'Junk wood' houses: an answer to high prices?

Wanted: a three-bedroom, 1,876-square-foot home, finished throughout with natural wood walls, beamed ceilings, carpets, central heating, and wood stoves -- for $47,000, not including the price of the lot.

Found: Aspen House, a two-story suburban-looking colonial for just such a price, built in a field behing the Northern Maine Regional Planning Commission headquarters here.

Why the low price -- about $25 per square foot -- when similar houses cost twice that to construct?

The answer, says commission director James Barresi, lies in an old construction technique -- and a new material. The house like an increasing number now being sold as its throughout the country, is made of solid-log walls. But the logs, unlike the others, are made of poplar.

Poplar is a form of aspen related to cottonwood and belonging to the willow family. It is usually thought of as a junk wood. In the fireplace, it burns too fast. In the woods, it gets in the way of serious logging. A fast grower, it often dies before producing millsized logs -- and large poplar logs are often hollow-hearted.

But here in Aroostook County, it is plentifull and cheap. What's more, says an enthusiastic Mr. barresi, the long-grained, light wood is one of the strongest pound for pound -- used for that very reason, he says, for windmill blades in Holland.

It also is used to make "wafer board." Several mills recently have been built in northern Maine to sliver the logs, add glue to the chips, and press the mixture into large plywood-like sheets.

But if Barresi is right, its most interestting future may be in home building. Showing me through his prototype house, he pointed out the walls built of 7-by-8-inch rectangular logs or "cants." Inside, they are sanded smooth and varnished, producing a blond finish similar to pine. Outside, the corners are squared off (unlike the overlap typical of log cabins) and the seams are filled with silicon caulk. The surface is stained dark brown -- giving a finish which, depending on one's tastes, appears either pleasantly or unpleasantly rustic. Between the logs is a double layer of closed-cell urethane foam -- swimming-pool liner to the layman. The resulting walls have insulating characteristics superior to conventional house walls.

Along with low-cost wood, several other factors keep down the price:

*the house has no basement, which shaves $3,000 to $5,000 from the cost. Instead, it lies on a reinforced-concrete slab, poured after the 77-foot-deep water well was drilled. Also saved: landscaping costs. where basement building usually requires the removal of trees and a considerable tearing-up of the topsoil, Barresi says that when he was finished "all we had to do was rake and seed a 20-foot-wide area around the foundation."

*the solid-wall concept itself. Barresi, who confesses to being a closet architect, takes a dim view of traditional construction techniques. "In this country," he says, "we take a round log, slice him up into little pieces, then sell him to people for anywhere from $200 to $400 per thousand board feet. Then we hire a man for $16 an hour to nail it all back together again." The result: a wall needing clapboards on the outside and panels on the inside to make it attractive, and insulation in between to make it warm.

Barresi estimates that the 50,000 board feet of poplar (quite a 26-by-36-foot house) cost only $10,000 to $12,000 after sawing -- around $200 per thousand board feet. Once the cants had been cut, the slabs left over produced all the flooring, window frames, and smaller structural pieces.

Still to be determined, however, is how well the home stands up to the elements. Another builder of solid-wall homes. Will Tremblay of Solid-Wall B uildings of Newport, N. H., says, "I don't see any problem with poplar" -- although he prefers traditional, plentiful pine.

But Richard Wilkins of Real Log Homes (a multistate outfit with six subsidiaries) says his firm tried poplar for houses in the South. The results, he says, were not at all satisfactory, with at least one home having to be entirely rebuilt when the wood began deteriorating rapidly. He says, however, that proper outside treatment of the wood might help retard the rot.

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