Big Dreams About Little (Micro) Cabins
How the trend of building small gives designers a chance to explore big ideas
Welcome to Cabins Etc, the #1 newsletter for cabin dreamers and lovers of leisure design. After coming out the gate swinging with two barn burner DEEEEEP dives on influential geodesic domes and iconic A-frames (and admittedly a little esoteric) cabin archetypes, this week we’re leaning less on the ETC and more on the CABINS. But not just any cabin, micro cabin s.
A wider trend in vacation home architecture that’s emerged in recent years, micro cabins pack big design ideas into tiny little cabins that make you want to just pick them up and plop them right down in your own dream landscape. Because of their tiny footprints and unconventional shapes, micro cabins are at once exciting and attainable. A rare thing 🤝 these days!
So, what is a micro cabin?
Tbh there’s no real hardfast definition. Give the term a google—one word or two, your choice—and you’re more likely to find more Pinterest boards and articles (cough by Field Mag cough) than anything even approaching academic. The “micro cabin” wikipedia page itself is about a Japanese video game company by that name. But this isn’t disheartening, in fact, it’s liberating.
A micro cabin is whatever you want it to be!
For the sake of this issue of Cabins Etc, the preeminent source of cabin and cabin adjacent email-based content, we’ll define a micro cabin as a structure built for occasional occupation, inspired by leisure, and boasting no more than a 400-square-foot footprint. A little place to escape to. Preferably in a healthy forest setting, though seaside and lakefront are also very lovely, too.
Tiny house or micro cabin? Ask Snow Peak
Micro Cabin vs Tiny House: What’s the difference?
Now, you may be asking yourself, so isn’t a micro cabin just a tiny house in the woods? Not exactly. Tiny Houses actually have a definition and rigorous standards. They are, at least in theory, created to be full time residences. Whereas a micro cabin (like any cabin in general) is more guided by an ephemeral spirit—i.e. for weekend fun. As such, tiny houses tend to put extreme emphasis on efficient use of space, especially storage space. This is key, as micro cabins only really need to accommodate a couple people (and ideally a Good Dog) with a couple duffel bags for a couple days at any given time.
This discrepancy, along with what the next graf goes into, makes micro cabins both easier to maintain and less expensive to build than tiny houses.
Designer Robin Falck built this 100-square-foot micro cabin in just 2 weeks
Shape is often the biggest differentiator. Tiny houses are almost exclusively shaped as little rectangle boxes. This isn’t due to a lack of imagination (have you seen all the clever design hacks Tiny Housers get up to?! It’s incredible) but more so to the structure’s inherent design constraints. That is, shipping and/or transportation restrictions.
Often manufactured by professionals far from where they will eventually sit, Tiny Houses can only really be as big as the flatbed truck that delivers it. Meaning not longer than 48 feet, not wider than 8.5 feet. For reference, a common tiny house size is 8.5’ x 40’ x 13.5’, which makes it legally towable and nets its occupants a surprisingly comfortable 320 square feet of living space.
On the other hand Micro Cabins are often built onsite. Some of my favorites are total DIY projects (shout out the homie Andrew Szeto and his ever popular Quebec A-Frame, and his homie Graeme Jenvey’s $13k covid lockdown build, both pictured above). And even if they’re not built on-site, they are not meant to be primary living spaces for anyone—they’re vacation homes remember!—so designers have more freedom to experiment with shape and finishing details. And the results can be quite dreamy.
Prove it, you say?
Gulf Island Cabin by Olson Kundig
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Dream big, build micro
As I mentioned in our first Deep Dive, Field Mag, the digital publication for lovers of good design and the great outdoors, which I launched in 2015, which you should read too :), has written about cabins A LOT. To date we have 329 articles tagged “cabin” and there’s likely a few more that’ve slipped thru the CMS-best-practices cracks. And of those, quite a few have been on the micro side.
Let’s dig into a couple favorites…
Sol Duc Cabin by Olson Kundig
Set among the temperate rainforest of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula overlooking one of the region’s most fruitful fly fishing rivers, the striking Sol Duc Cabin by ever-brilliant Seattle design firm Olson Kundig is everything my PNW daydreams are made of. Like a self contained hotel suite, it features an elevated loft, kitchen, and a full wall of windows. All packed in to 350 square feet.
The imposing structure leans heavily into raw, organic materials like concrete and steel, while warm wood interior makes the space surprisingly inviting. A massive weathered steel panel on the exterior serves as a visual focal point for the elevated micro cabin. Hung on massive I-beam and operated by a custom rig and rod system, the steel shutter can be manually moved lock up when the owners are elsewhere.
(For more apocalypse appropriate designs, check out OK’s equally awesome and even more micro Gulf Island Cabin, pictured above.)
Bruny Island cabin, photos courtesy Rob Maver
Way down in Oceania sits the 301-square-foot Bruny Island micro cabin designed by Maguire + Devine Architects. Surrounded by 99 acres on another little island (this time off the southern coast of Tasmania), this off-grid micro cabin draws on traditional Japanese design techniques to respond to the client’s brief to “design a space like a piece of furniture.” An elevated seating area, open kitchen, and lofted sleeping area are all integrated to great effect.
Translucent sliding doors reference rice-paper screens and prevent local endangered parrots from accidentally flying to the glass. (shout out design that protects our winged and furry friends too!) A recessed soaking tub hidden in the deck is the cherry on top.
Edifice Catskills Cabin, photo courtesy Marco Petrini
Ok sometimes micro cabins ARE just rectangles or triangles (or both) and that’s cool too!
Since the god F Gehry isn’t out here designing little cabins inspired by crumbled up receipts n such, and because sometimes a little box *is* actually a great starting point, many noteworthy micro cabins are themselves rather conventional in shape, too. But that doesn’t mean they’re boring by any means. Again, let’s look at a few favorites from this category.
Closer to home and slightly on the larger side, the Edifice Cabin (above) in New York’s Catskill Mountains is austere yet oddly compelling. This is by design. Dubbed “introverted architecture” by designer and owner Marc Thorpe, the minimalist cabin is a modern Walden, isolated, self sustaining, and in balance with its environment. Heat comes from a wood stove, water from a rain catchment system, and light from lanterns. What more could you ask for?
L to R: La Point Cabin, courtesy Ronny Lebrun | Little House on the Ferry Maine, courtesy Trent Bell
La Point Quebec (pictured above and at top) packs a surprisingly ~400 square feet into half of an A-frame. It’s a long time standout, and truly clever adaptation of a rather ordinary form. Inside, raw plywood, big ass windows, a wood stove, and sleeping loft round out the space (beginning to see a theme here…). Outside, a covered patio effectively finishes the A shape, while wood storage makes good use of otherwise wasted space. This one’s worth bookmarking for future cabin build reference.
To further twist my own self imposed guidelines, our final example of micro cabin architecture is arguably not even so. Maine’s Little House on the Ferry is a collection of three micro cabins—each serving the purpose of living and cooking, sleeping, and bathing—set on, you guessed it, a little remote island. The deconstructed guest house system is a key touchpoint for my own future cabin dreams, showing how to make small spaces feel so much more unique and private.
In the end, regardless of shape, size, or intended use, the takeaway remains that even the smallest spaces can create room for big ideas and plenty of room to stretch out and play.
Thanks for making the time to read Cabins Etc, the most trusted source for IRL and email-delivered cabin content. ☮️