A Couple Buy a Collapsing Cabin For $7K in Joshua Tree and Revamp it Into a Desert Oasis

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By Jennifer Baum Lagdameo
Thanks to an extensive DIY renovation, a 480-square-foot homestead in Joshua Tree, California, receives a stunning new look.

When Kathrin and Brian Smirke purchased a 1957 abandoned property at the tax auction in San Bernardino County for $7,000 in June 2015, they had no doubt they had their work cut out. Due to the tiny cabin's decaying state, it would need to be stripped down to the studs and completely rebuilt on the original footprint.

However, after several years' worth of planning and remodeling, the couple have successfully converted the humble abode into their very own desert oasis, which is also currently available to rent. 

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The couple wanted to be able to squeeze a full bathroom, kitchen, living room, storage, as well as a sleeping space that would accommodate a king-sized bed into the cabin's tiny layout.

The couple wanted to be able to squeeze a full bathroom, kitchen, living room, storage, as well as a sleeping space that would accommodate a king-sized bed into the cabin's tiny layout.

"We spent over a year planning, demolishing, building, planning again, building, and then finally decorating this little gem," Kathrin explains. "What makes this home special is that we did a lot of the work ourselves, including the design, complete demolition, framing, plumbing, trim electrical, and we even built a lot of the interior fixtures and art." 

Here is a look at the condition of the derelict home when the Smirkes purchased it in 2015.

Here is a look at the condition of the derelict home when the Smirkes purchased it in 2015.

In addition to working with a tiny footprint, the couple faced multiple other challenges, such as the restrictive building codes which target these old cabins. For example, they could not add any additional square footage to the original structure. 

A glance at the interiors at the time of the purchase. 

A glance at the interiors at the time of the purchase. 

Yet ultimately, these restrictions helped push the dynamic duo to think even more creatively, as they created clever solutions to fit in everything they wanted for the home.

Due to the cabin's decaying state, the home had to be stripped down to the studs and completely rebuilt.

Due to the cabin's decaying state, the home had to be stripped down to the studs and completely rebuilt.

The renovations were officially completed in December 2017, and the homeowners are very proud of the final outcome. The Smirkes now split their time between their residence on the Mendocino coast and the cabin which they fondly refer to as "The Shack Attack." 

The Smirkes moved the entrance to the side of the home to maximize privacy. The use of a glass front door keeps the entryway bright and airy. The curtain blocks a small storage closet. 

The Smirkes moved the entrance to the side of the home to maximize privacy. The use of a glass front door keeps the entryway bright and airy. The curtain blocks a small storage closet. 

"Because it is not our full-time residence, the small space actually proved to be beneficial because it was relatively inexpensive to rehab. Small spaces are also more energy efficient, as they consume less power for heating, cooling, and electricity at night," the couple explains.

Brian created the wooden artwork from repurposed wood from the original structure. The glass front door even provides enough natural sunlight that the couple were able to plant an in-floor cactus garden. However, before they could get started, they had to remove a section of the concrete with a rented a jackhammer from Home Depot to accommodate the installation. 

Brian created the wooden artwork from repurposed wood from the original structure. The glass front door even provides enough natural sunlight that the couple were able to plant an in-floor cactus garden. However, before they could get started, they had to remove a section of the concrete with a rented a jackhammer from Home Depot to accommodate the installation. 

"Finally, because the space is small, it encouraged us to create a deeper connection to the outdoors—one that is particularly welcomed on starry evenings, completely free of the "light pollution" you get in the city." 

A vintage leather horsefly blanket is mounted on the wall. The "frame" around the blanket is made from repurposed lumber from the original structure.  Sliding glass doors were added to help integrate the home to the outdoors. The abundant desert sunshine makes natural lighting a viable option all day long.

A vintage leather horsefly blanket is mounted on the wall. The "frame" around the blanket is made from repurposed lumber from the original structure.  Sliding glass doors were added to help integrate the home to the outdoors. The abundant desert sunshine makes natural lighting a viable option all day long.

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For the petite open kitchen, the Smirkes designed the cabinets and had the boxes and doors made at a small cabinet shop in L.A. They also formed and poured the concrete countertops themselves and constructed the floating shelves with leftover clear pine and plywood. 

For the petite open kitchen, the Smirkes designed the cabinets and had the boxes and doors made at a small cabinet shop in L.A. They also formed and poured the concrete countertops themselves and constructed the floating shelves with leftover clear pine and plywood. 

Homestead-style cabins, such as the Smirke's, are an integral part of the history of the desert town of Joshua Tree, as many of these structures are the product of the Small Tract Act of 1938 when the federal government sold off federal land for extremely small amounts. In fact, many of them are still scattered throughout the area and are ripe for renovating. 

A covered patio which is used as a dining area was enclosed with a horizontal wood screen to create a sense privacy. The other end of the patio was left open to make the most of the expansive desert view.  

A covered patio which is used as a dining area was enclosed with a horizontal wood screen to create a sense privacy. The other end of the patio was left open to make the most of the expansive desert view.  

Qn the opposite end of the covered patio the Smirkes built two long benches that overlook the open desert. The canvas is a flag they had made by Lindsay Smith of Makers Workshop that says, "Joshua Tree Est. 1957," which is the year the original cabin was constructed.

Qn the opposite end of the covered patio the Smirkes built two long benches that overlook the open desert. The canvas is a flag they had made by Lindsay Smith of Makers Workshop that says, "Joshua Tree Est. 1957," which is the year the original cabin was constructed.

A platform bed was a perfect solution for fitting a king-sized bed into a small space. The ceiling and back bedroom wall are paneled with tongue-in-groove pine adding to the compact sleeping area's cozy feel.<br>

A platform bed was a perfect solution for fitting a king-sized bed into a small space. The ceiling and back bedroom wall are paneled with tongue-in-groove pine adding to the compact sleeping area's cozy feel.

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A glass-enclosed shower helps increase the sense of space in the tiny bathroom.&nbsp;

A glass-enclosed shower helps increase the sense of space in the tiny bathroom. 

Kathrin is also a stained glass artist and this piece is from her collection called Bands of Color.&nbsp;

Kathrin is also a stained glass artist and this piece is from her collection called Bands of Color. 

The tub was constructed from a water trough that the Smirkes found at a feed store. Kathrin painted it, and Brian built a deck, platform, and planters around it for privacy and to run the water lines. With both hot and cold running water, the tub is perfect for both hot summer days and cool desert nights.&nbsp;

The tub was constructed from a water trough that the Smirkes found at a feed store. Kathrin painted it, and Brian built a deck, platform, and planters around it for privacy and to run the water lines. With both hot and cold running water, the tub is perfect for both hot summer days and cool desert nights. 

The tiny patio is an idyllic spot to enjoy the desert air and the starry sky.&nbsp;

The tiny patio is an idyllic spot to enjoy the desert air and the starry sky. 

For more information on The Shack Attack, check out the Smirke's website: We Are in Our Element. When the Smirkes aren't staying in their desert home, it is available to rent for $150 per night. 

Project Credits:

Owner/Designer: We Are in Our Element, Kathrin and Brian Smirke

Builder/General Contractor: We Are in Our Element, Brian Smirke

Interiors: Kathrin Smirke