Networx

Posted by Cris Carl | Jan 04, 2011

Cordwood Construction in New England

Excellent insulation value and natural good looks characterize this Wendell, MA house.

Todd Muller and Patty Smythe in front of a cordwood wall.  Photo: Cris Carl.Cordwood construction for home building is unique, beautiful, inexpensive, and has excellent insulation properties. However, cordwood construction is not for those who want to build their new home rapidly. Todd Muller and his wife Patty Smythe of Wendell, MA have spent several years creating the home of their dreams, but no one is complaining. Muller and Smythe’s 1,300 square foot home is super energy efficient, eye-catching, and very personal. The sheer effort required to create a cordwood home is a big part of what truly makes it a home.

The Beginnings

Muller, who worked for many years as a carpenter and handyman, said that he had never built a house before attempting to build a cordwood home. The story begins long before the 2005 construction start date on the family’s home. “It started for me back in the 70’s and the ‘back to the land’ movement,” said Muller. “There was the typical stereotype of hippies building a log cabin in the woods,” he said.

After seeing a program on television (in the 1970’s) about cordwood construction Muller thought “I can do that. It did, however, take another 30 years for the seed that was planted to germinate.”

Muller attended Earth Wood Building School in West Chazy, New York. He then left his job to work on the house-building project. While Smythe supported the couple during the building process, they feel ultimately they saved a great deal of money on a high-quality home by doing the work themselves. “We basically have a $250,000 home built for about $90,000,” said Muller.

A cordwood and mortar wall.  Photo: Cris Carl.

The Process of Cordwood Construction

 

Muller said that first the trees/wood must be gathered, the bark peeled off, and the wood dried and cut to size. “It’s a similar process, except the peeling, as preparing wood for your wood pile (for burning),” said Muller. Smythe added that the ends of the wood need to be sanded smooth.

Placing a square of cloth on the floor, Smythe demonstrated how the foundation was laid. The foundation of their home is 24 inches thick. “It has to be an especially strong foundation to be able to carry the weight,” she said.

Once the floor plan was laid out, wood gathering began. Some wood came from the couple’s property and the rest they gleaned from other sources. In one instance, the couple was able to get three truckloads of wood from a company that was clearing an area that had been flooded in another town.

Muller said that once you have your wood prepared, you then need a mortar combination of sand, Portland cement, lime and soaked sawdust (soaked overnight). The cement is mixed in a wheelbarrow and the prepared wood piled for construction. The process of building one portion of approximately three by twelve feet takes about ten hours. “It’s like a disease,” Muller said with a laugh. “We became master mortar stuffers.”

“It’s like Zen building,” said Smythe. It took a year and a half to build the first floor of the house.  Mortar is placed in a layer, then log pieces are placed, the middle is stuffed with insulating material, more mortar is put down and so on.

Smythe said that it is very important to keep the project dry. After each work day the project has to be “buttoned up and covered with tarps,” she said. The areas around each log also need to be smoothed out by hand. “This was a primary tool,” said Muller holding up a mortar-covered butter knife.

Due to logistics and time involved, the couple used standard construction for the second floor of the house.

Cordwood masonry in progress.  Photo: Todd Muller.

The Best Wood for Cordwood Construction

Muller said that you do not want to use hardwoods in cordwood construction. “You need to select your wood based on its ability to transfer moisture,” said Muller. “Eastern white cedar is the bomb when it comes to cordwood construction,” he added.

Muller explained that woods that have a lot of airspace in them allow for expansion and contraction more easily. Hard woods, in a relatively short time, would split and crack. The wood used in cordwood construction will dry over time, especially if you have a wood or pellet stove (tends to create drier air in the house). After a year or two, you will most likely need to re-caulk around the wood to keep a tight fit. “We run a humidifier to help, but we would run one anyway,” said Smythe.

Other Benefits of Cordwood Construction

 

Again, the expenses are less. Smythe said all they needed was a small mortgage that they hope to pay off within the next three years.

The insulation can’t be beat. Walls are 16 inches thick. Muller said that between one standard-sized woodstove and thermal mass heated floors they installed, that is all the heat they need. The heated floors are run on propane currently, but Muller is looking to upgrade to a wood boiler for sustainability.

The wood you use can be very personal. Muller comes from three generations of builders and has used a wooden plane passed down through the family from Germany as one of the wall pieces. Smythe found fossilized heartwood for another personal touch.

Lastly, the couple learned from musicians they have had in their home for “house concerts,” that cordwood construction creates excellent acoustics.

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