The EPA is embarking on a new public education campaign about the dangers of vermiculite insulation. Much of the attic insulation was made with ore that is contaminated with asbestos. Critics say the EPA waited longer than it should have to notify the public. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tracy Samilton reports:
The EPA is embarking on a new public education campaign about the dangers of vermiculite
insulation. Much of the attic insulation was made with ore that is contaminated with asbestos.
Critics say the EPA waited longer than it should have to notify the public. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Tracy Samilton reports:
The loose silvery brown insulation is
found in the attics of many homes built in the
60’s, 70’s, and
80’s. The mine where the tainted
vermiculite came from was shut down
13 years ago, after miners began
falling ill and dying. But it wasn’t until this month that
the EPA warned
homeowners that vermiculite insulation is dangerous and should be avoided.
Andrew Schneider is a reporter at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. He broke a story last year that the
White House had directed the EPA not to issue a public warning. But Schneider says the EPA
came under even more pressure from other places.
“A lot of it came not just from the press hammering away at them, but really good people within
the EPA who were raising hell with their own administrators.”
The EPA will distribute notices to hardware stores and state agencies, telling people how to
identify the insulation and to stay away from it. Removal should only be done by professionals.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tracy Samilton.
American houses are getting bigger
and bigger, but some architects question
whether more square footage leads to
a happier life. Photo by Lester Graham.
Although family size is growing smaller in the U.S., house sizes are growing larger. The square footage of a home built in the 1950’s seems tiny compared to the houses typically built in the suburbs today. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham looks at the trend of ever-larger houses:
Although family size is growing smaller in the U.S., house sizes are growing larger. The square
footage of a home built in the 1950’s seems tiny compared to the houses typically built in the
suburbs today. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham looks at the trend of ever-
There’s no one answer as to why we’re building bigger houses. For some people, it’s a matter of
investing. Housing prices continue to rise and bigger houses sell well. People trade up. But…
for some homebuyers, it’s more than that. It’s a statement.
Lynn Egbert is the CEO of the Michigan Association of Home Builders.
“A lot of that could be a status symbol. Move out of the city; move into a rural-like area because
‘I’ve made it,’ because ‘This is my dream.’ It used to be people would move up, sell their homes
every seven to ten years. That’s changed now and the sale of homes is now three to five years.
You build up the equity in a new home or an existing home, you have the opportunity to build or
move into something else later. It is an investment.”
Investing in a house only explains some of the reason houses are getting larger. Another reason is
government. Local governments are zoning residential areas into large lot subdivisions. Egbert
says that means the builder has to build a big house, just to recoup the cost of the sizeable piece
“That is a preclusion, a prohibition against Smart Growth. When they have large lots sizes, it
absolutely dictates and mandates that anybody who moves in there is going to have a large
It’s an attempt by towns to keep out lower-income people who might build homes that lower the
property values of a neighborhood.
But there’s a demand for the bigger houses and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. So, cities and
towns zone for them, builders build them, and people buy them – bigger and bigger.
Linda Groat is a professor at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture. She
says it’s not too surprising. People feel less connected to the community at large because they
move often, drive somewhere else to work, and see their home as a refuge. Home is where they
can relax and escape from the rest of the world.
“There may be, on the part of some people, a feeling of need to really make it more of a castle to
compensate for what feels more complicated or out of control in the larger world.”
We feel we need private places that we can call our own. But there might be social costs to that
refuge. There’s often little interaction with neighbors and the rest of the community in which we
live. And Groat says even within the home all that space means family members don’t have to
bump into each other on the way to the bathroom. Groat says in the new large suburban homes,
sometimes derisively called McMansions, everyone can pursue their own activities in different
parts of the house.
“If you buy a McMansion and the master bedroom is off on one wing and or a different floor and
the kids are off in huge rooms way on the other side of the house, is that really going to foster
Some architects are becoming aware the scale of housing is beginning to leave smaller
families with a sense of emptiness, not a sense of space. Sarah Susanka is one of the leaders of a
movement to re-evaluate the concept of whether bigger is really better. The first question is
“Why?” Why are we building bigger houses?
“Well, there’s obviously a large market for larger and larger homes. And my belief is that people
are trying to fill a void in their lives with the only tool that we’ve really defined for ourselves in
this culture which is: more. More stuff. More square footage. You know, more indication that
we’ve arrived. All that stuff.”
But Susanka says there’s a longing underneath all that, an idea that there should be some better
quality of life that’s not being satisfied by just more square footage. She’s the author of a series
of books that started with one entitled “The Not So Big House.” She argues that people can use
the money they’d spend on additional square footage for space that’s rarely used for better
designed spaces where they actually live day-to-day. She says if the house is an investment, then
it should be an investment in quality craftsmanship and better living, not just more space.
“When something is thrown together and just is sort of raw space, but not much else, over time
it’s going to degenerate. And, the amount of square footage obviously has a direct correlation
with the amount of resources it takes to build it. So by making something that’s tailored to fit – in
other words, not with excess material – and then that’s going to last a long time that that should be
the first step in sustainable design.”
Graham: “So, you suspect a lot of these McMansions or starter-castles, as you call them, aren’t going to be
around very long?”
“Yeah, I think in the long haul those are not going to survive in the same way and are probably
not going to be looked after in the same way over time just because they’re not as well put
together and they don’t have the charm that’s going to make somebody want to look after them in
Susanka says using resources for bigger houses is not environmentally friendly and does not
necessarily mean better living. She says builders and homebuyers should think about it this way:
build the space you need and do it well and do it in a way that somebody in the future will want to
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
To the environmentalist, “green” refers to something environmentally friendly. When manufacturers refer to green, they usually mean money. But with an increase in the demand for environmentally sound buildings, manufacturers have the opportunity to combine the two definitions. For those who see the possibility, retooling to meet the demand for green construction could mean a large payoff in a burgeoning industry. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shula Neuman reports:
To the environmentalist, “green” refers to something environmentally friendly. When
manufacturers refer to green, they usually mean money. But with an increase in the demand for
environmentally sound buildings, manufacturers have the opportunity to combine the two
definitions. For those who see the possibility, retooling to meet the demand for green
construction could mean a large payoff in a burgeoning industry. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Shula Neuman filed this report:
There’s an 86-year old abandoned building in a Cleveland neighborhood that was left for dead a
few decades ago. It’s a shame because inside the building are 26-foot high ceilings with ornate
molding, original Tennessee marble walls and wood trim. But recently, the building, which was
once the Cleveland Trust Bank, was identified by a coalition of local environmental groups as the
ideal spot for their offices. The Cleveland Green Building Coalition spearheaded the task of
converting the old bank building into the new Environmental Center. Executive director Sadhu
Johnston explains, the project is not your average renovation.
“What we’re really trying to do is to demonstrate to people that you can do green while
preserving and that’s often they are seen to butt heads and this project is showing that the two
movements have a lot in common.”
While touring the mostly finished building, Johnston points out seemingly endless
environmentally friendly features. First, there’s a radiant floor heating and cooling system. Then
there are the geothermal wells under the parking lot. They use insulation made from recycled
paper and cardboard. And the roof is divided into three sections: one part has traditional black
tar, another has a white reflective coating and the third segment is a living roof, which looks like
Johnston says the layout is meant to demonstrate a more than 100-degree temperature variation
between the three surfaces. All of the different materials and methods used to construct the
Environmental Center, could signal a forward thinking manufacturer to see financial reward from
the burgeoning interest in green buildings. After all, green buildings tend to save money.
The Environmental Center is 67-percent more energy efficient than required by code. In fiscal
terms, that adds up to a half-million dollar savings over 20 years. This might make you wonder
why more people aren’t building green. Actually, according to U.S. Green Building Council
president and CEO Christine Ervin, interest in green construction has been increasing over the
past decade. Since the group established green certification standards three years ago, nearly 700
projects have registered to meet certification. And, Ervin adds, the increase in interest is not
exclusive to tree-huggers
“The diversity of the kinds of projects also is telling us that this is a serious trend that is moving
into the mainstream market. We have projects that are registered firehouses, small schools, FAA
stations. All the way up to manufacturing plants and convention centers.”
Several cities and government agencies are already mandating green construction on new
buildings, including the city of Portland, the General Services Administration and the U.S. Army.
David Goldstein is with the Natural Resources Defense Council and environmental group in San
Francisco. He says there’s a movement afoot to establish national incentives to build green. In
other words, the time is ripe for the construction industry to get with the green program.
“From the point of view of the manufacturers of the equipment and supplies, and of the expert
building designers who put all these things together, once these policies for green buildings are
there, that’s a new market opportunity for them. So it is in their interest to promote these kinds of
Goldstein adds green regulations also have a coincidental social benefit. With 35-percent of
pollution coming from the electricity and gas buildings use, requiring green buildings is as much
a public health issue as it is an economic one.
Some manufacturers in the great lakes region have caught on to the possibilities. The Cleveland
Based Garland Company manufactures and installs roofing systems all over the country and is
responsible for the Environmental Center’s roof—its first in-town green job. Garland
incorporates recycled materials into about 80 percent of its products. Nathan Schaus, project
manager at Garland, says about 15 percent of their business comes from their green product line.
Schaus says the market for green materials will continue to grow, especially with manufacturers
pushing its benefits.
“It’s a two-fold education. You need to educate the buyer, the end user that what they’re buying
is a building solution for the long term. So the initial investment, you have to explain that cost
over its life cycle. With the incentives, it’s changing the mindsets of the people that regulate
government and electricity today.”
Government regulators may work even faster on establishing incentives when they see the
increase in demand for residential green building on top of the commercial market. According to
the National Association of Homebuilders, about 13,000 green homes were built last year – a
huge increase over any single year before that. If demand continues to increase at such a rapid
pace, those business that go green now may be making plenty of green in the future.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Shula Neuman.
A recent newspaper report says that the White House stopped the EPA from issuing a warning about widespread asbestos-contaminated insulation last spring. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tracy Samilton reports:
A recent newspaper report says that the White House stopped the
EPA from issuing a warning about widespread asbestos-contaminated
insulation last spring. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tracy Samilton
Zonolite insulation was produced in this country from the 1940’s through
the 1990’s, and almost all of it was made from ore that came from one mine
in Libby, Montana. Thousands of miners were killed or sickened because
the ore was contaminated with an extremely lethal asbestos fiber.
But it was only last year that the EPA decided to issue a public health
emergency warning to residents and workers who could come in contact with
Zonolite insulation in homes where it had been installed.
A St. Louis Post Dispatch investigation revealed that the White House Office of
Management and Budget intervened, and the EPA never issued the warning.
The Post Dispatch reports that EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman was
outraged by the decision.
Hundreds of thousands of homes in Michigan and Illinois probably have
Zonolite insulation. The insulation is often strewn loose in attics.
It’s silvery-brown and comes in feather-light pieces ranging from the size
of a pea to the size of a nickel.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tracy Samilton.
Duke Wagatha drives down from northern Michigan each year to sell his Christmas trees. While in Ann Arbor, he and his crew live in this 1951 Vagabond trailer.
It’s that time of year again – parking lots across the country are filled with Christmas trees. Just about one out of every three people who celebrate Christmas buys a live tree. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush spent some time with one tree grower in the height of tree selling season:
It’s that time of year again – parking lots across the country are filled with Christmas trees. Just about one
out of every three people who celebrate Christmas buys a live tree. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Mark Brush spent some time with one tree grower in the height of tree selling season:
(sound of generator, saws, people chatting)
It’s a crisp afternoon at this Christmas tree lot in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That generator you hear is
powering the electric saws. They trim up the base of the tree so it’ll fit your tree stand. The guys’ hands
are blackened with sap and dirt from handling the hundreds of trees that came off of flat-bed trucks. They
take the bundled trees – open them up, and stick them onto stands. They’ve created a makeshift forest in
the middle of this strip mall parking lot. Customers wander through the forest searching for the perfect
Duke Wagatha runs the tree lot. He appears each year from north Michigan to sell his trees:
“We get here the weekend before Thanksgiving. Takes us probably about a week, or
five days to get set up, with the idea of opening the day after Thanksgiving. We like to let folks get one
holiday out of the way and then we start on the next.”
“Hello folks, how may I help you?…” (fade tree lot sound under)
He calls his business ‘Flat-Snoots Trees.’ You couldn’t tell from looking at his face now – but he
calls it ‘Flat-Snoots’ to make light of a broken nose he suffered in high school.
Duke seems to be a hard working free-spirit. His coveralls are all tarnished with pine needles and sap.
And when he moves, you hear ringing from the bells on his hat. He moves between the trees in his
parking lot forest telling his customers jokes and filling their heads with visions of Scotch pine, Fraser
firs, and Blue Spruce.
Margaret Jahnke has been buying trees from Duke for more than six years:
“He just makes it really personable – and there was one year it was really kind of warm and he had his
Hawaiian shirt on and his straw hat, and he was out here partyin’ away! And I’m like, ‘Whoa!’ It’s fun
to come, you know, just to run in, you know, to talk to him. And they’re really helpful!”
While they’re in Ann Arbor, Duke and his crew live in a 1950’s vintage trailer. The trailer’s paint is
faded, but Duke spruces it up for the holidays with wreaths and pine bows. And when you step inside, the
old lamps and rustic furniture make it seem as if you’ve stepped back in time.
(sound of trailer door opening)
“Whooo! It feels better in here doesn’t it?”
(sound of trailer door closing)
The trailer also doubles as his office. Customers pay for their trees in here and on occasion they’ll have a
complimentary nip of what Duke calls his “bad schnapps.” And the kids might be offered coupons for
free hot chocolate.
Duke is from Mesick, a small rural town in northern Michigan. Christmas tree farming is big business
in Michigan. The state is second only to Oregon in the number of acres that are in Christmas tree
Duke, however, calls himself a small-time grower. He’s a carpenter by trade, but his work tends to dry up in the
long winter months:
“It’s not enough to make a living for me and my family year-round, uh, but it’s a good extra source of
income and uh, winters are tough up there, so if you make a little bit of extra money – winters are tough
and expensive – uh, living in the country, you know, like anybody, you got propane bills and all that, and
it’s a little colder up there, so to make a little bit of money going into winter is pretty nice.”
A lot of work went into growing the trees that have now arrived on his lot. Each summer workers plod
through the rows and rows of trees swinging razor sharp machetes. They trim each tree to give them that
classic, symmetrical, Christmas tree shape.
After about ten years, the trees are ready for harvest. They’re cut, they’re run through a baling machine,
and they’re loaded onto trucks and shipped down to the lots.
(sound of tree lot with sound of Duke)
Even though there’s a jovial atmosphere on the lot, there’s also a sense of urgency. After all, Duke only
has a few weeks to sell trees that in many cases have taken more than ten years to grow.
And while selling the trees is an important part of Duke’s income – he gets something else out of it. He
really likes people. And he enjoys making connections with them – whether it’s getting them to laugh, or
just simply helping them buy a tree:
“Sometimes you get some grumpy folks coming in, and it’s usually just because they’re overwhelmed
with shopping, it’s cold out, they didn’t wear their long underwear, or whatever, but we can usually get
them turned around, you know, we have a little fun with them. Like I say, if we have to bring them to the
trailer and have a shot of bad schnapps with ’em – hey, that’s just fine too.”
It’s closing time at the tree lot. The workers are headed for a warmer space. Right now, Duke’s trailer is
filled with his relatives and friends.
(sound of door opening)
“Come on in! This is Duke’s family. It’s warm in here, huh?”
(more rowdy banter)
Duke will continue to sell his trees right up until Christmas Eve. Then he’ll drive home to spend a few
days with his family before he comes back to tear the lot down:
“It’s kind of like the circus coming to town. You build up your tree lot, you almost build like, well I
wouldn’t say a village, but a little spot where there was nothing – just an asphault parking lot. And when you leave – there’s nothing
left – we sweep up and go – so it’s almost like a mirage. Were those guys really here?” (laughter)
And so, they spring to their trucks and drive out of sight, knowing they helped make the season
merry night after night.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.
Some people are reversing the spin of their electric meters by selling their excess energy back to the power grid.
Most people think of houses as buildings that consume energy, but homeowners who generate their own electricity from rooftop solar panels are finding they often make more than they need. Some have begun selling their excess energy back to the utility… which puts it on the power grid for others to use. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Robbie Harris has this report:
To see your state’s policies regarding ‘net metering’ click here:
Most people think of houses as buildings that consume energy. But home-owners who generate their own electricity from rooftop solar panels, are finding they often make more than they need. Some have begun selling their excess energy back to the utility… which puts it on the power grid for others to use. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Robbie Harris has this report:
Marjie Isaacson’s one hundred twenty year old, brick four flat is wedged onto a typical Chicago city lot… From the street, the only thing that distinguishes her property from her neighbors, is the bright blue recycling bin, at the front gate… What you can’t see from the street is an array of twelve, 4 by 6 foot solar panels on the roof. A bank of batteries in the basement allows Isaacson to store enough electricity to power her house for four days.
“Here’s my messy basement.”
A huge wall full of batteries like this, used to be the only way to
store solar energy, but Marjie Isaacson
is taking part in an experimental
“And how it works is.. When I’m producing energy from my solar panels it goes into the grid and gets mixed up with everyone else’s energy.. But Com Ed is keeping track of that for me.. And at the end of the year if I’ve used
more than I’ve given them, I don’t get any money. But if I’ve given them more than I use them, I get money.”
“And how’s that equation working?”
“I got money.”
“Can I ask how much?”
“Umm… I got 200 dollars.”
Com Ed, the Chicago utility company,
calls this its “Wind and Photovoltaic
Generation Pricing Experiment.” About
half the states in the country are experimenting
with something similar. Homeowners purchase
their own solar panels. Then the utility gives
them something called an inter-tie. The inter-tie
feeds their excess electricity to the power grid.
So the grid itself, effectively becomes the
home-owner’s battery back -up. On
cloudy days if someone’s system is
not generating enough power, the electrical
grid will supply it. When solar powered
houses produce an excess, Com Ed
will buy it from the homeowner. This
experiment has been going on for
three years. So far, fewer than 20
houses in Chicago have signed on to
“It’s a number that’s small that we’re
hoping to increase. It’s a hard sell in
the Midwest. Folks don’t think that
solar is as viable here as it is in
Florida or in California.”
Mary O’Toole is an Environmental
Strategist who oversees the alternative
energy experiment for Com Ed. She
gets a lot of phone calls from interested
homeowners… but when they hear it
costs anywhere from 10,000 dollars
on up to put a solar array on your roof,
that’s where the conversations end.
“I think most folks look at the cost of
solar or photovoltaic and say, “Oh!
I’ll wait for the price to drop.” Where
right now in Illinois we’ve got the ability
to cut the price in half for you… and
that’s… that’s huge.”
The state of Illinois has one of the
best incentive packages in the country
for offsetting the cost of installing
alternative energy systems. It offers
grants and rebates up to 60 percent.
But even with that price break, it still
takes 30 years or more for a solar energy
system to pay for itself. For most
homeowners, that’s way too long.
In this mobile society, it’s longer than
most people stay in their houses.
“We are in a society where nobody
cares for the future.”
Vladimir Nekola is an electrical
engineer who installs solar power
systems. He came to the U.S. twelve
years ago from Argentina. Nekola
longs for the day when he can tell
clients their payback will come in five
years. He points to other nations like
Japan and Germany which provide
homeowners with solar panels – and
allow them to pay off the high startup
costs over time. German utility
companies also encourage their
clients to participate in programs like
this by paying them far more than
Com Ed does for energy.
But the cost of conventional energy
is much higher in other countries
than it is in the US. Vladimir Nekola
says one of the things holding back
progress in alternative energy here
is that power is still relatively cheap.
“In my country, in Argentina,
everybody turns off the switch
because electricity is expensive. But here
it’s so cheap – we don’t care – we live
twenty four hours a day with the lights
on all the time… heating, air conditioner… it’s a luxury.”
Nekola believes most Americans
are just not thinking about alternative
energy. While he installed quite a few
solar energy systems around the
Y2K scare at the turn of the century…
he hasn’t done any in the last two
years. The few clients he is
working with are people who don’t
even have to think about price. To put
a solar array on your house, it seems,
you either have to be rich… crazy… or
fancy yourself an environmentalist.
Marjie Isaacson considers herself
“I haven’t regretted it a day since I put
it in. It’s just been a source of
immense satisfaction to me.”
Marjie will tell you she was willing to
foot the bill for a solar power system –
the way other people might choose to
buy a new car – or some other
“For me it was discretionary income.
I could have bought a fur coat.. but the
point is that if I had a fur coat or
fancy car no one would think I was
eccentric. But with this people seem
to think that it’s a little odd.”
In her dreams, Marjie envisions the
million solar rooftops former
President Bill Clinton spoke
about.. .. all generating energy
back to the grid.. and maybe, just
maybe, precluding the need for
another conventional energy power
Power industry officials say we’re
still a long way from that. But Marjie
Isaacson insists that it has to start
somewhere… and why not with her.
“People keep saying when we get
enough people getting these, the
solar panels are gonna start getting
cheaper.. so somebody has to start
buying them and I felt a responsibility
to put my money where my mouth
For the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium, I’m Robbie Harris.
In the next few years, homeowners across the Great Lakes region could get a new, environmentally friendly way to power their homes – thanks to an automaker. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Poorman reports:
In the next few years, homeowners across the Great Lakes region could get a new, environmentally friendly way to power their homes – thanks to an automaker. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, Bill Poorman reports.
General Motors has announced that it’s going to begin selling fuel cell power plants for use in homes or in offices in the next two or three years. Daniel O’ Connel is a staff engineer with GM’s fuel cell program. He unveiled the new system at a recent automotive conference.
“The unit we demonstrated this morning is a 5 kilowatts. That would be about enough to provide for an average home. The unit we showed this morning was about the size of a conventional refrigerator.”
All of Detroit’s automakers are working on fuel cell systems for their vehicles, not for homes. They are considered something like a Holy Grail that will let car companies escape environmental criticism. When they’re perfected, fuel cells will take in hydrogen from some source – perhaps methane, natural gas, or even everyday gasoline. Through a chemical process, they will produce electricity, and the main waste product is water.
But fuel cells have been a long time coming. Automakers are working to reduce the weight, size, and cost of the systems so that they can be put into cars. Auto analyst Paul Eisenstein of the car web site thecarconnection.com says that car companies moving into the home seems unusual at first. But it has some basic business reasons behind it.
“The automakers are hoping that they can use the home fuel cell technology to learn a lot about it, and to get it into mass production, and lower the costs of on-the-road or mobile fuel cells, as well.”
Plus, Eisenstein says, the move could help speed up research into fuel cells for all applications.
“This way they might be able to go to market much sooner and develop a revenue source that could fund further fuel cell development efforts.”
But GM still has to put a lot of pieces into place before it starts selling home fuel cell units. GM’s Daniel O’Connel says the company is still looking for the best way to jump into an unfamiliar business.
“Currently GM does not have the distribution network to set up a non-automotive applications, so we’re looking for partners to help us out in that arena.”
Of course, the ultimate goal for GM is to be the first company to mass produce affordable fuel cell powered cars and trucks. But the timeline for that is a bit longer. Most automakers believe it could be up to a decade before the cars are ready. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bill Poorman.
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.