Cordwood, Collaboration & Community Involvement
by Richard and Becky Flatau
This article is about the building of the Evjue Cordwood Education Center at the Merrill School Forest. This project was made possible with donated materials, community volunteer labor and private funding.
In the winter of 2007 The Friends of the School Forest, inspired by the green movement, made a decision to build a teaching center that would model the principles of alternative construction and renewable energy. This group asked me and my wife to be the consultants, cordwood construction teachers and coordinators of the project.
The committee explored various options and decided to build a cordwood structure in which the building materials would be harvested from the surrounding forest. The Cordwood Education Center was architecturally drawn and state code approved for the students of the Merrill Public School District. Twenty-five cords of Tamarack were cut during that winter. In the early spring volunteers peeled mightily with draw shaves and peeling spuds. Later that spring a portable sawmill was used to cut the timbers, posts and paneling. A buzz saw on a John Deere tractor rig was put to use cutting the cordwood infill to 16” lengths. Volunteers on the log splitters created some unusual splits and interesting pieces. Rows and rows of split tamarack were covered and left to air dry.
The footprint of the building began with a Frank Lloyd Wright-style, rubble trench foundation. The same kind he used on his numerous Wisconsin homes. Pex-tubing was inserted into the concrete for solar in-floor radiant heating. The framework of massive white pine corner posts and tamarack middle posts was erected in the spring of 2008. The high school construction class came out to learn the art of timber framing and alternative construction. The general contractor gave lessons in safety, construction techniques and the proper methods of squaring. An energy heel truss roof was erected and topped with warm brown, standing seam, metal roofing.
Plans have been made to use photovoltaics for electricity and solar in-floor-radiant-heat, while at the same time utilizing the great thermal mass of the Cordwood Center. To utilize the best “solar window,” the building was oriented south for optimal passive solar gain. Once the solar window was established, the surrounding trees were then harvested and used for firewood. In order to take advantage of the solar gain, Energy Star construction guidelines were used in every phase of the building.
Generous donations to the project were forthcoming. A beautiful Vermont Castings Encore wood stove was donated by the Merrill Rotary Club to provide auxiliary heat. Eleven low-E casement windows, two steel doors and the block came from generous local businesses.
In the fall of 2008 the cordwood infill began. Volunteers arrived daily to learn the old fashioned art of cordwood construction. Short lengths of logs (16”) are laid in a mortar matrix of two 3” mortar beads.
The center cavity is then insulated with dry sawdust mixed with hydrated lime. Recycled colored bottles (also known as ‘poor man’s stained glass’) were mortared into the walls among the log ends. These provide a bright, light spot when the sun strikes the bottle ends. Stones, gems and animal tracks were also set into the mortar. Not only do they look interesting, they allow the students ample examples from which to launch into a game of “I Spy.”
Cordwood has historical roots in Wisconsin. The first mention of cordwood came in a newspaper article in 1859. The oldest existing cordwood structure, built in 1884, is the Kruza home and chicken-coop, which has been moved from Shawano, Wisconsin to Old World Wisconsin. There are numerous fine examples of turn-of-the-century cordwood (called stovewood at the time) in Door County, WI.
The cordwood infill took five full weeks to complete. As the walls slowly took shape, the inherent beauty of the building became apparent. The Big Dipper bottle-end wall was an example of using a stained glass motif (colored bottles) to create a teaching center. The Big Dipper wall is made “to scale” and points to the North Star. Students unintentionally learn some basic astronomy when visiting. The building was finished over the course of the winter of 2008-2009 as the gable ends, the interior ceiling and the lighting were installed.
An Open House and Family Fun Day was held in the late winter of 2009 with skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and horse drawn sleigh rides to and from the Center. The warmth of the building, the beauty of the walls, and the overall “feel” of the structure make for a peaceful sojourn.
Interested in learning more? :
Cordwood Cabin: Best Practices (The Building of the Cordwood Education Center) is now available at www.daycreek.com/flatau.
Cordwood Cabin details the building of the Cordwood Education Center in Merrill, Wisconsin using best practices and Energy Startm guidelines. The 78 color photos and architectural drawings help the reader visualize the step-by-step building process from foundation to finished structure. The 850 sq. ft. cabin is an example of how to build an energy efficient, sustainable building combining old-fashioned cordwood construction with modern building principles. As a bonus it also explains, in detail, how to plan and execute a similar project with your group.
Richard & Becky Flatau Cordwood Consultants Merrill, WI