Design & DIY

These tiny cabins in the Okanagan Valley are inspired by the scorched landscape

Living space
Approx. 3 x 100 sq. ft.

Why we love them
Off-grid; gorgeous views; use of salvaged materials; unique landscape; indoor-outdoor living characteristic of West Coast design

Before Geoff and Kate Orr designed and built these three off-grid cabins, there was a tool shed. 

Geoff had purchased an 11-acre plot near Penticton, B.C., in 2006, when the area was still recovering from one of the worst fires in the province’s history. The first thing he did was build that little tool shed out of dead trees gathered from the burned landscape—and that’s where he lived for the next year while he planned his dream house. The shed was rustic, although he splashed out with floor-to-ceiling windows that he’d salvaged from another building. “I lived there all winter, and the wind would just come howling through,” says Geoff. “But I had this view that was overlooking the valley and it was a really magical place to be. And I think that these cabins, they’re reminiscent of that—you’re feeling the elements.”

He and Kate met in 2012 at a dinner party that now seems fated—a mutual friend had been trying to set Geoff up with someone else. (“Another coworker didn’t come to that dinner last minute,” says Kate. “I came instead, and we talked about our love for sailing the whole night—and went sailing that week.”) Later that year, the couple moved in together, and Kate became a part of Geoff’s home-building project. And in that same eventful year, they learned about the Workaway program. It’s an organization that pairs international volunteers with homeowners offering a place to stay and a project to work on. “We invented the cabin idea as something fun to do with people from around the world,” says Geoff. 

The result: three single-room cabins—Rumspringa, Scouse, and the Shire—that now dot the Orrs’ property. Each is named in tribute to the Workaway volunteers who helped build it. The first got its name from an Australian couple who referred to their travels as their personal Rumspringa, an Amish tradition where adolescents venture out of the community to decide if they want to come back again.

Each cabin is unique in its design and construction, though each features a hallmark of West Coast design: the milder climate here means an immersive, indoor-outdoor way of living where views are paramount and the transitions between the landscape and the interiors are nearly seamless. After the couple installed a rammed-earth fireplace in their home—a sustainable building process that involves layering a mixture of gravel, sand, and cement into wood forms, then tamping it down under high pressure—they decided to use the same technique in Rumspringa (see p. 49), in colours that reflected the rock face surrounding it. “As you put the material in, you can add different colours,” says Kate. “The neat thing about it is that as you’re building, you’ve got these wooden forms outside, so you don’t actually know what it’s going to look like—where exactly the bands of colour are sitting on each other—until you take off the forms. And then it’s like a present when you do.”

The design of the cabins is very much materials-first: all three cabins are constructed from salvaged supplies, which means the odd shapes and sizes of those reclaimed pieces have to work—and Geoff and Kate have a knack for finding what they need. Case in point: when a Lordco Auto Parts shop in town converted to a Kia dealership, the new owner offered up the blue-tinted glass from the original building—a perfect fit for the floor-to-ceiling views the Orrs had in mind for all three cabins, just like in that original tool shed. “We had all these different-sized pieces of glass,” says Geoff, “so we figured out what size openings we would need, and built the building around the glass size.” The panes are joined with structural silicone, creating a curtain-wall effect on the view sides of each building, and the tint of the glass seems to be effective at preventing bird collisions too. (Geoff has since launched his own glass business, Orr Custom Glazing, in Penticton.) 

The cabins’ structure is thanks to a beam company in town that was looking to dispose of some offcuts of cross-laminated timber. The dark, rich stain the couple selected for the wood mirrors the colours of the landscape. “It’s like they’ve been burned out, ravaged by the forest fire,” says Geoff, who named the property Fuego, in tribute to that great fire. “We just tried to make them disappear in the landscape.” 

The couple now rent out the cabins as an off-grid experience. Geoff prides himself on the hospital corners he’s mastered, thanks to a lesson from a visitor. That fire from years ago transformed the land, and the Orrs hope their cabins offer their own transformational experience for those who stay. “Wi-Fi doesn’t reach down to the cabins,” says Kate. “There’s no electricity here. You’re just out in the B.C. wilderness.”

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