As an keen reader of Field Mag will note, we're a bit obsessed with A-Frame houses. And how to build them. In 2019 we met Andrew Szeto and his now famous micro cabin in Ontario, Canada. The following year British furniture maker Heather Scott shared her experience creating an absolute peach of a DIY equilateral A-Frame house. Each project brought its own unique moments of learning and triumph.
The latest A-Frame build to catch our eye comes from much closer to home, in the Catskill Mountains just a couple hours north of FM HQ in New York City. It also comes with a new set of experiences, and not all of them pleasant.
Because it's important to show not only the incredible DIY success stories, but also the not-so-smooth cabin builds that likely represent a higher percentage of projects than anyone would like to admit, this story is one we've been looking forward to sharing.
The Hubert A-Frame Instagram account offers an incredible glimpse at the step-by-step A-Frame house build process, but we wanted to get the full experience broken down in one place—from the wrath of carpenter ants and the difficulties of working with small town contractors to the building in a pandemic and pivoting designs to meet a changing lifestyle. Below is just that—everything you need to know about building an tiny A-Frame during a pandemic. Read on and wise up.
(Spoiler: the end result is really awesome, even if the road to completion was a bit bumpy.)
Please introduce yourselves and your project.
Aaron Griesdorn and Esther Gauthier, living between NYC, Paris, and Roscoe in Upstate New York. Having spent the past decades in the city grinding away on building and running our businesses, we would often dream of escaping upstate to enjoy more nature.
We searched for a house for about 4 years and finally landed in Jeffersonville in Sullivan County. We have always been drawn to good design and been intrigued with transforming spaces and businesses, imagining how we would change or renovate something to work better.
You had another lakeside cabin on the land that you first renovated, then tore down, before building the A-Frame. What happened? And what inspired the design shift?
Basically, as we started to renovate the original cabin, we realized that carpenter ants had done a lot more damage than we could see at first. That's when I felt like we couldn’t salvage what was there and perhaps it made more sense to start from scratch.
I became obsessed with the idea of building an A-Frame from then on. I was so worried that the build would take too long and the A-Frame trend would fizzle out by the time we finished haha.
There were a few YouTube videos that I loved and would get me excited about finishing the cabin. One was old school legend Dick Proenneke, and this guy is kind of a contemporary legend too. If anything, these two film series just made me realize that I will probably never build my own cabin... but I totally respect what they did and it's really inspiring.
Did you two physically work on the A-Frame? Or were you more heavily reliant on contractors and crew?
I would say the two of us did very little of the actual work. However, we acted as general contractors and were very involved in the drawing and planning, which was a lot harder than we anticipated, given all the angles in the structure.
I think we worked with about three different construction crews to make it to the finish line. We had zero building experience and it created challenges for us right from the start.
This project took a lot longer than expected, partially due to contractor issues. How long did the whole build take?
We began working on design ideas in March 2019 and it was finally finished in January of 2021. In all, the project took just under two years, including a stagnant period where no work was done from October 2019 to April 2020 due to flaky contractors, winter weather, and the onset of the pandemic.
What are the biggest lessons learned from the process?
The biggest factors we underestimated were cost and planning. Our first builder was also inexperienced and said yes to budgets and timeframes that he ultimately could not make work. So we ran out of budget about 1/3 of the way through the project with only an exterior structure built.
Then, because we hadn’t planned properly, a lot of work was being executed out of order and would cause problems for us as we progressed. For example, the builder tiled the bathroom before electric and plumbing was properly thought out, so as you can imagine we had to redo some tiling after the fact.
Also, I would say that we shifted the scope of the project from more of a rustic cabin to what ultimately became more of a modern cabin with a higher end finish and look, as well as systems that would function more like a typical home-as opposed to a motorhome which is what we first had in mind. This added a lot more costs to our bottom line as well.
Can you elaborate on the unique, major curve balls you encountered with the build?
The cabin is partially “off grid.” We do have electricity, but the town has a lot of building restrictions along the lake and would not allow us to have a well or septic on the property, so we had to get creative and research alternative options. At first we planned on putting a rainwater collection tank in the ground and went as far as purchasing everything we needed to do so. When they went to put the tank in the ground we found out there was too much ground water to bury a tank and the rest of the property was too steep or wet to bury it anywhere else.
In the end we had to install an above ground 1,500 gallon water tank in a newly-built heated and insulated shed behind the cabin with a pipe that runs underground to the cabin. The toilet is an incinerator toilet and the gray water from sinks and shower runs into a gray water filter housing and then out of a perforated pipe over an underground stone filtering area…
We are really sad about having to put the water tank shed where it is, as it really takes away from the great profile the cabin used to have from front and back…unfortunately there was no way around it.
How much did the cabin build cost in total?
Somewhere in the vicinity of $100k for the build only. We were lucky with the land as it was included in the purchase of our main house, which is just up the hill.
What is the total square footage of the cabin?
The cabin is 16x16 which is 250 sq ft… but given it's an A-Frame, we lose a lot of space in the corners so I would say technically its closer to 175 sq ft. Although it feels small, I think we did a nice job of making it feel comfortably small and incorporating all of the potential needs for short stays. It will make a fantastic #WFH cabin escape for anyone looking to escape the city.
What was the cost breakdown of the build?
- Site Prep - 25%
- Planning - 15%
- Raw materials - 20%
- Labor - 30%
- Tools - 5%
- Misc - 5%
Site prep - $13k
Stone & gravel, one tree removal, drainage pipe, labor, machinery rentals
We already had the land and it was cleared with a foundation. However, we did address some drainage issues and re-stoned the driveway and even part of the dirt road in front of the cabin, laid stone for the walkway, and laid stone for a seating area and fire pit.
Exterior Build - $20k
Foundation pilars, framing, deck, roof, windows
Hard to say how this was split between labor and materials as the builder managed those costs without visibility to us.
This all happened pretty fast and had us pretty hopeful.
Electric - $8k
This was done in stages by multiple crews so I am taking a guess at this number. We had to add a few breakers that we didn’t anticipate after the water tank would not go into the ground.
Plumbing - $26k ($12k labor, $14k equipment & shed)
1 sink, 1 shower, 1 shed w/electric for heat to keep water from freezing, 1 heated compartment for water heater, 1 1,500 gallon water tank, 1 pressure tank, 1 jet pump, 1 three stage water filter, 1 UV filter, 1 water heater. And 1 gray water filter unit.
If our tank could have been buried we would have cut these costs in half. Building the shed is what made this much more expensive. I bought a Home Depot shed to save on lumber costs because at this time during the pandemic lumber was 3-4 times the usual price. For those interested in a similar well alternative system, RainHarvest.com is a great place to start.
Toilet - $2k
This seemed like the easiest and most robust solution for a cabin that would potentially have renters and regular use. I originally bought a compost toilet but after learning more about it I thought it might be risky if renters use it incorrectly then it won’t compost and can start to smell badly which is something we really didn’t want to worry about.
Interior Build - $18k ($12k labor, $6k materials)
Walls, floors, kitchen & built-in seating area framing
We thought a minimalist, plywood aesthetic would be cheaper than most other wall options but we were very wrong. Turns out the labor needed to align everything perfectly (which was a nightmare since the previous builder did not square the frame of the cabin) was way more than even the builders anticipated so this costed us a fortune compared to what it could have been. Keep this in mind if you are going for the modern contemporary look.
Insulation - $2k
We originally used less expensive fiberglass insulation but had to rip it all out after learning of future possible moisture management (and mold) issues. We then switched to closed cell spray foam, prices for which are fairly standard based on square footage.
Built-In Wood Furniture - $7k ($2k materials, $5k labor)
Platform bed, custom clear bannister, fold up kitchen counter/table, cabinet doors
We had an idea of what we wanted to do for each of these and between Esther drawing some basic sketches and measurements and myself giving some reference pictures we were able to do these relatively cheap (in my opinion). I would think hiring a proper furniture carpenter would have made much more finished versions of what we got but would have cost us a lot more as well.
Woodstove - $5K ($3k labor, $2k materials)
Wood stove, stovepipe, stove board
Wood stove costs run a pretty wide gamut so depends on how fancy you want to get. Some wood stoves are better suited to small spaces and you can put them close to walls and same for piping… check with building codes vs your model.
One issue with A-Frames is the slope of the roof line is often steeper than any housing for the pipe that you can commercially find so in many cases you will need to get a custom made piece. Also, whatever you choose to use as heat protection against the floor or rear wall will affect project cost, too. We would have liked to tile this but we had to move too quickly for tile as winter was approaching, so we used a special wood stove board.
10 Do’s & Don’ts for Building an A-Frame House of Your Own:
- Hire an architect or engineer to draw your ideal structure and make plans for framers, carpenters, electric and plumbing.
- If you are buying land, plan money for site prep. Everything from clearing and laying a driveway to rerouting drainage away from the build site to well and septic, not to mention bringing electric to the site. These are significant costs that are often overlooked.
- Get multiple estimates for your build. Meet with multiple builders, do research and look for reviews.
- Plan to spend 10-25% more money and time than you anticipate (that’s if you are lucky…haha) Things go wrong, builders disappear on you, work takes longer than anticipated…a lot can happen.
- Make sure you get proper permitting with the town or have your builder help you and make sure to arrange for inspections at every build stage. A lot of time can be burnt here if you don’t plan ahead and then your builders will disappear on you if there’s too much down time.
- Hire the cheapest builder you can find
- Try to avoid having multiple builders who have to pickup where another one left off. This will cost more money and time
- Try to build your own cabin if you aren’t very handy. It's harder than it looks and there is so much code specific knowledge that you can’t just wing it with.
- Don’t try to be the general contractor…unless you have a lot of free time but probably not worth the money you would save
- Don’t buy cheap insulation… consider foam or rock wool. Foam will strengthen the build and you should have far less worries or issues with moisture not to mention how air tight it will be which will keep it cool in the Summer and warm in the Winter.