Use Cordwood Construction to Design and Build Your Own House

A mortgage-free, owner-built cordwood house.

| July/August 1984

After a recent northern Wisconsin winter had left me with an empty oil tank, a barren pocketbook, woodchopper's back, and a mind fairly dancing with home-building fantasies, I made a promise to myself. By the next subzero season, my family and I would be well on our way to completing our own mortgage free, self-built, and tolerably energy-efficient house.

It was all part of a master plan I'd been mulling over that would allow us to move into an attractive home sweet home—free and clear of any debts or mortgages—for an outlay of no more than $15,000 ... $5,000 to erect the shell, and the remainder to bring it to comfortable completion. The capital, I figured, would come from our savings, life insurance policies, biweekly paychecks, and the equity from the sale of our mortgaged city home. (Luckily, we already had the land. We'd had the foresight back in 1977 to purchase, at $200 an acre, 40 acres of beautiful glaciated forest not far from town.)

All winter long I'd been poring over information on conventional and log homes, stone and rammed earth structures, pole buildings, geodesic and foam domes, earth-sheltered houses, and both active and passive solar homes ... but any way I added it up, none of those construction methods would permit us to put one over on the home-finance cartel,

There was, however, one article on cordwood construction that really got my attention. It was packed with dollar facts on three different structures built in northern climates at a cost of between $2.66 and $6.00 per square foot. Man, were they ever talking my language! I quickly got hold of three books on the construction technique (which, by the way, is also called log-end or stack wall building) and learned that it's been used for centuries and is characteristically executed today by stacking one- to two-foot lengths of finger span diameter logs firewood style, using a cement/sand/lime/sawdust mixture to hold them together at the ends, and insulating the center gaps with sawdust and lime, cellulose, polystyrene, or fiberglass stuffing.

After reading and rereading each text and working out some seat-of-the-pants calculations, I was convinced that cordwood was—considering our self-imposed financial restrictions—our only choice. My wife, Rebecca, and I spent the next weeks with a tape measure, graph paper, pencil, protractor, and a big eraser experimenting with a floor plan and overall design that'd be acceptable to us as well as to the plumbing and electrical contractors. After no fewer than 30 revisions, we finally settled on a 1,200-square-foot rectangular structure (1,064 feet of inside area) with a peaked 8/12-pitch roof and an extra 560 square feet of "second-story" living space built into the pre-engineered trusses.

With the design roughed out, I was able to start working up an accurate materials and tools list, hoping that costs would come within our budget. Unexpected price increases just weren't on the menu. If any did occur, we'd have to do our best to work around them ... since—without loans—we had no other choice.

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