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Cordwood Masonry

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Defined
Cordwood masonry or what is sometimes called "stackwall" or "stovewood" is a form of house construction that consists of laying whole or split wood, width-wise in a bed of mortar. When looking at a cordwood wall, log ends are the only part of the wood that are visible. The wood actually rests on two mortar beds that are each about 4" thick - one mortar bed is the outside of the wall and the other bed is the inside wall. In between each bed of mortar, insulation in the form of lime treated sawdust or other insulative materials fill in any empty space between the logs and mortar. The thickness of the wall is determined by the length of the cordwood used. Typically, walls are anywhere from 6" to 24" thick depending upon the builder's need for energy efficiency.

Cordwood Lodge - Upper Wisconsin

Cliff Shockey of Skaskatchewan, Canada uses two cordwood walls. Each wall is made up of 8" of cordwood and a layer of mortar. Insulation and a vapor barrier are sandwiched between the walls. This method makes for a greater energy efficiency and less air infiltration. Although you would think your labor would be double in such a method, it is not. Pointing the mortar only needs to be done on the outside and inside facing walls.

History
In an article titled "Poor Man's Architecture" appearing in Harrowsmith No. 15, writer David Square says, "Curiously, the origin of the technique remains mysteriously obscure. In Siberia and in the northern areas of Greece, stackwall structures estimated to be 1,000 years old are still standing. Yet no one is certain where it all began."

Stovewood House, Old World Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, cordwood houses started appearing with the first settlers. Old World Wisconsin is a village that is made comprised of early settler's houses that were built throughout the state by immigrants. In the village, there is a cedar cordwood house that was built by Polish immigrants sometime in the 1880's. Their chicken coop was built right into the side of the house. This very well may be the first documented case of a cordwood chicken coop!

By the way, the house pictured here is not on its original foundation. The house was taken down log by log, each log numbered in sequence and then rebuilt at Old World Wisconsin. The logs in this house are over 100 years old and still look like they were cut only a few years back.

Rob Roy states in his book Cordwood Masonry Housebulding  "Cordwood building is rather simple and that spontaneously people around the world figured out how to make cordwood houses by stacking cordwood. It's one of history's mysteries."

 

What are the advantages of building a cordwood house?

Southern Cordwood House, Georgia
  1. Cost - The cost of building a cordwood house can be considerably less than a standard wood frame house. It all depends how much of the labor you can do yourself and it depends how frugal you are in finding all of the necessary components to build the house. After reading numerous books and listening to those who have built, you can easily cut your building costs in half compared to a standard wood frame house built by contractors. It's a lot of your own labor, but your labor is cheap!

  2. Energy Efficiency - Cordwood houses provide two benefits: good insulative values and thermal mass.  Since the inside mortar joints are insulated from the outside wall, the mortar acts as thermal mass to keep your house at a more consistent temperature. The cordwood itself is sort of an insulator and the density of the wood will have a slight effect on its efficiency. Sawdust or other materials fill in the cavity between the mortar and help insulate the walls. Cliff Shockey has written a book Stackwall Construction - Double Wall Technique.

    Cliff lives in Saskatchewan, Canada and knows what it's like to build houses in cold climates. In his book, he discusses the benefits to building two cordwood walls with a vapor barrier and insulation in between. With this technique, you can expect to gain even greater energy efficiency.

    Rob Roy states that a 16" cordwood wall has approximately an R value of 20. Cliff states that a 24" (8" cordwood + 8" insulation + 8" cordwood) double wall has an R value of 40. Cliff's double wall technique is more time consuming and may require additional post and beam framing, but for those who want a better R value this might be the way to go.

  3. Ecology Friendly - Although a cordwood house uses natural resources, it is made of materials that you can "harvest" yourself. There's nothing wrong with thinning trees from a woodlot when a woodlot is managed properly. By cutting your own

    Double Wall Cordwood, Alberta, Canada

    wood, you have control over preventing any ecological damage to the land and animals. You can also recycle glass bottles and use them in construction of your walls. The walls look nice with colorful bottles.

  4. Easy to Build - Cordwood houses don't take a lot of skill to build. As long as you are capable of stacking logs with mortar and have basic carpentry skills, it's not too difficult to do yourself. Just make sure that you have the necessary building code approvals ahead of time. Rob Roy also has workshops available if you would like to try your hand at it before attempting to build it by yourself.

  5. Pride - There's a lot of pride and joy associated with building your own dwelling. Cordwood houses make it possible for just about anyone to experience the thrill of building your own house.

  6. Fire Resistance - In the 1994 CoCoCo (Continental Cordwood Conference) papers, there's a good article on fire penetration and flame spread of a cordwood house. The article discusses a real life fire that occurred when a propane-fired freezer exploded. Although the house did eventually burn, it took a two days for the house to be destroyed. The insurance company after witnessing this, dropped their insurance rates on cordwood houses finding them far superior to conventional stick frame houses.

 

What are the disadvantages of building a cordwood house?

  1. Time Consuming - Building a cordwood house will take more time to build than a conventional house. Depending upon how much free time you have will determine how long it will take you to build. Building a   cordwood house is labor intensive. You're making a trade here with your time vs. your money.

  2. Resellability - I don't know if this is a big problem or not. I haven't seen too many cordwood houses on the market, but it might be harder to sell a cordwood house just by the mere fact that most people have never heard nor seen a cordwood house. But then again, once you live in your own cordwood house, why would you ever want to leave?

  3. Building Permits - Although I had no problem in getting our building permit, I'm sure that it would be more difficult to obtain a permit in urban areas. Residential areas are always more stringent on building permits. Again, most people (including building inspectors) have never heard nor seen a cordwood house and are surely going to be skeptical of its integrity.

  4. It's Addicting - After you build your first, your likely to want to build another...

 

Hutchnden House Bed & Breakfast, Ontario, Canada

Where to go from here?
If you would like to find out more about cordwood masonry, there's a number of good books describing most aspects of cordwood houses. Here's a list of books available on the subject (most sold throught the authors listed in the Meet the Masons section) or visit our Links page to view some of the Internet sites available on the web.