With Hand Tools and Less Than $100,000, They Built Their Dream Cottage

A fish house and toolshed turned into guest quarters complete the off-grid Harpswell compound.

Jim and Casha Kerney's off-grid compound in Harpswell

Jim and Casha Kerney designed their Harpswell property’s primary cottage on a white board, then hired architect-turned-chocolatier Dean Bingham, of Portland’s Dean’s Sweets, to draw up plans. Wooden walkways connect it to a renovated fish house — towed over by a previous owner and perched on stilts — and toolshed they rehabbed with lumber and windows from the 1980s log cabin they tore down.

By Sarah Stebbins
Photos by Meredith Brockington
From our July 2023 issue

Jim Kerney had been summering on Harpswell’s Long Island for a decade when he decided to trade the tidy cottage he’d built for a motley crew of structures on a nearby slice of waterfront. “Friends were like, ‘You walked away from that to buy this?’” says Jim, referring to the dilapidated log cabin, fish house, toolshed, and outhouse he purchased at a bank auction, in 1997. But he soon fixed them up and turned the non-outhouse outbuildings into guest quarters. After marrying his wife, Casha, in 2003, the two dreamed up a shingled cottage to replace the dark, awkwardly laid-out log cabin. They demoed the structure themselves, hired a contractor to frame the cottage, and spent a winter kayaking to the off-grid island on weekends to finish the build with hand tools. Creature comforts now include solar power, running water, and a composting toilet — “it’s like glamping,” Jim says.

Living Area

Jim estimates the couple spent less than $100,000 to build their cottage, in part, by DIYing finish work such as the pine paneling and flooring and kitchen cabinetry. His dad constructed the staircase (oars from the couple’s barn serve as railings) and Jim trimmed down his parents’ old kitchen table to create a coffee table with a checkerboard Casha painted on top.


In the former toolshed, cockapoo Ziggy chills on a platform bed designed by Jim to allow guests a slivered water view when they wake up. He built it, the nightstands, and many other furnishings in the couple’s Cape Elizabeth basement, then motored them to the island in his center-console boat. To brighten the shady building, Casha whitewashed the walls and implemented a red-and-mustard-yellow color scheme.

Dining Area

Nautical charts the Kerneys have used on sailing cruises decorate the cottage and inspired its pale-blue, white, and khaki palette. The pine dining table was built by Jim’s dad. Other furnishings, like the sofas and ottoman in the adjacent sunroom, are largely “old things we had and recovered,” says Casha, who works in the sewing workroom at Portland’s Home Remedies.

Fish House

“This is the highly sought-after guest quarters,” Jim says. “You’re right there with the fish, seals, and lobsterboats. But you’ve got to be ready for sun at 5 in the morning.” Vandalized when Jim acquired it, the cabin sported a spray-painted nude on the wood floor and other graffiti that Casha scrubbed off with nail-polish remover. Later, they raised the ceiling, installed pine paneling, and leaned into a marine theme with walls in Benjamin Moore’s Palladian Blue and a mounted blue marlin.

Window Seat

In the toolshed, a window seat Jim built provides storage, a bed for a child, and a view of the compound. When friends visit, the couple hosts evening lobster bakes on the fish house’s deck. “No plates,” Jim says. “We serve the lobsters on the railing, you throw the shells and goop into the water, and, by morning, the crabs have removed it all.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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