My forest cabin is built on stilts with recycled materials

When I was writing recently about a cabin built on stilts – a small house built with a foundation without concrete – I kept thinking that it reminded me of my own cabin in the woods near Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada. They are both built on piles, have simple linear structures and are both relatively small. I never posted about it on Treehugger for a number of reasons I’ll explain, but decided there was good reason to do so now.

But first, a bit of history.

The dome in the late 80s.

Lloyd Alter

I was a young architect in the late 80s renovating a cottage on Lake of Bays, photocopying at a local estate agency in the town of Dorset when I saw the advert for this geodesic dome. It was selling for a ridiculously low price even back then. But it turned out that in Muskoka, Ontario, nobody wanted small lakes (they want big boats), nobody wanted access to water, nobody wanted properties made up of cliffs and rocks and, most importantly, no one wanted a geodesic dome. I had to have it.

The dome was built in the late 1960s by an engineer who had seen the American pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal and constructed it from homemade sandwich panels of plywood and wood in pairs. It was already in a sorry state when we bought it. The first time I opened the door while carrying my six month old daughter, the waterlogged door fell off its hinges and almost crushed us.

Dome in the late 90s surrounded by new construction.

Lloyd Alter

But it was also a few feet from the water, and since the 70s when the zoning bylaw was introduced, a 66 foot setback was required. For the first few years we slept in the original 1954 sleeping cabin three hundred feet away, then spent the day in the dome and on the rocks. Small separate sleeping cabins called “bunkies” are permitted. The regulations allowed extensions to the rear of the existing buildings even if they were within the setback, so I designed a series of small interconnecting cabins beside and behind the dome.

Boat at sunrise.

Lloyd Alter

Water access properties are generally not used year-round; many people open them on Victoria Day weekend (the third Monday in May) and close them on Canadian Thanksgiving. This is what we do. Here you see us closing last year. The wharf disconnected from the shore so the ice wouldn’t move it. Everything happens in this small aluminum boat.

The cabin’s kitchen and dining area.

Lloyd Alter

That’s why the cabin is really just a plywood tent with no insulation, just exposed studs and plywood. I’m sitting in all my woolens and a hat writing this in 55 degrees May 22.

But aside from the posts and plywood, there’s a story in everything else. The doors were salvaged from an office renovation, probably installed in the 80s and replaced in the 90s. The dining room table is cut from a bowling alley, on a base made by my father; it was in his cabin for years. My dad also made the sideboard – it’s made from the ground of shipping containers. The floors are simply coated with urethane.

The view towards the kitchen in the cabin.

Lloyd Alter

The kitchen is at the back, with the electric cooker on a peninsula and the fridge hidden behind the plywood box. This is a big difference from the other booth I showed recently; we can put a baby gate at the end to prevent children and dogs from entering the kitchen when we are cooking. There is a retractable ladder leading to a loft above the kitchen for guests. (I really should have taken those blankets off for the photo.)

Lloyd Alter

The windows, probably a hundred years old and still in good condition, come from a renovation of my sister’s house in the 90s. Note the accuracy of the framing. Builder Brad Johnson neatly arranged the jambs around the windows as if it were a window frame. The sashes are hinged at the top and pulled up with ropes and pulleys.

Lloyd Alter

Behind the kitchen is the toilet area, with an early 60s sink that was taken out of my mom’s apartment during a renovation. Behind the door is a composting toilet which used to display a “grandmothers only” sign for my mother’s visit – we all used the outhouse up the hill. There is no shower; we’ll swim instead.

Lloyd Alter

Behind the dome and the kitchen there is a screened porch. You can see the big tree on the right; each box was designed around existing trees. Only one was lost during construction: I designed around it, but Brad thought it was almost dead and just too close. Behind this box is another with two 7-by-8-foot bedrooms for the kids and a 10-by-12-foot one for Kelly and me.

Lloyd Alter

From a door at the back you can walk up the hill to the outhouse. I’ve always wanted an A-frame, and finally got one with this little thing. I now use the indoor composting toilet, but am the only one unless it rains.

rear view of the outbuilding.

Lloyd Alter

The aft view of the main cabin outbuilding. If he wasn’t going to fall on the cabin, I never climbed out of a tree; they were here first.

Lloyd Alter

We used the dome as a living space for a few years. I did everything I could to save it, replacing the panels and brackets, but it wasn’t safe anymore and I spent a few years sealing everything up with yellow tape. The regulations allow you to replace a structurally faulty structure with one of the same size, so I designed a box to replace the dome. That’s one of the reasons I’ve never shown my cabin before: I did a terrible, terrible job designing this.

Note the patterns in the glass.

Lloyd Alter

Because the dome stood out as separate from the rest, I placed this box at a 45 degree angle so I could reuse the existing bridge/tunnel to the dome and have the same view as the dome. I designed a roof that was too complex to come up from the four walls. Builder Brad said it looked like a Pizza Hut and I never got that image out of my head.

He is also leaking. The round dome was maybe impossible to furnish, but I put everything in the wrong place so that is too. I should have isolated him; the dome was, which is why we went there on cold days. Instead, I put this unnecessary bubble wrap between the liner and the liner.

The corner windows match the view from the dome, but I bought new double-glazed units, learning later that sealed units should never be used in an unheated building. When they get so cold, the seals blow out and they fill with moisture – the pattern you see in the glass. And no, I’m not showing other interior shots, I’m still too embarrassed.

There are many reasons why I gave up on being an architect, but one of them was that I was just bad at it. It was the last thing I ever designed and it proved the point.

Lloyd Alter

There are many other reasons why I haven’t discussed this before. As I evolved as a Treehugger, I realized how wrong it was to drive 150 miles each way to a superfluous second home. Although, now we are arriving mid-June and staying until mid-September. The only heat comes from a wood-burning fireplace, when I talk about the problems of burning wood, even in the countryside. Every time I get on the boat, I feel the hypocrisy.

On the other hand, every time I walk through this stupid tunnel that connects the two main boxes – lined with my sea stories of Patrick O’Brian and John D. McDonalds of my father on one side, and my record collection and games we played each other’s kids with – feels like home.

Despite all its mistakes and problems, there are still lessons to be learned and things we can be proud of. It’s a product of its time and I’m not going to feel guilty about it anymore.

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