Students Build a Tiny Prefab Cabin in the Woods For Less Than $14K

Students Build a Tiny Prefab Cabin in the Woods For Less Than $14K

In Finland, two students with little experience but a lot of gumption design a minimalist home in the woods and build most of it—from the roofing to the stovepipes—on their own.
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In 2012, while enjoying a break from school on a fishing trip in rural Finland, Timm Bergmann and Jonas Becker hit on an intriguing idea. Why not put their design education to the test and design and build a lakeside cabin?

"We wanted to test our knowledge of the first years in university and thought it would be a great chance," explain Bergmann and Becker, who solidified their design/build vision over a few beers in the sauna later that night. When they started, the duo were in their third year of undergrad—Bergmann pursuing architecture, and Becker studying urban design.

Located in Lavia in southwest Finland with nary a neighbor in sight, the remote cabin is set close to a lake and surrounded by a swamp and an old forest. The site was selected for its lake views and close connection to nature. "On some days you can see moose, deer, and traces of lynx," say the designers, who use the cabin as a retreat from city life.

The young designers leased a small lakeside site where the forest opened into a glade so as to avoid cutting down trees for site prep. With no electricity, running water, or even road access, the land was "untouched," says Bergmann, adding that their desire to respect the natural landscape influenced the design. "It was important to us to not dominate nature."

Dubbed Small but Fine, the 280-square-foot cabin connects with the outdoors and features a minimal footprint. Not pictured is a detached outhouse with a composting toilet.

A commitment to sustainable ideals, a tiny budget, and the site’s swampy conditions shaped the design of the minimalist and prefabricated timber cabin, which serves as a nature-connected retreat away from city stresses.

"The house is staggered so that you get a different view from each window," says Becker.

Since the site lacked vehicular access, the designers focused first on building a 650-foot-long elevated pathway through the swamp and the forest to the nearest road. To stabilize the building on swampy soil, they built a foundation using concrete-filled steel pipes anchored into bedrock—the most eco-friendly solution they could implement without compromising the building’s durability.

Built with trees felled on-site, a 650-foot-long elevated pathway connects the cabin to the nearest road.

"We see the cabin as an observer of the fantastic landscape," says the duo, who hid the cabin behind the first tree line. "The house can be erased without any harm to nature. Therefore, we explicitly banned the use of a concrete foundation for construction of the house."

With the nearest grocery store over nine miles away, the cabin encourages self-sufficient living. Bergmann, Becker, and their friends fish in the lake and cook over fire. Although there is no running water, the lake water is pure and the duo plan to build a water filtration system.

They also decided to use off-site prefabrication. Fortunately, Bergmann’s grandparents’ farm was close by and they used the old barn as their construction hall. They prefabricated all 17 frames out of locally produced wood, selected for its low cost, sustainability, and forgiving nature.

The designers used locally produced recycled newspaper for insulation, and covered it with 18-millimeter pine plywood sheets. Since each modular frame would have to be carried over the wooden walkway, they made sure each unit weighed less than 220 pounds.

Bergmann and Becker traveled from Germany, where they were studying, to the remote lakeside site in Finland to complete the project over three summers. They prefabricated the modular frames in Bergmann’s grandparents’ barn (which had electricity) to avoid weather disruptions.

"The assembling and building part took five months, but we had also our studies, work, and life in Germany," note the duo, who spent three summer vacations to finish the cabin. Friends from Germany would occasionally visit to help with construction, which earned them lifelong rights to use the cabin for holidays.

The view out from the entrance. The doors were one of the biggest construction challenges for the duo, who struggled with the heft and complexity.

The walls are stuffed with 10 centimeters of recycled newspaper insulation. The roof and floors contain 15 centimeters of insulation. The cabin can be used in winter, but it's mainly visited in summertime.

The Werkstattofen wood stove, which can be found in hardware stores across Northern Europe, transfers heat quickly and can heat the cabin up in less than 15 minutes. Not pictured is the double-layered metal sheeting that wraps around the stove for fire protection.

"As we built everything ourselves, we not only cut costs, but we were also able to make changes along the way. As a result, we extended the terrace, built the roof ourselves—contrary to the initial plan—and made the stovepipes ourselves," says Bergmann.

"Sitting on the roof, pulling a stovepipe through the ceiling, and then sealing the roof—that’s something else. We wanted to experience these processes instead of just planning them in theory."

"The rooms are arranged for ease of use," explains the duo. Here, the entrance flows seamlessly to the kitchen on the left, a small living room, and a bedroom and a sauna in the rear.

A view of the light-filled kitchen. Due to a tiny budget, the duo couldn’t afford to buy furniture and instead used midcentury furnishings they collected in Germany and found on Bergmann’s grandparents’ property. All of the furnishings were measured beforehand, and the modular frames were designed around them to ensure the perfect fit.

Small but Fine floor plan.

Their bootstrap mentality and the minimalist design—there is no electricity or running water—helped the pair stay within a budget of just $13,449—the majority of which was spent on the double-glazed windows and timber materials. Following in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, the 280-square-foot cabin serves as a space to reflect, exercise self-reliance, and live simply with nature.

At the far end of the cabin, the duo installed this Finnish necessity: the sauna. The multipurpose space can be accessed through the bedroom or via the outdoor terrace. It serves as a multipurpose space where they can also cook food—such as pike fished from the lake.

"We wanted to show that a house does not have to be big," explains Bergmann. "Building something beautiful does not have to be expensive," adds Becker. The cabin not only received building permission and approval, but also meets fire regulations.

Large windows flood the sauna with natural light and face views of the lake.

The designers wanted to use recyclable materials throughout the cabin to minimize its environmental footprint. They constructed the benchtops in the sauna (pictured here) and the kitchen, as well as the bedroom cabinetry.

Brick and metal sheeting around the sauna stove provide fire protection.

"We think that luxury can always be found in detail and small architecture when it provides for the needs of the people living there," say the duo, who have since founded Studio Politaire. "Sometimes it is even better to reduce and realize what actually is necessary to achieve a better result. Because of that, we came up with the project name ‘Small but Fine.’"

Small but Fine area drawing

Small but Fine section

Small but Fine section

Small but Fine sauna section



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