Bright & Airy Cordwood Home by Valerie Davidson  (condensed)   

“Another couple has stopped by to view our Cordwood Home in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. They approach us at the door, “He” smiling brightly, “She” reluctantly following. They enter with us and begin to look around. There is much to see. “He” and my husband, Jim, begin to talk mortar and materials, costs and savings, heating and roofing. The “hard” stuff. “She” moves slowly to the center of the dining area, the gloom on her face slowly lifting. I watch her gaze travel from the bow of windows in the dining area, to rest on the garden view out the sunroom windows, then around to the magnificent presence of Lady Mountain peering in the window at the bottom of the stairs. And then she says the sentence I recognize so well:

“I can’t believe how bright and airy it is!”

I flash back to my initial introduction to what I learned to think of as “Cavewood” Construction, and empathize. The mental nickname Cavewood came from the term “cave effect… Why should prospective Cordwood builders be concerned about esthetic considerations? Isn’t it enough that the structure is solid, warm, dry and inexpensive to build and maintain? For me, no!

A home is more than a house. While monetary costs are often a major consideration when choosing Cordwood Construction, the psychological, and physiological costs are equally important; and, with some understanding and planning, do not need to be expensive to incorporate. Add proper material selection to the mix and one has a healthy, environmentally friendly home.

Planning and Design Elements

“Check the strength of your relationship before you begin to build a Cordwood House” has been heard by many prospective builders. As knowledge of improved building techniques expand, many of the issues that could lead to conflict between building partners are being eliminated. A Cordwood Home can be a source of peace and harmony, especially if we pay attention to the aesthetics (the details that make us feel good).

Possibly the most important, and least understood aspect of thick-walled homes is the effect of natural light…

Also, raking the top of the window is not as important if the top of the window is close to the ceiling of the room; the ceiling is light colored, and the ceiling is relatively high. Ceiling height matters! Do NOT let cordwood construction exhaustion compromise the height of your living space walls. The few extra hours constructing the extra course of cordwood will pay huge psychological benefits for years to come.   Eight feet is minimum for a “light and airy” cordwood home.

There are other natural lighting design considerations for a light and airy cordwood home. The effect of roof overhangs and calculating the angles of summer and winter sunshine are well documented in construction literature. It is important to incorporate these considerations into your building plan. The decision on how many windows of what size and where in exterior walls is a balancing act. Heat loss, wind direction, cost, and privacy are all factors that need to be weighted.

When calculating the amount of window surface per room remember that the strength of natural light drops quickly as it moves through a room. Therefore the size and shape of a room that can be comfortably lit by only one light source is limited. One light source creates shadowy corners and high contrast. In small rooms, such as bathrooms, correct finishing choices as well as raking the single window will take care of any problems. For larger rooms the best solution is cross lighting…Skylights and sky tubes can let light into the center of a large interior area.

Varying your ceiling heights can have a significant impact on your home. Again the kitchen, dining area, living area, and any daytime recreation area are better served by having higher ceilings if you want a bright and airy house.

The area above bathrooms, closets, utility areas and pantries (your private spaces) can be good storage areas, especially in conjunction with split-roof or ceiling lines. 

We have grouped these private spaces in the north-west quadrant of our home. This is the portion of it which takes the brunt of our winter winds, traffic dust from the nearest road, and the hottest late afternoon summer sun. By using seven-foot ceilings in this area we have gained a four hundred square foot storage loft in the attic above the bedroom, bath and storage room which occupy half of our upper floor. This is important as, for health concerns, we built without a basement…

Interior Design Considerations

The second winter we were in the house it was time to start building the upper floor walls. Closing in the upper floor was very difficult as we had become accustomed to the wonderful brightness provided by the 170 degrees of windows looking out on the Rocky Mountains. Waking to the morning light and looking down the Columbia Valley from our bed was a great joy…As well as stained glass, glass blocks work well for interior walls. They are harmonious with cordwood and provide visual privacy during the day…

Finishing Elements

Remember “He” and “She” and their unspoken difference of opinion on the desirability of Cavewood Construction? Another observed area of male/female differences in priorities is related to finishing details. Several of these are important in formulating the bright and airy Cordwood home. Window finishing. Should you use blinds, drapes, shades or none of the forgoing?…Flooring also has reflecting quality… Textured walls and window boxes diffuse the light… Color shades and tints are also important. A color shade is created when pure color pigment is mixed with grey or brown resulting in a muted tone. Often trendy colors are created through shading…Furniture and cabinetry: finishing choices will enhance or detract from the quality of light in your home. As with wall paint, color, texture and reflecting ability can increase or decrease the quality of light in your home. Mirrors and large pictures or photographs can be positioned to reflect light into dark areas and corners of a room…”

This article is condensed with permission from Valerie & Jim’s article in the Cordwood Conference Papers 2005.  It is meant to help those planning to build with cordwood to understand the “light enhancing effects” that can be used to brighten up the “light-diminishing-effects” of cordwood walls. 

Valerie has graciously agreed to add to this summary.  Stay tuned for the next instalment.  To read the article in the Cordwood Conference Papers 2005 visit the ONLINE BOOKSTORE

Valerie sent information on DAYLIGHTING and how to make it work in your home.  Here is the link.

This is part of the article:

A daylighting system consists of systems, technologies, and architecture. While not all of these components are required for every daylighting system or design, one or more of the following are typically present:

  • Daylight-optimized building footprint
  • Climate-responsive window-to-wall area ratio
  • High-performance glazing
  • Daylighting-optimized fenestration design
  • Skylights (passive or active)
  • Tubular daylight devices
  • Daylight redirection devices
  • Solar shading devices
  • Daylight-responsive electric lighting controls
  • Daylight-optimized interior design (such as furniture design, space planning, and room surface finishes).

Since daylighting components are normally integrated with the original building design, it may not be possible to consider them for a retrofit project.

Valerie also provided the following commentary and important links to help you design your cordwood home with daylighting in mind.  

“Daylighting. Does it matter? You bet! Even Fine Homebuilding Magazine agrees and I will link their articles on Daylighting another day. 
Living in a Cordwood Home does not have to mean second-class accommodation! Here are some articles that will help you build your Forever Home. Add them to your Planning File:
 https://www.houselogic.com/remodel/painting-lighting/daylighting-how-to-guide/
I could not write and organize this information any better! Everyone should print/read/hi-lite it then have it laminated before taping it to their work desk for easy referral. Um. Wait a minute. Am I too 1990’s? The point is Do NOT bury this info in your computer files! Read the links! 
The further North you live the more important this link will be: https://www.houselogic.com/remodel/painting-lighting/seasonal-affective-disorder-lights/ 
Talk about the issues raised with your significant other(s). This could save your relationship(s), sanity and long-term finances. (I do not exaggerate!)”