Building a house from close to home

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A house using locally-grown wood is quickly taking shape in Aitkin.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The two-story house on Blackrock Road looks pretty much like its neighbors. It's nestled in a grove of oak and basswood. It has big windows on the south, lots of insulation, and efficient in-floor heating. It'll soon be on the market.

Ben Anderson
Ben Anderson puts up a vaulted ceiling made from locally cut and milled basswood.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Ben Anderson and his son Jesse are nailing boards onto the vaulted ceiling in the living room. The boards are basswood. They're light in color, with striking veins of darker heartwood.

Below them, the living room floor is black ash, with a long straight grain a little darker than oak.

The kitchen cabinets are birch. Neil Stecker of Custom Creations made them. He says he likes to bring out the unique character of each board. One cabinet sports a dark circle about the size of a quarter, with swirls of dark grain surrounding it.

"That is a knot that has been damaged, and grew over itself, and created the character of wood you see there," he says. "What would you call it? Not a fiddleback, but quite wavy."

Neil Stecker
Neil Stecker stands in front of cabinets he made from birch. He says each board has its own character.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The birch cabinets, the basswood ceiling, and the black ash flooring, are made from wood that was cut within a few miles of the house.

So was the siding. Greg Nolan cut it from Eastern White Pine.

"We cut five trees down. One was dying of blister rust, two had broken tops," he says. "It was amazing, because there wasn't really that much wood there. I think the total bill for the siding for this house was $8,000 from five trees."

That's not much money to side a house, but it's a lot of money to make off five trees.

Greg Nolan
Greg Nolan stands at the front door of the house in Aitkin. He cut the white pine siding from just five trees.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Nolan and his wife have been planting trees and running a sawmill for 30 years. Now their two sons are joining the business.

That's just what the builders had in mind when they started this house: improving markets for small local businesses. Timber is an important part of the economy here, but a lot of logs leave the county on trucks, headed for mills in Grand Rapids or Duluth. Four years ago, Aitkin County hired Ross Wagner to find ways to keep more of those logs here, so more businesses could make more money on them.

Wagner says the flooring is a good example of how that works. The trees were harvested by a local logger.

"He brought it back and cut it, and made it into rough green lumber, and then sold it to a mill who then dried it, and planed it, and then a local person was able to install it," he says. "So if you follow that all the way through the steps, there were five different times this particular flooring was handled, and every time, a value was added."

But the house will still be affordable -- partly because the materials didn't have to be shipped from the other side of the world. The builders haven't determined the price just yet, but they say it will meet federal and state guidelines for affordability. Federal guidelines say to be affordable, housing costs should not exceed 30 percent of a family's income.

Wagner says a few people are starting to get interested in locally-grown products. And he thinks there will be more.

Ross Wagner
Aitkin County hired Ross Wagner to find ways to use locally grown wood in the county, so more businesses could make more money on them.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"Maybe you've got to work a little bit harder to find it," he says. "But using a local-produced wood product in their cabin might mean a lot more than just going to Menard's and buying and who knows where it came from and what kind of jobs that created."

The project is generating a lot of interest. Alison Lindburg is with Dovetail Partners, the non-profit group that's building the house.

"People stop by here every day," she says. "We have people that are interested in buying the house; everybody wants to know who's going to live here; everybody has questions. Everyone wants to know where the wood came from. I think it's a really good idea; I think it makes people think about where their wood comes from."

The group plans several more houses in small towns in northern Minnesota in the coming years.