My Forest Cabin Is Built on Stilts With Recycled Materials

I'm finally sharing my cabin.

Alter cabin from Shoe Lake
Lloyd Alter's cabin in Shoe Lake, Ontario, Canada.

Lloyd Alter

When recently writing about a cabin built on stilts—a small house built with concrete-free foundations—I kept thinking that it reminded me of my own cabin in the woods near Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada. They are both built on stilts, both feature simple linear structures, and both are relatively small. I have never posted about it on Treehugger for a number of reasons that I will explain, but I have decided there are some good reasons to do it now.

But first, a little history.

Dome in the late 80s
The dome in the late '80s.

Lloyd Alter

I was a young architect in the late '80s renovating a cottage on Lake of Bays, making photocopies in a local real estate office in the town of Dorset when I saw the ad for this geodesic dome. It was selling for a ridiculously low price—even back then. But it turned out that in Muskoka, Ontario, nobody wanted small lakes (they want big boats), nobody wanted water access, nobody wanted properties that were all cliff and rock, and most importantly, nobody wanted a geodesic dome. I had to have it.

The dome was built in the late '60s by an engineer who had seen the American Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal and constructed it out of homemade sandwich panels of plywood and two-by-two wood. It was already in sad shape when we bought it. The first time I opened the door carrying my six-month-old daughter, the waterlogged door fell off its hinges and almost crushed us.

Dome at a cabin on Shoe Lake, surrounded by multicolored trees
Dome in the late '90s surrounded by new construction.

Lloyd Alter

But it was also just a few feet from the water, and since the '70s when the zoning bylaw was introduced, there was a 66-foot setback required. For the first few years, we would sleep in the original sleeping cabin from 1954, three hundred feet away, and then spend the day at the dome and on the rocks. Separate small sleeping cabins known as "bunkies" are allowed. The bylaws allowed extensions to the rear of existing buildings even if they were within the setback, so I designed a series of little interconnected cabins beside and behind the dome.

boat at sunrise
Boat at sunrise.

Lloyd Alter

Water access properties are usually not used year-round; many people open them up on the Victoria Day weekend (the third Monday in May) and close them on Canadian Thanksgiving. This is what we do. Here you see us closing up last year. The dock disconnected from the shore so the ice doesn't move it. Everything comes over in that little aluminum boat.

Interior looking towards doors
The kitchen and dining area of the cabin.

Lloyd Alter

That's why the cabin is really just a plywood tent with no insulation—just exposed studs and plywood. I am sitting in all my woolies and a hat writing this in 55 degrees on May 22.

But outside of the studs and plywood, there is a story in everything else. The doors were grabbed from an office renovation, probably installed in the '80s and replaced in the '90s. The dining room table is cut out of a bowling alley, on a base my dad made; it was in his cottage for years. My dad also made the sideboard—it's made from the floors of shipping containers. The floors are just sheathing with urethane.

looking toward kitchen
The view toward kitchen in the cabin.

Lloyd Alter

The kitchen is at the end, with the electric stove on a peninsula and the fridge hidden behind the plywood box. This is a big difference from the other cabin I showed recently; we can put a baby gate across the end to keep kids and dogs out of the kitchen when we are cooking. There is a pull-down ladder to a loft over the kitchen for guests. (I really should have removed those blankets for the photo.)

window wall

Lloyd Alter

The windows, probably 100 years old and still in great shape, are from a renovation of my sister's house in the '90s. Note the accuracy of the framing. Builder Brad Johnson laid out the studs perfectly around the windows as if it was a window frame. The opening ones are hinged at the top and pulled up with lines and pulleys.


Lloyd Alter

Behind the kitchen is the washroom area, with a sink from the early '60s, taken out of my mom's apartment during an upgrade. Behind the door is a composting toilet that used to have a sign "grandmothers only" for when my mom visited—we all used the outhouse up the hill. There is no shower; we go swimming instead.

Screened porch

Lloyd Alter

Behind the dome and kitchen, there is a screened porch. You can see the big tree on the right; every box was designed around existing trees. Only one was lost during construction: I designed around it, but Brad thought it was almost dead and just too close. Behind this box are another with two 7- by 8-foot bedrooms for kids and one 10- by 12-foot for Kelly and me.

Aframe outhouse

Lloyd Alter

From a door at the back, you can walk up the hill to the outhouse. I always wanted an A-frame, and finally got one with this little thing. I now use the composting toilet inside, but I am the only one who does unless it is pouring rain.

view back from outhouse
view back from outhouse.

Lloyd Alter

The view back from the outhouse to the main cabin. If it wasn't going to fall on the cabin, I have never taken out a tree; they were here first.

view toward living

Lloyd Alter

We used the dome as a living space for a couple of years. I did everything I could to save it, replacing panels and supports, but it was no longer safe and went a few years where I had it all closed off with yellow tape. The bylaws allow you to replace a structurally unsound structure with one the same size, so I designed a box to replace the dome. This is one reason that I have never shown my cabin before: I did a terrible, terrible job designing this.

Corner window
Note the patterns in the glass.

Lloyd Alter

Because the dome stood out as separate from the rest, I put this box at a 45-degree angle so I could reuse the existing bridge/tunnel to the dome and have the same view as the dome did. I designed an overly complex roof so it sloped up from all four walls. Builder Brad said it looked like a Pizza Hut and I have never got that image out of my head.

It also leaks. The round dome might have been impossible to furnish, but I put everything in the wrong place so this is too. I should have insulated it; the dome was, which is why we went into it on cold days. Instead, I put that useless foil-backed bubble wrap between the siding and the sheathing.

The corner windows match the view from the dome, but I bought new double-glazed units, learning subsequently that one should never use sealed units in an unheated building. When they get that cold, it blows the seals and they fill with moisture—the pattern that you see in the glass. And no, I am not showing any other interior shots, I am too embarrassed still.

There are many reasons I gave up being an architect, but one of them was that I was just terrible at it. This was the last thing I ever designed and it proved the point.

corridor back to cottage

Lloyd Alter

There are many other reasons I have not discussed this before. As I evolved as a Treehugger I realized how wrong it is to drive 150 miles each way to a superfluous second home. Although, now we come up in mid-June and stay until mid-September. The only heat is from a wood-burning fireplace, when I go on about the problems of burning wood, even in the country. Every time I get on the boat, I feel the hypocrisy.

On the other hand, every time I walk through that stupid tunnel that connects the two main boxes— lined with my Patrick O'Brian sea stories and my dad's John D. McDonalds on one side, and my record collection and the games we played with the kids on the other—I feel that this is home.

For all of its mistakes and problems, there are still lessons to be learned from it and things to be proud about. It is a product of its time and I am not going to feel guilty about it anymore.