Summer is finally well underway. The robins sing, the mosquitoes are out. And a young man’s thoughts turn to building things. When I was little, I built birdhouses. A few years later, I moved on to treehouses or just treetop platforms. I’ve learned to pull nails, straighten nails, and even drive bent nails in with quite a bit of success. Even today, when I can afford to buy nails, I hate to throw away old bent nails.
A few years ago we had a daughter working at the kennel who was from Poland. I was collecting nails from a pile of old planks and filling a coffee can. I asked the Pole if they had ever thrown old, rusty, bent nails where she came from. “Hell no,” she replied, “you can buy boxes of old nails at the hardware store!”
Americans are throwing a lot of good stuff. Funny. We throw away building materials that are worth hundreds of dollars, but that will get us five miles to save a penny on a gallon of gas. Go figure. However, some of us are looters of building materials. When commercial electricity came to our house a few years ago, I built a 12 by 12 electric shed just to maintain our service connection and electric meter. This shed was entirely built with salvaged building materials.
The service mast was the only money spent on building the entire hangar. The thing was held together with salvaged nails.
I learned to straighten nails from my father. Hard. “Johnny; get those nails out of that pile of wood. Save the nails and make sure they’re straight. Got it?”
“Yes sir,” was the only allowed response. I did what I could, but the damn goats knocked that pile of wood into the stream. I was blamed and received a lick. I still don’t like goats. But – I can straighten a box of nails faster than the girl next door can bake a cherry pie.
There are many construction methods that can save the builder money. Alaska does not have all the options that might be available in the United States. Cob houses are mostly out of the question. My dad was from Arizona, so it’s no surprise he chose stucco over the farm. My opinion is that neither of these two choices is optimal.
Straw bale homes and log homes seem like reasonable alternatives in the 49th state. I currently live in a wooden house for most of the winter months. The builder of my house was a first-time builder. His research was insufficient. The walls are 27 inches thick. Sounds great except for one minor issue…the guy used spruce for his stringwood. Cedar is the preferred wood. Spruce tends to split badly when it dries. It’s a great characteristic of firewood, but not for the walls of a house. We moved into the house in early November. The winter was cold. We had solar power and a very good wood stove. The walls were leaking air through the cracks in the spruce logs: the logs are stacked end-to-end, like firewood. You couldn’t keep a candle burning inside the house when the wind was blowing.
Cordwood construction is not necessarily less expensive than standard construction since the necessary framework is quite substantial. The time required to gather the materials is considerable. The time required to build is noticeably longer than other types of construction. Additions or changes are very difficult later down the road. The walls in our house are more than 30 inches thick; you cannot see out of a window unless you are directly in front of it.
Straw is another seemingly decent alternative to standard building practices. Straw bale homes fall into the same category as firewood. They require an elaborate superstructure. Remember one very important thing: the floor and the roof of any structure one might build are probably the most expensive parts of the building. Considering the saying “time is money”, then straw, like firewood, is not a decent option.
Pole or timber constructions are the easiest and cheapest way to put something over your head that can keep you warm and shed water. If you want to build your own house this spring, even if it’s a small house, consider these two options. Pay close attention to the foundation requirements for each of these “easy” buildings. Nothing with a semblance of permanence will be cheap or easy. Again, I met a guy from Minnesota who built a shed out of hay bales for two pygmy goats. By the time they ate their way, it was spring. Hooray for the damn goats.