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Design, build your own dream cabin

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With a little help and commitment, you can construct a small home which is as simple or as complex as your budget, skills and support team allow. We provide pointers for how you should go about it, based on our experience

So, your curiosity about the tiny home movement has become a bit of an obsession and now you’re thinking of making the dream a reality. Having checked out the options, including cottages, containers and mobile homes, you’ve settled on a cabin.

They’re cute, cosy, rustic – and a little bit magical. We’ve put together a broad overview of cabin building to give you some insight into the process. These basic steps are drawn from my partner’s experience when building our cabin.

There are, of course, many ways to achieve the result you want, but here’s what we did.

Planning and permissions

My partner spent a year gathering reclaimed materials and designed our simple one-room cabin based on what he had. As with any home building in South Africa, you’ll need an approved plan from your local municipality before starting.

A draughtsperson can turn your simple concept sketch into a formal plan and give input as to positioning on the plot regarding views, light, wind direction and topography. When submitting your plans, remember to apply for services.

Groundwork and footings

A cabin can sit on a concrete base or on poles or columns. Your plot will determine which works best for you. Once that’s decided, you can start clearing bush and levelling land (if required) so you can map out the footprint of your house.

Floor framing

Our floor comprises footings with bearer beams and joists. The basic format used was to attach the bearer beams to the footings, then stretch the joists across the beams at the correct spacing. Next, a sub-floor of plywood was fixed across the joists, describing the shape of the cabin. We lived with this floor until we laid the final floor at a later date. It’s exciting to be able to walk around on the sub-floor and start getting a feel for your future little home. Then wall framing can commence.

Wall framing

Working with the plan, manageable skeleton frames were built lying on the sub-floor, creating them to the desired “ceiling” height, with openings for doors and windows taken into account. With limited space available, these were built in a pile, ending with the frame that would be erected first. Standard framing timber and techniques were used. The great thing about self-building today is access to so much information online.

You can find YouTube videos and tutorials on every aspect of building which will offer details we can’t include in the scope of this article. Once completed, the fun starts. The frames are lifted in sequence and attached and supported in position. Ideally, you would skin these with plyboard on the outside of the frames, which helps them remain square, using the Pythagorean formula of 3:4:5.


The roof is integral to completing the framing as it locks the walls into place. Our A-frame roof trusses were built off site using reclaimed Oregon Pine timbers. Once on site, the gable-end trusses were installed, showing the final shape of the cabin.

Next, insulation and roof sheets were added. The cabin structure was almost complete but a little draughty. Time to add those doors and windows.

Plumbing and power

Connect your plumbing in the bathroom and kitchen areas, install a sink and toilet and put in power points where needed. You might want a plumber and an electrician to help.

All we had before moving in was a working tap and toilet and two plug points. We could lock the door and make a cup of tea. Cladding The outside of the cabin needs waterproofing and cladding. Ours is clad with locally grown, treated pine in a ship-lapped finish. When waterproofing, pay special attention to the door and window surrounds.


Finishes can happen once you’re living in your new home. Always work from the top down – ceilings, if you’re having them, then walls and finally the floor. You don’t want to be tiptoeing around on gleaming new floorboards while installing ceilings.

Ultimately, if you can build a Wendy House, you can build a cabin, with a little help from friends, professionals, the internet and enough commitment to see the project through. The how-to can be as simple or as complex as your budget, skills and support allow.

Our place was built five years ago, in 12 days to its most basic functioning state.

Our dream cabin is still evolving. 

Inspired. Get out your pencil and paper and take the first step towards cabin life.


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