Never Enough Logs

Logs, glorious logs.

Last spring we were very eager to get started building cordwood walls on the inside of the house. As is usually the case with cordwooding, there were a million and one tasks that had to be completed before we could get going. Cordwood — is it a noun, or a verb, or an adjective, anyway?

We needed more logs! There are never enough logs! The more the merrier, and the more varied your selection, the more interesting the cordwood pattern will be. So we prepped all the logs that had been drying in the kiln all winter, and chopped up lots more on the sawbuck.

Greg hooked up an outdoor spigot so we could mix mortar and water the garden.

This really made life a lot easier.

When those trees you ordered arrive in the mail one day, you have to put them in the ground quickly.

A pair of pears.

We also spent some time trimming out a few windows and installing screens so we could start taking advantage of the warmer weather and let the fresh air into the house. It’s always amazing how quickly everything greens up when the snow melts.

Somehow, this overwintered.

Water and Air

A sunny February day.

We’re plumbing the house with PEX tubing rather than traditional metal pipe. No soldering is required, just a crimping tool, so it’s a whole lot easier. Greg installed a manifold, which is sort of a switching station for all the PEX tubing in the house. Blue pipes are for cold water and red pipes are for hot.

It's called a Manabloc.

A utility sink and then a toilet followed in short order. Our work space became a whole lot more comfortable and convenient!

The utility sink, folks.

Because the house is well insulated and has what the energy efficiency experts call a tight envelope, it needs a special ventilation system. The ERV, or Energy Recovery Ventilator, exchanges stuffy indoor air for fresh outdoor air without cooling down the house.

Fresh air in, stuffy air out.

All of these not very glamorous but vital tasks were carried out during the late winter and early spring of 2011.  The plumbing and electrical inspectors found everything to be satisfactory. Space in the utility room is quickly filling up!

The Interior View

While insulating the ceiling we had to take into account areas where infrastructure such as the chimney and the plumbing vent would eventually have to get through the roof. This involved adding some extra baffles to leave openings in the insulation. We also had to run some electric wire (Romex) for overhead lighting and a ceiling fan.

Always plan ahead for lighting.

By February of 2011, we were finished with the ceiling for the time being, and were working on pulling wiring through the conduit with a fish tape, and wiring the outlets. We had a few circuits live in no time.

It's an outlet.

Another important task was to cut 2x8s into base plates for the inner cordwood walls. As we spent all this time inside in the now well-insulated house, we noticed how well our passive solar design was working. On sunny days, the house warmed up and the in-floor heating kicked in rarely, if at all.

A sunny space.


Wintertime on Moscow Road.

We’re doing some upgrades to the blog, and will probably be tinkering with it for a little while, so don’t be alarmed if things get a little mixed up. I’ll try to keep the new posts coming regularly.

Things Heat Up

Greg struggled to connect the water heater to the in-floor heating system so we could return the rented propane heater. He did most of this during the evening hours after work. After a series of frightening misadventures which included nearly asphyxiating himself and a late night deer/truck collision, the in-floor heating was up and running. Here you can see the water heater, water tank, and the electrical panel in the utility area:

The utility room, where the magic happens.

Our next major task was to insulate the roof. The walls were nice and cozy, but the roof consisted of just decking and steel. Massive heat loss caused huge icicles to form.


We cut pieces of OSB to attach to the bottom roof joists, and the resultant sixteen inch space was to be filled with blown in cellulose insulation. Installing the OSB was especially challenging in the high-ceilinged living room area, which required some heavy lifting, and work from high atop a scaffolding. For some of this, I braced the OSB with a two-by-four while Greg wielded the nail gun.

Greg vs. the Ceiling.

The hardware store delivered a big load cellulose insulation, which comes in rectangular plastic-wrapped bales:

Wet blanket.

To fill each course of OSB with insulation, we rented a machine called the Krendl, which grinds up the bales of cellulose and blows it out through an enormous, unwieldy corrugated plastic hose. It’s reminiscent of something from a Terry Gilliam cartoon.

The inimitable Krendl.

It took a while to get the hang of the temperamental Krendl. We worked on the ceiling throughout December and into January of 2011, installing rows of OSB panels, filling them with insulation, and gradually working our way to the front of the house.

Insulation, in situ.

What’s He Building in There?

“What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?” -Tom Waits

As Thanksgiving weekend, 2010 approached, we knew that two important things had to happen. We needed running water inside the house, and a way to keep the temperature consistently above freezing. This had become a matter of some urgency because a contractor was coming from Duluth with his crew to build our masonry heater.

We had purchased the masonry heater kit the previous summer at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair (as mentioned in Greg’s previous post). After wrangling the huge heavy cement blocks up to the house, we decided it would be best to leave the actual assembly to an experienced mason. Fortunately, we had also met Eric Moshier, a contractor who had built many masonry heaters using the Temp-Cast kit, at the MWREF. He was also able to cast additional parts to add a bread oven to the unit. He was willing to come out to the Keweenaw to do the job, so we scheduled the work to be done just after Thanksgiving. We selected and ordered bricks according to Eric’s directions, and collected some beautiful river slates for the masons to incorporate into the brick facade.

From the Slate River, of course. Where else?

We needed running water inside the house. Once we had water, we could hook up the in-floor heating. We spent the better part of Black Friday on a trip down to the nearest Big Box Home Improvement Store in Iron Mountain to purchase a hot water heater. There was just one problem: locating the water line.

Back when Frank Beauchamp poured the foundation, we had him dig a trench and lay in a pipe from near the well up through the slab and into house. So, in theory, it was just a matter of digging down about six feet or so, locating the pipe, and running a water line through it from the well head to the utility room. Greg started digging at the place that had been marked with a post four years previously. And he kept digging further and further into the cold mud. No luck. Eric’s crew arrived, and Greg still hadn’t been able to locate it. It was time to improvise.

To mix their mortar, Eric’s crew collected water from the melting snow running off the roof. Our many plastic buckets were once again put to use. Greg rented a propane heater to keep the house warm enough for the mortar to cure properly. Work on the masonry heater went quickly. They put the kit together, faced it with brick, and added some slate accents.

Masonry in progress.

We were certainly impressed with the results.

Leave it to the professionals.

The propane heater had bought us bit of time, but it was vital that we get the water running and the in-floor heating system flowing. Greg called Frank, who came out with his backhoe and dug an enormous pit until he finally located that pipe. Greg and I were able to come out after work and snake a water line through the pipe into the house, and electricity from the house out to the well head. This was all very exciting to do in the pitch dark, with snow flying, giant piles of freezing mud everywhere, and a gaping pit in the ground in front of the well. Anyone observing must have wondered what on earth was going on.

“What’s he building in there?
We have a right know.”

Foam Power

Before we could have the contractor come to spray the walls with insulation, there were a few more things to take care of. We had to plan for electricity and water infrastructure before winter weather set in. We hired an electrical contractor to run metal conduit along the walls of the house for the electrical wiring. This conduit would ultimately reside in the insulation layer, between the two cordwood layers.


We also cut some baffles made of corrugated plastic to place between the roof joists above the walls.

Simply baffling.

Once the conduit was in place, we had a local contractor, Superior Polymer, spray the walls with open cell foam. They completed the job very quickly, in under a day. It was a really striking difference to walk into the newly insulated house.

The contractors were very thorough, and generous with the foam. I mean, they sprayed the bejeezus out of the place. It was like walking into a foam cave. It was immediately much warmer, and incredibly quiet inside. Although I knew it was only temporary, it was a bit sad to no longer see cordwood on the inside.

The walls, white with foam.

Yes, that's a lot of foam.

Our next important item was to get running water inside the house. This would be necessary in order to heat the house using the in-floor heating system.

Inside Job

When we left off in October of 2010, the exterior cordwood wall was finally complete, and Matt the carpenter had finished off the top level with natural edge cedar lap siding. It was time to turn our attention to the interior.

On the outside, looking in.

The inside of the cordwood walls were to be sprayed with five inches of open cell foam insulation. Extensive prep work was required before this could happen. First, the window and door boxes had to be extended. The final thickness of the walls is twenty-one inches. We had decided to flare the sides of the window boxes outward, to give a wider opening on the inside. This would allow more light into the house. Once again, our experienced carpenter Matt was instrumental in getting this part done in a timely fashion.

With Matt’s table saw, we were able give rough cedar boards an angled edge. Then we cut them to the correct sizes. Greg and I did most of the cutting, while Matt did most of the assembly. We sealed up any gaps between the windows and the window boxes with cans of spray foam from the hardware store. Spray foam is sticky, nasty stuff, and it takes some time to get the hang of working with it.

CAUTION: table saw.

Once the window boxes had been extended, we had to protect all the windows by stapling sheets of plastic over the window boxes. This would prevent any stray foam from sticking to them during the insulation job. We also covered all the bottle ends with plastic baggies held in place with rubber bands.

October 2010 was a real turning point. For the first time, the house truly had an inside and an outside. The weather was starting to turn chilly, and we wanted to be able to keep it warm enough to continue working on it during the winter months.

Some late autumn asters.

New Year’s Blog Resurrection

Winter is a good time for a long story.

Happy New Year, everybody! Clare here. I am aware that this blog has sadly languished for months, and the information about our progress on Nerdwood is now over a year out of date. Greg has simply been too busy to keep up with it, as he is bogged down with work and school responsibilities, which means reading papers with names such as A Fast Failure Detection and Failover Scheme for SIP High Availability Networks and Experiences in Building A Multihoming Load Balancing System. As you can imagine, this does not leave much time for the whole blog endeavor. So I will pick up the torch, and try to cover what has been happening over the past year.