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Originally published Friday, July 27, 2012 at 8:01 PM

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Cordwood masonry gains fans in thrifty times

A cordwood wall looks the same inside and out. And with their shaggy green roofs, cozy dimensions and folksy finishes, cordwood homes belong in the shire of Bilbo Baggins.

The New York Times

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WEST CHAZY, N.Y. — The dumbest robins in New York state live on a ledge outside Rob Roy's kitchen window. Or at least they would like to roost there. On a recent Monday morning, Roy, 65, and his wife, Jaki, 63, were marveling at one robin's ineptitude.

"I've been trying to step over the stuff from the nest," Jaki Roy said, pointing to a scattering of grass, twigs and feathers on the doormat.

Rob Roy, who by his own account does not suffer fools, was less sympathetic.

"Those birds are even crazier than they were last year," he said.

He seemed inclined to stomp outside and show them how to do the job right. The Roys, after all, built their unusual house out of much the same stuff: sticks and mortar.

And for 30 years, the couple have been writing and lecturing on the craft at their Earthwood Building School here, a dozen miles both west of Lake Champlain and south of the Canadian border.

Their particular — and, frankly, peculiar — building method is called cordwood masonry. And in a three-day workshop over Labor Day weekend, they will again demonstrate its earthy alchemy. That is, how to create a masonry wall with short lengths of exposed wood in place of the usual brick or stone.

But where puzzling out a stone wall can be as challenging as the Saturday crossword, laying lengths of lumber in a pile is more like the word search in TV Guide. As Rob Roy said, "If you can stack wood, you can build a cordwood house."

Since the Roys first helped lead a cordwood revival in the 1970s, they have contended the practice is suited to all types of people: low-income landowners and vacation-home dreamers, energy-efficiency fanatics and latter-day back-to-the-landers.

Granted, these are country houses. A cordwood wall looks the same inside and out: The logs go all the way through. And with their shaggy green roofs, cozy dimensions and folksy finishes, cordwood homes belong not in Bilbao, but in the shire of Bilbo Baggins.

Yet even a heap of firewood can have its own aesthetic, said Ronald Rael, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of a book and website titled "Earth Architecture."

On the Colorado cattle ranch where Rael grew up, "My grandfather was a stickler on stacking wood in a very correct way," he recalled. "It was a form of making architecture."

Cordwood masonry is a logical extension of that discipline, he said: "somewhere between a log cabin and wood pile."

Affordable price

For most cordwood practitioners, Rob Roy said, "it's a means of building the kind of house they want for an affordable price." If you can manage the labor yourself, and shop for supplies in the Dumpster, a new cordwood home can be built for just $20 a square foot, he said. That's a quarter of the average sticker price for a new contractor-built home.

Roy's proselytizing aside, something about the look and economy of cordwood seems to be making a few new converts. Census data indicate that owner-built housing starts dropped steeply during the endless recession. Yet attendance at the Earthwood school has doubled in the last year, to 40.

There may be 200 to 300 cordwood homes and outbuildings in construction (and another 1,500 completed) across North America, said Richard Flatau, who wrote "Cordwood Construction: Best Practices." "When the economy is good, we get a lot less traffic," Flatau said from his cordwood home in Merrill, Wis. "When the economy is down and people are struggling to get work and make ends meet, cordwood picks up."

Cordwood masonry has been called log butt, stovewood, stackwall, even "Depression building," among a few old-timers on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. William H. Tishler, a professor emeritus of landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has traced some of the earliest cordwood structures back to the hardscrabble settlements of the mid-to-late 19th century.

Traditional log cabins and timber-framed dwellings required "extensive lengths of straight, high-quality timber," Tishler wrote in "Cordwood Building: The State of the Art," a collection of articles edited by Roy. By contrast, the material for a cordwood house could come from skinny, second-growth lumber, even fire-charred forests.

Big in Wisconsin

The professor searched for the origins of the building method in Scandinavia, Germany and Canada before concluding that the best place to find old cordwood is probably Door County, Wis.

Nick Hylla, who lives in Custer — in "the bull's-eye center of Wisconsin," he said — thinks about cordwood's mysterious origins in terms of natural history. The glaciers left behind a giant limestone ridge: the material for lime putty mortar. And the north woods teemed with white cedar.

Hylla and his wife, Anne, milled their own lumber on the property. And they raised the kind of honest, sturdy timber frame that has been out of fashion since a two-by-four actually measured two-by-four.

Yet Hylla, 36, is also the executive director of the nonprofit Midwest Renewable Energy Association. And so he mated this old-fashioned skeleton to a solar space-heating system, with a 2 1/2-foot sand bed that stores warmth beneath the floor. The result, in a climate where long johns count as lingerie, is an energy bill of just $20 a month.

"Our goal was to build a house that would last 1,000 years," Hylla said, which assumes they'll be done by then.

It might seem an act of faith (or desperation) to have amateurs and strangers determine the look of your bedroom. But Anne Hylla, 35, has adopted a Zen detachment about the results. After laying enough log ends, she concluded: "I find you don't look much at the walls anyway."

Prolific writer

You could say that Roy wrote the book on modern cordwood. Except it's actually more like five books and a dozen-odd articles for Mother Earth News and BackHome magazine.

The search for more cordwood projects to write about (and to assign in workshops) has led Roy to build prolifically. Over the years, he has erected three homes in West Chazy, a vacation cabin on nearby Chateaugay Lake and then, on the current property, three guest cottages, a library, a dining hall, an office, a garage, a sauna and a "hermit's hut."

To the extent the Roys cannot be in all these outbuildings at once, at any given moment most stand uninhabited. (Picture a fairy-tale duchy whose serfs have decamped to milk unicorns.)

Yet the home the Roys have occupied since 1981, Earthwood, is a true showpiece of the back-to-the-land building movement.

The round shape maximizes space. In place of a center pillar, they lodged a 23-ton stone masonry stove. It's a massive radiator in the winter and a heat sink in the summer. They dug into a hill to shelter the bottom floor and planted a green roof to cool the second story.

A stationary bike pressurizes the water system, which feeds the upstairs kitchen and bathroom (a novelty that, astonishingly, never caught on).

In a sense, though, the beauty of the home is skin deep. The Roys bundled the house in cordwood masonry walls made from salvaged cedar rail. But far more important than the insulation value of the 16-inch logs, Roy explained, are the tons of masonry and sawdust infill. This mass buffers the temperature inside, from day to day and even week to week.

Thirty years later, the home might appear a little like a time capsule. Except that this summer, Roy and his younger son are building a brand-new, 20-sided cordwood home in much the same style.

Best timber

The best way to explain cordwood masonry is to do it. So Roy figured he might as well stir up a small batch of mortar and lay a few logs in the wall. A steady rain was falling, what Roy optimistically called "a Scotch mist." He agitated the mixture with a mortar hoe, mumbling disagreeably as he worked.

"This is way too wet," he said, squeezing a handful of gray goop.

The wood, sitting beneath a tarp, had been stripped of its bark and left to dry for a year. Green lumber would contract, pulling away from the mortar and leaving air gaps. So-called hardwoods, like oak or maple, would shrink most of all.

"Northern white cedar is a first choice," Roy said. That would be the stuff for this house. "White pine and spruce are also good choices."

He placed a glop of mortar on top of a log halfway up the wall: first on the outside plane, then on the inside. In the middle, he sprinkled dry sawdust spiced with a little lime. The result was a kind of mortar-sawdust-mortar hoagie.

Someone with an artistic eye — that would be Jaki Roy — could insert a bottle in the wall for a skylight effect. During the pointing, or finishing, "you can put in glass beads," she said.

"Or seashells," Rob Roy said

"Shards of mirror," she said.

"It can get too funky," he said.

For now, having laid a half-dozen logs, he had seen enough of the rain and the soggy mortar.

"Cordwood can be very forgiving," he said, quoting an old colleague. "But it won't forgive stupidity."

DIY'ers

Toby Crawley and Maria Muscarella tried to follow the Earthwood blueprint when they built a cordwood homestead on 25 hilly acres northwest of Asheville, N.C. Crawley, 38, is comfortable with math: He works as a software engineer. But the angles of a 16-sided home proved to be far from intuitive.

Muscarella, 38, said, "There's a crazy amount of geometry that went into this house." Crawley added, "If I had more building experience, I think I would have realized the difficulty of that."

The couple had set aside what they hoped would be a modest but realistic budget of $60,000.

"We blew past that real fast," Crawley said.

He went back to work full time. And yet the building somehow got done in just 15 months. Friends turned up for cordwood work parties; any excuse, from a solstice to a wedding anniversary, would do. Their names went on slips of paper, now sealed inside bottles in the wall.

The couple's daughter, Kaia, grew fond of the hubbub. After a formative year with a sawdust bucket, "she didn't want to use a flush toilet," Muscarella said. "It made too much noise."

Four years later, Crawley is starting to see past the mistakes.

"The very first rafter I put up, I dropped on my head," he said. "And I know exactly which one it is."

In the end, though, he loves the look of the cordwood. Even if it is "a dust and spider-web collector," he said.

"It's really good for hanging children's art," Muscarella added.

The plural is deliberate: The month after the hammers and chain saws fell silent, the couple conceived their second child.

"I had my son in the bedroom," she said, a charmed memory that now belongs to the new home. If you can bring a cordwood house into the world, giving birth is easy.

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