How to Build an Off the Grid Cabin

How to Build an Off the Grid Cabin

By Miyoko Ohtake
Suzanne Shelton’s life work is making sustainable lifestyles attractive and accessible.

She’s the CEO of the Shelton Group, a marketing company she founded in 1991 that works exclusively with environmentally focused clients. But in 2009, when she built an off-the-grid lakefront pavilion in Sharps Chapel, Tennessee, she found taking her own advice wasn’t so simple.

Growing up canoeing and waterskiing on the lakes around Knoxville, Shelton dreamed of a "little cottage to get away to." Two years ago, she and partner Corinne Nicolas, with help from architect Brandon Pace, found a "funky piece of property" on Norris Lake, a man-made reservoir. The parcel’s peculiar rhomboid shape near the road (with just a sliver of land stretching to the water) capped any future cottage at two bedrooms, turning off other prospective buyers. But the site’s location next to a protected wetland sealed the deal for the duo.

Shelton and Nicolas planned to build a cabin later (and they’re on track to break ground in 2011) but wanted "to build something small by the lake so we could enjoy it immediately," Shelton says. Despite size and structural restrictions for a pavilion set by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the retreat came together easily: Pace designed prefabricated cedar panels backed with insect screens that snapped to the steel structure. Construction started in 2009, and the frame assembly was completed in just three days.

Shelton's architect, Brandon Pace, designed and fabricated cedar panels backed with insect screens that snapped to the pavilion's steel structure, allowing assembly to be completed on site in just three days.

The more difficult task, however, was incorporating rainwater-harvesting and solar-power systems. "I learned that being green is often not easy," Shelton admits. The smallest cistern Pace could procure that was approved for potable water had a 400-gallon capacity—–far more than necessary—–and badly needed a custom cover to keep it from being an eyesore. Installing the solar system was far more laborious and expensive than expected, since Tennessee does not offer solar tax incentives. Selecting a DC system saved the pair significant sums, but it came with a catch: They needed to buy DC-compatible appliances to avoid constantly using the energy-hogging inverter. The biggest problem, however, was having to fell more than 40 trees to use the solar system. "We’re only getting about 30 percent of the full power but we’re not willing to cut any more down," Shelton says.

Suzanne Shelton built a "little cottage to get away to" on Tennessee's Norris Lake that's equipped with both rainwater-harvesting and solar-power systems for off-the-grid living.

Despite the obstacles and approx­imately $10,000 in extra costs, Shelton believes the efforts were worthwhile and necessary. "How else could we have done it?" she asks. "We would have had to pump water from the lake then filter and purify it. That would have required energy, meaning we’d have had to run wires down from the road." And making the design as green as possible required more than enough energy without any wires.

For the Knoxville-based CEO of environmentally-focused marketing firm the Shelton Group, building an off-the-grid lakefront pavilion in Sharps Chapel, Tennessee, wasn’t so simple. With the help of architect Brandon Pace, she built a small prefabricated cabin on a "funky piece of property" on Norris Lake, a man-made reservoir.

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