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Reprinted with permission from Back Home Spring 1992


My Catalpa Cottage
Build a house for $10 a square foot? You bet I did!
By David Crouch



The old house that stood on the little Missouri farm I'd bought 11 years before was the only original structure still standing. The barn and a smattering of outbuildings had succumbed to my wrecking bar and had been replaced over time. I have nothing against old buildings, you understand, but everything has its useful life span, and—one by one—each structure had outlived it.

Yet I and the old house, which was built in the 1880s, had coexisted in an uneasy truce from the beginning. Sometimes the truce was broken, and open conflict would break out. It was cheaply constructed to begin with and had been through a succession of owners who'd merrily rebuilt, remodeled, and refurbished without ever correcting the basic structural problems—which by now were celebrating their centennial.

At some point I just made up my mind that "quaint" and "romantic" don't apply to homes with crippled, floor-warping foundations, supporting walls innocent of insulation, and windows so drafty that even a hotly blazing woodstove could be rendered ineffective.

Eventually, the conflict escalated to the degree that I moved my things out, salvaged what I could from the empty carcass, and burned it to the ground. I celebrated by hauling off nails and rubble.

Step By Step
I wanted to build a new house on the old site and thus "recycle" the shade trees, driveway, and utilities already in place. What I didn't want was to make a financial epic out of the project. On the other hand, I knew that whatever came of it had to be a solid, low-maintenance home attractive enough to appeal to just about anybody, and adaptable to a variety of floor layouts. I also was set on doing everything I could myself to save money.

The cost, I knew, would be measured in time and effort, with a small surcharge for imagination. Fortunately, during construction I could settle into a house my parents owned just down the road (they'd moved into town), so I didn't have to live right in the midst of confusion.

Like most people in my self-reliant shoes, I'd considered many different types of house construction over the years. . . but kept coming back to cordwood, or "stackwall" as it's sometimes called. The old Mother Earth News had done a few articles on this type of construction some years back, and I'd bought books by Jack Henstridge, Rob Roy, and Richard Flatau, all of which stressed the how-to aspects and personal experience [Editor's note: see information at article's end.]

Armed with this information, I decided I'd build a prototype structure, in the form of a 16' X 20' workshop, to house my antiques business and my bee-honey sideline. It was a good idea. For a total cost of about $2,500, I got a large work space, oozing with charm and rustic simplicity, and also gained the benefit of real hands-on experience in building a cordwood structure complete with wiring, plumbing, telephone, and gas heat.

By the time this was completed, I had a realistic sense of how long it would take to build a house and what would work in the way of design. I'd been stockpiling materials from auctions, scrounging for years, and spending evenings with pencil, rule, and graph paper laying out a workable plan.

The 1,076-square-foot house would be compact, naturally lit by day, and designed with short and accessible plumbing supply and waste lines. Countertops and cabinets were precious; no space was to be left lacking for use. Since I had no intention of paying a mortgage, I forced myself to work within a budget that'd be modest by anyone's measure.

For a project such as this, having a supply of dry, bark-free wood is paramount. Green stock will shrink as it dries, leaving air gaps as it pulls away from the mortar. I used a species known as catalpa, often grown in local groves, because of its natural rot resistance and clean-splitting characteristics. I culled some dead
trees from a grove my great-grandfather planted in 1907, and neighbor Larry May contributed some from old plantings on his farm.

In all, it took ten pickup loads of cut wood to stack the perimeter walls of the 24' X 32' cottage. Because only the end grain of the log is exposed, different kinds of wood could be used as long as the species isn't insect- prone, or naturally punky like willow. Of course, I kept the wood covered and off the ground prior to
construction so it wouldn't absorb moisture and swell up.

To prepare for the cordwood walls, I built forms and excavated trenches for the utility and waste lines and for the foundation slab. Moisture and settling are sworn enemies of cordwood, so I budgeted enough to include a heavy polyethylene vapor barrier beneath the 18-1/2 yards of concrete strengthened with reinforcing mesh and bar. The site was also graded to carry water away from, rather than toward, the foundation.

While the concrete was curing, I made the 12 X 12 posts and box beams to support the second floor and roof. For this I salvaged a load of 2 X 10 lumber from an old hotel and used some 2 X 12s to frame out the double-glazed sliding windows I'd bought beforehand, along with the patio door and insulated entry door. Having the units on hand while stacking helped a great deal in sizing the openings correctly.

Down to Business
After several false starts, my hired man, Corky Evans, and I were ready to begin laying up the splits and rounds. If you're considering cordwood construction, take my advice and plan to get some help. Even with two willing people, it is slow going and has hard work written all over it. You can look forward to lifting, stretching, mixing, and a lot of up-and-down-the-scaffold legwork.

Speaking of mixing, I don't suggest preparing the mortar by hand, even though you might save some money. The used mixer I bought prevented me from giving up in disgust or having a housewarming to coincide with the next appearance of Halley's Comet.
Our formula was three parts sand, two parts sawdust, one part Portland cement, and one part lime, mixed dry before adding water to bring the blend to a workable consistency. While Corky tended to that, I got the wood supply ready, prepared buckets of sawdust, and set the string line to keep the cordwood courses level.

We used parallel mortar beds at each log end, and filled the space between with dry sawdust for its insulative value. The dust was provided free of charge by a local sawmill owner. It took over 500 cubic feet of the stuff to make the mortar and fill the walls.

The procedure was to stack the wood back and forth between the framing posts, tucking in the mortar around the wood chunks to make a good seal. I set glass cylinders cut from champagne bottles randomly within the wall just to add some visual interest. By the way, rubber gloves are a must when working in this manner, since the alkaline mortar burns skin easily.

With the walls packed to the headers, my prefab trusses were ready to be set into place. I consider the $900 spent on these 18 assemblies well worth the expense, since they afforded me an additional 416 square feet of living space on the second floor and provided a strong and consistent base for the plasterboard and finish work that came later.

The trusses were set on 24" centers and braced, the porch posts and rafters were nailed in along the south and east walls, and everything was covered with sheathing. To wrap up the drying-in work before the winter season, we hung the windows and doors, installed the vents, skylight, and attic fan, then finished the roofing—complete with full-perimeter galvanized drip edge and eave gutters to carry rainwater away from the house. Six months had passed since first breaking ground.

Flexibility Pays
The following spring, I dove into the interior and made good progress working mostly alone. Electrical and insulation work came first. The interior walls went up quickly, followed by fir flooring, carpet, and bathroom fixtures. I'm presently building kitchen cabinets made from the fir planking I salvaged for the floors.

Give or take a few dollars, the total cost of my home—including materials, machine hire, outside labor, plumbing, electrical, heating, air-conditioning, fixtures, draperies, paint, a cedar closet, and marble counter- tops—is $11,500.

How can I build a house for $10.69 per square foot when the going average is well over $75 in many places? The key is flexibility.

Think about yourself. Are you willing to settle for a high-quality used brown carpet rather than a new peach-colored one? How about a clean commode in white with a new $10 seat instead of spending $300 for a store-bought model in mauve? Can you afford to save $3,000? Buy a book on cabinet making and build your own cabinets.

Barter, swap, and shop around. One of the best building-material bargain sources I've found is at a flea market in a large city; people in the construction trades take their leftovers there to get rid of them. And don't overlook the newspaper classifieds, either.

Finally, be prepared to do the bulk of the work yourself to save money—professional tradesmen are expensive. If you 1) invest $50 or $100 in good how-to books, 2) align yourself with a good old-fashioned lumber yard and ask a lot of questions, and 3) swallow your fear of making mistakes, you may just surprise yourself with what you can do when your put your mind—and back—into a special project.

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