A very cold and snowy Wisconsin winter provided us with the time and motivation (high heating bills) to begin researching and planning our very own natural, hand-built, mortgage-free home. We promised ourselves that by the next winter our family would be well on its way to completing this dream. It was all part of a master plan we’d been mulling over that would allow us to move into our own home free and clear of any mortgage. (We had taken out a mortgage on our home in town and chaffed at the monthly payments and disliked the feeling of indebtedness.) The capital would come from our savings, our paychecks and the equity from the sale of our mortgaged city home.

We had purchased 40 acres of beautiful glaciated forest not far from town. Fortunately, our property already had a clearing for a garden and an 85-foot drilled well, complete with hand pump. For years we had been busy planting fruit trees, edible perennials and tree seedlings in anticipation of moving to our new homestead.

The Flataus with their Golden Retriever
The Flataus with their Golden Retriever, Summer, outside their cordwood home. They did much of the labor themselves but hired professionals to handle the aspects of the construction they could not handle.

Cordwood Building

During that long winter, we had been pouring over books and magazines about building homes of log, stone, cob, rammed earth, earthbag, strawbale, as well as learning about earth-sheltered homes with active and passive solar designs, but any way we figured it, none of those construction methods would meet our goal of building an energy efficient, natural home of sustainable materials that would allow us to become mortgage-free. There was, however, a magazine article we read about an unknown (to us) log cabin building technique called “cordwood construction” that really grabbed our attention.

We learned that cordwood had been used for over a century (and later we found out that it had originated in three different areas, one of them being Wisconsin). For the uninitiated, cordwood construction is a method of building a wall by stacking softwood logs measuring 12 to 24 inches in length firewood style, using a mortar mixture to hold them together at the ends, and insulating the center cavity with sawdust and lime. Handling small pieces of log ends seemed a significant advantage since it did not require heavy equipment.

The realization dawned on us that by using cordwood construction we could finally build a home that met our goals. Wasting no time that winter, we gathered previously harvested cedar, and peeled, cut and stacked it in a single row to dry. In the spring we poured our frost-protected shallow foundation on top of a Frank Lloyd Wright rubble trench system. Simple post-and-beam framing with cedar posts commenced in June.

The cordwood infill took two months of sweat-equity labor during July and August. Then the woodstove chimney was erected, the room-in-the-attic roof trusses hammered in place, and the doors and windows were installed. By the first snows of winter, we were enclosed and subsequently worked every weekend to finish the interior. Being novices, we hired professionals when we were “in over our heads” for the plumbing, electrical, foundation and trusses. We were able to do the framing, the cordwood infill, all the interior rooms, walls and ceilings, cabinets and plumbing fixtures.

The walls are built by stacking softwood logs 12 to 24 inches in length firewood style, and using a mortar mixture to hold them together at the ends, then insulating the center cavity with sawdust and lime.
The walls are built by stacking softwood logs 12 to 24 inches in length firewood style, and using a mortar mixture to hold them together at the ends, then insulating the center cavity with sawdust and lime.

Huge Savings

With precise planning, hard work and patience, we were able to “shell up” our home for $5,000 and finish it for another $10,000, which we made from the sale of our home in town. So, $15,000 coupled with the sweat equity of our labor enabled us to move into our mortgage-free cordwood home in October of 1980. This figure also included professional labor for excavation, foundation, pouring the concrete slab, truss placement (a crane and a carpenter), a 200-amp electrical installation and the tying of all the wires and the plumbing lines. (Costs are estimated using 1980 dollars, about $40-$45,000 today.)

In addition to saving money, cordwood is also aesthetically pleasing, energy-efficient and sustainable. If you have access to softwood, want to work hard and have the desire and patience to plan your own building project, this may be a technique for you to consider. The major savings comes in the wall itself. If you have ready access to softwood, and can peel, split and dry it, you have successfully acquired the basic building blocks of your home. Once a cordwood wall is built, it is finished both inside and out.

With an eye to bargains and sales, we built our cordwood home for $15 per square foot. That would be $40-$45 today. An average home today costs upwards of $100 per square foot. If you can recycle, reuse, repurpose and have basic building skills (Habitat for Humanity is a great place to start), you can build your own home for even less.

Barchacky Garden ottage

Birth Of A Business

After moving into our home and enjoying the beauty and bounty of living on 40 forested acres in the gorgeous Northwoods of Wisconsin, we decided to share our story in Mother Earth News. People from all over the country found our driveway and came down for a “look-see.” While we enjoyed all the interest, we also found we were using many productive hours writing the details of how we built the house.

A wise person once said, “Invention is the mother of necessity,” and in order to compile all the information we had gleaned from building our own home, we decided to write a book. Cordwood Construction: A Log End View became a hot seller with the 1980’s back-to-the-land movement, and it rapidly grew in size and scope as more and more cordwood homes were built and more pages were added.

Soon we were holding workshops and providing consultation in person and over the phone, and we have been doing so ever since. I was able to retire from my job as a special education teacher. We organized and hosted the 2005 Cordwood Conference in Merrill, Wisconsin, where we helped develop and edit a much needed compilation of testing data on cordwood. Cordwood and the Code: A Building Permit Guide was an immediate hit with anyone who wanted a detailed document to present to code officials.

In addition, we determined that if someone was going to take the significant amount of time to build a cordwood home, they might as well do it right. So a rock-solid set of best practices were summarized and tested. The new book, Cordwood Construction Best Practices (published in 2012), is a colorful, comprehensive guide that details the many choices a cordwood builder needs to consider. It encourages a “do it right” philosophy using the best combination of tried-and-true techniques.

Related Stories: 5 Ways To Save When Building Your Log Cabin

Before You Build

Some of these best practices include choosing the appropriate cordwood mortar mix, such as traditional cordwood mortar (sand, sawdust, lime, Portland), cob mortar (sand, clay, straw), lime putty mortar (lime, water, sand), papercrete mortar (paper, sand, lime), and cellulose mortar (lime, sand, cellulose). Some of these are climate specific.

Another best practice is the increasingly popular use of the Frank Lloyd Wright rubble trench foundation. This technique uses a gravel trench to keep water from settling under the foundation, preventing heaving. It saves thousands of dollars in construction costs and provides a foundation that works in many soils and climates (research what works with your specific soil and climate). The use of large overhangs, which provide protection for the cordwood walls and are crucial to an effective passive solar design, is another best practice.

A room-in-the-attic truss, coupled with an energy heel, allows for extra room above the main living area and extra insulation, to reduce heating bills. Many of these techniques are applicable for other natural building styles, as well.

Built To Last After living in our cedar cordwood home for 34 years and reflecting on our lifestyle, there is very little we would change. Homes are a unique blend of personal choices, lifestyle and financial decisions. We feel grateful and blessed. The maple syrup and apple cider pressing parties are a delight. Harvest time, when the table is overflowing with produce, and even in the depths of winter when we are snuggled by the woodstove, are all times we cherish. Yes, this cordwood home with its ever so slight scent of cedar and pine was a good decision, and we would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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