Spend enough time scrolling the cabin-obsessed hinterlands of Instagram or Pinterest, and you're bound to stumble upon Jeff Waldman and Molly Fiffer’s Redwood Cabin, a beautifully minimal DIY structure planted in the Santa Cruz mountains outside the San Francisco Bay Area. Or perhaps you’ve already come across Elevated Spaces, their burgeoning collection of cabin, treefort, and outhouse plans based on their own builds and for sale for would-be builders.
For years, the former was their focus. Then in 2020, historic wildfires raged across California, claiming the Redwood Cabin. By the time it was safe to visit the site, the structure was a total loss.
"Officially completed in May 2019, the cabin sat on its forest plot for just over a year before the fires of August 2020."
Obviously, a cabin isn’t the worst thing to lose in a fire, and, thankfully, no one was hurt, but any project built by your own hands embodies a degree of emotional attachment. And for Waldman and Fiffer, building the cabin wasn’t just an act of construction, but of community.
The Redwood Cabin was a physical experiment, cobbled together by many hands, a culmination of trial and error throughout the years by friends and acquaintances that came to contribute to decks, treeforts, outhouse, and eventually, the cabin. It took a village, and it took a village a several years. And in a matter of hours it was gone.
For the pair, the intention was always to involve others in building something. Waldman tried at first to corral friends to purchase land together, but varying interest and commitment levels drove him to drop that tactic fast. Then he and Fiffer, his partner, grew out of their apartment and began their own search for cheap, raw land. Not wanting to leave their community of friends in the Bay Area, they eventually found a plot in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
"COVID really made a lot of folks look at their backyards with fresh eyes."
For the next couple of years, Waldman and Fiffer hosted friends and workshops on their property. Visitors ended up working on "whatever structure was calling," as Waldman tells it. They started with elevated tree platforms and decks, and after a couple of years there was enough shared experience to build bigger and better; one deck got a wood-fired hot tub, another, an outdoor shower. The outhouse was the first contained structure on site, and building it largely informed the confidence and skill set needed for the next task, the cabin.
The Redwood Cabin build took a full year and around $35,000 to build in totality, including furnishings and a solar-energy system. The cabin was designed around an assortment of Craigslist-salvaged windows, while local, premium materials were used for the rest. And of course, a small community was at hand—Waldman says 30 or so people attended a wall-raising event.
Officially completed in May 2019, the cabin sat on its forest plot for a little over a year before the fires of August 2020. The blaze spared many medium and large-sized trees on the couple’s property, but none of the structures. The loss was somewhat expected, given the increase in ferocity of wildfires over the years due to climate change, but knowing that didn't ease the mourning.
Regrowth has slowly started to occur on the property, of native flora as well as buildings—the couple recently gathered friends to erect a new outhouse. Is another cabin next? Waldman and Fiffer prefer to give no concrete answer, instead taking rebuilding one day at a time. For now though, the Redwood Cabin lives on in plans available on the Elevated Spaces website, along with designs for other structures. This shift towards helping others build their own dreamland seems both a business decision and an opportunity for healing.
Based on his personal models in SketchUp (a free design program) Waldman is gearing available plans toward clients with a basic building skillset, but as he himself is self-taught, he encourages anyone who’s willing to learn to give them a go.
To learn more about the Waldman's experience and lean into Elevated Spaces' new direction selling cabin plans, we caught up for a brief Q&A. For the DIY readers, he generously shared a handful of key dos & don’ts of building a cabin of your own, too. Scroll on for all this and more.
What's the single most important thing any new DIY cabin builder should know before diving in head first?
None of this is necessarily intuitive and there's a ton of esoteric knowledge in trade work. It will be impossible to do everything right—there are so many different schools of thought on construction best practices. Watch as many videos as you can and read up, but don't get bogged down by the litany of information and intimidated by the totality of the project.
The best thing to do is to put one foot in front of the other and start down that road, doing the best you can, one step at a time. It's how you'll learn and it's how things get done.
How did you come to sell cabin plans? And how do you choose which structures to share plans of?
I'm a self taught builder and designer and I made a pretty great leap forward when I learned how to design in 3D in Sketchup. Building these projects digitally many times over before going through the logistical hurdle of building them in a remote location with all the supplies trucked in was monumentally helpful. I got a lot better at working out the problems before they would arise, and in ironing out the order of operations. So I've really come to see the value in having a 3D model of a project that can be peeled apart and modified.
And since I worked out the designs to a very fine level of detail for my own purposes, I figured I could share all that hard work with other folks to get them started on their own builds, even if their projects aren't exactly like ours. And of course, it wouldn't hurt that the meager income from this would help to offset some pretty big costs and losses from the property.
"The best thing to do is to put one foot in front of the other and start down that road, doing the best you can, one step at a time"
One thing I've learned is that it is VERY hard to design something from scratch. There are just too many unknowns and it tends to halt a process before it gets started. I know that I would have greatly benefited from having plans or a model of a cabin to deconstruct and then modify. I poured over photos of other folk's decks and outhouse builds to see how it all was put together, which I then adapted to my own needs.
For the type of builder that I, or many of my friends are, these 3D models and a breakdown of the materials used and frequently asked questions are a huge asset.
What level of experience should people have to build based on your plans?
Enough to not hurt themselves too badly with tools. And a general spatial awareness helps. If you've made a birdhouse or hung a shelf that's enough to get started on the smaller projects. For building our cabin you'd have to do a lot more Googling about installing windows and some of the other finer points of home building. But it's all quite doable if you're willing to do a little research and give it a go. We did. Just started small and built from there.
Our 3D models require a familiarity with SketchUp, but that can be accomplished in an afternoon via a short YouTube tutorial. From there you're just navigating and taking measurements and possibly modifying as you see fit. But the ability to dissect a digital 3D blueprint means that even the least experienced person can really see how things go together, which demystifies a lot of the process for folks.
That said, it's not a step by step guide. Our plans won't hold your hand, but I am happy to answer questions along the way.
"If you've made a birdhouse or hung a shelf that's enough to get started on smaller projects."
Have you seen an uptick in traffic, engagement, or overall interest in your projects and plans since COVID?
We've seen a general uptick in questions about the outdoors, an interest in getaways and retreats, and more and more people getting outside. We've noticed that spots which used to be desolate are now far less so.
There's a definite yearning for projects... backyard builds and rural second properties. COVID really made a lot of folks look at their backyards with fresh eyes.
6 Do & Don’ts on Building Your Own DIY Cabin by Hand
Do budget more time and money than you think you should. Everything will take longer and cost more than anticipated.
Don't overthink it. Over planning and the anxiety of a daunting task will stop most projects before they start. Take baby steps and just get going. You'll figure it out as progress is made.
Do learn a CAD program or get real good with a pen and paper. Building something a hundred times digitally or on paper is a good way to problem solve before committing to the real thing.
Don't be shy about asking friends to lend a hand. Most people you'd want to hang out with are excited to work on something unique and fun. Enlisting help is a great way to build community, strengthen bonds, and meet new people.
Do be willing to make mistakes. Failure is where lessons are learned.
Don't stress the outcome. The joy is in the process and you'll be ecstatic at every stage of the build. Sitting with friends or loved ones on a floor you laid and under a roof you raised is a special kind of reward. It won't be perfect and that's okay. If this is your first cabin build and you're the type to build your own cabin, it likely won't be your last. So it's all a work in progress.