Bark houses are built with nature’s shingles
Building houses with bark shingles is eye-catching and sustainable.
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He adds: “The biggest variable is the maintenance schedule. Every five to 10 years, the homeowner may need to paint or stain [cedar shingles].” But not bark ones.Skip to next paragraph
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Michael Chandler of Chandler Design-Build, who is constructing a new 3,200-square-foot house near Chapel Hill, N.C., says that using poplar bark shingles rather than cedar siding will add about $12,000 to the cost. But there’s an immediate advantage: “Bark is made to look old when it’s new. That gives it a sense of having been there forever.”
My husband and I have found the cost of heating our 1,400-square-foot, two-story house surprisingly low, and that means savings year after year. Our bill for natural-gas heating, on-demand hot water, clothes dryer, and stove has never exceeded $100 a month, even in winter. (We pay .96361 cents per therm.) More surprising to me is how little we bother to use the air conditioning in summer. Although the house has a southeastern exposure, the thick bark – in conjunction with covered porches and indoor ceiling fans – can keep the temperature well below 80 degrees F. most of the time.
And bark’s sound-insulating qualities are prodigious. With the windows closed, I may as well be in the country for all the traffic noise that intrudes from our busy street corner.
When buying bark shingles, consumers need to do their homework to make sure they’re getting a product that lives up to its potential. Practice has shown that bark’s longevity mostly depends on three things: how well it’s dried by the manufacturer to kill any microorganisms and stabilize the product structurally; how well it’s stored to keep it flat before installation, and how well it’s installed.
To assure that bark shingles have been produced sustainably, consumers should make certain that suppliers guarantee that they use bark only from managed forestlands, with certification from such organizations as the Forest Stewardship Council, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or the American Tree Farm System.
Buyers should also use builders who have been trained in bark installation, because the shingles require special handling and nailing techniques, and some unusual design considerations.
“It’s not rocket science to put it on,” explains builder Daniel Hemp, “but you have to learn how to do it right.”
My own interest in building a bark house came while I was helping to write a book on the subject (“Bark House Style: Sustainable Designs From Nature,” with Chris McCurry).
By the time Saul and I had the opportunity to build a new house on a vacant lot in a downtown neighborhood, the historical research for the book had convinced me that there was no other material so tough or so interesting, for the price.
We opted to go all the way rustic with peeled locust porch supports and railings that, like bark, will never need painting.
I have gotten used to my “funny-looking” bark house, even if passing motorists slow down and stare. Each shingle is unique, with lovely gray and brown patterns and bits of moss and lichen. Occasionally a squirrel pops its head over the porch railing, maybe looking for nuts on this curious “tree.”
Blogging rumors to the contrary, these houses do not attract woodpeckers searching for bugs beneath the bark. Kiln-drying kills any insects and also the sugary layer insects may inhabit in living trees.
Mr. Simmons, whose own part-bark house mixes modern and traditional elements, finds that the bark is attractive to at least one bird species: Nuthatches perch on his house with seeds they want to crack on the hard, treelike surface, and he enjoys the up-close bird-watching.
“One time there were 10,” Simmons says. “I couldn’t get to my camera fast enough.”