MOTHER’s Low-Cost Home-Building Contest: Winner IV

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With sweat and stackwood, this couple built their 1,536-square-foot home for under $14,000.
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Glen and Rhonda used salvaged barn beams to frame their home and cordwood construction to create walls. Although the Fletchers live in northern Michigan (note the steep snow-shedding roof), they can heat their tight home with one woodstove.
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Diagram of the Fletchers' first floor and second floor low-cost home.
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With sweat and stackwood, this couple built their 1,536-square-foot home for under $14,000.

Glen and Rhonda Fletcher built their low-cost home building with salvaged barn timbers for under $14,000.

MOTHER’s Low-Cost Home-Building Contest: Winner IV

In the past three installments covering MOTHER’s Low-Cost Home-Building Contest, we’ve shown you an earth-bermed Maine saltbox, a traditional Iowa log cabin, and a Massachusetts timber frame–each built for well under $15 per square foot. If you had a chance to read those articles, you know that the success of those projects always hinged on clever use of low-cost local materials. This issue’s owner-builder triumph is no exception.

Glen and Rhonda Fletcher salvaged old barn timbers to frame their post-and-beam house, but cut local cedar logs to fill the spaces between the posts. They stacked the 12 inch-long rounds and packed them with mortar to form a thick wall of decay-resistant cedar and cement, using a technique called cordwood-masonry construction. Stackwood, as it’s also called, is one of the least costly building techniques, and is especially suited to people with lots of timber and time.

Low-Cost Home-Building Planning

In order to dry the cedar before using it, Glen cut and bucked (trimmed to the 12 inch-length) the logs 2-1/2 years before starting to build. This prevented the gaps that would have developed as the green wood shrank during curing.

Salvage work turned up a variety of other useful materials for the Fletchers. Siding from the barns worked well for exterior trim, old bricks laid in a wood frame formed the stove platform and backing, tongue-and-groove provided the subfloor, and about nine tons of rock eventually were used in landscaping.

Getting all the loot to the building site was a job, but once everything was on hand, construction went quickly. Glen and Rhonda started work in June of 1983 and had the place livable by November, unusually quick work for typically short-handed owner-builders.

Michigan Winters

Winters in northern Michigan are among the harshest in the continental United States. The Fletchers can expect about 100 inches of snow, enough to put a tremendous load on a roof. For that reason, theirs rises 10 feet for every 12 feet of run (a 10-in-12 pitch) and has large overhangs to assure that snow will slide of, landing some distance from the walls. What’s more, the building’s 2 by 12 sill perches on a footing three concrete blocks (2 feet) above the ground, to keep the wood of the house away from moisture.

With an average January temperature of 17 degrees Fahrenheit and 8,400 heating degree-days, Montmorency County isn’t much warmer than Caribou, Maine, or International Falls, Minnesota. Yet Glen and Rhonda heat their cordwood-walled house with one woodstove.

The floor and ceiling are heavily insulated–the 2 by 12 joists and rafters are filled with fiberglass–and there are doublepane windows and insulated metal doors throughout. But the energy efficiency of cordwood walls is arguable. With the Rvalue of wood about 1.5 per inch multiplied by 12 inches, you come up with a total R of only 18. From this you also have to subtract the losses from the moreconductive mortar. The roughly R-15 total isn’t high for the climate.

Still, many people who live comfortably in cordwood (and log) houses claim that theoretical R-values don’t tell the whole story. They find that their homes just seem to work better than the technologists predict.

Some suggest that this may be due to the fact that the mass of the walls stores heat. Others feel that heat absorbed by the walls radiates back onto the occupants, keeping them comfortable at a low air temperature. But until someone monitors the performance of one of these houses, people like the Fletchers will probably just have to continue being happy feeling comfortable, without being able to explain just why they do.

The Home-Building Details

Getting a house livable and finishing it are two different things, particularly for owner-builders. Between November 1983 and spring 1985, Rhonda and Glen trimmed the interior of their home with cedar cabinets and woodwork, built a 20 foot by 40 foot barn, and began putting that nine tons of landscaping rock to work. Little details, like the last of the exterior painting, also had to wait until the second spring. Today, though, the Fletchers have finished the landscaping, and, as Rhonda put it, “We are slowly but surely getting there.”

Building your own house may not be the easiest way to find a place to live, but it can be the most rewarding. By substituting ingenuity, planning, and labor for several truckloads of conventional materials, the Fletchers put up a 1,536-square-foot home for $13,445: less than $9 per square foot. If what they’ve created could be bought, it would probably cost at least five times as much.