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Plan to build timber frame w/cordwood infill in Upstate New York - suggestions, advice, experience?

 
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Hello! I am new to the permies community but I am so thrilled that a forum like this exists. I have been doing lots of research on building a cordwood home, with plans to turn my acreage into a full on homestead that features a pond, a greenhouse, chicken coop, etc. -- all in due time, of course. I fully plan on posting/participating in other topics on this website so I can get the best advice on each of these goals.

The property is 10 acres, heavily wooded, south facing, on a paved road with access to power (haven't decided if I can do solar to remain 100% off grid yet). The first 1/4 or so of the property is level but begins to drop off the further back you go (it's long and rectangular). It descends to low, muddy, fern-heavy wetlands (perfect for a pond!). There are only a couple of these spots but the rest is wooded, as I mentioned. Predominantly biiiig red pines, eastern white cedar, hemlock, and sugar maples.

My plan is to build a 1800sqft -ish house (still finalizing my designs) and I would like to break ground Spring 2022. I intend on using the pine from my property for the timber frame of the house, and the cedar for the 16" cordwood infill. My research suggests that a rubble trench foundation is best for the humid/wet climate of Upstate NY (St. Lawrence county) so that the soil can drain appropriately and prevent heaving when the water in the soil melts. This also seems like the best option for me because, although labor intensive, I can build this kind of foundation by myself. Ideally then, a grade beam on the rubble trench to support the timber frame. One question I have is, what dictates the need to dig the trench in certain spots? For example, I'd like to make my exterior walls the cordwood and make interior walls out of cob and some structural wood (like stud walls but then infill with cob). Does every cob wall need support from the rubble trench/grade beam? I would assume it's only for the posts that are supporting the frame/roof. Is this a correct assumption? Further, what kind of flooring works well with rubble trench foundations? I'm quite drawn to earthen floors (I looked up some permie posts that discuss earthen floors and PEX radiant heating) but I would also like to use the wood from some maples for flooring somewhere.

Also, in timber frames, what would you suggest is the best use of all the head space? Would I lose significant heat if I chose to keep the cathedral style ceilings? (A lot of my focus is on keeping my house airtight and warm in the winter. I am not from a cold climate.) I am not fond of two-story homes which is why I am neither digging a basement nor making it two stories. I like to walk on solid ground, lol. I'd consider room-in-attic trusses but then I'd need to invest in having stairs made and I'm not sure how expensive those are.

I surely have plenty more research to do (HVAC, electricity and plumbing specifics, etc.) but I also wanted to come here and consult those of you who have embarked on similar projects or who live in the freezing cold north country and can offer advice with building. If you have ANY advice pertaining to all or even just one of the questions I posed, I would so greatly appreciate it!! I am still exploring articles daily but there's so much info on the internet, it can be hard to sort through it all and not get totally burnt out. Thank you in advance!
 
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Welcome! That's a great first post.  It sounds like you have solid plans and expectations.

I have some of the same questions you do so don't take this as expertise, but my research on rubble trench has always shown the trench surrounding the perimeter of the house and with robust french drain type channels to divert all of the water away from the home.  In that case I think the square/round/house-shaped perimeter is needed to siphon water away.  

My inference is that that leaves the interior floor dry enough for earthen floors.  This comes from earthbag home research.  The ones I've seen begin with a tamped gravel floor.
 
Melody May
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Rob Lineberger wrote:Welcome! That's a great first post.  It sounds like you have solid plans and expectations.

I have some of the same questions you do so don't take this as expertise, but my research on rubble trench has always shown the trench surrounding the perimeter of the house and with robust french drain type channels to divert all of the water away from the home.  In that case I think the square/round/house-shaped perimeter is needed to siphon water away.  

My inference is that that leaves the interior floor dry enough for earthen floors.  This comes from earthbag home research.  The ones I've seen begin with a tamped gravel floor.



Hi Rob! Thank you! I was hoping to hear the earthen floors were possible especially in wet climates. So it sounds like if the proper precautions are taken I should be able to use that method of flooring. Also didn't know they start with tamped gravel so that's good to know!
 
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Hi Melody,

Your plans sound fantastic! As you know, there is a lot of ground to cover in your scope, but in early planning stages I would highly recommend that you put a lot of focus on Passive Solar Design principles as they will have a huge impact on the thermal performance and comfort of the structure. The main considerations are siting, building axis/orientation, window placement, ventilation, thermal mass, overhangs, and vegetation (existing and/or future). Here's an intro to PSD: http://lthr.ehrlum.com/14.htm

There are of course several books on the subject, and if you're not already well versed, you might want to pick one up because it is IMO one of the most important design considerations.

Best of luck with your project and feel free to contact me if you'd like more specifics.

Gregg
 
Melody May
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Gregg Brazel wrote:Hi Melody,

Your plans sound fantastic! As you know, there is a lot of ground to cover in your scope, but in early planning stages I would highly recommend that you put a lot of focus on Passive Solar Design principles as they will have a huge impact on the thermal performance and comfort of the structure. The main considerations are siting, building axis/orientation, window placement, ventilation, thermal mass, overhangs, and vegetation (existing and/or future). Here's an intro to PSD: http://lthr.ehrlum.com/14.htm

There are of course several books on the subject, and if you're not already well versed, you might want to pick one up because it is IMO one of the most important design considerations.

Best of luck with your project and feel free to contact me if you'd like more specifics.

Gregg



Gregg,
Wow, those diagrams and videos are so helpful!! I've not seen those before. Thank you! I have definitely heard of the importance of passive solar design. I have had two separate sources recommend reading "A Pattern Language" by Christopher Alexander et al which highlights the importance of southern facing windows and creating light within a space. The numbers I've been told are to take 15% of the sq footage of the whole house, and translate that into the sqft of windows on the south side (ex. 1000 sqft home should have 150sqft of windows on south side). The only downside to this is that PSD minimizes windows on the north side, which is basically the entire view of the beautiful wild forest in the rear of my property. I may have to put at least one window to allow for a view, haha. As it stands, my plan is to only employ PSD, radiant heat with PEX tubing, and a wood-burning stove to heat my home. Do you think these three in combination will be sufficient enough?
 
Rob Lineberger
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When you say wood burning stove... are you familiar with Rocket Mass Heaters?  If not I encourage you to read up on it.  This site is the perfect place to start.
 
Gregg Brazel
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Melody,

I'm not sure about the 15% ratio, but you are correct that most windows should be placed on the south side (in N. hemisphere), but there are almost always windows on other sides for ventilation and daylight. On the north elevation, you might look into high performance triple glazed units. You can also install heavy curtains / insulating blinds to reduce heat loss at night / when not home.  

One heating source could handle the job if properly designed. You might want to check out Walker Stoves, beautiful and efficient (on youtube also). You could heat your space, water and cook on one well-planned stove.  See sheet 15 for ideas here http://ehrlum.com/port/archdes/g-mobile.pdf

Also highly recommended for what you are building: Northmen, Birth of a Wooden House on YT.  1/2 education and ideas, 1/2 art film.  

g
 
Melody May
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Rob Lineberger wrote:When you say wood burning stove... are you familiar with Rocket Mass Heaters?  If not I encourage you to read up on it.  This site is the perfect place to start.



I keep seeing the little sidebars for the free plans to build a rocket mass heater! I hadn't done much research into them, but after briefly looking them up I now see that there are many different variations. Something worth researching for sure.
 
Melody May
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Gregg Brazel wrote:Melody,

I'm not sure about the 15% ratio, but you are correct that most windows should be placed on the south side (in N. hemisphere), but there are almost always windows on other sides for ventilation and daylight. On the north elevation, you might look into high performance triple glazed units. You can also install heavy curtains / insulating blinds to reduce heat loss at night / when not home.  

One heating source could handle the job if properly designed. You might want to check out Walker Stoves, beautiful and efficient (on youtube also). You could heat your space, water and cook on one well-planned stove.  See sheet 15 for ideas here http://ehrlum.com/port/archdes/g-mobile.pdf

Also highly recommended for what you are building: Northmen, Birth of a Wooden House on YT.  1/2 education and ideas, 1/2 art film.  

g



I hadn't heard of triple glazed units -- thank you! That seems like a great way to allow me the view while keeping the home warm. I'll start researching them immediately. I will also definitely check out those other recommendations.
 
Gregg Brazel
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Sure thing.  Keep in mind that they will come nowhere near the R-Value of your wall system, so you should consider the cost/benefit of the units over time. That said, windows in general should be a high budget priority as cheap once perform poorly and have a short lifespan. There are countless buildings around the world with their 200+ y.o. original wood windows still in perfect working condition, and beautiful. Wood with ext. aluminum cladding or quality metal units are probably the best options IMO.
 
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Hi Melody,

The recommended window % changes from decade to decade and source to source.  While you should not ignore it, also factor in your tastes and wants. After all, you will be living in the house. And while south side windows are great in the winter.....they can present a problem in the summer. Consider how you will deal with this.
 
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I am beyond jealous and overjoyed for you and your plans! I can't remember exactly where, BUT in Alberta an experimental stackwood/cordwood building was built (decades ago now) as a test facility to prove the thermal capabilities and structural integrity - for building code purposes. I believe this was attached to a university, and was a very long-term study, that seemed to have no end date.

I clearly remember the temperature fluctuations were negligible, as was supplemental heating - believed to be due to the thickness of the walls, and their incredible thermal mass.

Weather in Alberta is notorious for being both very cold and very hot, sometimes experiencing. 30-40 degree change (farenheight) in less than 12 hours. My memory may be faulty, but I am sure the temp stayed mid 60's to low 70's day in, day out, 24/7/365; this was not used as a "home" but more like a "lab" or classroom - a living experiment.  So heating may not be the challenge you expect, nor require anything but a small well placed woodstove.

The building had massively outperformed ANY and ALL expectations from a building cost, heating, cooling and maintenance perspectives. I believe it was in an old Harrowsmith Countrylife (from the 80's?) edition that featured the Albertan experiment, along with extensive discussion on the topic, from multiple builders who had shared their successes and what they would do different.

Rubble trenches were most common, BUT due to the weight of the walls, needed to be SIGNIFICANTLY wider than one would suspect - I believe the Albertan structure went 4 feet wide for it's trenches, and somehow, I believe there were old railway (yeah, yuck...) ties possibly incorporated in these trenches, or as the first layer (?) and definitely long (4-6 foot) squared timbers, (6x6's ?) to create the corners; stacked loghouse style, infilled with cordwood, and secured by spiking or threaded rod in the corners...  

One of the common regrets (by others featured in this Harrowsmith edition) was under building the foundation - sagging over time led to mortar separation and cracking, and instability.  After foundation issues, the most critical issues proved to be mortar mix and insulating barrier between the two mortared ends. Failure of the mortar mix led to shrinking and cracking that was a nightmare to maintain and recaulk.  

Insulation was another issue. Some suspected they had introduced wood boring insects by using sawdust (others wondered if the cord wood used was infested) as insulation, and was more prone to dampness inducing potential rot and loss of insulation. To this end, a NON biodegradable insulation such as fibreglass or rock wool may be advisable.

Another note, very WELL seasoned wood is critical; wood that was not fully dry, shrank and pulled away from the mortar and the wood itself split/cracked. Don't forget to include lintels and other external "framing" components in this (minimum) 2 year curing process

The flooring used in these multiple homes escapes me...I suspect there were multiple surfaces, hence the reason it didn't stick.

Attaching/supporting the structural members for the roof was also a challenge, I recall...something about the weight pinpointing on narrow portions of the stackwood walls... honestly, can't remember, but you may want to look at concrete piers within the rubble with some sort of structural component (such as your wood frame) that would adequately both support and distribute the weight of the roof structure.

You may want to consider exposed electrical conduit for housing electrical wires/supplying your electrical needs either beneath or atop the interior COB walls. Offers an extra layer of protection when placed BENEATH the COB.   It is an easy, albeit somewhat industrial look, left exposed, whether you go with COB or you stay with the exposed stackwood for electrical fixes/upgrades later.

I hope from my memories you can track down the Alberta Experiment and the Harrowsmith edition - they fueled my decades long addiction to this method of building that I finally had to give up, but still remains dear to my heart, and alive in my fantasies!
 
Rob Lineberger
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Wow those are great pointers, Lorinne!
 
Lorinne Anderson
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Two other things I forgot...  1) DO NOT USE hardwoods, they apparently absorb water badly.  2) Plumbing secret: if at all possible, run water and drain lines (underground) to a central hub or area and build all your plumbing needs around this (back the kitchen onto the bathroom and laundry room) this saves a ton of money, as the opposed to having the kitchen in one corner, the bathroom in another which requires way more pipe and contractor time; oh and whenever possible, keep all incoming and outgoing water lines OFF exterior walls - in your case, ideally underground - and freezing will never be an issue.

I have looked everywhere, can't find my copy of Harrowsmith...but I believe this is it:  The Harrowsmith Reader, vol II, from 1980, chicken on cover, around $20 from Amazon.ca - I just ordered me a replacement copy!
https://www.amazon.ca/Harrowsmith-reader-II-anthology-alternatives/dp/0920656102/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+harrowsmith+reader+II&qid=1603358623&s=books&sr=1-1

I sought in vain to locate an archive of old issues etc. (perhaps someone more clever than me can...), and have emailed the "new" Harrowsmith (the original kinda shut down for a while, not too sure if the new one is affiliated or not).  Have tried to research the test build I mentioned, and can find nothing (again, perhaps someone more clever than I...).  

There is a cordwood thread in this topic, from about 8 yrs ago, but again, I don't know how to do the permie link thingy (perhaps someone more clever than I???) that mentions Cliff Shockey, who built a cordwood home in Saskatchewan, and this link I believe is for him:  https://cordwoodconstruction.org

Then there is good old google, whilst seeking the Harrowsmith info, I found a few items that may be of interest or use.

These might be useful:  
Code and Permit Issues with Cordwood - Green Home Building
www.greenhomebuilding.com › QandA › code

Techincally this is for New Brunswick, but they do a good job of outlining the potential pitfalls of cord wood buildings.  https://snbsc-planning.com/cct/non-traditional-building/

Here is some local inspiration...perhaps a few field trips are in order?!
Cordwood Lodge Bed & Breakfast in Bracebridge, Ontario. The lodge is a forest retreat, even providing guest bedrooms. You can find out more from bedbreakfasthome.com.
Cradlerock under construction, Ontario, Canada. This photograph was found at “cradlerockhomestead.com/LayingCordwood.aspx”.


Incorporating glass etc., into a Cordwood build...
Cordwood Masonry:  https://www.cordwoodmasonry.com/V2/beauty-of-cordwood/   "...Cordwood masonry is an inexpensive, environmentally sound method of building both exterior and interior walls for houses and outbuildings.  Done correctly, these walls can also be very energy efficient, combining good insulation and thermal mass characteristics. I cover these points in my two latest books on the subject, Essential Cordwood Building: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide and Cordwood Building: A Comprehensive Guide to the State of the Art.

I am wistful and slightly maudlin; wishing time, age and infirmity had not ended my dream, and yet reinvigorated by my search - perhaps a cordwood shed is still in my future!  Good luck!




 
Melody May
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Hi all! Sorry for the delayed response. I'm very grateful for all your input.

Lorrine-- all I can say is WOW and thank you so so much! All this is so helpful, I'm floored at the amount of time you took to put all that together for me!! I will surely heed your advice. I did some more rubble trench research and it appears that a building code inspector can deny it for any reason they see fit, so I may not be able to use it after all and will have to spring for concrete footers or ICFs. I still need to speak with an architect anyhow and they may also throw rubble trench out the window. I should have looked this up sooner, but I found out that New York absolutely requires an architect/engineers stamp for any and all residences (some states dont require it if under a certain square footage). Anyway, getting their input will surely be worth it anyway. As far as the mortar-- I have spoken with a gentleman that build a cordwood cabin in the town just next to mine (it was actually his story and mortar mix that was featured in one of my cordwood research books) and he used cellulose enhanced mortar, and said that after ten years has observed no shrinkage whatsoever in the logs. This input has been of particular interest because my cordwood cabin will be in the same climate, and cellulose enhanced mortar seems to be the way to go. I am still planning on doing several test batches of different mortars though.

Thank you again SO MUCH for all this valuable information. I encourage you to build that little shed! You definitely have all the know-how (:
 
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Melody - Northmen released an 8 minute video on building a stone foundation. Even if you're going with concrete, you may find it worth a watch for the traditional techniques and impressive workmanship.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LzWtMaODgBs

BTW, given the thickness required for a stone wall, I don't think a concrete footing + 8" fdn wall would be much additional cost over rip rap / rubble.
 
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Apparently the artcle I was speaking of has been posting in an online faceBook group for Harrowsmith lovers - it was from the " Harrowsmith Reader, an anthology of the best of country Living Journal (Vol II), 1980
"Poor Man's Architecturel, by David Square; and "Stackwall Basics" (Staff report).

I was able to order this edition off Amazon for les than $20. Ironically, it also covers a HOST of permies, homesteading, off the grid articles - almost a permies first bible (build a home for less than $5,000, windsteading, solar power, growing a food garden...) I but my favorite was an article that shared multiple examples of both successful, and decidely unsuccessful attempts t homesteading - sharing the pitfalls that cursed the unprepared (mentally, financially, skill sets under and overestimated) and the triumphs of those who honestly persevered.

I highly recommend it as an addition to all new permies/hopeful off gridders libraries as a very valuable reality check; and as a (perhaps outdated) valuable tome for those engaged inoff grid living - for a look at the "old" ideas that often are still useful, or perhaps simply show the birth and pre development stage of where we are today.
 
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Sounds like you’re going in a great direction.

One thing that I would strongly consider is reducing your square footage, especially if you are concerned about heat flow etc... Now is the only time you can make your home smaller, and with careful planning you probably can, but if you design with the possibility in mind you can easily make it bigger when you need to.

I avoided full cathedral ceilings when we added on to our round wood timber frame house, I found them difficult to insulate and address moisture issues with natural materials, and all your heat hangs out up there, maybe not a bad idea in the south, but not Wisconsin or NY.

Ditto on using well cured wood- wish we’d cut ours sooner.

Where we are insulated blinds are essential for passive solar to be a net gain, too little sun in the winter to have all these great big holes in your walls
 
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We have a structure in Upstate NY with a rubble stone foundation and one concern I would have is longevity, as ours has only lasted 150 years and is starting to show issues we need to address. The Northmen video Gregg posted is likely very much like how our foundation was laid. Below grade, I’d say the cellar is about 8 foot deep from floor joist to cellar floor and is made up of roundish river rock mostly up to grade (similar to the stones used in Gregg’s vid) and at grade it changes to dressed bluestone quarried 8.5 miles away. 30 inches above grade it changes to double wythe brick over a timber frame, so no wood is closer than 30 inches or so to the ground. One reason the structure has survived so well is due to the land is excessively drained sand, so if grading is maintained well. Repairs executed in the 30’s added wood supports along the center of the house when the sistered in additional floor joists and treated with borate to address powder post beetle damage.

I will comment on one conversation re rubble stone foundations when I was planning a barn and was told no-go. One avenue people have taken is privately engage an engineer to consult on the building who is licensed to do inspections and works with code enforcement could possibly be a way to actually build something using methods not generally recognized under code. It’s a great idea but where do you find this individual and how much would it cost? Seems like a great idea that in practice may be unobtanium.

In regards to HVAC, I am in a similar boat wanting to retrofit a heating system to the above mentioned pile of bricks and have rejected the rocket stove out of hand for various reasons, unsuitability to a traditional structure (weight/venting) and the need to feed the stove which could be a bad day when you can’t be around to feed it one winter night and return to cracked toilets, split pipes (PEX may survive, but joints can split) and a cracked well pump (done that one).  Maybe a RS for the greenhouse or a clubhouse, but not the main house. We want to heat with wood and are considering a wood furnace feeding a heavily insulated water tank that could heat via radiators of some type (leaning towards cast iron baseboard. We’d love radiant floors, but thick wood plank floors just don’t easily lend themselves. So we are considering a variety of options that boil down to a choice of an OWB dual stage gasifier furnace, an indoor, dual fuel wood/NG furnace placed in an additional structure, NG direct vent in the cellar.

Sizing a system like this is very difficult and one thing I like about a wood/NG furnace is we can oversize it a bit to account for the leaky nature of our old structure and when we get the place buttoned up better we can use the excess capacity for farm stuff or heating an accessory dwelling for farm staff. So far we only heat with electric heaters in the spring/fall and close down the place in the winter, draining everything. My estimate for the electric cost if we went all winter. One thing we found that heavy curtains over windows and doors have a tremendous effect in heat savings analogous to adding storm windows/doors.

One issue I have seen with well insulated post & beam structures with cathedral ceilings is condensation. I suggest a search over on Green Building Advisor on cathedral ceilings and condensation.
 
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The weight of a masonry heater in an existing structure is a valid concern, which can be addressed with piers or other supports in the basement if necessary. This depends totally on the details of the installation.

For overnight freeze concerns, if an RMH is sized to fully heat a building and given recommended mass, and has brought the building to comfortable temperatures during the day, it will not allow the building to freeze overnight or probably for at least 24 hours or more from the last fire. Oversizing an RMH costs little extra, and it can easily be run for desired comfort without damping down a fire, simply by firing less frequently.


A mass heater is well suited to old leaky structures because it warms the contents more than the air, so losing heated air is a lesser problem than with any sort of forced air system.
 
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I would be cautious in the size of your planned house. 1800 Sq ft would be impossible to heat where we are without a significant modern heater and on grid power. While I acknowledge that winters in upstate NY are much less severe than the interior of Alaska, they are cold enough to make heating a structure of that size complicated and demanding. In any case I wish you the best in your efforts.
 
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