FOUNTAIN CITY, Wis. — Richard Flateau built a cordwood home 35 years ago as an eco-friendly way to live mortgage free.
He and his wife, Becky, read a magazine article about a man from New Brunswick, Canada, who built a 2,000-square-foot cordwood home for only $8,000. There wasn’t much literature on the technique available at the time, but the Flateaus researched horizontal log homes and eventually built their own in northern Wisconsin for around $15,000.
“We didn’t like the idea of somebody else owning the deed to our home,” Flateau said. “Cordwood was the only way we could achieve that goal.”
Now, more than three decades later, Flateau is spreading the gospel of cordwood with the hope that more people will adopt the sustainable, energy efficient technique. He has written a number of books on how to build modern, code-compliant cordwood homes, works as a building consultant and teaches cordwood classes throughout the nation.
He and his wife will host an intensive two-day workshop at the Kinstone Academy for Applied Permaculture in Fountain City on July 19-20, where students will receive classroom training and hands-on practice with the technique.
The process is simple: stack dried, debarked logs with the ends facing out in a post and beam frame, insulate the cavity with a mix of sawdust and lime and secure the logs with mortar. The result is an inexpensive, energy efficient structure that retains heat in the winter and stays cool in the summer, requires no paint, stain or siding and can be locally sourced from start to finish.
Each cordwood structure is unique — builders can put things like shells, gemstones and antlers into the mortar to give the interior charm and character and add colored glass bottles to create a stunningly luminous stained glass effect.
“The wall becomes a statement of who you are,” Flateau said.
The Kinstone Academy, which opened last year, is an educational site east of Winona, Minn., that offers courses in natural building, sustainable living and eco-friendly agriculture. Owner Kristine Beck founded the academy and transformed her family’s ancestral farmland into a living permaculture laboratory, complete with natural building projects, a food forest, terraced gardens and monolithic stone circles that symbolize life, death and the regenerative power of the earth.
“It’s a monument to reconnecting,” said Beck, who worked in the technology industry before founding the Kinstone Academy.
There are a number of natural building projects at the Kinstone Academy, including a recently completed cordwood chapel. Two more cordwood buildings are under construction, including a sauna and a cobwood welcome center. Cobwood is similar to cordwood, but uses a straw-clay mixture instead of concrete mortar. Beck has several more prospective projects in the works, including a straw bale cabin, an earth bag root cellar, a greenhouse, and an earth shelter cabin – which is “sort of like a hobbit hole,” she said.
“Natural building is not about building structures alone,” she said. “It’s about building a community.”
That’s largely due to the time and effort they require. Building a cordwood house is relatively easy, but it takes time, effort and preparation. More than 100 people worked together to build the Kinstone Academy’s cordwood chapel — a beautiful, symbolic structure rich with decorative detail.
And building naturally takes planning, Kinstone project manager Jarad Barkeim said.
Prospective cordwood builders must first acquire land and building materials. The cordwood building is “green,” but make sure the wood isn’t — logs must be left to dry for at least a year before construction.
“You can’t just run to Menards,” he said.
Two people working together can complete a 1,000-square-foot cordwood structure in less than 30 days, said Flateau, who built his home, working by himself, in about two months. As a teacher, he was able to devote his summer break to the project. But for people working full time and building on the weekends, finishing a cordwood project can take years, he said.
This is Flateau’s sixth cordwood workshop at the Kinstone Academy, and he says the technique is gaining popularity across a variety of demographics. Although cordwood homes are most common in rural areas, education and exposure could bring the technique further into mainstream housing.
“I think it has a lot of potential,” Barkeim said.
“Natural building is not about building structures alone. It’s about building a community.” Kristine Beck, Kinstone Academy owner