Cordwood building is an old construction technique that is gaining popularity among those who decide to live off the grid. Cordwood houses started appearing in Wisconsin with the coming of the first settlers and these natural, hand-built houses are being constructed even in these modern times.
I first found out about cordwood construction while visiting my friend Steve in North Carolina. He built a retreat in the woods after researching about cordwood building and about his family’s roots. His ancestors settled in Wisconsin during the 1900s and the houses they built used the cordwood technique.
After seeing his cabin and doing a little research on my own, I can say that cordwood constructions would make an ideal retreat for today’s off-gridders or survivalists.
Cordwood building basics
Cordwood has been used for over a century and it’s one of the ways to build a natural home of sustainable materials that would allow one to become mortgage free. It 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. The thickness of the wall is determined by the length of the cordwood used and the builder’s need for energy efficiency. Almost any debarked and dried softwood is considered acceptable for stack wall construction. When building the foundation of a cordwood construction most people will go with a conventional insulated concrete floating slab. Erecting the home’s structural skeleton is actually easier and doesn’t require advanced carpentry skills if you have a good foundation. Simple post-and-beam framing with cedar posts can be done by anyone with the most basic carpentry tools and skills. If constructing a house with corners, each course of cordwood should be cross hatched for strength. Near the end, small filler slats of wood may be required to finish the joining or tops of walls. Windows and doors are framed with standard window boxes and wooden lintels.
Choosing the appropriate cordwood mortar mix is perhaps the most important aspect of cordwood construction. Here are the most common options for cordwood mortar mix:
- traditional cordwood mortar (sand, sawdust, lime, Portland)
- cob mortar (sand, clay, straw)
- lime putty mortar (lime, water, sand),
- papercrete mortar (paper, sand, lime)
- cellulose mortar (lime, sand, cellulose).
Cordwood building is not complicated, however it may become labor intensive if you plan to do everything yourself. While over 30 different types of wood can be used, the most desirable rot resistant woods are Pacific yew, bald cypress (new growth), cedars, and juniper. Acceptable woods also include Douglas fir, western larch, Eastern White Pine, and Spruce Pine.
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Advantages of Cordwood Building
Cordwood construction is energy efficient (a 16″ cordwood wall has approximately an R value of 20), sustainable and offers a great alternative for those looking to build an inexpensive retreat.
Every cordwood building becomes a DIY project and much of the construction can be done without professional help.
Once a cordwood wall is built, it is finished inside and out as it doesn’t require additional work.
Cordwood building is a money saver and it all depends on how much of the work you can do yourself. The cost of your cordwood construction could be less than half of conventional construction, somewhere between $40 and $45 per square foot.
You won’t need heavy equipment or machinery during the construction phases as the logs are easy to handle and light enough to be lifted.
You can build in any shape and you are not constricted by the traditional rectangular shape. You can have curved walls in your home if you wish so.
Cordwood building can be used for smaller projects (tool sheds, chicken coops, etc.) as well and becomes an addiction after you complete your first project and realize how easy it is to build using this technique.
Suggested reading: Housing options for off-grid living
Just like with any construction project, there are also some downsides to cordwood building, but these challenges can be overlooked, depending on your situation. A few things worth mentioning:
- Cordwood building is time consuming, especially if you have to gather and prepare the building materials yourself (peeling, splitting and drying the wood takes time).
- There is no much reselling value for a cordwood construction since most people haven’t heard about it. I haven’t seen any cordwood houses listed on the market.
- Getting the building permits can be tricky, especially in urban areas since most building inspectors haven’t heard about cordwood building and are skeptical of its integrity. Of course that this won’t matter if you plan to build your house in an isolated area and use it as a bug out location.
Before You Build consider these suggestions from the experts
I’ve asked Steve to provide a few insights after going through a project that involves cordwood building. Here are his suggestions based on his hard learned lessons.
Get informed, before you even begin gathering the basic materials. Read every bit of information you can find online and get your hands on a good cordwood building book like this one: “Cordwood Construction Best Practices”.
Count your days and plan all the available time you get. While Steve is retired and managed to concentrate his efforts on building their retreat, he also needed the help of his wife during the construction stage. Since this building method is inexpensive, you still need to take into account that you will be swapping hours for dollars. His wife managed to help him only during the weekends and the construction project tool longer than expected. If you have a steady job, you will need to do the building after work and on the weekends.
If you are new to cordwood building you should build your first walls where they won’t be readily seen as those walls will become part of your practice stage. It takes time to master the mudding and stacking technique.
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Consider using the Frank Lloyd Wright rubble trench foundation as this technique uses a gravel trench to keep water from settling under the foundation, preventing heaving. This provides a good foundation that works in many soils and climates.
When working with mortar, rubber gloves are a must if you don’t want to deal with cement burns.
Think before planning your site and take into account future expansion. This may not be obvious at first and you need to make sure you have enough working room for any unplanned expansions.
Although he used mainly cordwood rounds for the walls, after researching more about it, Steve found out that most experts recommend using splits instead of rounds (or at least a mix of the two) for a better structural integrity.
Try to integrate large overhangs if possible, which provide protection for the cordwood walls and are crucial to an effective passive solar design.
Work with local contractors or friends if you have a tight financial situation. If you have a friend that is a good plumber, electrician, and brick mason, get him on board to finish the project. It will save you some bucks and it will also help you learn a thing or two without screwing things up.
The diversity of cordwood structures recommends this old building technique for anyone that needs to build a sustainable and energy-efficient house without breaking the bank. All you need is some experience with DIY and construction to build your cordwood house.
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