Cordwood makes a comeback

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 27, 2012 - 9:13 AM

An old building method is finding new fans who appreciate its rustic look, eco-friendly features and thrifty character.

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When Alan Stankevitz bought land near La Crescent, Minn., he knew he wanted to build an eco-friendly home there. But he wasn't sure what kind.

An earth-sheltered house? "You need a crew to pour the concrete," he said. "I wanted to do it myself."

A log home? "I could do it myself but it's not energy-efficient," he said.

Then he came upon an old article from Mother Earth News touting the benefits of cordwood masonry, a 19th-century building method in which short lengths of exposed wood are used with mortar, in place of brick or stone.

After attending a workshop, Stankevitz became convinced that cordwood was the way to go. Then he had to convince his wife. So he took her to a cordwood B&B in Canada. "She fell in love with it," he said. "That was the deal closer."

Cordwood construction has been around since at least the mid-1800s, but its rustic look and thrifty character are finding new fans among the budget-minded and the eco-conscious.

"Building your own home is kind of an American tradition," said Richard Flatau, author of the new book "Cordwood Construction: Best Practices." And cordwood masonry is one of the most cost-effective building methods available, provided you're willing to invest sweat equity, he said. To help handy wannabes learn techniques, Flatau runs workshops and a website (www.cordwoodconstruction.org). "When the economy worsens, interest increases," he said.

Cordwood also appeals to those who favor a rustic aesthetic. "People seem to like it for its unique style," Flatau said. "No two cordwood walls are alike because of the unique mortaring style of the person."

In addition to log ends, some builders also incorporate rocks, stone, antlers and glass bottles to give their walls a distinctive look. "People like to put their personality into the walls."

'Back to the land'

Flatau, a Detroit native who moved to Minnesota to get an education degree from Bemidji State University, discovered cordwood, like Stankevitz, through the Mother Earth News. It was the '70s, "the back-to-the-land time," he recalled. "We were looking to build. Our goal was to be mortgage free." His house in Merrill, Wis., completed in 1980, cost just $15,000.

For most cordwood practitioners, "It's a means of building the kind of house they want for an affordable price," said Rob Roy, who has been writing and lecturing on the craft for three decades at the Earthwood Building School in West Chazy, N.Y. If you can manage the labor yourself, and shop for supplies in the Dumpster, a new cordwood home can be built for just $20 a square foot, he said. That's a quarter of the average sticker price for a new contractor-built home, based on recent census figures.

Stankevitz, a computer professional-turned-nature photographer, built his cordwood home, Day Creek, for about $80,000, he estimated, which included a $14,000 metal roof and the "really nice kitchen" that his wife wanted. (He spent another $20,000 for a well and septic system, a necessity in their rural area.)

In addition to being his own contractor, Stankevitz designed his 16-sided, two-story, 2,000-square-foot house. "It's incredibly energy-efficient," he said, with two thick cordwood walls and a 6-inch sandwich of cellulose foam in between them. Other energy-saving features include a solar collector to heat water, photovoltaic panels that connect to the electrical grid and share power with his neighbors, and a woodburning stove. "It's the house of overkill," he said.

Elusive origins

Over the years, cordwood has been called many things, including stackwall, log butt and "Depression building." Ronald Rael, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of California-Berkeley, described cordwood masonry as "somewhere between a log cabin and a wood pile."

William Tishler, a professor emeritus of landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has traced some of the earliest cordwood structures back to the hardscrabble settlements of the mid- to late-19th century.

Traditional log cabins and timber-framed dwellings required "extensive lengths of straight, high-quality timber," Tishler wrote in the opening chapter of "Cordwood Building: The State of the Art," a collection of articles edited by Roy. By contrast, the material for a cordwood house could come from skinny second-growth lumber, even fire-charred forests.

Whether cordwood masonry originated in the United States or was brought here by European settlers isn't known, Flatau said. "That's been the big debate. It seems to have developed in three areas simultaneously: Sweden and Norway, upstate New York and Quebec, and here in Wisconsin."

While cordwood construction can be a DIY project, it does have its quirks and requires know-how and skills. Logs must be stripped of their bark, then dried for a year. Green lumber would contract, pulling away from the mortar and leaving air gaps. Hardwoods, like oak or maple, would shrink most of all, which is why they're not recommended for cordwood.

"The type of wood you want is soft -- pine or cedar," said Stankevitz. "Cedar is the best."

Some cordwood pros, including Roy and Flatau, also add sawdust to the mortar to improve the bond.

"Cordwood can be very forgiving," said Roy, quoting an old colleague. "But it won't forgive stupidity."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

This report includes material from the New York Times.

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