Richard, Becky and their dog Summer.
The following selection is my personal narrative, written for THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS, that recaptures the construction of my own cordwood abode.
The notorious winter of '79 left me with an empty oil tank, a barren pocket book, wood choppers back and a mind whirling with fresh fantasies of building my own home.
One -20 below zero night in January, while burning the midnight oil and pouring over a growing pile of how-to-build books, I happened upon an article describing cordwood masonry construction. The crisp, beautiful color photos enticed me and the ensuing narrative whetted my imagination with its low cost, owner built, sweat equity appeal, Cordwood construction was, most definitely worthy of further serious investigation.
I quickly got hold of three books on the construction technique and learned that it's been used for centuries. After reading and rereading each text and working out some seat-of-the-pants calculations, I was convinced that cordwood was -- considering our self-imposed financial restrictions -- our only choice. My wife, Rebecca, and I spent the next weeks with a tape measure, graph paper, pencil, protractor, and a big eraser experimenting with a floor plan and overall design that'd be acceptable to us as well as to the plumbing and electrical contractors. After no fewer than 30 revisions, we finally settled on a 1,200 square foot rectangular structure (1,064 feet of inside area) with a peaked 8/12 pitch roof and an extra 560 square feet of "second story" living space built into the pre-engineered trusses.
Though almost any debarked and dried softwood is considered acceptable for stack wall construction, we chose to use red cedar for practical and aesthetic reasons. For one, if offers fine insulating qualities (with an R value of about 1.25 per inch, or 6 times that of common brick) in addition to being naturally decay-resistant.
Our foundation was a conventional 30' x 40' insulated concrete floating slab, poured by a local contractor and finished with an anchor-bolted framework of pressure treated 2 x 12's. The cedar posts -- set wherever possible on 8' centers -- rested on these sill plates and were tied together at their upper ends with doubled 2 x 10 top plates. Door and window openings were, likewise, framed with treated dimensional lumber. Erecting our home's structural skeleton was actually easier than we thought it'd be and demanded only the most basic of carpentry tools and skills. We had the entire frame up in no time and were eager to start "mudding up" the walls.
We set the cedar logs into the frame one row at a time, spreading mortar over the top of each row to a thickness of about 3/4" and covering only 3" of the outer and inner edges of each round. The hollows created in the center could then be filled with an insulating mix of 3 parts dry sawdust to 1 part hydrated lime. Though we all tried the traditional troweling method of applying our mud, I soon preferred to scoop the mortar up in my rubber-gloved hands and plop it in place. This shortcut technique yielded a near professional look.
After not quite three months of spare-time building, we'd reached the point where we were ready to begin work on our home's roof and upper story. The upstairs isn't a true second level, but a living space designed into the center of our roof trusses that now boasts two bedrooms, a play area, a half-bath, and ample closet storage. The job went more slowly than expected, though, as late summer rainstorms hampered our efforts to sheathe and shingle the roof. By mid-August the house was finally securely covered...and, after breathing a deep sigh of relief, we mounted the windows and doors in their previously framed openings. Our cordwood home was after five months of on-again, off-again work, dried in and protected from the winter.
The snows of Wisconsin's worst season saw us finishing the upstairs floor and the stairway, and furring our selected walls on the main level in preparation for nailing up local Norway pine panel boards. By spring we were ready to sell our house in town, use the equity to finish our new home, and make our move to the country.
30 Years After
It's been 30 mortgage-free years since we laid our first cedar log ends in 1979. The house still gives us a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. In addition to having an energy efficient home to live in, we have had the pleasure of helping many others pursue their dream of hand-built, home ownership. The cedar cordwood walls have held up very well indeed and our home is low maintenance; warm in the winter, cool in the summer and easy to heat. Would we do it again? Ya sure you betcha!.
On a personal note
Richard taught and tested children with Learning Disabilities for 33 years. Recently retired from teaching, he still works as a special education consultant. Richard his wife Becky spend their time reading, gardening, volunteering, and cutting firewood. They enjoy traveling, often in conjunction with conducting cordwood workshops. They are currently working on a new book about building the Cordwood Education Center at the Merrill School Forest (working title: Cordwood Cabin). Becky is a talented cook, seamstress, gardener and a retired elementary school teacher. They have two adult children.