Caleb and Marci Larsen met in art school and got married in 2003. Marci grew up in Budapest during communism and witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain and speaks Hungarian, and they both enjoy traveling, spending eight years moving around, from Kalamazoo to Mexico. But two years ago they decided to trade in their wanderlust for a sense of home, and starting building their own cabin in northern Michigan. Here, they answer a few questions about a drunk who donated a stove, drywalling in snow, and what it’s like to have to snowshoe to your own house.
How did you decide to start building a tiny ouse?
Caleb: I finished grad school at the Rhode Island School of Design and, on somewhat of a whim, Marci and I moved to Tulum, Mexico. We intended to be there for three months and ended up staying for a year. After a year of living on the beach in “paradise,” we were ready for a change. Life in Tulum was incredibly laid-back, and the tone of the place was about relaxing and escapism. After a year of that, we were ready for change. We wanted to work with our hands and to make something–we were looking for a challenge and another adventure. During this time, we went to Michigan to visit family and friends. While visiting with my parents in the Upper Peninsula, we discovered 20 acres for sale on Bootjack Road. Bootjack has a lot of sentimental and historical value within my family. My parents built a cabin there in the 1970s, I was born there, and we lived there until the early ’80s. We ended up moving to a farm closer to town when I was about 3 or 4, but I have strong memories of being there as a little kid and have always wished we could go back.
So when Marci and I realized we could buy the 20 acres with a mortgage that was less than our phone bill, we put in an offer and it was accepted. We weren’t certain what we were going to do with the land, but thought that a little three-season place would be nice. Over the course of that winter, we dreamed, and debated, and dreamed some more until the three-season shack had grown in our minds into a fully livable off-grid cabin with a sauna.
One of the big drivers for me was that I wanted to live a deliberate life. If we wanted water, we would need to dig a well, if we wanted heat, we would need to cut the wood, if we wanted electricity, we would need to generate it. If we wanted shelter, we had to build it.
How did you come up with the design?
We began sketching cabin designs on a napkin at a little bar while visiting Venice. Those sketches changed, grew, and got tossed out over and over again. We spent a lot of time looking at cabin books, visiting blogs that shared a similar aesthetic, and talking with Caleb’s dad, David Larsen, who had built several cabins of his own.
Had you worked with construction before?
Marci: We had no construction experience, other than the occasional art project that involved some building. Caleb grew up helping his dad, who is a master cabinet-maker, so he had some basic carpentry skills. Other than using the chop saw, I had very little experience. But Caleb is the kind of guy who can learn anything he puts his mind to. Building a cabin was a fun opportunity for us to learn about construction, plumbing, electricity, and creatively problem-solve along the way. We learned a lot from our mistakes. Caleb’s dad, David was an invaluable resource at all hours of the day and night. He helped us with the design and frequently came out and helped us build. YouTube was another great resource that taught us everything from how to fell a tree to how to install our roofing.
Where did you find your materials?
We got a lot of our materials from the local lumberyard and hardware store. But a few things were free. We found most of our windows on the side of the road, waiting for trash pick up. Our best find was the large sliding glass door that became our windows. Our sauna stove was free from a barfly who invited us over for morning cocktails and rambling stories. Eventually we headed out to his garage to power-wash the stove and take it home. This is a small, close-knit community. Everybody knows each other and if you are new to the community, they know about you surprisingly quickly. Our 100 year-old Morso cabin stove came from the side of the road. It had been a local’s camp stove and they parted with it for a song. The wood for our basswood ceiling came from a family friend.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Money and time have been some of our biggest challenges. We did most of this project with cash, working several jobs and at the same time spending every free minute on the cabin. We had a very limited budget and mostly relied on our own inventiveness and brute strength to get this project done. We learned a lot about working together. We work best on separate projects, since we work at a different pace and have different strengths.
Trying to finish the cabin before deep winter set in was another challenge. We were totally unrealistic about our timetable and kept thinking we could move into the cabin by fall. We were putting in the windows in December and there was snow on the ground. We ended up moving in by January and finished drywalling the first couple of weeks there.
What do you think raising a family in your house will be like?
When we lived in Mexico we lived quite comfortably in a very small house, so we knew we could do that here as well. The past year and a half have been a bit of an experiment, raising a toddler in a small space where Caleb also works. We spend a lot of time together as a family, which is wonderful. Much of the time the space has been sufficient, though the biggest challenge has been to provide a place free of distractions for Caleb. We are considering building a small office/guest cabin this summer. Right now this space is fine for us, but as our son grows and we think about having another child, we may need to add an additional room to the cabin.
Were there any surprises along the way?
In the beginning we thought we would save money and time by digging our foundation by hand. We had to dig more a lot more holes than expected. It ended up taking six weeks of being covered in mud, swatting swarms of mosquitos and black flies, digging all 16 of our 3’x5′ holes just with a shovel and a mattock. It was brutal and we were really glad when we finally finished.
What was the most fun part of the process?
It was amazing to build a home together with our bare – okay, gloved – hands. I think we have an even deeper respect for each other in terms of our endurance, strength and creativity. Dreaming up this project and making it happen was really exciting. After living a fairly nomadic existence for the past decade, it’s deeply satisfying to be making a home together.
Framing up the cabin and raising the walls was a day I will never forget. It was such a wonderful feeling to walk the cabin deck and be able to really feel what that space was going to be like.
If you were doing it again, would you do anything differently?
We would get permits. We were trying to be as frugal as possible and made a bad call to skip permitting. We got caught last summer and are paying for it now.
We are still living in the house and continuing to work on it – a project like this is never finished quickly, especially if you are doing it yourself. We have some big projects planned this summer, and are working on bringing the place up to code. We eventually plan on moving some place more urban, but we will always keep the cabin as a retreat, a place we love and can enjoy with our family for years to come.
Do you have any thoughts on cabin life, now that you’ve been there awhile?
Caleb and I have loved living simply, intentionally, and self-sufficiently. It is deeply fulfilling, but the isolation has been difficult. Friends don’t just drop by for dinner. Sometimes they spend the night rather than driving the long dark roads home. We are pretty social, and try to get into town as much as possible. We also have about seven months of winter here, so that poses its own difficulties. In the winter, we snowshoe the quarter-mile into our cabin from the road, sledding in our groceries and our kid. The bugs are crazy in the spring. But it is still an amazing place to live. It smells sweet and green, and we are surrounded by animals. It is incredibly quiet and peaceful. Each year we make the place more our own, and get to know our forest more intimately. It’s a place that will be with us for years to come, whether we are here every day or just for a season.
Weekend Cabin isn’t necessarily about the weekend, or cabins. It’s about the longing for a sense of place, for shelter set in a landscape…for something that speaks to refuge and distance from the everyday. Nostalgic and wistful, it’s about how people create structure in ways to consider the earth and sky and their place in them. It’s not concerned with ownership or real estate, but what people build to fulfill their dreams of escape. The very time-shortened notion of “weekend” reminds that it’s a temporary respite.