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Reprinted with permission from Cottage Magazine® September/October 2004

Michael Love text and photos

From the road, Vanscoy looks like a typical Saskatchewan highway town: houses spread out behind a hotel, a combination gas station/post office and a cafe. And curiously, stackwall, or cordwood masonry, building that houses the local insurance agent. The one-storey building, built of round logs embedded in cement and which looks more like a pioneer cabin than a business, enjoys a certain fame among alternative building devotees, as does its original owner, Cliff Shockey.

Possibly accustomed to the curious, the current owner seems happy to point the way to Cliff’s acreage, the first driveway off a gravel road a little further along the highway. If the two stackwall lamp posts aren’t evidence enough, a hand-painted sign adorned by a pair of moose antlers reads “Sylvie and Cliff.”

At the end of the tree-lined driveway, Sylvie Francoeur is lifting sod to make room for a new perennial bed. After the introductions and compliments on the beauty of the yard, she admits to being a bit concerned – a garden tour is scheduled in the coming weeks, and although they’ve received a few inches of much-needed rain, things are starting to dry out again.

Across the driveway, in the doorway of the barn, Cliff, her husband, is deep in conversation over a Rototiller with their new tenant, who is in the process of moving into the smaller of two stackwall houses on the property.

At 68, Cliff is lean, tanned and unassuming. On the white T-shirt he wears – when he apologizes for how dirty it is, Sylvie quips that he’s just a dirty old man – the words “Get A Life” read like friendly encouragement to make the most of every minute.

It’s early Monday afternoon, but Cliff and Sylvie have already golfed 18 holes, and then returned to tend to the acreage, where the grass is neatly cut and the barn, garage and various outbuildings look as though they were painted just yesterday.

If today the yard is well-turned out, it wasn’t always. Back in 1972, when Cliff bought the quarter section between Vanscoy and Saskatoon, there was enough junk to fuel his appetite for creative reuse and recycling for the next 12 years. At the time the 1916-vintage barn, which now houses their woodshop and root cellar, was twice its current footprint. As one of his first projects, Cliff halved it lengthwise, recovering timbers that had once been used for concrete forms during construction of one of Saskatoon’s bridges across the North Saskatchewan River.

 

A great deal of that wood saw a third life in the first home he constructed, a 600-square-foot cordwood masonry house. It was a building technique that he became fascinated with at about the same time as he reached the end of the road with the house that came with the property, a classic, but hopelessly energy-inefficient farmhouse. Infilling the post-and-beam frame with cordwood was a nine-month project that he finished in 1978.

What earned Cliff notoriety in the stackwall fraternity was partly his choice of building materials. Alternative builders usually emphasize local materials, and he is no exception – his walls are a mixture of recycled utility poles and salvaged cedar fence posts, both of which were more readily available than a supply of mature trees. And it’s material with personality all its own. To illustrate, Cliff follows a jagged groove that cuts towards the centre of a log face with his finger, then points to a small clump of flattened metal. “They’re bullets,” he says. He found a few of them as he was cutting the poles down to eight-inch rounds.

If you’ve read anything about cordwood masonry, you’re probably wondering if that’s a mistake. It’s not. Cliff’s double-wall building technique, which incorporates a layer of insulation and a vapour barrier sandwiched between two eight-inch cordwood walls, is real innovation, and won the energy-efficient house design competition Harrowsmith sponsored in 1993.

Longer Journeys
Next year is shaping up to be busier than usual for Cliff Shockey. Concerned about the lack of emphasis on prevention in health care, he and a group of friends plan to walk the length of Saskatchewan, from the border with the Northwest Territories south to the U.S. border. Their objective is to raise funds for a foundation to promote healthy living and illness prevention.

Making use of the winter roads through northern Saskatchewan’s muskeg, the group will start on skis in March 2005.

Although he’s written a book about his technique, Cliff isn’t entirely comfortable with self-promotion, or with the notion of turning a profit from the phone calls he fields from frustrated cordwood enthusiasts, or from the pilgrims who come down his driveway unannounced. “I don’t think we should try to make money on everything,” he says.“We should apply a bit more cooperation and less competition.”

For someone who makes easy conversation, he doesn’t stand still for long. Along with the two cordwood houses sitting side by side in an oasis of green grass and mature trees, there are other milestones along what Cliff thinks of as his journey – the stackwall sauna documented in Rob Roy’s 1996 book The Sauna; a small pagoda that covers the humming SaskPower electrical box in front of the house.

While Cliff sits on the railing of the small bridge that spans a Japanese-inspired garden, showing me the stream that issues from the mouth of an ancient water pump to feed the separate fish and lily ponds, Sylvie bustles in and out of the combination woodshed/garden shed with plastic edging for the new garden. While he expresses some gratitude that my visit has gotten him out of digging a perennial bed in the 26A1C heat of a June afternoon, Sylvie offers a good-natured reminder that what he doesn’t do today, he can do tomorrow, after slow-pitch ball.

FINDING WOOD

Even on the prairie, there’s lots of wood – if you know where to look. Among Cliff Shockey’s favourite wood sources are the deadfall trees you can find in shelter belts. What’s ideal, according to Cliff, are trees that have fallen and dried off the ground, with their bark intact. Green wood shrinks and cracks along the length of the tree when the bark is removed. While that’s not necessarily a problem in more than an aesthetic sense if you’re building with Cliff’s double-wall stackwall technique (because of the vapour barrier), it could mean trouble in a single-layer wall.

Another choice material is cedar power and telephone poles that are replaced over time. Although he doesn’t like to use the bottom six feet, which is treated with creosote, for stackwall building, the butt ends don’t go to waste. Using a portable sawmill, he slices boards to a thickness of between 5DA8 and 3DA4 of an inch, then uses a chainsaw to rip the boards to 30-inch lengths. The result?
Cedar shakes for roofing.

You can find Cliff Shockey’s projects and methods discussed in:

•The Sauna, by Rob Roy. Chelsea Green Publishing, 1996.

•Cordwood Masonry Housebuilding, by Rob Roy. Sterling Publishing, 1992.

•Cordwood Building,The State of the Art, by Rob Roy. New Society Publishers, 2003

•Stackwall Construction: Double Wall Technique Revised, by Cliff Shockey, Huerto Publishing.


Although he and Sylvie golf together regularly, baseball is an enduring summer passion. Cliff was recently inducted into Saskatchewan’s Baseball Hall of Fame, along with the rest of his championship team – 40 years after they won, he notes with a grin. During the winter, his fancy turns to hockey – he plays right wing on an old-timer team.

Log sculptures dot the yard: a golfer, putting in the shade of a Manitoba maple tree (that’s Sylvie – Tiger Mite – Cliff tells me, and adds that she hit just seven over par this morning); a log figure in a batter’s stance; at the corner of the barn, another wields a hoe (that’s Cliff’s job); at the edge of the driveway, in front of a large metal arch that began its life on a steam engine, a straw-hatted log couple share the burden of a bucket. Cliff notes that during one of their absences from the acreage, an unidentified member of their ball team “re-gendered” some of his log sculptures with halved softballs and duct tape, perhaps in retaliation for a visit to their trick outhouse which, among other things, gives its users an unexpected shower, and everyone else a surprise (and possibly surprising) view.

In the shade of the trees behind the mainhouse, which he began in 1980 over the foundation of the original farmhouse, Cliff Shockey is frank: he’s spent a long time studying the pieces of his life to see how they fit together, he says, and how they can be improved. “It’s been my goal to wind up a nice old man,” Cliff says. His book Stackwall Construction: Double Wall Technique Revised counts The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in its references. He has read a lot of self-help and personal development books during a life that has covered a lot of territory – in addition to his time as the owner of an insurance agency, he has worked on highway building crews and for a bearing supply company, been saskatoon berry farmer and, for a number of winters, operated a bed and breakfast in Costa Rica.

The same sense of curiosity – or wonder – that led him down those paths allows him to see possibilities – and to go into them with an open mind. It runs in the family, according to Cliff. On the front of a venerable Volvo tractor is the front-end loader that his brother, who farmed nearby, fashioned from old barrels and cannibalized farm machinery. Facing the barn, the shed that houses the tractor, a trio of canoes, and Cliff’s ride-on lawnmowers – one of which is now powered by a three-cylinder car engine – rests on poles that were once water pipes.

Behind the barn, Cliff and Sylvie, along with their new tenant and another friend, keep extensive vegetable gardens, with seedlings started in a pair of greenhouses. One, which is pyramid-shaped, was an experiment inspired by some reading Cliff did on pyramid power. It turned out to be a good greenhouse, he says, but not necessarily any better than his more conventional version, which contains a canal to nurture lilies for their water garden.

Coming through the workshop, Cliff points to the sewing machine he refitted with a vacuum cleaner motor, which Sylvie uses for stained glass projects. A retired French immersion teacher and school principal, born and raised in one of Saskatchewan’s French enclaves, Sylvie married Cliff in 2002. Since then, the main house has evolved to include her – they’ve added a sunroom off the kitchen and a west-facing deck. Inside, Sylvie’s projects fit right in, literally: her stained glass work adorns the front door and a number of table lamps; above the kitchen counter/eating area, and again in the loft, Sylvie has sandblasted window glass with patterns of birds and symbols from the Chinese calendar.

Cliff and Sylvie work well together, as they proved when they jacked up one of the granaries and stabilized it, and when they took out a wall in the basement to address a mould problem, and in the process created a workshop for Sylvie, who also restores clothing. Over the past winter, they collaborated on the construction of an oak china cabinet – which Cliff notes was the only time in recent memory that he bought wood – and a unique oak casing for their electric baseboard heaters. It’s meticulous work, just like the slatted treads they added to the staircase that spirals around a pole from the basement of the house up to the loft.

And he really doesn’t sit still for very long. A week after we said goodbye at his front door, they’ve torn down another granary and netted some good cedar boards, which he and Sylvie have used to build a box to hide their 200 feet of garden hose. Not that it’s needed right now – they’ve had another three inches of rain, and Cliff says the yard looks just great. And although he’s more than willing to chat, I’m sure they’ve got a long way to go before dark.

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