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Designing the Hobbit Homestead

Tom Huber
January 1, 2003

J.R.R. Tolkien's imaginative writings about hobbits and their beloved Shire resonate so deeply because it awakens in us our primordial past of living simply and closely with the land. This romantic vision is still very much alive today in the post-modern world and calls to us as a way of restoring harmony in the design and construction of our home places.

Those of us drawn to the use of natural building methods feel the magnetic pull of nature's call to design human habitats in greater accord with the living world. Once our imagination has been ignited in this way we look to the elements of nature (sun, stone, wood, and earth) to create our dwellings. This short narrative is offered in support of realizing hobbit-like forms of human habitation, which incorporate the magical qualities of building with nature's art.

In my view, this vision is best represented by an interdisciplinary system of design known as permaculture. We are all grateful to Alan Stankevitz for and the outstanding work he has done in providing an exceptional array of resources on cordwood masonry. But it is his inclusion of permaculture, homesteading skills, and renewable energy resources that reflects his broad genius and gift to those who build with ecosystems in mind. It is within this context of designing human habitats, which have the diversity and resilience of natural ecosystems, that my wife Holly and I chose to build with cordwood and stone.

Stone and Cordwood: The Perfect Combination
My introduction to the masonry arts came as an unexpected by-product of exploring the pioneering homesteading accomplishments of Helen and Scott Nearing. The Nearings' decision to build with stone came early in their homesteading efforts, and they were most responsible for popularizing the slipform method of stone masonry. This method uses short movable forms to guide the laying of stones within a concrete matrix, and are continuously "slipped" upward as the wall takes shape.

Being a complete novice, I was hesitant to build an entire house out of stone. I was constantly attempting to figure out an easier way to construct beautiful homemade structures without having to endure all the labor of lifting and placing so many stones (and forms) so high off the ground. It was during this time that I came across one of Rob Roy's books on cordwood masonry. The photo on the front page showed a structure that initially looked like it was made of stone. Something clicked inside - I found the missing piece.

After more research and consultation with the cordwood leaders of the day, a creative synthesis was born. I decided I would combine both stone and cordwood masonry to create beautiful, solid works of art. I would use my own adapted forms to create a two foot high stone wall, and then use cordwood masonry to finish the walls the rest of the way. I figured it would be much easier to position log-ends one at a time than to continue raising the slipforms and all the stone and concrete to fill the forms. The two-foot high stone portion of the wall provides stability and raises the cordwood portion higher off grade, where the wood will be less prone to degradation. Stone and cordwood also complement one another aesthetically speaking to create picturesque dwellings.

After looking at many pieces of property, in the spring of 1996 my wife Holly and I purchased 20 acres of rolling hills and wooded ridges in Keeler Township of Van Buren County in southwest lower Michigan. The land possessed a good crop of pine trees, which needed thinning and stone piles collected by generations of previous farmers. We now had the beginnings of our building materials for stone and cordwood constructed structures.

The first year we planted a tree nursery, established a fruit orchard, and built a small tool shed and larger structure of stone and cordwood referred to as the lodge. We added a stone porch to the lodge the second year, and a tractor lean-to was attached to the small shed. We also harvested scores of pine trees for future cordwood projects. The lodge became a partial residence and storehouse for building materials for the house, which was to follow in 1998. The most important event in 1997 occurred just after the summer solstice: the home birth of our second daughter, Ivy Seneca. Our three-year-old daughter Hannah now had a little sister. Life was good although challenging at times to keep the proper balance between, work, family, and play.

Simple, Passive, and Massive
After designing many different homes, we finally built one to best utilize the southern exposure of our site, which was also sheltered from the northern winter wind by rows of conifer trees. We decided to attach a saltbox shaped passive solar house to the west side of the lodge. Our home is "simple, passive, and massive." The tall south-facing wall incorporates the proper amount of glazing to capture passive solar gain for heating and daylighting. The overall floor plan is open and simple by utilizing a post and beam framework. Not only are some of the beams massive, but an ample amount of thermal mass has been incorporated in the form of an insulated concrete slab, stone and cordwood masonry in the west wall (of the lodge), and a fieldstone faced masonry stove in the center of the house. (For back up heat we installed an in-floor hydronic system.) This thermal mass quotient moderates the interior temperature of the home year round, keeping it warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

The posts, girders, loft floor joists, stairway stringers and stairs, wavy-edged siding and trim boards were all ordered from a mill near my hometown in the central Michigan area. Our cut list specified that all but the siding boards be kiln-dried for stability purposes. This decision to work with a mill was not only cost-effective, but also added to the rustic appearance of the home by using rough cut materials. We used white metal roofing on all our buildings to reflect the high summer sun and assist in collecting rainwater.

Other building materials and energy efficiency strategies we've used in our construction projects include: insulated concrete forms, rubble trenches, frost protected shallow foundations, Reflectix radiant barriers, insulated window shades, a whole house attic exhaust fan, and an acid-based cola-colored stain for our concrete floors.

An Earl Young Stone Home
Charlevoix, Michigan

Playful Projects
Over the last couple of years we have experimented with paper enhanced mortars (beginning with a cordwood cathouse) which show a lot of promise in reducing shrinkage and cracking while improving R-values. Receiving inspiration from the stone work of Michigander Earl Young, we recently changed out the east wall of the lodge to include larger stones at its base on the exterior with four inches of polystyrene foam sandwiched between shorter log-ends on the interior. Of all the various ways of combining stone and cordwood this is currently my preferred method. The larger boulder-like stones can be simply leaned into the foam panels without the use of any forms. Brick ties are fastened to short pieces of wire pulled through the foam to tie together the stone and cordwood parts of the wall. After the stone portion of the wall is constructed, 16-inch log-ends are used to bridge the stone-foam-cordwood joint and to complete the rest of the wall.

Using larger stone and cordwood in this way combined with earth-berming and passive solar design principles can result in the creation of magical, hobbit-looking homes that are energy-efficient and relatively simple for the owner/builder to erect. The use of cedar posts and fanciful-looking cordwood rounds completes the whimsical design and brings delight to the eye.

From the very beginning it was the beauty of stone and cordwood that captured my imagination, and most likely this same attractive force will keep me under its spell well into the future….

Editor's note:
All photographs in this document may be enlarged by clicking over the image.