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From House & Home Magazine, January 1988
Mother Earth News Specials
Vol. 1, No. 5

Shelter by The Cord

How we managed to build a house and beat the system in only 18 months by using firewood for walls.

By Richard Flatau

Photographs by Michael Soluri

Eight years ago, my family and I made a decision. It wasn't an easy one, and the path it led us down was even more difficult. But that decision, I can't help but feel, changed our lives for the better in more ways than you can imagine.

We wanted a house of our own-one without a landlord, a whopping utility bill or a mortgage payment to scrape up every month. That's a tall order anywhere, and especially here in northern Wisconsin, where the winters are as much a financial burden as a physical one. But I had a master plan—one that would allow us to move onto 40 acres of glaciated forest we'd already paid for and live, free and clear, in a cozy home that cost no more than $15,000.

Richard and Rebecca Flatau stretched $15,000 into 1,624 square feet of cordwood comfort.

I didn't just pick that figure out of a hat.It was all we had to work with, and it would come from our savings, biweekly paychecks, insurance policies and proceeds from the sale of the mortgaged home we were living in. I'd spent a good part of the winter brooding over information on budget housing, log homes, pole buildings, stone and rammed-earth structures, geodesic domes, earth-sheltered houses and solar homes of every description. Only one building method—cordwood construction—would allow us to put up a shell for $5,000 and leave enough to finish it comfortably.

The three books I had on the construction technique indicated that it's been used for centuries and goes by the name log-end or stackwall building. All described a procedure in which l' to 2' lengths of one-hand diameter logs are stacked like firewood and mortared together. Today, a mixture of cement, sand, lime and sawdust is most often used to bond the ends, and the centergaps are insulated with sawdust and lime, cellulose, polystyrene or fiberglass stuffing.

Afloat in an ocean of cordwood facts, my wife, Rebecca, and I spent several weeks with a tape measure, a pencil, graph paper and the world's most abused eraser sketching up floor plans and working drawings that would be acceptable to us and to the plumbing and electrical contractors we'd have to deal with. After some 30 revisions, we finally settled on a l,064-square-foot, rectangular structure with an 8-in-12 pitch peak and an extra 560 square feet of living area built into the pre-engineered roof trusses.

With the design roughed out, I was able to start working up an accurate materials and tool list, hoping that nothing would shatter our self-imposed budget. Surprise cost increases weren't planned for; if any showed up, we'd have to do our best to work around them or do without. Working with a strictly limited amount of money, we simply had no other choice.

Inch by Inch, Row by Row
Almost any debarked and dried softwood is acceptable for stackwall construction, and we chose to use red cedar. It offers fine insulating qualities (six times that of common brick) and is naturally decay-resistant. It also has a light, pleasant appearance, a refreshing fragrance and is available here in rural Wisconsin at an appealing price.

Even so, we had to get the equivalent of 14 cords from four different sources that we located through a newspaper ad and the state Department of Natural Resources. The people at the Forest Service generously provided the names of some timber cutters who'd applied for cedar permits. I dickered with them for most of the wood, and hauled it off myself for about $25 an uncut cord.

Lucky for me, the entire supply was already dry and largely debarked. I stripped the stubborn trunks with a peeling spud and rented a cutoff saw to trim the timbers down to 12 1/2"-long rounds, splitting the thickest ones to hasten the drying process. The straightest and sturdiest logs were cut to 8 ' lengths and squared on two sides at the local sawmill to become the post-and-beam framework of the cordwood walls.

With the rough material ready at a moment's notice, we were free to dive knee-deep into construction. Our foundation was a 30 ' X 40' insulated concrete slab, poured by a local contractor and finished with an anchor bolted framework of pressure-treated 2 X l2's. The cedar posts, set on 8' centers where possible, were nailed to these sill plates and tied together at the upper ends with doubled 2 X 10 top plates. To make it easier to fit the doors and windows, their rough openings were also framed with dimensional lumber. Surprisingly, we had the whole frame up in less than three weeks and were ready to start slinging logs and mud at the walls.

All my reading stressed the importance of choosing the correct mortar mix. One author-builder, Rob Roy, suggested using sawdust to improve the insulating qualities of the wall and to make the mortar set better, so I included it in my recipe. It consists of three parts coarse sand, one part Portland cement, one part hydrated lime, three parts damp softwood sawdust and enough water to make a thick, workable mud. This time-tested ratio has a nice, light gray color, sets up slowly, holds a pretty tight bond to the wood and theoretically provides an insulation barrier superior to that of a wood-free mortar blend.
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 in the center could then be filled with an insulating mix of three parts dry sawdust to one part agricultural lime. Though we all tried troweling the mud onto the joints in a traditional manner, it wasn't long before we were simply plopping it in place with our rubber-gloved hands and crowing over the near-professional look.

It took only a day's labor to realize how incredibly handy the post-and-beam framework actually was. With two people working, we laid up one 8' -square wall section in just eight hours at an expenditure of only $34.57-not bad for first-time masons!

As the walls rose, the structure took on the appearance of a stone fortress, and visitors began rolling in to gawk, talk and even work. Commentary fell into two categories: the negative, based largely on cordwood's distance from mainstream architecture, and the positive, reveling in its simplicity, use of indigenous materials and potential for owner-building.

In the many weeks it took to complete the walls of our new house, I had plenty of opportunity to appreciate the "sweat equity" concept that most stackwood builders are so enthusiastic about. Besides the $350 worth of red cedar we bought, we had to purchase only cement ($140), 11 yards of sand ($35) and 30 bags of hydrated lime plus one bulk load of "barn" lime ($80). Since all our sawdust was given to us by the sawmill, the total cost for putting up all the structure's walls—l,120 square feet of surface area came to $605, a saving of about 260% over stud-wall construction.

After almost three months of spare-time building, we were ready to begin work on our home's roof and upper story. It wasn't meant as a true second level, but as a living space designed into the center of our roof trusses, and now boasts two bedrooms, a play area, a half-bath and some closet storage.

By doing some simple cost calculations, we found that having the trusses built at a local plant not only gave us the extra 560 square feet of living space, but would also be about $800 less expensive than cutting and nailing our own joists and rafters. The work went slowly, though, as late summer storms rained on our sheathing and shingling parade. Before the nip of September, the house was finally covered and the windows and doors mounted 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 for a total expenditure of $4, 755-a comfortable $245 under budget!

Safe from the snow, we spent the season finishing the upstairs floor and the stairway, and furring out selected walls on the main level in preparation for nailing up local Norway pine panel boards. We waited eagerly for spring and the opportunity to sell our house in town and use the equity to finish our new home so we could move to the country.

A Change in Economic Weather
The end of winter brought good weather but bad news. The economy was caught in a siege of inflation unseen in years. Staggering 20% interest rates brought the real estate market to a standstill and flattened any ideas we had about making a quick sale. Faced with this disheartening delay, we decided to borrow $8,000 from relatives, promising to pay it back when our mortgaged house finally did sell.

With the infusion of capital, work accelerated to a fever pitch. We refurbished an existing well, contracted our plumbing and electrical work, put in the Norway pine ceilings and panels, built and installed the pantry, cabinets and bookcases, laid up an inside brick chimney and bought a woodstove.

Throughout these final months of construction, our elation was tainted by fear: What if we couldn't sell our city house? Could we leave our cordwood home unheated through the coming winter? For that matter, could we afford to maintain our old mortgage payments while finishing up our new home and trying to make good on our family debt? Then, after six months of gnawing worry, we finally found a buyer for the house in town. I don't have to tell you how relieved we felt at closing with a check in hand that would repay our debts plus let us squirrel a little away in our savings account.

With the totals in, the cost of our home squeaked under the wire at $14,955, though I'll admit that we splurged and spent an additional $1,020 right away to upgrade our water delivery system. On the 10th of October, we spent our first night in the cozy, mortgage-free home we'd built with our own hands. Modest as it may be by some standards, to us it's a cordwood castle.

Eight Years After
The better part of a decade has passed since we embarked on our house-building journey, and several things have happened since that first wall went up—just about all of them positive.

Even before Rebecca and I were halfway through the designing phase, we realized that we'd have to plan for eventual expansion. That first addition would be,without question, a garden room and solarium fit for family living. It required that we orient the house accordingly, taking into account southerly foliage and the need for indoor and outdoor accesses. The 408-square-foot project was completed in the fall of 1983 at a cost of $1,665, and includes an insulated cobblestone brick absorber floor, a skylight, a 21' gl
ass wall made from "factory-imperfect" insulated window panels and fully insulated structural walls. By fastening leftover log cuttings to sheets of inexpensive CDX plywood and filling the gaps between with cordwood mortar, I was able to finish off the exterior for about $10 a section and still maintain the cordwood motif.

While we were in the midst of construction our site became a forum for curious passers-by. To make a long story short, we eventually organized this drop-in traffic by sponsoring "open houses" and one-day summer seminars that allowed serious visitors an opportunity to examine our home, discuss everything from budgeting to materials to techniques and spend several hours laying up a cordwood wall. The modest tuition fees and willing labor we garnered from these sessions allowed us to complete four cordwood pole barns over a three-year period, using an inexpensive wood-foundation technique that brought their cost per square foot down to only $1.21.

More important than what we got out of it, however, was the networking that evolved from our informal effort. all types of builders, from architects to artists, shared their experiences with us, either personally or by phone or letter, and I estimate that hundreds of cordwood homes, cabins, barns and even boathouses are in use or being completed at this moment.

There's no doubt that interest is growing, and this signals an evolutionary process with in the cordwood movement, which I can't help but think of as a step forward. As people from all types of backgrounds join the club and bring with them their personal bits of expertise, new techniques—have their day in the sun, for all to see.

Tips & Observations On Cord wood Building
Having gone through a project like this and lived with it for so long, I'm not surprised when people ask me for an honest, hindsight opinion on cordwood construction. Here are some of the important do's and don'ts I've learned:

  1. Read everything you can on the subject of cordwood before you even start thinking about materials, and take a hands,-on course if one's available near you.
  2. Don't underestimate the time factor. It took us almost three months after work and on weekends just to put up the walls. Count on paying for your project in hours, not dollars.
  3. Plan your building and site carefully, with an eye toward future expansion. There's nothing more frustrating than doing hard work twice.
  4. Do everything you can to follow, not circumvent, your local building code. Prepare yourself by reading your code handbook until you understand every stipulation in it, and don't hesitate to ask-and be honest with your local inspector about any potential discrepancies.
  5. Be aware that a typical 64-square-foot wall section can weigh nearly 2,000 pounds. Take the sheer mass of cordwood into account when planning foundations, basements and load-bearing lintels.
  6. Choose your wood with care. Softwoods like cedar and pine are most desirable, followed by spruce, hemlock and poplar. The hardwoods-oak, maple, beech and ash-are prone to swelling and decay, and are more difficult to debark. Generally, those species used in traditional log cabins are suitable for cordwood construction.
  7. Be prepared for some degree of joint cracking and log shrinkage. The use of dried, split logs minimizes the problem, as does a good job of mortar smoothing, or "pointing," during construction'. If cracks develop, the best solution I've found is to apply a coating of Perma-Chink acrylic latex sealant to the joints (Perma~Chink Systems, Inc., P.O. Box 2603, Redmond, W A 98052). It's durable, resilient and fills even the large gaps beautifully.
  8. Stay with a consistent mortar recipe for I each structure. Measure your ingredients accurately by the bucket, and don't build any faster than the mortar takes to harden, or it I may slump. Drape wet blankets over any finished work that's yet undried to allow the mortar to cure slowly.
  9. If your building is to be wired, use only sheathed cable or a conduit installation as required by code. I fastened my cable, outlets and switch boxes to the sides of the posts and surrounded them with mortar. Ceiling joists can also serve as runs, since they can be covered.
  10. Have your materials-and the help of a few close friends-ready beforehand, then go to it.