When Kelley Lewis Ebert became a single mom of three, she decided to build her own house.
“It was to give my three children and I an opportunity to begin starting over and moving forward,” she said. The 192-square-foot house has become her off-the-grid weekend getaway, complete with front and back porches and a kitchen bar. Through the process, she says, “We have empowered ourselves by learning how do things we never thought we could do. My six year-old can help frame walls, my three year-old can help paint, and my two year-old loves to help clean.” Here’s a few of her insights on moving on and building up.
How did you decide to build a house?
I became a single parent just weeks prior to giving birth to my third child and wanted to buy something for myself that symbolized a celebration of motherhood, growth, and moving forward. So I purchased a 1.3-acre lot on a lake just west of Columbus, Lake Sylvan in South Vienna, Ohio. When I was able to purchase this piece of property, I didn’t know what exactly I was going to do with this land, but I knew that it would be an oasis to my children and I where we could make memories for a lifetime. Little did I know this piece of land would soon give us the opportunity to build a small cabin that we are making ourselves and working on as a family together.
I designed the cabin keeping in mind the building code restrictions in my area, which is a max of 200 square feet. Knowing I was working within a 200 square feet parameter, I wanted a shape that would maximize space, as well as a view. Therefore, our cabin is a total of 192 square feet with a sleeping loft, and front and back porch close to the shore line.
The building is 16 feet by 12 feet with 16 foot ceilings, a four-foot front porch and an eight-foot back porch. The sleeping loft has two full sized beds. The downstairs is complete with an open great room, a kitchen with bar, and bathroom with a sink, standup shower, and composting toilet. We will utilize this cabin as a weekend getaway, which in turn has already made us appreciate our small home in Columbus, a home that at 1,100 square feet was feeling small, but is greatly larger than our 192 square foot cabin!
Maybe one day we will build an actual house on the land, but for now 200 square feet is all we need. It’s our favorite place to visit and experience life and adventure together as family.
How did you learn how to build a house?
I had not worked in construction before, but I have had a lot of experience in small home improvement projects. Since I had not built a livable structure, I hired a shed-building company to set the foundation, platform, frame the walls, and get the cabin under roof. With the skeleton in place, I was able to take the project from there. I’m proud to be able to give this experience to my children because, for me, it’s so much more valuable than children playing video games and being in their room all day, not experiencing life and family values.
What did you get your materials?
All of our windows and a lot of our building supplies have come from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore as well as Craigslist. One of the best experiences in this whole adventure is meeting all the people I have met along the way while picking up supplies. People love knowing how their old stuff is going to be repurposed and I love knowing that this “old stuff” is going to have an awesome new home.
Our cabin is off the grid and powered by a gas generator and will have a water pump and filtration system with water being pulled from the lake. We also have a woodburning stove and are building a stone hearth.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Aside from tantrums and bickering among my kids, which obviously makes any project take that much longer, our biggest challenges are time and money. Being a single mom, my time and financial resources are limited. Even though it is going to take a while to finish our cabin, the labor, just like childbirth, makes the reward all the more gratifying.
How is it raising a family in a tiny house?
I am teaching my children what it means to work for something. And then how to be able to enjoy your hard work when it’s completed. This project is a labor of love, and serves as a getaway from busy city life, a place where we can just focus on being a family and enjoy what life is all about-complete with fishing off our back porch.
As for me, well, I’m learning being a single parent doesn’t limit me and my abilities-I can build a cabin! We are a “go get ‘er” kinda family. But also, building small houses becomes a community event and that’s my favorite part about it.
What was the most fun part of the process?
Every moment we are working on the cabin we are looking at water and getting to take breaks on our hammock or floating dock. Life is simple there, and it is so nice to be reminded of what is truly important. Even if we are sitting among construction supplies, it still feels like we are living a life of luxury, surrounded by nature’s beauty.
Where there any big “oops” moments?
I had found this awesome window outlet about three hours from the cabin, but the drive was worth it because I was going to get this huge window for a fraction of the cost of buying it somewhere in Columbus. I drove all the way out there and had them load and tie down the 7 foot by 8 foot window on my trailer. I kept a watchful eye on the window and trailer as I journeyed back to the lake and everything seemed fine until about 30 minutes from the lake, I look back and see the window jump up in the air, spin around, and smash into a million pieces along the side of the highway.
I was sick to my stomach because this window I had just traveled hours to go fetch was now utterly destroyed, but mainly I felt lucky no cars were around me and the window didn’t fly into someone’s front windshield. I was beside myself, but called the window company and asked if they could make an exception and replace the window as well as deliver it closer to Columbus. I ended up getting a replacement window, the same one as before. Every time I look at it in the cabin, I just am so thankful, but still get a little queasy.
If you were doing it again, would you do anything differently?
I don’t have as much storage as I would like in the cabin, so I’d like to have a slightly different layout, but aside from that, no. I love the openness and feel of the floor plan. If I had an unlimited budget, I’d make the end walls have more glass. But we are on a tight budget, so I am happy with what we were able to find, such as an eight-foot-wide sliding glass door and a skylight.
Will you ever live in the house full-time?
If it was just me, I’d totally live here, but I have three young children who need a good school district and neighborhood. Our cabin is a great getaway for us and a place to escape.
Has the experience changed you?
It has helped put my life into perspective and make me focus on what is most important to me, which is my family and experiencing life to the max. Life never goes as planned and our cabin is a nice reminder that even though life can kick you down and leave you alone, it doesn’t mean that that is how your life needs to stay. My children and I have been through a lot, but we are living a more fulfilling and happy life than a lot of other people I know who, from the outside, seem to have it all. Breaking rules and boundaries is freeing, and proving that to myself as well as my children, is one of the best lessons I can ever learn for myself and teach to them.
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.