Sunday, April 13, 2008

Cabin off-the-grid

Our family has had a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains since 1974. The location is a beautiful valley, 13 miles from the nearest town, and at 6000 feet elevation. The cabin itself is "quaint". It was originally built in 1908 as an ice cream stand on a dude ranch. Over the years, the owners added a kitchen on the front and a bathroom on the back, making the ice cream shack into the only bedroom. Our family added a living room wing and an outside deck.

The old cabin is sinking into the ground a bit more every year. The snow load is intense, and the old log and rock foundation is just getting lower and lower, which means that the floors have humps in the center of the rooms. We have discussed how to remodel the cabin, but each time we discuss it, we just come to the conclusion that there is little we can salvage. Better to start over.

So, we found a set of plans we liked, and a company that would supply all of the materials needed to build the cabin on a foundation that we provided. All we had to do was find a local contractor willing to provide the labor to do what was needed to get us to the point where we have a weather-proof shell before snowfall. It is April, so that sounds easy enough.

We finally found a local contractor, after going through the local phone book and talking to about a dozen prospective contractors. Five of them actually looked at the site and the plans. Two made bids about twice my estimate, two wanted to propose a cost-plus deal, while one came in with a bid that fits my budget. I checked his references around town and made a deal with him. He got his crew on the job when he said he would and did a very professional job.

The project was not without its warts though. The structural engineer did the snow load calculations (150 lbs per square foot!!) and specified that rafter spacing should be 12" between centers. Nobody told the people who loaded the trucks because I got just half as many rafters as required. What's more, a somewhat complicated roof section over the deck just could not be assembled with a 12" rafter spacing, something the structural engineer didn't even consider. The contractor is a professional and he simplified the roof design to make it perform better in a heavy snow-load environment.

The cabin project had its over-runs due to missing material in the kit, and due to the requirement for expensive earthquake tie-downs which were not in the original bill-of-materials. We also added a side porch with a roof, which also bumped up the costs.

We made our completion date before the first snows, the crew completed the exterior siding and wrapped up the project on Dec 3, 2007. Next spring we get to work on the interior and the solar power system.

In May 2008, we made it back into the cabin, since the snow was finally off the road. The cabin was structurally sound, but the roof had taken some damage. The chimney had been tipped over by the snow load, it seems the snow diverter I had requested installed did not get done. It will require a completely new set of stove pipes. Sigh.

The roof was also damaged on the other side of the cabin, where there is a gable extending out from the main roof. It looked from the ground that somehow snow and ice had got under the metal roofing and had simply peeled some of the metal off, leaving torn panels. Serious problem. Later in the summer, we got the roofer out to fix the roof, and he did a complete inspection. The results were surprising. The roofer found deep scratch marks on the metal roof, and it is now clear that the damage was due to a snowmobile driving up the valley between the main roof and the gable, and then sliding down the other side of the gable, putting the deep scratches in the roofing.

Now this roof is over 12 feet above grade on that side, so there had to be over 12 feet of snow in the yard to allow a snowmobile to get up there. I have seen 8 feet of snow in the yard in years past, but this is a new one on me. I guess I will just have to put a No Trespassing sign on a tree, at about 20 feet up! Either that or put concertina wire around my eaves.

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