Oquawka, Ill. — JUST a mile from the Mississippi River here, on the sand ridge that parallels the historic waterway, Bill Wandell is selling five-acre tracts of land -- and a unique opportunity to own durable, attractive housing that could come in at about one-third the cost of conventional construction. Any type of house could be built on the lots, but central to the Wandell plan is the use of cordwood, or stackwood, construction that would enable the lots themselves to provide most of the building materials. Those materials are the towering pines that Mr. Wandell planted 31 years ago and the fine white sand that the river and the winds have deposited over countless millennia.
What Mr. Wandell is beginning here, he believes, could be duplicated in woodlands around the country, or wherever cordwood, preferably soft woods such as cedar and pine, is available.
Back in the early 1950s the Wandell family bought some 400 acres of land, worn out by repetitious corn farming, and planted the acreage to red and white pines. He called the land Christmas Acres because for a time it produced Christmas trees. Today, however, those trees stand tall, 30 feet and more, and are of a width that make them ideal for stackwood construction. At the same time, the building sand is also free for the taking a mere 12 inches below the surface. It needs only the addition of sawdust and cement to form a suitable mortar mix.
What is variously known as cordwood, stackwood, log-end, or butt-end wall construction is simply the use of short wooden logs laid up in mortar. In effect, the logs replace fieldstone or bricks in what would otherwise be a conventional masonry wall.
The idea goes back more than a thousand years to Siberia, northern Greece, and some other parts of Europe. It was introduced on this continent by Canadians in the Maritime Provinces and Ontario almost 300 years ago. Some longstanding cordwood buildings in the Trent districts of eastern Ontario are known to be older than 200 years.
The advantages of cordwood are several. It is easy (although somewhat more time consuming) to build a house this way; the resulting walls are very strong, relatively energy efficient, highly fire resistant because the surrounding mortar conducts heat away from the logs, and inexpensive.
Here at Oquawka, the small, one-bedroom demonstration cottage that Mr. Wandell had a contractor build for him worked out at $11 a square foot, including plumbing and wiring, plus kitchen and bathroom fittings. That, says Larry Ekstrom, who built the cottage, ``is one-quarter the cost of conventional construction around here.'' Mr. Ekstrom should know. As a local contractor he previously built only conventional, stud-frame homes, but now he says he is prepared to include cordwood construction in the mix of houses he puts up. He's also prepared to act as a consultant on the subject with anyone else wanting to go the cordwood route.
While many of the trees used on this Oquawka project grew tall and straight, they don't have to be. When the logs used are a mere 12 to 16 inches long, ``you can get a lot of building material out of a pretty twisted tree limb,'' Mr. Ekstrom points out. ``You really can turn the woodpile into a sturdy house.''
According to Jack Henstridge of the Indigenous Materials Housing Institute in Oromocto, New Brunswick, who did much to start the resurgence of this type of construction, cordwood houses have been built from discarded cedar fence posts. At least one on the Oregon coast was built of driftwood that had been weathered to a beautiful blue-gray color by the salt and wind.
In building the Oquawka cottage, Mr. Ekstrom first erected a pole frame, with the verticals set at 8-foot intervals. Then he filled in between the poles with cordwood walls, finally hiding the poles behind thin (2-inch) log sections that were nailed on and mortared in place.
A cordwood wall is constructed this way: Two parallel ribbons of mortar, each 3 to 4 inches wide and several inches apart, are laid along the footing. The logs forming the first row are pressed into this mortar. Two more ribbons of mortar are applied along the top of these logs and the second row is pressed into place, and so on, until the wall is complete.
The effect is to construct two thin mortar walls, or webs as they are sometimes termed, that are bridged by the logs. This leaves a good deal of air space between the mortar webs. Mr. Ekstrom filled this space with cellulose insulation, which he periodically poured in as the wall went up.
Building a cordwood wall takes more time than nailing, say, board and batten onto an existing frame. Mr. Ekstrom was able to speed up the process by erecting a form (a sheet of plywood reinforced with 2-by-4 studs) on the inside of the wall. This enabled him simply to push the logs against the form and know instantly that he was building a perpendicular wall. The net result is an even wall on the inside, where smoothness is needed, and a slightly irregular wall on the outside because it is virtually impossible to cut the logs to an exact length.
As Mr. Ekstrom sees it, cordwood construction is an inexpensive form of building. This applies even if a professional contractor does all the work as he did here. But, he says, building the wall is so simple that even a homeowner with minimal skills could readily do this part of the construction. He suggests that the less confident owner should get the contractor to pour the foundations and erect the frame, then take over and build the walls himself with the help of family and friends. Then the contractor could be called in again to put on the roof and handle the plumbing and electrical work.
One of the secrets of cordwood construction is the inclusion of sawdust (to slow curing and reduce shrinkage) in the mortar mix. A standard mix is as follows: 2 parts sand, 2 parts sawdust, and 1 part masonry cement which is a blend of portland cement and building lime.
Several books on cordwood construction have been published in the last decade. They include these:
Building the Cordwood Home, by Jack Henstridge, $10 (US), $12 (Canadian), including postage, from J. Henstridge, RR 1, Oromocto, New Brunswick E2V 2G2, Canada; Cordwood Construction: a Log-End View, by Richard Flateau, $5.95 including postage from R. Flateau, W4837 Shultz Spur Drive, Merrill, Wis. 54452; Stackwall: How to Build It, The Northern Housing Committee of the University of Manitoba, $16.60 (Canadian) from the University of Manitoba Bookstore, Fort Gary Campus, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2; and Cordwood Masonry Houses: A Practical Guide for the Owner-Builder, by Robert L. Roy, $9.45 from Sterling Publishing, 2 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016.