Not too big, not too small, a small cabin can strike just the right balance between tiny home living and an oversized escape. A smaller footprint doesn’t mean innovative, modern, and sustainably-minded design needs to be sacrificed, either; these days, a handful of creative cabin companies are making small-scale living completely comfortable.
With cabin living and downsizing on the rise, the increase in popularity of these small structures is a sign of the times, and there are plenty of creative designs to choose from if you don't want to start from scratch. If you have a dreamy location, there's a cabin that'll look great for it. Still, there are a lot of considerations to keep in mind, even when building small. To that end, here’s the Field Mag guide to choosing, buying, and building the small cabin you’ve always wanted.
Getting Started With Buying & Building a Small Cabin
From a rustic log cabin to a small, serene cottage or even a modern tiny home, there is a wide variety of small cabins to suit any design lover’s style. Since there are no hard and fast rules that dictate what a small cabin is or is not, there is plenty of flexibility to either customize your cabin or go for a classic design. At the end of the day, your wants, needs, budget, and skill set will be the driving forces behind choosing a small cabin.
Whether what you have in mind is a vacation home or a primary dwelling, it all starts with getting small cabin savvy and learning about the different kinds of options and possibilities. In this section, we’ll cover the types of cabins, cabin kits, and plans that go far beyond the traditional log cabin or hunting cabin of yore, for a glimpse into the modern cabin to fulfill your escapist daydreams.
Three Ways to Build a Small Cabin
A smaller cabin can be as extravagant or pared back as you want, but first you’ll have to decide how to build the space that will eventually be replete with amenities, a cozy wood stove or mid-century mod fireplace (or go big and add a hot tub!) and whatever else you want to add for that personal touch that makes it feel like home.
There are three ways to do this:
- Purchase small cabin floor plans
- Buy a prefab cabin kit from a manufacturer
- Build your cabin house from the ground up
How to decide which small cabin construction method is best for you
The difference between small cabin plans and a prefab cabin kit is that a prefab—short for “prefabricated”—refers to a structure that has been designed and manufactured off site at a factory, which then gets delivered to the building site. It’s a broad term that covers everything from log cabin kits to cottages to modular cabins that are easily scalable if you need to add more bedrooms or increase the floor plan (think: adding a covered porch or loft area).
A set of small cabin floor plans, just like a house plan, only gives you the blueprint with detailed instructions to guide hired building professionals on how to build the structure. However, you’ll have to source the materials and hire workers yourself, which will take time and money.
If you don't have the skills, experience, a licensed architect, general contractor, and construction crew to build a small cabin, purchasing cabin plans or a prefab cabin kit is a good option. But if you don't mind taking on a project and want to have complete creative control over the project, starting from scratch is the best way forward.
None of the three building methods are significantly cheaper or more expensive. It all depends on the build, budget, and what resources you have available that will ultimately decide the best way to bring your dream cabin to life.
Choosing the size and design of your small cabin
The size of a small cabin can vary from something as compact as a tiny home ranging from 100 to 400 square feet or less to a not-so-tiny cabin that is 1100-1600 square feet, or as big as 2,000 square feet. The exact footprint is up to you and your building site, as is the definition of "small." Just remember that price increases with every square foot you add to the design. If you'd rather not think about any of this, prefab is a great way to go.
If you're opting to use cabin plans, don’t feel limited by them—there are plenty of ways to modify, expand, and add on more space in the future. In fact, beginning with a small and cozy cabin can be a great starting point for new cabin owners who want to gain experience, figure out what they need, and eventually expand beyond the basics to make a dream getaway. Beginning with small cabin plans provides flexibility to include features like a spacious great room, screened-in porch, or build additional bedrooms and bathrooms.
Additionally, making use of your exterior living space by incorporating a wraparound porch, a fire pit, or guest house on the property can maximize space and make it more enjoyable regardless of modifications to your house plan.
How to Set a Budget for a Small Cabin
Buying cabin plans or a small cabin kit cuts out the preliminary work and costs of hiring an architect and may or may not reduce the amount you spend on building supplies and materials. A prefab home is typically 10-20% cheaper than new construction, depending on the square footage. Prices can range from as low as a couple thousand to well over $200,000 USD for a fully-assembled kit home. Many are designed to be affordable, but there are still plenty of expenses and the total can add up quickly—once you find a design you like, be sure to work with the company to figure out all the costs.
When setting your budget, it’s essential to factor in the cost of land and site prep. This may include engineering fees for a site survey and soil perc testing to confirm septic compatibility, substantial costs for septic installation and well drilling, or hookup fees if connecting to municipal utilities like water, electricity, sewer, and cable. Researching each cost (which can easily add $25k) is necessary for accurate budgeting.
In general, always round up when estimating costs. It's better to be prepared to pay more and be pleasantly surprised when a service or material is cheaper than find yourself scrambling to cover unexpected costs. Talk to your cabin kit manufacturer about the possibility of financing and insuring your small cabin. In some cases, a factory-built home can qualify for a home construction loan if it meets the lender’s requirements, so you don’t have to pay the total cost upfront.
Small Cabin Building Guide
A Five-Step Checklist for Building a Small Cabin
Everyone’s process is different and it might be harder to build a small cabin for some than it is for others. A lot depends on what you’re looking for (family-friendly complete with a bunk bed, sleeping loft, bathroom, and screened porch?) and where your build site is located (is it a remote lake house, or easily accessible from town?), as well as transportation of materials and supplies. The building and prepping process can be complicated, but doing the proper prep, research, and legwork in advance—±or working with a skilled contractor—can help everything run smoothly. Before you begin to build, check these tasks off your list:
Get a permit- Check with your local municipality to find out if you need a permit to build a small cabin kit. This will depend on the size, location, codes, and regulations of each jurisdiction. Most local governments require a permit if the square footage exceeds 150 square feet, but plan in advance to find out.
Prepare your build site- Level the ground, pour a concrete foundation big enough for your cabin—or install ground screws or other type of foundation—and make sure there is easy access to the area. Have a professional crew ready to help unload the kit on delivery day.
Plan for delivery and assembly- If you’re using a kit, ask the manufacturer what to expect for delivery day. Ask about transportation: do they need a two-lane road for a semi-truck to drive to your site or heavy machinery like a forklift to receive and assemble the prefab cabin? Are they providing builders or are you in charge of hiring a crew? Even if it can be completed during a long weekend with as few as 2-3 people, like the 10' x 10' micro cabin by DEN, assembling a kit will very likely require the assistance of skilled professionals who can operate heavy machinery. If it’s not a kit, you will need to be well-prepared with all of the supplies, tools, materials, and an experienced crew to build.
Obtain detailed instructions and plans- If using a kit or a small cabin plan, these are the most vital resources to have on assembly day. These should be provided by the manufacturer at the time of purchase, well ahead of delivery, and will give you the most detailed information on how to construct your cabin. Reach out to them ahead of time to have everything ready. If you're building yourself, you'll have to work with an architect.
Organize your tools and supplies - Each small cabin build is unique, however, you’ll want to have the following materials on-hand and ready for construction: tarps and shelter to protect materials from moisture or weather, ladders, hammers, tape measure, high speed, and electric drill, wire cutter, pipe clamps, caulk gun, drill bit, screw gun and utility knives, and other carpentry tools. Contractors should supply these if you're working with one.
Considerations for Off-Grid Small Cabins
If you decide to take your rustic cabin off-grid, then you'll need to find solutions for power, water, and septic.
Heating, cooling, and powering your getaway cabin can be done with renewable energy like solar panels, which require ample sunlight, proper roofing, and installation that come with a steep upfront cost for this worthy investment.
Luckily for the A-frame obsessed, A-frame cabins are easier to take off-grid because their triangular build is naturally energy-efficient, as are well-built small log cabins that have tight seams for great insulation. Both of these iconic builds can be made into sustainable homes or vacation getaways.
Instead of connecting to the local water supply, you’ll have to find easy access to a nearby water source that is safe enough to use for drinking, cooking, and cleaning, like a well or spring.
Finally, an off-grid solution for managing your septic is to build a privy. It’s low cost and low maintenance but does require additional construction and of course, willing users. Alternatively, you can install a composting toilet.
The 5 Best Small Cabin Kit Companies
We’ve scoured the internet to find some of the best small cabin manufacturers that created some of the dreamiest modern cabins, with a wide range of price, style, and design. Accessible for first-timers and experienced small cabin owners, many of these prefab cabin kits and small cabin plans blend together a natural yet modern aesthetic, with sustainable features and innovative designs.
Latvia-based cabin maker Manta North makes ordering their contemporary, nature-inspired cabins as easy (and fun) as ordering a pizza online with their intuitive website.
The Nolla Zero prefab cabin is renewable-energy powered and minimalism driven, cutting a striking image into its surroundings while leaving little impact on the earth at just 97 square feet.
Price: ~$36,455 plus delivery costs
Canadian newcomer Aux Box designs compact studio cabins for bonus space wherever you need it-at home, or as a nature escape.
The New York-based design studio offers many cabin plans and makes one of our favorite full DIY A-frame micro cabin kits, shipping flat packed with everything needed for your kit assembly. These beautiful designs could even make a great guest house for a modern twist on a cozy cottage.
Price: ~$244.50 per square foot
This Vancouver, BC-based company produces simple, recreational structures designed for remote locations and delivered flatpack-style.
Price: ~$150 per square foot
6 Small Cabins for Design Inspiration
A trio of black cube cabins in the remote Tasmanian landscape strike just the right balance between minimalist, nature-inspired form and livable functionality. Inside, a rich, warm wooden interior features a wood-burning fireplace and massive floor-to-ceiling windows, while the elevated walkways show the power of maximizing outdoor space to extend the footprint.
This rustic small cabin in England's scenic Peak District makes good use of a small space with views from the bedroom, a futon and foldable dining table, plus a covered outdoor kitchen for year-round enjoyment. It's available for rent, so you can stay a few nights in the Boulder Field Cabin to truly soak up the benefits of small cabin living and try it out for yourself.
Experience life in a 400-square-foot cabin at Eastwind Hotel's Lake Placid location in the beautiful Adirondack State Park. A soothing natural aesthetic incorporates warm wood grain paneling, airy sky lights, and a compact living/dining area that demonstrates the need for finding creative solutions in a small space.
Enjoy being a guest in this seaside bothy (a classic Scottish backcountry hut) or take notes for your small space design. A space-saving ladder provides access from the living area to the loft, and the sloped roof's wide overhang to covers the porch for a cozy spot to take in the views of the Scottish coastline.
Located in Germany as an escape for city dwellers, these micro cabins make the most out of the nooks and crannies that might otherwise be taken for granted. Clever storage solutions, strategic furniture placement, and a dedication to bringing the outside in through large windows and glass doors keeps this modern small cabin grounded in nature.
A stunning example of modern design in a rural area, these three cabins also display what it can look like to break out of the proverbial box and do something different. Three small cabins are effectively connected by cantilevered decks to create one larger living space broken up into separate parts. With the dining and living area in two structures and the bedrooms in their own, the clever design consistently pushes you outside into the elements to go back in, which doesn't sound so bad to us.