my neighbor sticking his head into my trash

Up until this past week, I hardly saw any wildlife at all, with the exception of some lizards, and this one squirrel that I encountered on the dirt road. But lately, this squirrel has been hanging out on a fallen tree right behind my camp. I think it found some food scraps (mostly vegetables) I’ve been tossing in that general area, and seems to have decided that more food may show up soon.

l have mixed feelings about my new neighbor. On the one hand, this little fella is really cute and fun to watch. He seems to feel relatively safe around me, and sometimes I’ll see him perched on the log, watching me putter around my camp. Oh, and it’s absolutely adorable when he sticks his head into this half-lemon that he seems to keep stashed away in a little hole (pictured above). On the other hand, it was a reminder of how easily I can affect the environment around me, and in ways that may not necessarily be beneficial. In this specific case, this squirrel seems to have come to expect tasty and easy human foods, when he should be running around collecting acorns. I’m also concerned that his diminished fear of humans will make him an easier target, should he encounter other humans.

Fortunately, I have yet to encounter any other humans around my property. There were those gun shots I heard, and I thought I heard voices off in the distance one recent evening, but otherwise I’ve seen few signs of humans. The dirt road that I use to ferry supplies between the paved road and my property is shared by a number of neighboring parcels, but even that road hasn’t seen any other human traffic in the last couple of weeks (judging by the tracks left in the soft dusty surface), so I’m pretty pleased about that.

News From Serenity Valley – Episode 4: shelf/cot build

Here’s the latest episode of News from Serenity Valley. In this episode, you can watch me build the shelf/cot structure that fits inside my trailer. This was probably one of the more difficult episodes to edit, because I had to reduce a 3-4 hour project (and an hour’s worth of footage) into a few minutes in a way that made sense. It might not be the most exciting episode, but, well, here it is. (YouTube link)

Quick update from Serenity Valley: Fall is here

Fall is here

Just a really really quick update, ’cause the sun’s setting and I need to get back to my camp before dark (already looking doubtful (I’m at a internet pizza cafe about 40 minutes away)).

I just finished editing Episode 4, but I don’t have time to compress and upload. That’ll probably be up on Friday. I also shot footage for Episode 5 today, so that’s coming.

Unfortunately, the season is ending short. Well, the season ends when it does, just, it’s happened sooner than I hoped. Fall is here. I am no longer in denial. It’s getting cold at night, with temps dropping below freezing. It gets dark at 7:30pm and doesn’t warm up until 9am or later, which means I’m spending 14 hours or so out of the day in my tiny little tent. When you’re on 60 acres of land yet spending more than half the time (and increasing) in a 3ft by 6ft tent, you know you’re facing diminishing returns…

In any case, I’ll be back out of the woods this weekend. I’ll post more then.