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Reprinted with permission from Harrowsmith March/April 1991

CHEAPER BY THE CORD
No one could call Jane Bexton rash. Granted, in 1981, when she was a single mother on a limited budget, she read an article in Harrowsmith about a stackwall house and decided that night to build one. In fact, she put down the magazine and picked up a pencil and a sheet of paper and drew a picture of her future house. No, she had never built a house before. She had never even owned a house before. Until she read the article, she had never even considered building her own house.

She had lived, she says, in nearly every basement apartment in Toronto before quitting her job as a graphic artist and moving with her daughter Catherine back to the country near Guelph, Ontario, where she grew up. But when she read the article in Harrowsmith, she knew she wanted to build a stackwall house. "It wasn't the stackwall so much," she says. "It was the title: 'Poor Man's Architecture.' As soon as I saw that title, I knew it was the house for me."

Bexton may have decided in a hurry the kind of house she wanted to build, but, not being a rash person, she didn't let the idea run away with her. She let it simmer for a while. She made a lot more drawings she called them "dream drawings"—and there are dozens of them: views of the kitchen from the living room; views of the dining-room windows. She talked to people. She looked around some land. When she figured she had drawn, talked and looked enough, she began collecting stuff. "Some people call it scrounging," she says.

A double-length log provides a ready-made shelf.

That was in the fall of 1986, five years after reading the article. She is, after all, not a rash person. She started going to auctions. She found herself slowing down when she drove past lawn sales. She let it be known that she was interested in what other people were throwing out. She started looking for storage space and found it on the property of a neighbour, Raymond Clow. She began storing stuff in his barn, then in his woodshed, then in his house. She took over her mother's garage. In two years of scrounging, she filled them all.

This is what she filled them with: eight slider windows, double-paned, 21inches by 48 inches, $50 each; two huge double-paned picture windows, $300; two slightly huger picture windows, $310; one steel-clad exterior door, six wooden interior doors, two cedar doors, four bifold closet doors, two steel-framed doors and one brass door knocker, total about $300; one patio door, $10; one bathtub, slightly chipped, $10; a toilet, a ceiling fan and 300 chocolate-brown tiles; three coach lamps; two rounded, tapered porch posts; 10 rolls of 1/8-inch foam insulation; lots and lots of black ABS pipes; one airtight stove; one flat-bottomed wheelbarrow; two cedar French doors,$20; some lumber, maybe 50 pieces of 16-foot 3-inch pine; lots of nails;10 copper hinges, $2 each; several bundles of 4-inch tongue-and-groove cedar; a few dozen electrical-outlet boxes; pine barn beams, 6 inches by 18 inches, $1 per foot; four large antique glass ceiling lamps, $45 each. "And a lot of cedar fenceposts," she adds. "About 800 of them."

Eight hundred cedar fenceposts? "Yes," she says. "For the walls." As a construction technique, stackwall—also known as cordwood masonry—has been around for a long time. Archaeologists have found remains of what look like stackwall houses in Greece, and it is fairly well established that the early Norsemen built stackwall houses in Norway. The Vikings may, have brought the technique to North America a thousand years ago: American stackwaller Jack Henstridge claims that the Viking remains at L' Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, look suspiciously like short butts of logs mortared with mud and "vitrified" by fire from the inside.

Inexpensive and lightweight, lengths of cedar posts are the key component of Jane Bexton's sturdy and attactive owner-built house.

Another American stackwall pundit, Rob Roy (who, as his name suggests, immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1975), recalls driving along a back road and seeing a farmhouse with firewood stacked on the front porch between the comer posts, from porch floor to porch ceiling. He speculates that it wouldn't have taken a rocket scientist to realize that the result formed a pretty effective barrier against the elements: add a little chinking between the logs, and you have a rudimentary stackwall wall.

Stackwall is the quintessence of simplicity. One merely places mortar between pieces of stove-length cordwood, endeavouring to keep them plumb and square and more or less even on the inside, and voila. There are a few refinements, of course: corners, the kind and colour of mortar, the size and type of cordwood. But these things have all been worked out by experts. As for design, Bexton already had her outside front view -the one she drew in 1981.

The house would be rectangular in shape, with a high gambrel roof, board-and-batten gables and four dormers, two in front and two in back. The length and width of the house—45 feet by 32 feet 10 inches—was determined by her wish to have the kitchen and living areas across the back, away from the road and facing south. The size and number of the windows in the house were determined by the size and number of the windows stored in her mother's garage.

When she was finished planning the house's dimensions —2,800 square
feet over 11/2 storeys, not including the basement -she made a cardboard
model of it, complete with beams and interior stud walls and even the kitchen sink: "When I put the gambrel roof on,"she says, "I was frightened by the size of it. It had twice as many square feet as a normal peaked roof. But I wanted the house to be as barn-looking as possible. I wanted the high ceilings and the sense of space. So I just shrugged and doubled my roofing budget."

She encountered only two major problems during the planning phase. One involved the transition from basement wall to stackwall. She could not see how she could balance a 16-inch-wide cordwood wall on top of a 10-inch basement wall. "Anyone who had some building experience would have figured it out in a minute," she says. "But I didn't, so I couldn't." She made some more dream drawings, however, and came up with three possibilities: the basement wall could widen at the top to form a kind of concrete T to hold the stackwall (this would have been the dickens to pour); she could run an 8-by-8-inch beam along the inside of the basement wall and rest the stackwall on that (she had plenty of beams, but would that give the wall any more strength? Probably not); or she could notch the top of the basement wall to hold the floor joists so that the tops of the joists were level with the top of the concrete, then run two 2-by-8s length-ways along the walls for sill plates. She settled on the last solution but had to change her plans again after the basement wall was poured.

"In the end," she says, "the problem solved itself. When I went to layout the septic bed in front of the house, I found I didn't have enough soil above the limestone, so I had to raise the whole house almost a foot. That meant running the sill plates right up on top of the basement wall, laying the 2-by-12 floor joists on them and building the wall on top of that, which is the way I should have done it in the first place." Building stackwall involves a lot of thinking on one's feet.

The other problem was so simple by comparison, she finds it a trifle embarassing to relate. "It was the dormers,"she says. "I didn't know how they attached to the roof. I just couldn't picture it. There turned out to be nothing to them—they just tack on—but at the time, I couldn't see my way through it." Her original drawing has two dormers in front; when she saw how simple they were, she added a third, right in the middle, for the bathroom.

In the fall of 1987, she ordered her new lumber from Stutzmans' Sawmill, a highly recommended establishment run by a Mennonite family in nearby Chatsworth. The lumber—all clear pine —was for the post-and-beam work and the finished flooring, and she was nervous about the size of the commitment. As she says, "It was the first big thing I'd ordered. In fact, it was the only thing I'd bought that couldn't be used for something else if the house didn't get built. Except maybe a gallows." She worried that ordering the lumber was a rash thing to do. The Stutzmans were "not very loquacious," she says, "but they certainly helped calm me down." They charged her $2.68 a linear foot for 8-by-10-inch beams; $1.94 a foot for 8-by-8-inch beams; and $1.90 a foot for 6-by-10-inch beams, all rough cut. They would not do the planing themselves, they told her, but they knew someone who could; they would haul the beams there, have them planed and milled and then deliver them to her place for an extra $700.

That December, she received a letter from John Stutzman. It was hand-written on three-ring-binder paper. "Dear Friend," the letter said. "We have completed your order a while ago. Find enclosed your bills." The bills totalled $2,782.08—exactly what they had estimated, to the penny. They offered to keep the lumber for her until spring —"We'll just throw something on top to keep the weather out," wrote Stutzman. "It's much better to wait till you're just ready to use them. Then they'll look nice and fresh going in." He also told her about a neighbour of his who "puts up a lot of beam houses," but Bexton wasn't ready to think about hiring anyone yet. "We done the best we knew," the letter ended, "but if it's not nice enough for you, you'll just have to say so in the spring, and we'll gladly hand your money back and keep the material. We're done for the winter now and heading south to the U.S.A. for Christmas and will not be back till the New Year. Happy Holidays." Bexton felt she was in pretty good hands.

She was now ready to cut the 800 fenceposts into 16-inch lengths of cordwood. Sixteen inches, writes Rob Roy in his book on stackwall construction, Cordwood Masonry Houses, is the best length for softwood logs because it gives maximum insulation for the weight. ln her travels about the countryside looking for posts, Bexton had met another stackwaller, Bill Vloburg, who had built a small house in nearby Bellwood. Vloburg's house looked fine-seeing it strengthened Bexton's admiration for cordwood-but it had a serious problem: Vloburg's mortar had
shrunk away from the logs, and wind whistled in through the gaps. The house had been so hard to heat that,until he caulked around each log, Vloburg had considered selling it.

A single parant on an artist's income, Jane Bexton, designed and built her own 11/2-storey stackwall house.

When Bexton was ready to cut her posts, she went back to Vloburgs to borrow his circular saw. She questioned him about his air leakage. What was his mortar made of? How were the walls insulated? Vloburg had poured Styrofoam beads between the outside and inside mortar courses, which was the usual practice in cordwood construction. Cordwood walls are actually hollow except for the logs running crossways through them: a 4-inch layer
of mortar on the outside and a 4-inch layer of mortar on the inside leaves an 8-inch gap in the middle for insulation.

Styrofoam beads lying loose in the wall cavity are more like a sieve than an air barrier. The potential for leakage worried Bexton. She suspected that the real problem was the shrinkage in the mortar, and she resolved to find some way to prevent it in her own house.

Vloburg's circular saw was one of those wide-open, terrifying things that hook up to a tractor's belt-drive and are reminiscent of oldtime movies about wicked landlords and Little Nell tied to a sawlog. The first time Bexton tried to use it, the blade yanked the 16 inch offcut out of her hands and flung it halfway to her mother's house. She promptly turned off the tractor engine and called a neighbour friend, Nelson Lawrence, who came over with his chain saw and, over the next few days, sawed the 800 posts into 4,800 stove-length logs.

That done, she drew up her house plans and had them approved by the planning office in Eramosa. She now had her blueprints, her cardboard model, most of her materials and a huge stack of stove-length cedar and she had ordered her lumber. All that was left to do was worry about the mortar and wait until spring.

An innovative technique involved filling the 8-inch wall cavity with an expanded-foam insulation blown through a series of plastic tubes set in the mortar.

She broke ground for the foundation in April 1988. She was building her house on nine-tenths of an acre of land, severed from her mother's property-her brother-in-law, Douglas Draper, did the surveying on the coldest day in January-in the hamlet of Everton, about nine miles northeast of Guelph. The rear of the property slopes down pretty quickly to the Eramosa River, passing through some magnificent cedars and over some fairly precipitous limestone ridges in the process, but the front of the lot is quite flat.

Bexton had decided, against most previous stackwallers' experience to build her house over an 8-foot basement instead of directly on ground-level footings. Stackwall, say most people, is just too heavy to plate on concrete blocks. But Bexton needed a workroom for her business—she runs a company of one, called Silk Wings, that specializes in hand-painted silk scarves—and she had to have a basment. She didn't think she would have any problems with the footings sinking, because they would be poured directly onto bedrock. She thought a poured-concrete basement wall would be stronger than concrete blocks. She knew exactly what was under the soil, because she had just had a well drilled: the drill had gone down 110 feet through a thin top layer of chalky limestone and then into a thick deposit of blue limestone that, the well driller told her later, "was as hard as rock."

The contractor she hired to dig the foundation struck bedrock about a foot down and had to use dynamite to get deep enough for the footings. The basement would have to be mostly above grade. He worked for three weeks, but even so, the footings were nearly a foot higher on the west wall than they were on the east. This necessitated four extra loads of gravel for the infill at about $200 a load, but to counter that, the limestone he took out gave her enough stone chips to fill in her 100-foot driveway to a depth of 18 inches.

The post-and-beam pine framing, above, that supports the second floor permits an airy, uncluttered living space.

The footings were poured at the end of June, and the basement walls went up as soon as the footings were dry. In July, after the joists were nailed in place and covered with 5/8-inch tongue-and-groove plywood, it was time to think about the stackwall. Bexton called Rob Roy and asked him if there was any new kind of mortar on the market. Rob invited her to come down to New York to take his course. Bexton thought she already knew everything she needed to know-she had, after all, been researching the project for seven years-but she wanted some experience.

She and Catherine, who was 10 in 1988, drove down the next day, camped in a nearby state park and attended Roy's hands-on classes for a weekend. They gave her great confidence.They convinced her she wasn't being rash. Roy advocated a loose-fill insulation, but he told her how to avoid the mortar shrinkage that made Vloburg's house resemble a 17-ton piece of Swiss cheese. Roy, however, had laid the stackwall directly on a poured-concrete floor slab so that the mortar bonded with the concrete in the floor. He didn't have to worry about slippage. Bexton's was a wooden floor, and she had nightmares about the waIls sliding off it like a badly stacked pile of firewood. She wanted the stackwall somehow attached to the floor and came up with the idea of nailing strips of metal mesh to the deck and spreading her first courses of mortar onto that: 4 inches along the outside of the wall, an 8-inch gap, then another 4-inch course along the inside of the wall.

Oh yes, the mortar. Sawdust is the secret ingredient of stackwall mortar. Vloburg's mortar didn't have any sawdust In it. Bexton's formula for softwood stackwall mortar is as follows: nine parts sand, three parts sawdust, two parts lime and one part masonry cement. This gives a white mortar; Bexton wanted a slightly tinted mortar to blend with the colour of the cedar logs, so she added a little rust-coloured mortar tint. The resulting mortar looks slightly pinkish when dry and gives the wall a warmer, less contrasted appearance.

Bexton filled a 45-gallon drum with softwood sawdust she had scrounged from a local sawmill, then added water to it with a hose until the sawdust was completely saturated. She then added the soaked sawdust to the rest of the ingredients in the mortar mixer, and that was that. Stackwall mortar is quite dry—dry enough that you can pick up a handful of it and form it into a ball. Without wet sawdust, the cement would dry too quickly and shrink. The wet sawdust slows down the process. "You have to get the consistency just right," says Bexton. "If you soak the sawdust too long, the whole thing ferments and the mortar is very dark. Soak it too little, and the mortar will be too dry and will shrink." She found the best method was to soak the sawdust in the drum overnight and shovel it into the mixer in the morning.

The comers went up first. They provide the anchors for the walls and are extremely important. They are not made from regular stackwall logs but, rather, from 2-foot lengths of 6-by-6 cedar. She got 40 oiled and squared 8- foot posts for $200. The 2-foot lengths are stacked, alternating two at a time, along each wall. To fix them in place, Bexton drilled four holes through the comer ends of each length and slipped them over lengths of 1/2-inch copper pipes running from subfloor to top plates. "I think four holes is probably overkill," she says, "but 1 wanted to prevent the ends of the comer logs from splaying out, and that was what I came up with."

Bexton's floor plan did not change in the seven years of preparation and construction.

With the comers in place, she ran string around the outside from corner to corner to serve as a guide for the first few rows of logs. She also made a
"storey stick"—a straight piece of lumber marked at 8 feet to give her walls a unified height. She used the stick to tell her where to start the holes for the
windows as well. She laid the first log on July 18. She was still laying logs in September. The house became a kind of community project. Catherine made mud balls from the mortar mix and tossed them up to her mother, who patted them into place around the logs. Jane's mother cooked and stewed. Andrew Beintner, the 13-year-old son of a friend, worked as a gofer. Neighbours dropped by, and friends from Toronto drove up on weekends. The only salaried helpers were Jerze Kuzak, a master mining engineer from Poland who was between jobs, and Greg Ross, a teacher on vacation.

Still, it was slow work. Only a foot or two of wall can go up at a time: with only 1 to 11/2 inches of mortar between logs, too much weight on top would push the logs too close together. Bexton was taking great care with the arrangement of logs. She was going to leave the inside and outside walls exposed, and she wanted the pattern of round logs to be pleasing-not rigid, like bricks, and not haphazard. Some of the logs were double length-32 inches instead of 16, with the extra length protruding into the living space. These would later be flattened on top to form plant shelves. Other logs were 3 inches short so that electrical boxes could be screwed to them and be flush with the inside wall. And the mortar had to be pointed while it was still wet. Jane and Catherine did this with a bent butter knife. They still have it, as a kind of trophy, in their kitchen.

Catherine says the worst part of the whole thing was covering the wet walls with plastic sheeting every night in case it rained. It rained a lot. When it rained during the daytime, Bexton and her workers would go down into the basement to peel the bark off the cedar logs. "You can leave the bark on," says Bexton, "but I think it makes them look hairy, all that cedar bark poking into the house. Besides, it makes it hard to point. You really have to push the mortar tight to the logs. Rob Roy says you can rasp the ends of the logs to remove the bark, but that's as much work as removing the bark altogether."

When the walls were up and the post-and-beam work in place, she hired a pair of local carpenters—Larry Ferneyhough and his brother Brud—to put up the framing for the roof and the partition walls on the second floor. This was by far the most expensive part of the house—$3,800 for the drywall and insulation, $20,000 for the labour—and she says that if she were not afraid of heights, she would have done it herself. If she had it to do again, she would conquer her fear of heights.

Except for the insulation in the stackwall, the house was finished. She could stand back and take a long, satisfied look. From the road, the house looks as solid and stately as if it had stood there forever. It is cemented in place. It looks cemented in time. Its proportions are pleasing from every aspect; its windows and doors and dormers are in exactly the places you would expect them. The roof rises from the top of the walls at a perfect pitch. The arched gables are Gothic. The overall effect is of a house at peace with its surroundings. Inside, the open timber-frame construction allows the main living area to rise straight up to the hip of the gambrel, a cathedral-like vault that takes your breath away. There is not a single load-bearing interior wall. There are more than 500 square feet of windows feeding a unified living area. In contrast to the solid exterior, the interior is light and airy and free. It is in the natural tension between solidity and airiness that the house's beauty resides.

Airiness as a sense of space is one thing; airiness as a result of leakage in the walls in quite another, as Bexton found out that winter. The thing to remember about cordwood is that no matter how dry you think the wood is, it checks. Cracks open in the logs and make their ends look as if a pie slice has been taken out of them. Catherine says it's like being surrounded by 4,000 Pacmen. The first winter, before the insulation was in, says Bexton, the only warm spot in the house was downwind from the woodstove.

Most stackwallers eventually parge the shell with a solid coat of mortar, either inside or outside, to prevent air from sifting through the checks. Bexton didn't want to hide the cordwood look she had worked so hard to achieve. Besides, she had solved the insulation problem long before she began construction. One day while visiting with neighbours, the Macphersons, she had heard about expanded polyurethane. Their son Scott had a company that blew the foam insulation into the cavities in existing walls, and he had just done his parents' basement.

Bexton realized that she had the solution to the only real problem with stackwall. She called Scott Macpherson, and together, they cooked up a way to adapt the process to her house. The polyurethane has to be blown in from the bottom up and through holes in the wall that are no more than 3 feet apart. While putting up the walls, Bexton inserted short lengths of plastic tubing through the fresh mortar into the 8-inch cavity in the centre of the wall, in a diamond pattern with 3-foot sides. When the wall was finished and the mortar dry, Macpherson brought his tanks and compressor, blew the foam insulation through the tubes, then pulled them out.

"The stuff works well as long as the cavity in the wall is clear," Bexton reports. "You have to make sure that mortar doesn't fall into the cavity, and you have to blow the foam in at just the right pressure-you want it to be good and tight, but you don't want it so tight that when it expands, it comes bulging out through the checks in the logs."

When the foam was in place, Jane and Catherine plugged the holes with mortar, using an old teaspoon. The foam insulation, at a cost of around $2,500, gives Bexton an extremely well-insulated wall—R60—and one that is virtually airtight, a unique improvement over Styrofoam beads. Combined with the insulation in the framed upper part of the house, where the three large bedrooms and the bathroom are—R20 in the gable ends, R28 in the gambrel walls and R40 in the ceiling-the house is as cozy as any avant-garde airtight construction. Asfar as she knows, her house is the first
stackwall application of expanded-foam insulation.

With so much scrounging over such a long period, it's difficult to give an exact cost for the house, but Bexton kept fairly meticulous records and estimates the total to be around $120,000. With an ordinary peaked roof, she says, she could knock $20,000 off the total because she could do the framing herself and there would be fewer materials-there are twice as many shingles, for example, on her gambrel roof as on a conventional one and therefore twice as much plywood under them. And she feels she wasted about $1,000 blasting the hole for the foundation.

But the point is academic, because Bexton is certain she'll never have it to do again. This is her home and Catherine's home. Except for the extra dormer, the real house looks identical to the drawing she made of it that night in 1981, after reading the magazine article. And although it isn't finished-what owner-built house ever is? —she feels as comfortable and secure in it as any place she has ever lived, "After all," she says, "with all the dream drawing and planning, I lived in this house for years before it was ever built."

SOURCES
EARTHWOOD BUILDING SCHOOL
RR1, Box 105
West Chazy, New York 12992
Robert L. Roy runs weekend courses on
cordwood masonry, earth-sheltered con-
struction and wind energy.

Building the Cordwood Home, by Jack
Henstridge (Indigenous Material Housing
Institute, 1988). Available for $9.95 from
the Harrowsmith Bookstore.

Stackwall: How to Buildlt, prepared by the
Northern Housing Committee, University
of Manitoba, 1977.

This manual, which spawned a stackwall
renaissance in Canada in the late 1970s,
is out of print but may be available from
libraries.

 

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