Building An Off-Grid Tiny House in Montana By Myself

in blog •  2 years ago  (edited)

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In 2010 I was a disgruntled Navy Diver living in San Diego and I just wanted to get away from it all. I was still a new guy in the military after only two years in and I was still getting jerked around by the system. Looking back, I had plenty to be thankful for back then. I was living in one of the coolest cities ever and making decent money for a 20 year old. Decent enough money that I had actually saved up over 30 grand and I wanted something cool to spend it on. On a whim I typed "Montana land for sale" into Google Images. I hadn't been to Montana since a family camping trip I took as a child, but it seemed like the kind of place you could just get away from it all. I clicked the first picture that caught my eye. It was a picture that showed a green hill overlooking a valley with snowcapped peaks in the background. The property was 11.6 acres in a town called Philipsburg and was listed for $59,000. A week later I stepped off the plane in Butte, MT and breathed the fresh mountain air. Ed, the realtor for the property I first clicked on picked me up and drove me back to his gorgeous lodge style home where he and his wife cooked me dinner and put me up in their guest room for the night. I was taken back by their hospitality and looked forward to seeing the property the next day. After breakfast we drove to the lot through the quaint little town of Philipsburg and up a couple miles up a rough gravel road. Finally we were there. It looked just like it did in the picture, just a little less green. It took me 20 minutes to do one lap around the property and I tried to imagine what it would feel like to know that it was all mine. I was pretty sure I wanted to make an offer on it but Ed insisted on showing me a few other listings in the area before I made my mind up. After driving around all day looking at places, nothing beat that first one. I made an offer for $51,500 and a couple months later I was in the escrow office signing all the the paperwork.

Fast forward five years and I was out of the Navy and studying finance at Seattle University. I had just finished riding my bicycle across America for the first half of my summer break from classes. I had 40 days left until fall quarter started up and that seemed like enough time to build myself a house. So I loaded up all the tools and camping gear I had and started the drive to Montana with my dog Moses riding shotgun.

It was pitch black when I got to the property on a cloudy night and no house lights for miles. I got out to start setting up my tent until I heard a deep groaning sound that sounded like some kind of huge animal. Thinking it was most likely a pissed off moose, I decided I'd just spend the night huddled up in the cab of my truck with Moses. It was a long night as the ferocious beast circled my truck but never revealed itself. Finally the sun came up and I poked my head out to see I was completely surrounded... by a heard of cattle.

I picked out what I thought was a good building site, and without much thought I started digging. I didn't have any plans for what I'd build but I figured a 10' x 16' footprint would do. I decided I'd use six pressure treated beams as uprights for my foundation and build the subfloor off of that. Digging these six holes was hard work. I needed them about 1.5 feet wide and 4 feet deep to get below the frost line. On the second day I was on the fourth hole and I had somehow came down with a fever. Digging holes at a 7000 foot elevation and sleeping on the ground at night while having a fever was not fun. The family that owns an adjacent lot from me offered to put me up for a couple nights while I fought the flu. For the second time in a row, I was incredibly impressed and blessed with Montana hospitality. Finally I recovered and got back to digging. Then it was time for the concrete. This was even more physically exhausting. I mixed 3500 lbs of concrete by hand with a shovel in a metal garbage can. Looking back, I really should have at least invested in a wheelbarrow.

Although there is plenty more to say, I'm just going to let the pictures do most of the talking from here...

I got the foundation poles set then watched the sun set while doing my best karate kid pose.

Once I got to the subfloor things started going a little more smoothy. My little brother Ian even came out for a weekend and helped me put up a couple walls.

The house is starting to take shape!

Moses will get in my way until I throw the ball for him.

Second floor/sleeping loft going up!

Applying the moisture barrier

Things got a little dark...

The view from my second floor deck.

Siding going up two days before school starts!

Finally got it all water tight. This is as far as I got that year before going back to school. My neighbor let me borrow this four wheeler for most of the time I was out there.

Over the next couple years I've returned a few times to work on the house and just get away from it all. Here are some pics of how it looks currently.

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That's awesome man! Did you have building experience prior to this endeavor?

I've always thought Montana would be an incredible place to live, though I don't know if I could take the winters there. Thanks for sharing, I've followed ya!

Before I built this the only real experience I had was building doghouses, skateboard ramps, and a few other little things. At the time I was studying Finance but this project made me decide to switch my major to Construction Management.

This is dope! But the most important question (arguably): How do you handle your shit? Compost? And water, how do attain it and do you have a shower?

Btw, read your article about your bike trip across US. That must've been epic! My longest trip so far is only 250km which I bursted in 16 hours to my friend's cottage, while others went with a car transporting my stuff I didn't need while biking :D Was worth it! I'm planning to do a proper long trip next September around Finland and visiting my relatives on the way.

I have a chair with a hole in it that I move around my 11 acres. I put the dirty TP in a trash bag. I'm only there a few weeks a year so by the time I come back the waste has already gone back to the earth.

For water I fill up jugs in a local spring. The laundromat in town has showers for $5 and I'll use that every few days. I heat up water on my gas stove to clean up daily.

I'm glad you enjoyed the bike trip post. 250km is impressive! I think you're ready to traverse a continent! When I started on my trip the longest I'd ever ridden in a day was just under 100 km.

I have a chair with a hole in it that I move around my 11 acres.

Funny :D but if it works it ain't stupid.

For water I fill up jugs in a local spring.

That's quite convenient.

250km is impressive!

And it was quite hardcore, I gotta say...

I think you're ready to traverse a continent!

I might get into that after my Finland trip...

dude this is fucking wicked! oh man, i cant even explain how jealous i am of you. to be getting away from it ll, and that photo of your karate kid post, fucking on point yo dead ass. is the home completed yet?

Yes, what he said ^^

Haha thanks bro! It's about 90% finished right now. Just need to do some more drywall and painting work.

great post! mentioned in the MSP PAL curation

I live in montana! :) There are like 4 of us here I think so I am following you now. Your tinyhouse looks amazing and this is an inspiring story!

That is outstanding sir !! Best wishes going forward.