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How to Build an Island Dream House
How to build an island dream house with $15,000, 12,000 screws, and one blessing from a local chieftess
Text and phototgraph by Alex Sheshunoff

Photo: House on Palau

PLAYING HOUSE: On Palau's Anguar Island, Alex Sheshunoff and his wife, Sarah Kalish, have the South Pacific as their swimming pool.
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Alex Sheshunoff, 32, writer
Sarah Kalish, 33, attorney
More Big Dreams:

How to Sail Around the World and Surf >>

How to Build an Island Dream House (For $15,000) >>

How to Drive a VW Van  From California to Uganda >>

How to Retrace the 1912 Race to the South Pole >>

How to Do Humanitarian Aid Work in Africa >>

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Machetes in hand, my wife, Sarah, and I hacked our way through the jungle looking for the perfect oceanfront property. Each rocky point, each stretch of banyan-lined coast on Angaur, the most distant isle of the far-flung Palau group in Micronesia, had a view of infinite blue. Though we didn't own a first home (we rent one in Iowa City), we envisioned this as our de facto second: a 1,500-square-foot (139-square-meter) bungalow with canvas walls 4,587 miles (7,382 kilometers) due west of Hawaii.

An avid scuba diver, I had spent some time in Palau a few years earlier and chose Angaur for our island escape because, while only eight miles (13 kilometers) around, it has everything you could ask for in a tropical Eden—cobalt waters teeming with gaudy fish, cliffs overlooking pink-sand beaches, gentle green forests filled with long-tailed macaques, and tidy footpaths lined with fruit trees. Population: 150 people. Our hunt turned up a stunning quarter-mile-long (less than a half kilometer) stretch of unoccupied peninsula, and we immediately put in a bid with the local authority: an 83-year-old clan chieftess with an orange muumuu and cataracts.

"And you do not wish to make a development here?" she asked.

"No," I explained. "We would like to build a simple house. Just wood and canvas."

"Then it is done," she said. "Angaur welcomes you."

We agreed to pay $100 a month for 20 years, plus another $50 a year to a local guy so he wouldn't burn our house down while we were away. The structure and property would revert back to the clan when the lease expired. Now all we had to do was build this remote pied-à-terre, some three hours by ferry from the capital, Koror. We had no funds for a construction crew. But we had friends. Specifically, underemployed friends willing to work for food once we'd hooked them with visions of a perfect tan and a future place to stay in paradise.

We had no idea, however, that three inches (8 centimeters) beneath the surface of the property lay solid rock into which we would eventually dig 44 holes, two and a half feet (1 meter) deep, using only crowbars. For four weeks we dug, hauled, and hammered under a sweltering equatorial sun. Tempers flared, marriage counseling was required, but we managed to build a beautiful house, and we all got the best tans of our lives.

Sometimes spreading the dream around is the best way to make it happen. 

Follow the Rule of Thumb 
"Beyond assembling Ikea furniture, none of us had any building experience. So Sarah and I enrolled in Power Tools 101, a free one-hour course at the Home Depot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where a man with a missing thumb taught us how to safely build a very nice flower box."
Count Your Chickens 
"Angaur has an informal barter economy, and food is a form of currency. One batch of concrete, for example, might cost a frozen chicken. You can trade ground beef for washed sand or two cans of tuna for a load of gravel." 

Keep it Simple 
"The easiest structure to build is a post-and-beam house that sits on wooden poles cemented into the ground—basically, a deck with a roof. For walls, we used canvas panels made by a South African safari outfitter. We went with an L-shape design to maximize ocean views. Later, we realized that a square house would have had 25 percent more living space for about the same amount of materials."
Ask Nicely
"With up to 14 of us sharing one bathroom during construction, people skills, not building skills, were essential. For example, how do you gently reprimand a friend after he has spent all day building your house? Um, excuse me, Darren. I know your hands are bleeding and you fell off that truss today, but would you mind, you know, cleaning the bathroom? It's your turn."


The Pioneer: Master of his own domain
 king of Pacific Island escapists, William Marsters was partial to seclusion, driftwood architecture, and local wives (he had four of them at once). In 1863 the British sailor jumped ship and took a job on remote Palmerston Atoll, in the Cook chain, watching over a Scottish landowner's coconuts. He never went back. Instead he established an eccentric dynasty on the mile-wide islet where for a century everyone shared the same last name. Today there are some 50 Marsterses on the island, as distant as ever from the rest of the world, with no airstrip and only a narrow anchorage, 270 miles (435 kilometers) from the Cook capital of Rarotonga.

Dial In: A room with a view
The South Pacific is a tough commute, but your hideaway can be as near as your own backyard. A growing number of card-carrying adults are getting away from it all in custom-built tree houses. "It's incredible. The market is just booming right now," says Pete Nelson, owner of Seattle-based TreeHouse Workshop Inc. (, who has his hands full keeping up with an ever-increasing demand.

Nelson, along with firms such as Philadelphia's Living Tree LLC, is building arboreal retreats tricked out with skylights, multiple stories, stained glass, and dining rooms. "They can range from a garden shed on stilts to a $200,000 palace in the trees, complete with washer and dryer," says Anna Daeuble of TreeHouse Workshop. Advances in the field, such as the Garnier Limb, an artificial branch that can support up to 9,000 pounds (4,082 kilograms), have allowed designers to build structures with all the comforts of home. Your island has only one skinny palm tree? No problem. You can build your nest on a pole-mounted platform ($6,000;

Gear Up: Dome-icile
The quickest route to a private bungalow in the great outdoors is a yurt. You can have the traditional Mongolian abode set up and serving solitude in two days with any one of a number of ready-made kits. Models from the Colorado Yurt Company ($5,145; come with a variety of wall heights, optional cold-weather insulation, and other bells and whistles. (French doors, anyone?)


How to Sail Around the World and Surf >>

How to Build an Island Dream House (For $15,000) >>

How to Drive a VW Van  From California to Uganda >>

How to Retrace the 1912 Race to the South Pole >>

How to Do Humanitarian Aid Work in Africa >>

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Our October 2006 issue features how to live your Adventure dreamTanzania's man-eating lions; outdoor activities in San FranciscoWorld Class adventure travel trips; and more!

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