The Recycled Log Cabin

Reader Contribution by Douglas Stevenson

I live in a what I call a recycled log cabin. Half of the logs came from an 1800’s log cabin from around the Nashville area.

My home is located on The Farm Community, one of the oldest, largest and most successful intentional communities/ecovillages in the world.

Much of the cabin’s  initial construction took place in the 1970’s, when the community’s members lived under a communal economy. The Farm’s economic structure changed in the early 1980’s, a shift which made each family financially responsible for any future improvements and maintenance of their home. My family took possession of the cabin in 1985.

Building With Recycled Lumber

The original cabin was disassembled by Farm work crews at its original location in Nashville, Tenn., and the cedar logs were re-stacked back on The Farm to form one half of this home. 

The other logs came from oak trees harvested on the site where the cabin now stands, hand hewn into shape by a member of The Farm who became one of the cabin’s first residents.

Many of the support beams throughout the home also came from the local timbers harvested from the building site.

The log walls are about 8 inches thick. Because wood is comprised of plant cell walls, the millions of tiny air pockets make an excellent source of insulation, keeping the cabin warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Although they do not require any painting or maintenance, on some of the interior walls we have sanded the logs and coated them with linseed oil to bring out the natural honey color of the wood.

The entire floor system and the framing for the second story and interior walls all consist of recycled lumber acquired by Farm salvage crews.

Sourcing Salvaged Building Materials

Throughout the 70’s, The Farm was involved in the demolition of hundreds of buildings across the region, bringing back the materials to use in the construction of homes and community buildings back on the land.

This was economically feasible because there were no labor costs due to the collective economy that was in place at that time. Once it became necessary to pay workers wages after the economic restructuring of the early 80s, it was no longer cost effective to acquire salvaged lumber through demolition.

During the communal period, this home housed about 40 people, including several families and assorted single folks. In the 1980s the house was turned into a duplex and it remains that way today. By sharing resources, we are able to live comfortably while dividing various expenses, keeping our cost of living down.  For example, our two families share one electric meter, one propane gas connection for our cooking stoves, one water heater, one washer and dryer set, and the list goes on and on. We have also shared costs of improvements to the home over the years.

Home Heating and Efficient Windows

One of our first investments together was a wood furnace in our basement. The furnace heats both sides of the house with a forced air or central heat system, which keeps all of the dust, debris and smoke associated with wood heat out of our living areas.

A few of years ago, my wife and I had an addition built on to our side of the home to expand our living space. It features a floor of Vermont slate. We added a computer controlled electric radiant heating system to the floor, which actually can use less energy than most water based radiant heating systems. It is enough to keep our side of the home warm when temperatures are above freezing.

In Tennessee, we are concerned as much or more about keeping the home cool in the summer than gathering heat in the winter through passive solar.

For this reason on our south wall we installed tall, narrow windows that let in light without allowing a lot of heat come through.

Our entire north wall is glass, wrapping around the corner with two more large, Low E, gas-filled windows on the east wall. This also happens to be where we have a view into the wooded valley below. A sliding glass door on the north wall can be opened to draw in cool air.

The sliding glass door opens out on to a deck. The deck flooring and railing is constructed of locally harvested sassafras lumber, a wood rich in oils and naturally insect and rot resistant. This enabled us to avoid the use of treated wood.

Insulation and Siding

We also built the addition with six inch stud walls, giving us two more inches of insulation than is typical in standard home construction. Under the siding there is an extra layer of foam board, providing yet another layer of insulation. The exterior siding on the addition and on the second story of the entire home is cypress, another wood that is naturally resistant to rot and insect damage. It requires no painting or exterior treatment. Another home improvement has been the addition of new flooring in our upstairs hallway and bedrooms. We chose to use bamboo both because it is a renewable resource and because it is also one of the more affordable options. The downside of bamboo is that although it resembles hardwood in appearance, it is actually quite delicate and susceptible to scuffs, dings and dents. We felt that the upstairs floor would not be exposed to the same amount of traffic that our downstairs receives and for the most has held up just fine.

Our other options could have been pre-finished hardwood or locally milled hardwood from the nearby Amish community. The Amish hardwood would have required extensive sanding and finishing, something that can be endured with new construction, but is impractical when remodeling.

Green Roofing Material

The shingle roof we installed 30 years finally had to be replaced and this time we went with a metal roof, coated with a baked enamel paint that is rated at 40 years. The roof color is white, which reflects heat and even infrared light. Even on a hot summer day, the metal is cool to the touch, which in turn helps keep the home cooler during the hot summers of Tennessee.

It has taken many years to get where we are now. Instead of a mortgage, we have always worked with a “pay as you go” plan, doing a few improvements or projects each year. We have always been happy that we were not burdened under the weight of a mortgage, but these days it feels very good indeed.

Join Douglas at the upcoming MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Seven Springs, Penn., where he’ll will be speaking on Friday afternoon about growing food, green building, and his life at The Farm Community, one of the largest and most successful ecovillages in the world. For more about The Farm, check out Douglas’s two books, Out to Change the World: The Evolution of The Farm Community and The Farm Then and Now. You can also see it all firsthand by attending one of his Farm Experience Weekendsat The Farm in Summertown, Tenn.