To be completely honest with you, I never planned to build a cabin.
First, I wanted to rent one, then I wanted to buy one.
It was only with desperation after having no luck with these first two attempts, that I decided to build one.
Here is the end result:
It all started in February 2017 when I moved to the small Portuguese fisherman village of Ericeira, to work remotely while escaping the city for a couple of months. I rented an apartment on Airbnb, on the edge of the village, close to nature.
My daily running route started a few hundred meters from my apartment, right next to the cliffs, and my lunch break surf sessions at the nearest beach Foz do Lizandro always got me pumped and productive for the rest of the day. What memories!
This short mood video can give you a better picture about what my days typically looked like:
After sharing snippets of my village lifestyle on social media, I started to receive messages from friends asking me about this sabbatical experience. A few of them even visited me 👋
Having previous experience in the hospitality industry, a few business ideas came to mind and one of them was to build something like an “Airbnb for coworking cabins”.
However, finding modern cabins in nature with a productive working setup (fast stable internet, desk, natural light) and for a reasonable price (the idea was to rent it for a few weeks or months) was quite a challenge.
I started to research possible locations, finding houses and contacting the landlords. My hypothesis was that landlords could make tons of money during the summer and then monetize the low season with this “coworking cabin” concept.
It was quite difficult to find the “right houses” and then trickier still to convince the landlords on renting mid-term for much lower rates then they typically charged during the high season. I've also learned that these cabins actually do very well even in the low season as there’s a lot of demand for this type of slower touristic experience.
This has always been a side-project for me, spending a little time here and there during the evening and weekends and with no visible traction I gave it a break after unsuccessfully trying to rent the cabin.
During my research I found plenty of companies building beautiful cabins as prefab houses where the house is pre-built in the factory and shipped to your land.
You just need to find the right model for you, it arrives in a few days or weeks, and it's installed in a couple of hours on your plot. So simple!
Full of optimism, I started to research the manufacturers of these houses and figured out a couple of things:
Update: I made a list of prefab backyard offices where you can compare different options
Building own cabin started to became the most realistic option - I started to sketch some ideas, then transformed them to a 3D rendering and began dreaming of how I would build the cabin from scratch with my own hands. That's how naive I was. An IT guy dreaming of being a carpenter.
Being excited by this idea I downloaded SketchUp and started designing the first 3D model. It was a minimalistic “box” with a large all-door window. This working “scene” was in the end part of the final cabin. Everything else was different.
Soon I moved to the harder part of the project - researching technical obstacles. From what I observed, most people who try to build their own tiny house are at some point lost in this stage of the project as well.
“Let’s rebuild a shipping container - it’s cheap and easy” 📦
Shipping containers look like a no-brainer solution for this type of the project… Until you start to research more. Rebuilding a container to a housing unit is not cheap at all and you easily end up with the same costs as building a wooden house from scratch.
So what are the other benefits of the container? Yes, it’s transportable. But how often are you going to transport it?
From there, I see only disadvantages and the main one for me was that living inside of a metal box doesn't sound very appealing.
“If the house had wheels, I can move it anywhere" 🚌
When thinking of houses on wheels, I began to consider “tiny houses”. RV’s and camper vans are in a different category that I was not interested in.
I got excited about the “Tiny House Movement”, in the US over the last 10 years, and decided to research it more. I joined some Facebook groups and even purchased an Udemy course about it.
It’s maybe only my personal observation but the motivation for most people buying or building a tiny house is to have a cheaper housing alternative. “Low budget”, “cheap”, “economic” and “DYI” are the most common keywords around this topic.
I quickly understood why tiny houses are less popular in Europe. As a tiny house is not really a house, you don't need any building permits to park it on your land. But as a tiny house is technically a driving vehicle, what you need is an approval from your local transit authority. This approval (homologation) is much harder to get in Europe than it is in the US.
Many people just skip this painful homologation (makes sense if you plan on building the same tiny house model on scale) and don't have any papers, but I didn't want to do this.
You might think that with building such a project you first need to talk to an architect and you are absolutely right! The problem was that I didn't know what I was actually building and I until I had a clearer idea, I didn't want to involve an architect.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was doing an internship in an architectural office that was in the same Lisbon neighbourhood where I lived.
I sent him my amateurish 3D model you saw above, together with a written specification of the project. First he gave me some feedback based on which I iterated the 3D model, and then he helped me put together a design concept that moved me miles forward in the journey to getting my cabin built.
I was ready to find some cabin builders and figure out where to build it. Looked quite easy. I ended up with a promising builder but with no land to install it on I was stacked for a couple of months and then decided to give it another try with a different approach.
I'm originally from Slovakia, a small country in Central Europe, where I spent the winter of 2018. There is a local architectural competition once a year and that year the prize for “The Best House” went to a wooden cabin in a tree. It got some media coverage and some architects began arguing that a treehouse is not a real house.
I smelled an opportunity there, researched the architect and wrote him an email. We met a few days after in person and I pitched Pavol my project.
He liked the idea and I shared with him one of the main challenges: We are limited by size - it has to be transportable by trailer on the highway without special permits.
Pavol mention he had a weird requirement that probably any other architect would never ask me: he loved to not only design cabins but he also loved to build them. Ha! I had trouble hiding my excitement as this was a dream proposition, no need to find a builder.
First Pavol started to build in 3D and based on my specifications came up with 3 versions of the house:
I really liked them all, so I gathered some more feedback by showing them to my friends for a vote. In the end we moved forward with the last design but without the fancy mirrored wall.
It was iterated into this final version:
This of course was not completely final as Pavol was not only the architect but also the builder, so details could be fine tuned during the construction process.
The construction started in Pavol's warehouse and the house was built on top of a trailer.
I moved to Amsterdam at that time and being 1200km away Pavol and I continued our communications via Whatsapp messages.
Even though I have worked remotely for the last 5 years, I didn't think that remote communication could be applied to building a house. But here we are.
There were a few things that could have been done differently and avoided if I were onsite a couple of times a month, but overall the end result was a success.
I was lucky to be able to work with someone like Pavol, the communication was always smooth and he sent me simple yes or no questions with pictures and videos to keep me involved and in the loop.
Honestly, my biggest fear throughout the project was for the day we had to plan transportation and installation. We started early in the morning and connected the trailer with the house to an SUV.
Everything went smoothly and the house was installed by a crane in 20 minutes.
I stay at the cabin when visiting my family in Slovakia - sleeping and working there. The terrace was built later and made it much more comfortable to enjoy the surrounding nature.
So now you have seen the evolution of many ideas over the years and how I finally arrived at the end result of my finished cabin.
At first I thought that this might be completely confusing for others to read, but then my friends with similar experiences told me that their stories looked quite the same - you come up with an idea, research, give up, try again, iterate, give up, iterate… and in the end you end up with something quite different from the initial brainstorm.
What stayed with me during this whole process was the idea of a minimalistic space in nature where you can sleep and work.
I'll share more progress about this project in my newsletter 👇
I'm the founder of Surf Office, a one-stop shop for anyone organizing company retreats.
A few side-projects I'm involved in: Hoodpicker, Surfpreneurs Club and Epic Monday.
I wrote a coliving guide and made a database of profitable prefab cabins on Airbnb.
You can reach me out on Twitter and Linkedin.
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