Builder hoping cordwood home design catches on

Cordwood home
Bill Paulson says cordwood homes are labor intensive to build, but are very energy efficient, low maintenance and long lasting.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

A northern Minnesota school teacher will soon move into an unusual new home built of firewood logs in an effort to create affordable, energy efficient homes on the White Earth Reservation using an old construction technique.

For Bill Paulson, this unusual home nestled in the woods near Naytahwaush is a memory of the past, and offers hope for the future. Paulson's dad built a cordwood home in the 1940s, when there wasn't money for traditional construction materials.

Now, Bill Paulson is on a mission to teach people how to build the cheap, sturdy and energy-efficient cordwood homes.

"This project is about using resources that are available to us and hopefully building low-income housing people can afford," Paulson said. "And also get them involved in building their own house."

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A framework of heavy timbers supports the roof. Inside the timber framework, 16-inch long chunks of firewood are stacked to build the walls. This house is built with cedar, but tamarack, pine and poplar work well and are readily available in northern Minnesota. Mortar holds the logs in place and foam insulation fills any voids in the middle.

To save money, some builders use sawdust as insulation. The walls of a cordwood home have nearly twice the insulation value of a traditional home.

The ends of the logs are visible inside and outside, giving the house a distinctive look.

Bill Paulson
Bill Paulson's dad built a cordwood home in the 1940s. Now, Paulson is on a mission to teach people how to build the cheap, sturdy and energy-efficient cordwood homes.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The cordwood construction technique also makes it easy to be creative. Glass bottles embedded in the walls bring beams of colored light into the living space. The wood chunks can be arranged in purposeful designs.

"Here's a bear paw we have on the interior wall," Paulson said, pointing out one of his designs.

Paulson used chunks of wood in the wall near the front door to make a large bear paw that reflects the owner's American Indian heritage.

"Veronica Weaver is going to be the owner and she's a member of the Bear Clan, so having a bear paw on the wall individualizes the house toward her," Paulson said.

A few finishing touches are all that's left before Veronica Weaver can move into her new home. She drives out to see it nearly every day.

Thick walls
The walls are constructed of 16-inch logs stacked like a pile of firewood. Four inches of mortar are used on each end to hold the logs together and the space in the middle is filled with insulation.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"It's an interesting project and every home I think would be unique," Weaver said. "I had people in my house [and] they did some special things that probably you won't see in any other house. It's unique, they're energy-efficient and they last a very long time."

Building a cordwood home is labor intensive, but stacking the cordwood walls isn't skilled labor. If a homeowner provides labor, the cost can be cut in half. About a dozen people hired to help build the demonstration house now have the skills to build their own home or help others.

Bill Paulson said the new home is generating a lot of excitement in the area.

"We've had two people call up and ask if this one is for sale and I've had a lot of people say how do I get on that list," he said. "There's a lot of community interest. If I could build them I could get rid of five today."

Finding out if that demand is real will be the ultimate test of this project said Arlan Kangas. Kangas is President of Detroit Lakes-based Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corporation. The non-profit organization put up the money to build this demonstration home.

Veronica Weaver will buy the house using a loan from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Kangas said they're using what they learned on this project to create an affordable, efficient model home design.

Under construction
A section of wall during construction of a cordwood home.
Photo Courtesy of Bill Paulson

If they're successful he hopes to build five cordwood homes at White Earth next summer.

"We think there is demand for home ownership that is affordable, that fits in with the environment, that's green in nature," Kangas said. "If we can demonstrate to others that this is an affordable technique, we would like to see the cordwood style of construction expand throughout Minnesota."

Kangas said the goal is to build cordwood homes about 1,000 square feet for $90,000. He said a comparably-sized, traditional wood frame home would cost about $115,000.

But perhaps more importantly, he said if people are trained to build the homes themselves, the cost of a cordwood home could be as low as $45,000.

A steady stream of curious visitors watched Veronica Weaver's cordwood home being built this fall and many people have asked about training in the construction technique.

If all that interest translates to action, this unusual looking home could be a common sight in the north woods.