From a distance a cordwood building looks deceptively like it’s made
stone. But if you take a closer look you’ll see that what you thought
were stones actually are the ends of short logs laid widthwise to form
wall. In Europe, cordwood homes, sometimes called "poor mans’
architecture", have existed for over a thousand years. In North
the technique arrived with the early pioneers. Today, in the United
States, cordwood masonry is experiencing a renewed interest as
affordable housing because it’s cheap, easy to build, and energy
efficient. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Linda Anderson has more:
On the far end of a pond, in upstate New York, a group of people are working away, busy as
beavers. The comparison works nicely here, because like beavers, these people are building with
logs and a mud-like mortar.
To one side, a group of men vigorously mix mortar in a wheelbarrow. When they get it just right,
it’s delivered to another group of people whoa re busy stacking 6-8 pound logs. Carefully and
methodically, men, women, and children take the mortar and slather it around each sixteen inch
log. It looks like they’re stacking a wall of firewood. Only this wall is designed to last more
than one season. It’s designed to last a lifetime.
Rob Roy has been building with cordwood for over twenty years. He says there are areas in northern
Greece and Siberia where one-thousand-year-old cordwood structures still stand. Roy and his wife
Jaki discovered cordwood masonry during the energy crisis in the 1970’s.
“My wife and I just needed low cost shelter. This was back in 1975. We had worked on a log
building of heavy pine logs in Arkansas, and we found we just couldn’t heft these large logs by
ourselves. About that time there was an article in National Geographic that showed two pictures,
one interior and one exterior, of a cordwood wall… and we said jeez that makes sense. We can do
that. You are not handling anything more than a six to eight pound log end.”
No literature was available, so Roy and Jaki did their own research. They build their house,
learned from their mistakes, and wrote a book about it: The Complete Book of Cordwood Masonry
Housebuilding. Now they teach workshops at their home near Plattsburgh, New York and speak at
conferences. They’ve become missionaries of cordwood masonry.
“Cordwood makes use of waste wood which is unsuitable for other building uses. Logs which, for
example, are not strait enough to take to the saw mill. perhaps dead wood that has been fire
killed or disease killed on your property. I have even heard of people using driftwood or peeler
cores left over from plywood plants. All sorts of sources of so-called junk wood is perfectly fine
when you cut it into sixteen inch pieces.”
Roy says depending on how resourceful you are, materials can cost between ten to twenty dollars
per square foot. Roughly half of the cost of a standard frame building. Roy says a properly made
cordwood home will be energy efficient. It’s easy to heat in the winter and stays cool in the
“It has this wonderful combination of insulation and thermal mass. The mortar joint between the
log ends does not pass through the wall. There is insulated space. That space can be filled with
loose insulation such as vermiculite or pearlite. We use sawdust treated with lime. It’s equal to
about R3 insulation value per inch of thickness, roughly the same as fiberglass.”
Not only is cordwood masonry easy on the environment, Roy says it’s easy on people as well.
Light-weight logs allow an ease of construction that invites everyone to participate, including
Grandma. Although it’s probably unlikely you’ve ever seen one, Rob Roy says cordwood construction
is on the rise. Today there are three times as many cordwood homes in the United States as there
were a decade ago. Most can be found in Wisconsin and New York.
Eight years ago, in Cambridge, New York, Scott Carrino built a cordwood home with his family. Like
many cordwood homes, his is round. Colored glass bottles have been placed in patterns in the
walls. When the sun shines, it looks like stained glass. Carrino became interested in cordwood
masonry after reading Rob Roy’s book.
“I had actually visited Rob Roy pretty quickly after seeing this book, and saw some of his
buildings and really connected with it, and just fell in love with this building technique.”
TO keep his costs down, Carrino used lots of recycled materials, scavenging old windows, tubs and
sinks. He says many people look at his house and think it was an enormous amount of work. But his
friend, Jon Carlson, says that’s relative.
“It is a lot of work, but all building of homes is a lot of work. When you lay up a cordwood wall
its finished. Don’t have to come back and paint it. Don’t have to come back and side it. So not
only are you finished, but also you are creating something that is pretty maintenance-free.”
Cordwood builders, like Carlson and Carrino, love living in a home made of strong, natural
materials built by their own hands. Rob Roy says with the right materials and friends, anyone can
have that experience. And just like beavers, they’ll be experts in no time.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Linda Anderson in Cambridge, New York.