Building a Tiny Off-Grid Cabin in New Mexico

Building a Tiny Off-Grid Cabin in New Mexico

By Kevin Stevens

A few years ago we purchased some vacant land in northern New Mexico. We chose that area based on a number of factors. Some of those included wide-open space, abundant sunshine, affordability and artistic history (Georgia O’Keeffe lived down the road a bit). Our long term goal is to retire there and pursue a simple artistic life. One of the main reasons we chose that piece of property is its remoteness to other neighbors and the lack of congestion that comes from urban living. Urban living has a lot of advantages like electricity, water, and corner coffee shops. We plan to work around some of these conveniences using “off-grid” practices. I have enjoyed camping since I was toddler. The slower pace of life in an environment more closely linked with nature has always been a draw. Our cabin provides all of this with far more elbow room than a tent. Add in windows, a wood stove and a comfy bed and what could be better?

Site Location and Solar Power

Our parcel of land is a bit under 42 acres and nearly all the land around us is uninhabited grazing land. In fact, the people we bought our land from still graze horses and cattle on their square mile that surrounds us. I have spent enjoyable nights there listening to the baying of cattle and cry of a lonely coyote. Our decision to go “off-grid” was simple: the nearest utility pole to our cabin is nearly a mile away. We could have paid thousands of dollars to run power poles and lines to “connect” but then those “lines” would disturb our pristine views and require a monthly payment. For a fraction of that cost, we simply installed a basic PV (Photovoltaic) system. Our cabin is small at a bit under 200 sq. feet and has modest energy needs.

I designed all of our cabin’s lighting needs to be met with 12 volt DC based LED’s. This eliminates the energy losses of converting solar DC in to normal AC current. By utilizing a lot of task lighting, the whole cabin does not need to be lit to perform basic tasks. Even so, if every light in the cabin is turned on our total lighting use is less than 40 watts. This low demand allowed us to scale down the entire PV system to a basic 80-watt panel and a single 110-amp/hour storage battery. This DC system is supplemented with a basic power inverter, which allows us to run some AC devices and even some smaller power tools. The coffee bean grinder is our most common use of 120-volt AC.

Challenges with Building the Cabin

Building in a remote location has some added challenges that many take for granted. Power, water and access to building materials top the list. For us the build began with pouring concrete footers that would support the cabin’s framing. Getting the concrete there was the easy part; mixing 1800 pounds by hand with water carried in jugs was the hard part. I completed the bulk of the framing over a couple of weeks using a generator to run my air compressor. Having compressed air allowed me to use my pneumatic nail guns which greatly sped up the build. Since then, a lot of the work has been done using smaller 18 volt cordless tools, hand nailing trim, etc. The solar system has no trouble charging the battery packs for my cordless tools, and as an added bonus the solar system is silent…that gas powered generator would drown out the subtle sounds of nature that surround us, and that is a primary reason we like living there.

Cooking, Water and Heat

In a conventional home, the turning of a knob may bring life to a cook stove using natural gas or electricity at 220 volts. Our cooking heat is provided by a couple of means depending on the season and the items being cooked. In the summer we often will cook over a campfire outdoors…grilled steaks, hotdogs on a stick and of course marshmallows for s’mores. The morning coffee is French press, with water heated on the Coleman camp stove (summer) or on the wood stove (winter). Other cooking is done in a similar manner; the only thing that we are still experimenting with is small scale baking using a Dutch oven on top of the wood stove.

All of our water is brought in using 5 gallon Nalgene jugs. Hot water for washing and cleaning is heated the same way that we heat our cooking water.

Our cabin is passive solar by design and when the winter sun is shining, the wood stove is not usually required. When the winter chill does come calling at night, we stoke it up and can stay quite comfortable with just a few logs. Our grey water is used to irrigate the local sagebrush and we use a basic sawdust composting toilet for solid waste. Since it’s portable, the sawdust toilet can be brought inside if the winter temps make its normal use in our woodshed uncomfortable. We have a small alcove in the cabin that provides privacy for this if needed.

A Work in Progress

The initial building process had us “dried in” after a months work, but I still have a ways to go on a lot of the smaller details. The build is being completed as time and money allow. Our cabin is a six hour drive from our full time home so we do not get down there as often as I would like…but when we are there time is well spent with a balance of work and play. When the time does come to live there full time, the plan is to live in the small cabin while a more elaborate (ie: running water) home is built using the same basic “off- grid” mind set.

Kevin Stevens writes for Networx.com.

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Lucas - December 13, 2011 Reply

Thanks for sharing Kevin. Spent some time there this summer and rather enjoyed ourselves. The Ghost Ranch and Monastery down the road are really neat places. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s fair price per acre of land around you?

Does your cabin’s roof have enough pitch for a sleeping loft?

moontree ranch - December 13, 2011 Reply

Lucas,

We got our land for 3900 an acre, you can find land for 1000 per or up to 25,000 per depending on where you are located and terrain etc. We fell in love with THAT particular parcel, and have not looked back.

We do have a sleeping loft, it lies above the “dining” area that we convert to a more than full sized bed.

You can see more pics of the place at my blog page

http://kmswoodworks.wordpress.com/

and at my flickr pages

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kmswoodworks/sets/72157628199136635/

Additional construction Photos are mixed in with a time line series of posts at the small cabin forum…I posted a lot there before I got my blog set up.

http://www.small-cabin.com/forum/6_169_0.html

Ethan - December 13, 2011 Reply

Nice! I’m curious: What did you use for insulation in the walls?

    Moontree Ranch - December 13, 2011 Reply

    Ethan

    The wall are 2 x 6 construction with kraft faceed R-19 fiberglass. The floor is R-30 as is the roof. Both the roof and floor joists are engineered wood I beams.

Niall - December 13, 2011 Reply

Great little cabin!

Margy - December 13, 2011 Reply

You post reminds me a lot of our float cabin living situation. Now that we are there full time, we have made some changes to make life easier, but we are still off the grid. I wrote several posts here at Tiny House Blog, the most recent is about our bathroom addition. I’ve done some baking with my wood stove using both a gutted toaster oven and cast iron dutch oven on top. I also was able to bake some bread inside the wood stove box much like a a wood fired pizza oven. You can read more about it at my blog. – Margy http://powellriverbooks.blogspot.com/2008/02/woodstove-sourdough-wheat-bread.html

    Moontreeranch - December 13, 2011 Reply

    Margy,

    I did see that post about your bath addition. Our cabin’s wood stove is REALLY small so I’m not sure If the baking inside is a viable option, eventually I would like to build an horno at the cabin. They are pretty popular over at the Pueblo in Taos.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horno

Josh - December 13, 2011 Reply

What an awesome little place to go camping! Do you access your place via a public road? (You mentioned that the people you bought the land from have a square mile that “surrounds you,” so I wondered if you were in the middle of it and had an easement, or if your property touches public roads.)

    Moontreeranch - December 13, 2011 Reply

    We are located in the third “section” of their mile 3rd from the top left. There is a 208 acre parcel located to the north of us owned by someone else. We have a deeded “entry” onto our land through some of theirs…and we also had a small easement along our northern boundary if they ever sell the section to the east of us. They allow us to hike on their land that surrounds us, so even with our 42 the “front yard” of their added land gives us plenty of solitude

      Josh - December 13, 2011 Reply

      We are located in the third “section” of their mile 3rd from the top left.

      That would be a “quarter-quarter section.” 🙂 I suppose the land out there is so open that it’s typically parceled in quarter-quarter sections, like farmland (or other rural land) here in Iowa. Unless it has been surveyed and made into its own parcel for sale to build a house, you don’t find much smaller than that (unless it’s along a river or something that breaks up the boundaries). Same way out there I’m assuming(?).

        Moontreeranch - December 13, 2011 Reply

        16 “sections” in a sq mile, i’m not a surveyor, but if you start counting in the top left and count right in rows we are #3

          Josh - December 13, 2011 Reply

          I know what you meant – but what I meant is that a “section” is actually a square mile – 640 acres. A “quarter section” is 160 acres. One quarter of that is 40 acres – hence, you have a “quarter-quarter section.” Yours would be written as NW NE (and the section number, township, etc.) – yours is the northwest quarter of the northeast quarter of the section.

          Anyway, enough about that (when your dad farms 4,000 acres I guess you pick up a thing or two about what the assessors descriptions mean); kudos to you on a beautiful little cabin. I’ve always wished I had something like this at my camping area in the woods so my friends and I could camp when it gets cold.

          Josh - December 13, 2011 Reply

          would be written as NW NE

          Oops, I mean it would be written: NW 1/4 NE 1/4

        V - December 14, 2011 Reply

        A SECTION is a square mile.
        Typical geographic Towns are 36 Square miles ie 36 sections but some are fractional.
        If short, as in compensation for curvature, the shortfall is on the NORTH or the West sides of the town. The baseline, starting point, for all surveying to establish the external and internal town lines was in the SoEast COrner of the section 36.
        When defining in a COunty and State, you need three criteria….
        the section number, the number of the town North from the base line and the distance east or west of the principal meridian being used.

        Legal Statement starts small to larger.
        Surveying to establish was in the era of 1830….

        Those east of say, Illinois/indiana/ohio, dont use Sections but metes and bounds… Has to do with rivers, mountains and the OLD way.

        Smaller than a Section is a LOT.

        NEQ is another way to express Northeast Quarter.
        or ex: NeQ NeQ Sec13T2N R31 in County, State.
        But there are also statements regarding North Half
        or NQ of North Half, etc….

        Cabin is nice…it FEELS right.

          Moontreeranch - December 16, 2011 Reply

          Thanks for the survey lesson…we just call it Moontree Ranch. Its a lot easier than the alpha numerical soup.

Bamcubz - December 13, 2011 Reply

We recently downsized from a 1700 s/f house to a 900 s/f house. After living there with my husband, son, myself and occassionally my college daughter, and 3 cats, we are so ready to move back out. We have no elbow room. Was not really expecting it to to be such a problem but with too much furniture, even after giving away some, not enough closet room for 4 people’s clothing, nor enough pantry room. Noise from the local major streets, sirens because the hospital is just 2 miles away, 2 churches that have to compete with their bell tolling, we are just about fed up. Even tho I was born and raised in the city (L.A.) but have spent the last 8 years living in the country, I really do miss it, just not the long commute, if only I could have it all.

Barb - December 13, 2011 Reply

what a lovely cabin! It comfortable and cozy – everything you would want in a cabin! The fact that it is down the road from Georgia O’Keefe’s land would just seal-the-deal for me. what a great find! Enjoy!!

Jon - December 14, 2011 Reply

I dont see a rain barrel,but maybe in summer you have one set up, seems like a perfect roof to collect rainwater!

    Moontreeranch - December 16, 2011 Reply

    Jon

    we have been bringing in our water in 5 gal Nalgene containers…and have on many occasions collected snow and melted it over the wood stove in a giant kettle. The longer term plan is to build a bigger deck (hence the space for the ledger board along the front) once this deck is in place a gutter and barrel will be added. For water use and to reduce the mudfest from the run off.

chris - December 14, 2011 Reply

From the looks of the one outdoor picture I saw you’re in the high desert. How accessible is your fuel wood?

    Moontreeranch - December 16, 2011 Reply

    The “wood” shed is about 20 feet away and currently houses the Sawduster too.

Gary - December 15, 2011 Reply

A question, are you in Taos county and is the building dept located in the town of Taos. I was
looking at land outside Tres Piedras and wonder if you know what the smallest regular cabin you can build in the area? Thanks for all the pics and info.

    Moontreeranch - December 16, 2011 Reply

    Gary,

    We are just south of TP about 3 miles or so. If you have no plumbing or elec…they said 200 feet is the limit without a permit. (and by elect they were referring to grid) This was the response I got when I called the permit office a few years ago. Given that areas remoteness…you could possibly get away with more..We decided to follow the rules as we plan to build a bit bigger in a few years and did not want to get on the “naughty” list

      Gary - December 16, 2011 Reply

      Thanks Moontreeranch. You are right there are some lists you don’t want to be on. I have some land west of Colorado Springs but want to be closer to Albuquerque (my home town).

        moontree ranch - December 17, 2011 Reply

        Gary,

        We first looked down in the Carson area. There is a funky market down there and we got to meet a few of the locals during a “revisit” of a Halloween party. We were very interested in a parcel there until we saw our current land…the mix of view and space really enchanted us.

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[…] Stephens explains how he built the cabin in Tiny House Blog. […]

Tiny House Living – December 17, 2011 | Tiny House Living - December 17, 2011 Reply

[…] Building a Tiny Off-Grid Cabin in New Mexico tinyhouseblog.com A few years ago we purchased some vacant land in northern New Mexico. We chose that area based on a number of factors. Some of those included wide-open space, abundant sunshine, affordability and artistic history (Georgia O’Keeffe lived down the road a bit). […]

zenbonobo - December 24, 2011 Reply

Cattle low. Hounds bay. Coyotes yip.

Joe - January 4, 2012 Reply

Where can I place an off the grid cabin, similar to this, in NM, legally?

I have 50 k for my project, and if I do not act soon, will be homeless. I have 3 months to figure it out, but, people seem , either not to know where I can place it legally, or are not generous enough to tell.

It would be just me , and my dog. I could even have the cabin shipped, complete with solar panels.

    moontree ranch - January 14, 2012 Reply

    Joe the trick will be finding some land in your budget…Our land was in the 4k per acre range…obviously some smaller parcels are available. You should hook up with a realtor in an area you find attractive. I have seen some land in southern Co and N New mexico for 1 to 2 K per acre.

    Location is still the main cost factor…John Wells of the “field lab” started with 5k for 20 acres if I remember right. (southern texas)

    his adventure can be found at http://thefieldlab.blogspot.com/

    john christensen - March 16, 2012 Reply

    Have a off grid parcel near Magdalena,NM solar and wind generator power,400 sq ft cabin.remote but only 3 miles from town.very good views.

    call me 575-443-3544
    Dewey

Lorraine - April 11, 2012 Reply

Hey guys, this is amazing, I have clients interested in building cabins in lots in New Mexico I sold. Check out
http://Angel-lands.com for off the grid parcels for $1000 complete with up to date tax and property association fees. Fabulous are near Sandia mountains. 15 drive to Walmart in Belen for supplies. Yes! This is living at its best.

Heather McKenzie - September 3, 2012 Reply

Sounds like a wonderful place you have there. I know I appreciate being far enough away from the city, yet close enough to venture in when needed.

My husband and I purchased some vacant land, on which we now reside in our tiny cabin (300 sq ft). We plan to build a tire house here as we get the money.

I’d love to talk with anyone else, especially anyone in Canada, and especially in Ontario, as my main concerns at the moment are regarding building codes and municipal laws.

sam sullivan - November 15, 2012 Reply

Kevin: This is exactly the type of cabin I would like to build on my little 40 acre farm. If you could send me more photos with more detail I would really appreciate it. Great little cabin. Sam

Chad - March 19, 2013 Reply

I’d like to find, even an acre, cheap, where I could place my 40 foot container cabin, and an outhouse, and not get hassled, or told to remove it. Could you help me, by telling me how to go about finding this kind of lot, in Central to Northern NM? Blessings.

Bryan - August 3, 2017 Reply

Did you run into any issues with the county? We have property in the Sangre De Cristo Mts and are wanting to build a dry cabin.I just worry if it’s legal.
THANKS

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Lisa - December 11, 2017 Reply

Hello,
I dream of moving my park model tiny house to new mexico land. Kevin or anyone else have any leads or suggestions on how to find land in New Mexico that allows a tiny house??? I have the funds but need a little help on where to start. I live in Austin Texas right now.
Thank you

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