An Open Letter to Cordwood Masonry Enthusiasts
from Cordwood Builders and Writers,
Advising Caution on the Use of Anonymous Advice
The word “expert” is tossed around far too casually these days, so the undersigned will not lay claim to this title. We are simply cordwood builders and writers. We have all built cordwood masonry homes and we have all written about our experiences in books, papers, or articles. Some of us have been “plying the trade” for a quarter century or more. We’ve made plenty of mistakes — and had a few successes — and we all take pride in the fact that we have shared both our successes and our mistakes with others. We figure that there is no point in people repeating our mistakes. Go out and find your own.
We recognize that cordwood masonry has a great number of variables, and because of that, it should not be treated as an exact science. A few, but not all, of the factors which can influence the final product are: wood species, climate, skill and/or patience of the builder, and good decision-making skills. With regard to the latter, it is important to take great care in separating the wheat from the chaff, that is: good advice from bad advice. Therefore, prior to building, we implore future cordwood builders to study carefully the available literature (including videos and information on the internet), and, when and if it is possible, to attend workshops conducted by experienced cordwood builders and teachers.
The word “credentials” shares with the word “expert” the misfortune of having been too loosely tossed about. Good — and bad — advice can come from a variety of different kinds of people, with various kinds of experience, both practical and academic. But some characteristics to watch out for are these:
(1) Open-mindedness. If someone comes across as dogmatic in their advice, there is reason to be wary. The variety of factors influencing a cordwood wall is so great that dogmatism is rarely appropriate. We have all heard of two or more different parties adapting what seems to be identical techniques. Yet one project is a roaring success and another is, well, less than a roaring success.
(2) Cordwood experience of the person giving the advice. The more years of involvement, and the more cordwood houses (or other buildings) constructed, the better a person’s advice is likely to be, providing the person in question is open and honest about his or her mistakes. When someone tells you, “I don’t know,” this just might be a sign that here is someone worth listening to. If this is too zen-like, consider that there are plenty of people around who would never admit to not knowing the answer to a question, so they take a stab at it, the most dangerous advice of all.
(3) Cordwood masonry is atypical. Cordwood masonry buildings perform very differently from horizontal log buildings, particularly with regard to the transfer of moisture through the wall. Get cordwood advice from cordwood people and log cabin advice from experienced log cabin builders. Also, cordwood masonry is different from brick, block or stone masonry. Again, get advice from the appropriate source.
(4) Sense of humor. What? How can a sense of humor be in any way useful to good advice? Simply, if it is lacking, there is a good chance that the individual in question just might be taking themselves too seriously. Cordwood, after all, should be fun. When it is not, it is time to step back and take a deep breath. Have a good laugh and try again. Birds whistle and sing while they work.
(5) Willingness to declare themselves. This one should be a no-brainer. If someone is unwilling to stand by his or her information by signing a name to it, well, be careful. It is easy to send an anonymous letter to the editor of a newspaper, for example, and say any darned silly thing. But when someone signs their name to it, they are truly willing to stand by their comments, even to discuss them. If you can’t contact a person (because they wish to remain “anonymous”), well, you just can’t take a question or issue through the Socratic method of refining truth. Personal vendettas or name-calling is unacceptable in any case, but when these things originate from a nameless and faceless individual, it is worse than despicable; it is cowardly. Finally, while we respect a person’s right to anonymity, anonymous views can never carry the same weight as one’s openly declared personal commentary.
One of the most important reasons for this signed statement is to make a general response to an anonymous individual who has been disseminating advice on various cordwood masonry chat boards for the past couple of years. Presently, his comments seem to be limited to a chat room which he has created himself, as he did not appear to be getting along very well on websites hosted by others. Many of the co-signers below have incurred his wrath. But that is not why we have declared ourselves in this statement. Had criticisms been directed openly and with a sense of trying to find the truth, this fellow’s comments would, at least, have been deserving of a response. In fact, the person to whom we refer often raises good questions and it is true that the majority of his advice is sound. However, there is a large enough percentage of his cordwood commentary falling under the category of highly questionable, that we, the undersigned, strongly suggest that his advice, if weighed at all, should be done so very carefully. In short, even though some of his cordwood construction principals are sound, it just isn’t worth taking the chance. The frequently acrimonious tone of his board postings further exacerbates the problem of trying to sort the good stuff from the bad.
Be careful out there.
How this letter came to be. Several of the undersigned felt that the integrity of cordwood masonry itself was being brought into question as the result of long and lengthy postings on various internet sites from a certain anonymous individual familiar to anyone who makes a rudimentary effort of searching cordwood masonry on the web. After weeks of e-mailings and telephone conversations with a few of the signatories, Rob Roy agreed to construct the first draft of this letter. It was then sent out for comments and suggestions from the other co-signors.
Alphabetically, by last name, we the undersigned, endorse the message above.
Kris Dick, Manitoba. P.E. Co-author, Stackwall: How to Build It, Second Edition. Presenter of papers at all three Continental Cordwood Conferences (CCC):1994, 1999 and 2005. Hosted CoCoCo/11 in Manitoba. Has worked with many individuals, governmental jurisdictions and Native American groups on cordwood projects.
Richard Flatau, Wisconsin. Built first cordwood home in 1979-80, has conducted numerous cordwood workshops and helped several other builders on their homes. Author of many magazine articles, as well as papers for both CoCoCo/94, CoCoCo/99, and CoCoCo/05. Richard and his wife, Becky, organized and hosted the 2005 conference, and helped edit the CoCoCo/05 Collected Papers and Cordwood and the Code. Author of the book Cordwood Construction: Best Practices, which he revises frequently.
Jack Henstridge (deceased). “Cordwood Jack” built his first cordwood home in 1974, and wrote about it in his book, Building the Cordwood Home. Jack was cordwood masonry seminar leader at the Mother Earth News Eco-Village in the 70’s, and founded the Indigenous Materials Housing Institute. He continued to teach cordwood masonry and took part in numerous cordwood projects over the years. He authored many Canadian and American magazine articles on cordwood and presented at the first three Cordwood Conferences.
Tom Huber, Michigan. Builder of cordwood buildings. Presenter at the 1999 Continental Cordwood Conference in Cambridge, New York.
Geoff Huggins, Virginia. Built his first cordwood shelter of Virginia pine in 1982 and completed his present cordwood and earth-sheltered home in 1984. Geoff has written about his experiences in two of Rob Roy’s books and was a presenter at CoCoCo/99.
Jim Juczak, New York. Industrial arts teacher Jim has developed a successful papercrete mortar for use with cordwood masonry. Jim’s 18-sided (“round” post and beam) home is about 3000 SF. Jim presented papers at CoCoCo/99 and CoCoCo/05.
Ed McAllen, Wisconsin. Interested in cordwood since 1979, Ed built his round house, Dream Catcher, in 1995-6. Has taught cordwood masonry workshops in Wisconsin.
Jaki Roy. Co-founder of Earthwood Building School in 1980. Has worked on dozens of cordwood projects all over the world, including New Zealand, Australia, British Columbia, Chile, Texas, Alaska, North Carolina, Wisconsin and New York. With Rob Roy, has built four houses and numerous outbuildings at their building school. Has worked with cordwood and cob (“cobwood”) with Cob Cottage Company of Oregon. Can be reached by email at: Presented at CoCoCo/05.
Rob Roy, New York. Director, Earthwood. ( www.cordwoodmasonry.com ) Has been building and teaching about cordwood masonry since 1976. Has written 15 books, including four on cordwood masonry and two others where cordwood masonry was a central theme. With Jaki Roy, hosted CoCoCo/94. Edited and published the Collected Papers for CoCoCo/94 and CoCoCo/99. Co-edited the CoCoCo/05 Collected Papers. Has written numerous articles on cordwood for several national magazines including BackHome and Mother Earth News. Keynote Speaker at CoCoCo/05.
Cliff Shockey, Saskatchewan. Has built two homes, an insurance office and a sauna using his double-wall techniques. Author of Stackwall Construction: Double Wall Technique. His design won an energy-efficiency award with Canada’s Harrowsmith magazine. Cliff has taught at workshops, presented at CoCoCo/94 and CoCoCo/05, and wrote papers for three Cordwood Conference Collected Papers.
Alan Stankevitz, Illinois and Minnesota. Host of the website, www.daycreek.com. The website is home of the most influential cordwood masonry chat room on the internet. Alan has built a large 16-sided cordwood and papercrete home in Minnesota. He has been researching cordwood masonry for several years and his website serves as an effective clearing-house for cordwood information and discussion, old and new. Co-editor of CoCoCo/05 Collected Papers and a presenter at CoCoCo/05.