Project of a Lifetime
by Patrick & Beth Goulee
This article first appeared in the Cordwood Conference Papers 2015 and is edited with permission.
It began with a dream, a set of old drawings, and memories of a cordwood workshop from 20 years ago. Coincidentally, the majority of the tools we used for building were also more than 20 years old. Our drawings were revised again and again. Then we took Richard Flatau’s recommendation of an architect who was familiar with cordwood. In creating his drawings the architect enlisted the aid of a structural engineer. Although we butted heads a number of times with the engineer’s requirements, the drawings and plans proved to be a crucial advantage in dealing with our Building Inspector. He often consulted the plans and subsequently gave his approval.
Our financing came through a local community bank, and the first challenge we faced was the inability to obtain an appraisal. Even with Richard’s assistance, the appraiser chosen for our project was unable to complete this task because he couldn’t find the appropriate comparables. We needed to get resourceful regarding our financing (as if we weren’t being creative enough, approaching the bank with our idea for a cordwood home!) Our lender was completely unfamiliar with cordwood construction, however, a few weeks after we were approved for a construction loan, another couple came into the same bank and also sought a loan to build a cordwood home.
Our 1600 sq. ft. cordwood home went through many design modifications. We finally settled on a 1½ story home (1,000 sq. ft. on the main floor). Our cedar was recycled, using posts from a ginseng farm. We opted for 16″ thick walls, in order to meet the Wisconsin R-value code (R-24). It was important to us that we use materials native to our area. Pat and his father Dennis harvested white ash trees from their land and sent them to a local sawyer for milling the ceiling boards. We chose tamarack for our upstairs flooring and basswood for our upstairs ceiling. Our staircase is made of massive white pine logs, with white pine railings and ironwood spindles. The wood used for our post and beam framing and siding is Hemlock. Our kitchen cupboards and bathroom vanities are made of butternut. Our flooring on the main level is hickory. All the insulation in our cordwood walls uses softwood sawdust from Arsenau’s Tug Lake Sawmill. Gary and his wife Robin Arseneau, along with their son Roy, proved to be a huge asset to our endeavors. Helpful and friendly, they cheered us on while supplying superior wood products at attractive prices.
We never wavered on our choice of a masonry heater. Indeed, our home was designed around the central heating feature of a masonry woodstove. We sought the talents of our good friend, John Springer of Springer Masonry, to build the stove from the ground up. John and his crew did all of our concrete and block work; from our footings and frost wall to the garage floor and front porch stoop.
Pat did extensive research on this subject. We welcomed the opportunity, together with our mason, to visit the home of Steve Lee, a local contractor who had installed his own masonry stove during an extensive remodeling project. Steve proved to be a great resource, letting us borrow the file of information he had gathered while doing this project himself.
We chose materials from the land and from businesses in and near Tomahawk, Wisconsin. The stove took six weeks to build, and we lit our first fire just after midnight on New Year’s 2014.
Three Wise Decisions
- The decision to have architectural drawings made was a good one. Although they are pricey, they helped with the construction loan, bidding and buying materials, and in meeting code requirements. The code official “signed off” on many portions of the construction because of the calculations and extensiveness of these drawings.
- We quite often used Cordwood and the Code: A Building Permit Guide (which was developed for the Cordwood Conference 2005.) The R-value tests completed at the University of Manitoba provided us with the critical thermal resistance factor (R-value.) It specifically helped with the ResCheck Heating calculations, where the size of the desired heating unit is established by using the insulation value of the building envelope. The Fire Endurance Testing at the University of New Brunswick saved money by allowing us to use the cordwood wall between the attached garage and home as a fire-resistant wall.
- Using local experts in the area proved invaluable: The sawmill owner saved us thousands of dollars by cutting and milling our wood, as well as offering advice as to woods that were the same strength as the ones suggested by the architect. He also suggested the “wavy pine siding” for the gable ends, which adds such a nice compliment to the cordwood. Steve Lee was generous and kind to take the time to explain how a masonry stove is built. He also let us see his two storey unit. Our mason learned valuable information that was then transferred to our own masonry wood stove. Richard and Becky Flatau were generous with their cordwood information, support, and arranging visits to the Cordwood Education Center. (See the CoCoCo/11 Collected Papers: Cordwood Education Center pp. 41-44.) Pat’s father, Dennis, was not only a man full of skill and ideas but also devoted countless hours of help with every phase of construction. Tom Schwanz, a good friend of Dennis and a retired log cabin builder, was instrumental in the major timber framing construction of our home. He also built and installed our stairway, and generously gave us our 8’ patio door. This has been the realization of a lifelong dream and we are grateful for the support and labor of all the people who helped us along the way.
Editors note from Richard Flatau: Pat & Beth’s cordwood home offers many valuable lessons: They completed most of the work themselves and used professionals when code and expertise were required. Wisconsin’s Uniform Dwelling Code (UDC) was followed to the letter.
Here below is the masonry stove is under construction. The flues take the heat back and forth and drop it off in the brick and stone. It is then radiated back to the room.
Should you wish to learn how to build a cordwood cottage, cabin, or home, please visit www.cordwoodconstruction.org While you are there, click on the pictures, read the brief articles, check out the latest workshops and newsletter and if you are interested click on the Online Bookstore to see all the cordwood literature available in print and ebook format.
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Readers have requested a brief bio, so here goes: Richard & Becky Flatau built their mortgage-free cordwood home in 1979 in Merrill, Wisconsin. Since then, they have written books, conducted workshops, facilitated the 2005, 2011, and 2015 Cordwood Conferences, and provided instruction for thousands of cordwood builders. Cordwood Workshop Video (2017), Cordwood Construction Best Practices (2017), and Cordwood Conference Papers 2015 are the newest publications available from their Online Cordwood Bookstore. www.cordwoodconstruction.org
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For more information on Cordwood Construction, click on the picture or visit www.cordwoodconstruction.org Below is the 30 item Video menu.