Book Review: Get Cabin Fever and Build the Perfect Hideway

"Cabin Fever" by Matthew Kirchhoff with David and Jeanie Stiles.

As the authors of this attractive, lively guide to the “perfect getaway” point out, if you Google “cabin building” — and why wouldn’t you when COVID restrictions may well prompt rural fantasies — you’ll find over a “billion” hits. They include videos, websites, technical manuals, resource materials and paperbacks, more than two dozen of which on sheds, treehouses, tiny homes, were written by David and Jeanie Stiles, who now in “Cabin,” provide brief, charming commentary to the main author’s wonderful words. He’s Matthew Kirchoff. He grew up in the Adirondacks, lives in Alaska and has never met the Stiles who live in East Hampton, but he discovered their how-to books (David, the designer and  pencil, pen and ink illustrator, Jeanie the photographer) and reached out to them. To this day they have never gotten together in person but feel themselves “kindred souls.”

The book, which is neither treatise nor how-to with floor plans, is a celebration of the simple, rustic, small dwelling — anything that is “easy, economical and functional” to build, starting with “Finding Your Land.” Chapters are short, chatty, engaging, with apt epigraphs (Thoreau big here), the main text in standard typeface, with footnote commentary by D.S. and J.S. in boldface italics. An additional perk, even if you don’t go roughing it, is the advice about how to live a simpler life. The book is edited by Phil Schmidt and Toby Haynes, the latter, a fine arts artist who has exhibited often on the East End and who assists the Stiles in their endeavors.

A cabin, Kirchoff reminds readers, is a base for away and getting outside, so it should have limited amenities. How limited will probably depend on camping experience and age, but the idea is not to replicate one’s regular home. The Stiles, who live in a reconverted barn, have indoor plumbing, a separate bedroom loft and electricity.

What’s ideal? Kirchoff lists four features: versatility, including accommodating up to 10 people for a week, say, and providing security and comfort; ease of building (a month is usual), with materials nearby; natural attractiveness (wood, no chemicals or paint); and economy of design (no luxury items, please).

What makes the book inviting is the sense that the authors are talking to the reader and each other, sometimes with differing opinions. Humor and common sense prevail. Throughout Kirchoff pops up with “short stories and lessons learned.” Yes, remote is a draw but a cabin that will be more than 100 miles away will need someone to look after it in off seasons. Also, too remote and serpentine from a main road (one quarter of a mile is max) is not feasible if you want to drag in groceries, gallon jugs of water, fuel, building supplies and other items. And consider how you want to orient the cabin to the sun and what the soil is like — will it sustain a garden?

Pick land that has mature trees which will provide shade and privacy and be environmentally welcome (an increasingly difficult proposition on the East End where tear-downs and deforesting to make room for McMansion compounds seem to be typical of submitted building plans). D.S. recalls that he and Jeanie once had 26 acres for a small sauna hut in upstate New York, but his neighbors still complained that they could be seen. “Were you naked?” asks M. K. “Not all of the time” replies D.S. In a chapter titled “Windows” — with a witty epigraph from Bill Gates (“People everywhere love Windows”). M.K. and D.S. disagree on skylights, and in another section where M.K. declares that cork is his favorite for finished flooring, D.S. cannot resist noting that cork is also great “when opening a bottle of wine!” When D.S. notes he’ll need a replacement cedar-shake roof for his barn/cabin and would never consider metal, a more durable option, as M.K. suggests, he adds: “I admire your purity, David.”

Costs depend, obviously, on many variables, but if you own your own land and are determined to live frugally, you can pull off a cabin at maybe $30,000-$40,000 (for starters).  And you can do it “without a single power tool.” As Mark Twain once said (he’s quoted here) “If your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” A nice touch: some illustrations show women doing the work.

Meanwhile, as Ezra Pound satirically remarked, “winter is acumen in … G—damn,” so cabin or no, folks should watch the rising expense of heating oil. Fires are fine, especially “when started with pinecones wrapped in newspaper.”