Creating A Backyard Cabin

Handyman reader Scott Ferguson describes the experience of building a cabin for his cramped family

build a backyard cabin, two boys in front of an outdoor cabin
The Ferguson family built a backyard cabin to serve as a retreat for their children 
With parents and three robust boys aged six, 14 and 17, our narrow two-bedroom weatherboard workman's cottage was so crowded something, or someone, had to go. We had already added a storage attic to the roof and needed a lot more than the tiny garden shed to accommodate surfboards, tools, furniture and the home office that was operating from the lounge room. 
 

The cabin plan

After plenty of research we decided on a small self-contained studio with a shed at the side. We compared architect-designed studios to DIY kit cabins, but nothing came close to the basic kits made by Sydney-based company Backyard Cabins (www.backyardcabins.com.au). The project seemed simple. Pay the supplier, set aside a few weekends and build the studio. So we made it a little more complicated.


Modifying the layout

The original standard cabin had one big room with two windows, a cathedral ceiling and verandah, but we wanted a more focused space for our eldest to study for his higher school certificate, a loft bed, toilet, shower and space for the contents of the garden shed we demolished. 
 
The cabin company was flexible in altering the plan without a big cost increase, and the 4.8 x 4.2m cabin was about $14,000 including timber frame, windows, doors, roofing, insulation and Weathertex cladding. We figured it would cost a few thousand more for lining and sundries and take, with help from our builder friends, about two weeks to finish. 
 

Setback

We didn't take into account the weather, the availability of friends or changes to our original plans. 
 

September

We needed to create headroom for the loft bed, which didn't exist on the original plan. By laying a concrete slab instead of building on piers we got higher ceilings without exceeding the council regulations regarding maximum rooflines. Electrical and plumbing services were run from the house to the site before the concrete slab was poured.
 

Setback

To decrease the DIY factor, we added an extra $3000 and a few days to the project to have the cabin company pour the slab.
 

October

Our modifications changed the preparation of the kit materials, so the cabin company erected the frame. The kit is designed with specific measurements, leaving no room for mistakes or you run out of materials. Measure twice, cut once and secure only when you're sure.
 

Setback

Fixing the roof truss and ridge beam was the first phone-a-friend situation. With these in place, we planned the lining, insulation and roof fit. The kids helped with painting the Weathertex boards which were then measured up and cut to size.
 
timber frame of a backyard cabin
Termite-resistant Blue H2-F framing was erected by the kit cabin company
 

November

With the roof finally on, we started attaching the Weathertex and realised how little we'd achieved when other family activities competed for weekend construction time.
 

Setback 

Time to call a friend again for help hanging the doors. Jambs, hinges and ground clearance didn't seem complicated but without our builder mate we would've had to redo them. We thought we were nearly finished.
 

December

The next weekend we opened the door, and the light from the two windows was enough to reveal the concrete slab and timber frame. And the stark realisation that our dream teen retreat wasn't yet livable and we hadn't really thought it through.
 

Setback

The loft bed had no base and the walls were without lining. The floor was bare and most of the materials that came in the kit were used, yet we still didn't have paint, bathroom waterproofing, plasterboard for the walls or light fixtures. We stopped for Christmas, drew up a revised budget and schedule, and acknowledged that we were building a small house, not just a studio.
 

January

The new year dawned with revived enthusiasm. We paid a builder to line the walls and floor. Then we could paint and install the shower and toilet pan with some help. I used to be an electrician, so the wiring was my job. We planned for sound-absorption plasterboard to protect the neighbours from a teen with a guitar and amplifier.
 

Setback

The plasterboard wasn't in stock, which slowed production for a weekend as we had to hang it before doing the floor. The clip-lock floating floor looked simple, but even with the help of our builder we misread the instructions and were a few panels in when it seemed harder than it should have. We figured it out, pulled up the pieces and started again. It took all day instead of a couple of hours but the end result looked fantastic.
 

February

The bathroom was intended to be rough and ready, without fussy tiling. But as the rest of the space started to take shape it looked unfinished. We added the costs, compared quotes and decided to do it properly.
 

Setback

We found it's better to leave the bathroom to someone who's done it before. We paid a tiler to do the floor and skirt around the base of the wall.
Then we installed mini-orb low-profile corrugated iron as a cheap solution for the walls, although it was difficult to cut and fit around fixtures.
 
building a bathroom in a backyard cabin
Corrugated iron clads the walls, offset with plain floor and patterned skirting tiles
 

March

Even with two windows the inside of our little house was dark, so we had glass louvres custom-made for above the loft bed and the main window.
 

Setback

The last thing was the water tank, which was part of the council conditions. We decided to use the tank to flush the toilet, so we needed to call the plumber again to install it.
 

End result

Our $20,000 budget blew out to over $31,000 and a couple of weekends became seven long months. The construction site is yet to be cleared and the yard will one day be restored, but that's a project for another day.
 

What they didn't tell us

We didn't have much DIY experience and ended up making some costly mistakes. Here's what we learnt:
 

Build a model

It will give you some perspective as it can reveal things you may not have considered. Use balsa wood to build a mini version.
 

Ordering items takes time

If they aren't in stock at the hardware store, it can cause a long setback. It takes a few days to order and it usually costs more, impacting on the schedule and budget.
 

Allow extra days

It's always good to know you've got extra days in your schedule for the curing and drying of concrete and paint.
 

You need to buy tools

It's frustrating and slower working without the right equipment, such as drilling into concrete without an impact drill or masonry bit, so get the correct equipment. It's also quicker and more accurate to use a nail gun than to nail the external cladding with a hammer.
 

Get expert advice

For the small things like getting door locks to fit and barge-capping the roof, knowing a tradesman was invaluable. They also advised on quantities so we didn't end up buying more gap filler or paint than necessary.
 

There are a lot of extras

Make allowances for things like skirting boards, flyscreen frames and weatherstrips. They take time to find, cost money and need installing.
 

Was it worth it?

We learnt a few lessons in building what turned out to be not a studio but a small house. There's no doubt the finished product is more enjoyable because we did it ourselves. We now know time and money are very different values, with very different benefits.
 

Time vs money 

The question we asked most was, 'Do we have the time or the money?' If we didn't have the tools, we priced them then decided if we could use them properly and compared the time and money with hiring a tradesman.
 

The real cost

Plumbing and electrical $4500
Kit cabin with frame, roof, windows, doors, insulation $14,000
Linings, plasterboard, paint $550
Slab $1400
Floating floor $450
Louvres $300
Bathroom $1900
Kitchen $600
Water tank $2500
Labour $3000
Rubbish removal $900
Hardware and tools $1000
 
TOTAL $31,100 
 
inside a backyard cabin, couch, guitar and computer
The end result is cosy and soundproof, with sleeping and living areas, bathroom and kitchen, and a storage cupboard out the front
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