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Comparative cabinology

Letter from Slim Wolfe

Economy – February 2009 – Colorado Central Magazine


I’m always pleased when someone — most recently Simon Halburian of Saguache — takes the trouble to dispute some comments I’ve made in these pages. In this case the objections seem to be well-grounded in the gospel of St. Alan Greenspan. Hopefully Mr. Halburian hasn’t gambled all his holdings on these antediluvian theorems, or he may find himself wiling away many happy hours on line at homeless shelters and soup kitchens — a joy which the Greenspans and other leading thinkers and economists will probably never embrace, themselves.

But this month, I’m thinking about cabins, and comparative Cabinology for Mountain Folk. The cure for cabin fever, for some, might be a trip to some distant land, but I’ve been fortunate, thanks to a friend, to have access to a getaway cabin less than ten miles from my own home, for a welcome scene change.

Cartoon by Slim Wolfe
Cartoon by Slim Wolfe

My own place has sometimes been described as a biosphere, built mostly of rough stone, encompassing living and storage spaces, attached greenhouses and small animal pens, and wood shop and craft areas which are sometimes interchangeable or overlappable. In the dead of winter the warm spots serve double or triple duty while the frigid areas are mostly unused. What a relief, then, to get away from my personal soup of chaos to a sweet and simple log cabin in a more remote and attractive spot, bordering federal land, far from highway traffic, and just a twenty-minute drive.

There is something irresistible about a simple, sweet and small cabin, with just a bit of solar power for the basics, a two-inch pipe that supplies water from an uphill spring without any excavation needed, a structure thoughtfully and carefully sited and built with a minimum of fuss and fancy footwork.

This particular cabin was built 20 years ago, the classic humble old-fashioned abode, with great views and a funky little deck. It rests on posts which may eventually deteriorate, but the builder used substantial, long-lasting cedar, I hope. He cut the logs up around Bonanza and had them milled on three sides at the sawmill in Saguache, carefully fitted them with a chain saw. Wadded strips of fiberglass insulation were laid between courses.

The result is a reasonably weather-tight home which blends in pleasantly with the surrounding piƱon landscape. I have awakened in the zero-degree morning, well, not toasty, but comfortable enough, to rekindle the fire and make breakfast on the woodburner — although this cabin has neither thermal mass for a heat sink nor high-tech in-floor heating nor insulated walls in the usual sense.

This seems to me to be the true green construction. I like it more than the more bourgeois green concept, incorporating massive floors, massive walls, extensive and expensive high-tech systems to supply water, power, and heat, and huge amounts of materials such as concrete, piping, wiring, etc., plus labor, tools and specialist contractors. Not to mention months or years of fussing around to get it all to work right. There’s something to be said for a light footprint.

A third cabin worth mentioning is somewhere between the two. I enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner at Chokecherry Farm in Crestone, whose hardworking owners are in their thirties and are now finishing their dream-home, a two-story strawbale mushroom topped with a tiny observation tower.

When they laid the stone foundation I had to bite my tongue to keep from suggesting a larger diameter, since they have two young children and frequent guests, but the gathering was pleasantly intimate and comfortable, while the kids played upstairs. The structure has mass, and while stucco isn’t my favorite exterior look, it was the practical thing to do.

The low-tech old-style wood-fired kitchen range is more than adequate to heat the whole house, since heat rises up the stairs to the bedroom and the warm stovepipe also transmits warmth upwards. With a minimal footprint and no fancy and delicate systems to go awry, this family should get many years of good living with little hassle or expense. Last but not least, the blend of earth-tone walls and well-executed log and woodwork make a pleasant but not ostentatious interior, and exterior add-ons for summer living will be in keeping with this natural look. So if you’re thinking of building or acquiring a green home, it pays to consider the full range of options.

Slim Wolfe

P.S.: Slim Wolfe leads a shy and retiring life in greater Moffat, but when the Dow Jones plummets, he shouts “Eeeee-Haaah!”