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Bark houses are built with nature’s shingles

Building houses with bark shingles is eye-catching and sustainable.

By Nan ChaseContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 2009

The Asheville, N.C., house of writer Nan Chase has an exterior made from poplar bark salvaged from timber operations. The bark would otherwise be mulched, burned, or left to rot.

Nan Chase

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Asheville, N.C.

The rustic bungalow near downtown Asheville is a traffic stopper. Covered in big overlapping shingles of tree bark – rather than the usual wood, brick, or stone – it looks odd, a bit like a square tree.

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Although the unusual house appears antique and rooted in the past, it was completed just last year.

Bark may look old-fashioned, but as a recently rediscovered and reengineered building material, it fits the profile of a modern, environmentally sustainable choice for new construction – residential or commercial, interior or exterior.

The poplar bark from which the shingles are made is salvaged from timber operations, and otherwise would be burned, mulched, or left to rot. Among the benefits of top manufactured bark shingles: They contain no chemicals, having been processed solely with sanitizing kiln heat. Bark’s insulating heft keeps heating and cooling bills low. Bark requires no paint, stain, or other treatments. And shingles can last 75 years or more without maintenance.

I’ve learned all this because that Asheville house is mine. What began simply as a way for my husband, Saul, and me to have a house that would never need painting – we worked as house painters in college – has grown over the past two years into a living laboratory experiment.

Saul and I didn’t know what to expect from a bark house, or whether there would be anything to notice at all. But it does feel different: entirely wind resistant in a storm, slow to warm up in summer, and quick to warm up in winter.

“In the context of high design, it has tremendous appeal,” says New York architect Andre Kikoski, one of the few professionals putting bark into sleek modern designs, including the internationally recognized Second Home Kitchen and Bar, in Denver.

“The appeal is universal,” Mr. Kikoski says. He likes the interesting patterns of light and shadow that are created in the bark’s furrows when light shines on it from various angles. “And it has amazing acoustic properties. But best of all is that people can’t resist walking up to the material and touching it.”

Although bark-covered structures date back millenniums in some societies, the first appearance of a neatly squared bark building shingle – from American chestnut trees – dates back to 1895 in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Architect Henry Bacon, who also designed the Lincoln Memorial, invented the style at the resort community of Linville, N.C., where he used hand-trimmed slabs of two-inch-thick chestnut bark to cover homes. Some of those summer homes are still in use today, the exteriors untreated in any way.

When chestnut blight wiped out the main source of bark in the early 20th century, bark houses were no longer built. But in the past two decades, bark shingles have made a comeback, now almost exclusively in poplar.

“It’s fantastic, it’s local, it’s durable, it’s cool,” says Matt Siegel, green building director at the Western North Carolina Green Building Council in Asheville. But he cites the price of the shingles as a possible deterrent to increased use and says that installation takes more time.

Bark shingles can cost twice as much as conventional cedar siding, but the upfront costs even out over time, experts say.

“Twice the cost upfront sounds like a lot,” says Brent Simmons of Banner Elk, N.C., manager of green programs and sustainable product sales at Mountain Lumber Company. And that can cause homeowners concern. “But if you spread it over many years, the increase is less than 1 percent for the whole cost of the house. It’s a minimal up-charge for something maintenance-free.”

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