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Cordwood Masonry and the Earth Friendly Home

Posted on: April 5th, 2018 No Comments

By Rob Roy.

On Saturday, May 12, 2018 AARCH will kick off its summer tour season with “Cordwood Building School and Private House Tour”.  We’ll be lead by cordwood masonry experts Rob and Jaki Roy, founders of the Earthwood Building School in West Chazy.  Rob has graciously shared with us the first chapter to his newly-released book, Essential Cordwood Building, as a primer to this special outing.  For more information on the upcoming tour, how to get a discount on Rob’s new book, and cordwood masonry, keep reading!


What Is Cordwood Masonry?

Jaki Roy laying up a cordwood masonry wall.

Cordwood masonry (sometimes called stackwall construction in Canada) is a term describing the construction of exterior or interior walls out of short logs — log-ends — laid transversely in the wall and supported by an insulated mortar matrix. The mortar portion of the wall can be made with cement- or lime-based mortars, cob (clay, straw, and sand), “papercrete,” or — a new development — hempcrete. The walls can be load-bearing in non-seismic zones, but are more commonly used as infilling within a strong timber frame. A relatively small number of cordwood homes — probably less than five percent — use a double-wall technique:  separate interior and exterior cordwood walls with the space between them completely filled with insulation.

 

Cordwood masonry has a long history, which I discussed in my book Cordwood Building: a Comprehensive Guide to the State of the Art (New Society Publishers, 2016). There are existing cordwood buildings in North America and Europe dating back to the 19th century, which are documented in that book. More recently, cordwood has spread to South and Central America, and has enjoyed a rebirth in Scandinavia as well as in Britain, where cob has become a popular alternative for mortar amongst the natural builders. I have recently learned of an exciting new development in cordwood’s history, a site called Slawenburg Raddush (Slavic Fort Raddush), near the town of Vetschau in the German federal state of Brandenburg. Raddush was originally built around the 9th or 10th century AD, employing log and cordwood techniques on the inner and outer surfaces of the massive walls. It was still clearly recognizable as a ring-shaped wooden structure in the early 20th century. The fort was reconstructed during the 1990s using the original techniques. The internal cavity between the wooden walls was filled with sand, earth, and clay, whereas today we use some form of insulation.  Raddush can be visited today and houses a museum, a conference room, and a restaurant.

Raddush Fort, Eastern Germany

Why Build with Cordwood Masonry?

Since the 1980s, I have been answering this fundamental question with my “5-E” list of cordwood masonry advantages. It still holds true:

  1. Economy. Cordwood masonry walls are low in cost, particularly when the owner-builder has a local source of appropriate wood. If clay is readily available on site, cobwood construction is an option, saving on Portland and lime. Sand and sawdust (used as insulation and/or as a cement retarder) can usually be bought quite inexpensively. Sand might even be indigenous to the building site.
  2. Energy Efficiency. Built properly, and with a wall thickness appropriate to the local climate and building size, cordwood homes are easy to heat in the winter and keep cool during the summer.
  3. Easy to Build. Children, grandmothers, and beavers can all build with cordwood masonry … and have done so time and again. Our oldest son, Rohan, built his first little cordwood playhouse at age 7 and was teaching cordwood masonry to Chicago’s inner city youth when he was nine. His brother Darin grew up with cordwood, has taught it with us at Earthwood, and built Driftwood, his own cordwood home.
  4. Esthetically Pleasing. “A cordwood wall combines the warmth of wood with the pleasing relief and visual interest of stone masonry.” I wrote those words in 1992. It’s still true, but build quality is getting better all the time. Many builders have taken cordwood to an art form in the past ten years or so.
  5. Environmentally Friendly. Cordwood makes use of wood which might otherwise go to waste — even tipped into landfills. I have used ends and pieces from sawmills, log cabin manufacturers, and furniture makers. A hollow log is not much use at the sawmill, but it can be an interesting feature in a cordwood wall.
Mortgage? Or Mortgage Freedom?

Earthwood on Murtagh Hill Road, West Chazy: Office, house, sauna, raised bed gardens, stone circle.

Cordwood buildings have been built for next to nothing (our Hermit’s Hut guesthouse cost less than $1,000 in 2011) to many millions (the architect-designed and contractor-built 10,000-square foot Arcus Center at Kalamazoo College came in at around $5,000,000). Most cordwood homes have been built without a mortgage, including some big, beautiful energy-efficient ones like Bruce and Nancy’s Ravenwood, Alan Stankevitz’s two-story hexadecagon in Minnesota, as well as our own Earthwood home, and Mushwood, our lake cottage. In a recent phone conversation, Alan and I compared notes on what we knew of cordwood builders’ home ownership situations. Offhand, we could not think of any with a mortgage. But why? Well, banks may be reluctant to loan money to owner-builders, especially for a building style out of the mainstream. Or, maybe cordwood builders don’t need a mortgage. They own a piece of land and adopt a pay-as-they-go (or proceed-as-they-can-afford) strategy. Alan commented that cordwood makes “a superior house, costs less than most others, and is environmentally sound.” Common strategies that enable debt free cordwood home ownership (and this is probably true with other natural building methodologies as well) are: (1) already owning the land, (2) building it yourself, (3) making use of indigenous and recycled materials, (4) paying for materials as you go, (5) keeping it small, and (6) keeping it simple. Watch out for 5 and 6, though: A small house can be hopelessly complicated — therefore expensive — whereas a large house could be of simple design, saving time and money. With regard to (3), Alan said “Once people found out I was doing cordwood, they really got into it. They wanted to help. And they’d tell me where I could get good materials for little money.”

10,000-square foot Arcus Center at Kalamazoo College

Widely Varying Costs

I hesitate to give actual cost estimates for a cordwood home. The one truth I have learned in 70 years is this: Everybody’s different. Their abilities to save and budget are different. Their talent for “cultivating coincidences” (procuring materials) is different. Their design aspirations — for size and complexity — are different. Their access to indigenous materials is different. The reality is that the cordwood masonry is not a very large part of the home’s material cost. Foundation, roofing, stairs, heating, electric, and plumbing systems: these are all — or can be — big ticket items common to any style of home. Two areas where a lot of money is spent, even on owner-built housing, are kitchens (cabinets, countertop, sinks, etc.) and doors and windows. But Jaki and I have always saved a tremendous amount by making our own doors, getting perfectly good thermal pane windows from the “back room” of local manufacturers, and watching for deals when people “upgrade” their kitchens — tearing out perfectly good cabinets, sinks, and countertops in the process.

Where you build makes a huge difference, too. I know of cordwood buildings in Central America — particularly Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua — that were built at incredibly low cost and others, in places like Massachusetts and northern California, that ran up a pretty high tab (but these people were not short of money.) Owning the land makes a huge difference. You have to have the land before you can build the house. And it enables you to start with a small practice building, maybe a “temporary shelter” that you can live in while you build the main home, saving shelter costs immediately. You can employ an add-on strategy and pay for expansion as you go. (One caution here, though: Plan for any desired add-ons at the initial design stage. Some buildings are difficult to add on to — round ones, for example.) I learned the best part of my economic strategies — which has kept us debt-free for 44 years — from two sources: my father and Henry David Thoreau. My father said, “If a man earns $100,000 a year, but spends $110,000, he’s poor. If he earns $10,000 and spends $9,000, he’s rich.” I never forgot that. And from Henry I learned about real — empiric — economy. In the first chapter of Walden, “Economy,” we learn that the “necessaries of life” are food, fuel, shelter, and clothing. These are the things that keep our body temperatures at 98.6 degrees F, and, therefore, healthy. Of these “necessaries,” shelter is the single biggest cost — up to 50 percent of expenditure in places like California.

Earthwood through the sunflowers. Photo credit M. Evanoff

Cordwood is cheap. Like me. I wrote a book called Mortgage Free!, which is full of strategies for avoiding mortgage — a word, incidentally, that derives from the Old French meaning, literally, death pledge. The book is out of print, but you can find used copies through Amazon, or get an e-book from Chelsea Green Publishing. I will not attempt to rehash its 300 pages here, but will give you my First Law of Empiric Economics: A dollar saved is worth a whole lot more than a dollar earned, because we have to save so darned many of them to save so precious few.


About the Author:  Rob Roy and his wife Jaki are the owners and instructors of the Earthwood Building School in West Chazy.  Rob, active in the alternative building field for 35 years, is the author of fifteen owner-building books and has conducted hundreds of workshops at Earthwood and throughout the world. Together, Rob and Jaki have built Log End Cottage, Log End Cave, Earthwood, Mushwood and numerous other cordwood buildings. Jaki instructs at the hands-on sessions and keeps the school running smoothly from behind the scenes.

For more information on this fascinating building technique, visit the Earthwood Building School website and join us for this special behind-the-scenes tour on May 12, 2018.  Registration for this outing will be first-come, first-served.  Visit the tour page for pricing and registration information HERE.

SPECIAL DISCOUNT for AARCH Members:  Interested in taking a class at Earthwood Building School?  Tell Rob and Jaki that you’re an AARCH member and save 20%!  Visit www.cordwoodmasonry.com for more information.

Source:  Essential Cordwood Building: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide by Rob Roy (New Society Publishers, 2017.) The book is available from Earthwood Building School, 366 Murtagh Hill Road, West Chazy, NY 12992 or on-line at www.cordwoodmasonry.com The price is $35 plus $2.80 NYS Sales Tax plus $4 Media Mail shipping = $41.80.

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