Harold Reynold’s Cordwood Home in Sherman

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My first interview with Harold Reynolds was over the phone, sometime in late February. As we talked, I tried taking notes on my laptop. I say tried, because by the end, I was typing so fast, all I had were sentences like “code officer was unfamiliar, and unsure a building over in french creek and cordwood and round.” By the time we finished the interview, I realized I had to see Harold’s house for myself; there were too many things to talk about just over the phone. So, on a sunny day in mid-March, I packed up my notebook and camera: my sister (my volunteer photographer) and I headed over to Sherman for a visit.

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At the beginning of this building project, Harold wanted to build his entire house using cordwood construction; he was inspired by a book he read as a child, My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, where a young boy builds his own home in the base of a large tree.  However, after some complications arose (code laws, expense, time, etc.), he decided to scale back his original plan. In 2003, he and a small team of dedicated friends and family members began work, as they say, from the ground up. They installed a floating concrete slab foundation (no basement due to the location of the house on the watershed), and, with great effort transported two small, nearby houses (due for demolition) to the site. The houses, each cut in half, were dragged onto the slab, and placed on opposite ends of the foundation. In between the houses Harold built a floor system to bridge the gap then a pole barn system around it all and roof over the top–the house began taking shape. He used a combination of cordwood and regular wood siding to encompass the entire structure, making a single, rectangular, house.

Throughout the entire process, Harold has done his homework. Researching on-line and in books, he has learned all about cordwood construction and other methods not only to reuse materials, but to make his home more energy efficient (A cordwood wall has an insulation value of about R26). Two books in particular, Cordwood Construction by Richard Flatau, and Cordwood Masonry Housebuilding by Rob Roy, really helped him in learning how to build and insulate walls using cordwood and home-made mortar. He experimented with different combinations of sand, sawdust, cement/lime, and mud, until he found the blend with the best consistency.

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This picture shows how the cordwood is set up, with the mortar to hold it in place, and a filling of sawdust to help insulate the wall—with additional sawdust in the mortar, the wall is impervious to air, insects, and moisture. Harold used wood from his own land—mostly locust wood and ash, since they are very hard and durable.  The wood can be different lengths and widths, although many who use this kind of construction make sure the wood is flush on the inside of the wall. In addition to its energy and environmental benefits, cordwood is also a very attractive style. On the front, Harold added a sun design using different shaped pieces of wood, and in the back, he painted the mortar white for more contrast.

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While the bulk of time Harold has spent on this home relates to the foundation, structure, and cordwood, his ingenuity has not stopped there. Old stone steps salvaged from a church have become windowsills in the main room. Glass blocks sandwiching colored plexi-glass have become stained glass window accents (seen in the photo above). Rescued materials have been turned into kitchen cabinets, countertops, and wood paneling; reclaimed sinks, bathtub, and an old-fashioned stove have been cleaned and refitted as well.

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Before we left, I asked Harold if he had any advice for those dreaming of building their own home. He said, “If you want to build your own house, get busy and do it. It will take a lot of money, and a lot of time, but it’s worth it.” He then said, “this place started out as a house, but it’s slowly turning into a home.” And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

Straw Bale Home Tour – March 18, 2012

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Audubon President Invites Visitors to “Straw Bale House”

Jamestown, NY — Jamestown Audubon Society president Ruth Lundin and her husband Paul have made the big decision to build their retirement home — and they’re doing in the “greenest” way possible.

Ruth's house - compressing straw bales

On Sunday afternoon, March 18, Jamestown Audubon Society President Ruth Lundin will offer an open house to show the work in progress on the straw bale house she and her husband Paul are building. Reservations can be made by calling the Audubon Center and Sanctuary at (716) 569-2345. Here workers are compressing straw bales before they get placed in the walls.

From 1-3 pm on Sunday, March 18, Ruth and Paul will have an open house at their work-in-progress. Visitors will be able to learn about the resource and energy saving methods they are using, including straw bale insulation, a living roof and both passive and active solar energy.

“Building a straw bale house is truly an adventure,” Lundin observed. “We’d like to share our progress – and possibly inspire others – so we’re welcoming the community to come for a visit.”

Reservations are required by Thursday, March 15, by calling (716) 569-2345, emailing info@jamestownaudubon.org, or using the on-line form at on Audubon’s website. After that date, call to check on available space. When you register, you will receive directions to the house.

While there is no charge, donations are appreciated.

For details on this and all Audubon Center and Sanctuary programs, call (716) 569-2345 or visit http://jamestownaudubon.org.

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Update from Dave Brugge

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An update from Dave Brugge on his log home in Frewsberg (click here for the original post from November 2011):

I have completed the installation of my solar hot water system, as shown in the attached picture. This system is a closed loop, evacuated tube solar hot water system. I have a large insulated storage tank that stores hot water from the system. I will be using the heat generated and stored in this tank for my domestic hot water, and as a supplement to my home heating. It is a fully programmable system and the pumps and controller of course are powered directly from my Solar Voltaic System–as seen in the photo. I am very excited about this new system and the continued advantages of using alternative energy sources.

Straw Bale House Featured on Channel 2 News

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http://www.wgrz.com/video/default.aspx?bctid=1267523414001

3:08 minute video about Ruth and Paul’s Home that will be insulated with straw bales, use passive solar, and have a living roof.

A Green Home

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Ruth Lundin, Jamestown Audubon President, invites you to view photos of the construction of her green home:

https://picasaweb.google.com/117025665845845661475

If you would like to talk to Ruth about her project, let us know via this form:

Habitat for Humanity Builds Green

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On a chilly day in December I sat down with Ted First, Vice President of the Chautauqua Area Habitat for Humanity, to talk about what they are doing to make the houses they build as green as possible.  First has been working in the green building field as a designer and builder since 1976 and is now applying what he knows to improve the building process for all Habitat houses.  The organization first committed to greening their building process in 2005 and built their first passive solar house in 2006.  They have been constantly evaluating and improving their techniques ever since.

Ted explained to me how green building simply makes sense because of how well it fits in with the long established goals of Habitat for Humanity which include building homes that are safe, simple, affordable and decent.  The green building process contributes to each of these goals. Safety includes things like creating an indoor environment free from harmful chemicals and with optimal air quality.   Simplicity includes things like a passive solar design and well constructed overhangs that reduce the need for heating and cooling, building modest homes that have a small footprint and no unnecessary accessories.  Affordable includes a home that is super insulated to reduce energy costs and using high quality, durable materials to reduce maintenance needs.  Decent includes using salvaged and recycled materials that are sourced locally and building in a way that benefits the community you are building in.

The basic design for all Habitat Green Builds is the passive house.  A passive house is one that dramatically reduces heating needs through super insulation, allowing it to be heated almost solely by solar gains, and internal heat produced by people and appliances.  Ventilation is provided by an energy recovery ventilator, which brings in fresh air while minimizing heat loss.  This design has the ability to reduce energy use by up to 90%, with any additional heating being provided by a single small unit.

Beyond energy savings, Habitat also takes into consideration the chemical environment, doing their best to choose materials that do not have negative effects on homeowners or workers and also have a low embodied energy.  For example, they never use vinyl siding in their houses; it is terribly unhealthy for workers, even worse if there’s ever a fire and it isn’t recyclable.   Instead they choose a lower impact material such as cement board or wood.

First admits that not every material they use is perfect.  Working towards the ideal Habitat Green Build is a work in progress and something that is constantly being reevaluated.  One of the major factors they’re looking at right now is finding a replacement for foam insulation.  It’s hard to beat the insulating properties of foam, however its environmental impact is enormous.  Another thing they are experimenting with right now is a passive solar hot water system that could be used as a pre-heater.  Since cost is always a major factor in any Habitat home, they are currently working to bring the cost below $500 in order for it to be feasible to incorporate into their design.  One of their most important goals is to incorporate all of the information they have gathered into a “how to build it” manual for Habitat Green Builds.

One of the major factors that allows Habitat to accomplish all of their green building goals is that they have volunteer labor.  For the most part the materials they use do not cost more than conventional building materials, however green building techniques are often more labor intensive.  Where this would lead to an additional cost for most building projects, for Habitat the additional labor costs nothing, another reason why green building is such a good fit for these houses.

So far the Chautauqua Area Habitat for Humanity has built four houses as “green”, and they are now building 2 houses per year.  They are collecting data on each of the houses and using this information to constantly improve upon the building process.  Although still a work in progress, CAHH has taken a model for helping people in need to the next level, providing healthy, affordable housing that’s environmentally conscious as well.

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