A House of a Different Colour

by Laura Brandes
January 2010

The Completed Cordwood Home

For the Pillons, a home is more than just somewhere to put your hat, and definitely more than just four walls. A home needs to communicate the spirit of its inhabitants. It needs to be constructed with thoughtful consideration toward each and every structural, functional and aesthetic detail. And, it needs to be built with heart, soul and love.

Mike and Roberta Pillon are the first homeowners in Essex County to live in a cordwood structure, built with short logs of red cedar, laid transversely and embedded within a special mortar matrix of sand, sawdust, cement and lime. Cordwood masonry is an ancient technique with the earliest North American examples dating back to the mid 19th century. Like the sod houses of the early 20th century, built from the sod of thickly rooted Prairie grass by the pioneers of the North American grasslands, or like the whale bone houses of the Canadian Arctic, built over 1000 years ago with bone, skin and stone, cordwood masonry falls into a long and historical line of building techniques that use indigenous and natural materials to provide shelter. Today, many cordwood structures are built using recycled or salvaged materials – materials that would, otherwise, be considered waste.

The Pillons first learned of cordwood masonry when watching an episode of Extreme Homes. Intrigued by “something a little bit different,? Mike and Roberta decided that this technique was exactly what they wanted to do with their new home building project. They travelled to Earthwood Building School in upstate New York where they participated in a cordwood workshop with expert Rob Roy. Upon their return to Southwestern Ontario, the Pillons embarked on the challenging and fulfilling project of building their own home, with their own hands, from local and recycled raw materials. To quote Mike Pillon, “This is what we built. It's not what some contractor built out of two-by-fours or two-by-sixes.?

Main floor plan prepared by GS Engineering Consultants Inc.

Taking the “more than just four walls? idea quite literally, the Pillons have built themselves a dodecagonal home. Touring the structure, I was inspired by how completely this couple has poured themselves into the design and construction of the abode. Roberta believes that, “whenever you live in a space, you definitely want to bring some of your own character, or your own personality, or your own vibe to it.? Without a doubt, the Pillons have succeeded in doing just that – infusing the very structural core of their home with their unique spirit and identity. From the 100 year old, salvaged stained glass embedded in the front door, to the mortar-and-pebble sculptures growing out of the mortar matrix of the walls, this home simply throbs with personality. Large, smoothed poplar and ash trunks, serving as structural support columns, seem to grow out of the floor in the middle of the house while other logs hang overhead, bearing the weight of the green roof above.

All of the wood used in the home's construction came from within two miles of the build site. The majority of the wood was purchased from a neighbour who had an acre of dead and dying red cedar. It took the Pillons two weeks to cut down about 300 trees. “Then we put them on a trailer, transported them here, cut them all to length and debarked them all by hand.? Since starting the build, the Pillons have planted 2000 trees on their property. For Roberta, it was important to be able to say, “that I didn't just take, that I gave back too.? In addition to using local materials, many of the home's components were recycled from other sources. The panes of glass that fill the living room's picture window were purchased from the Old Anderdon Tavern, in Amherstburg, when the restaurant was being demolished. The wall of the “Star Room? features a number of embedded Five Star whisky bottles – souvenirs from a family wedding.

For Mike and Roberta, the most challenging part about the build was the physical aspect. Handling and lifting each of the different logs – especially the 800 pound log that runs the length of the large living room window – and making sure they were properly positioned was a difficult task. For GS Engineering Consultants Inc., however, the challenges came in a different form.

A coyote howls on the wall of the "Blue Moon Room"

Dealing with the out of the ordinary is not unusual for the staff of GS Engineering Consultants Inc. However, the Pillons' cordwood home – with its mix of conventional and unconventional building materials – presented some unique and interesting challenges. When approaching this job, the first priority of GS Engineering was to ensure that the building would conform to the Ontario Building Code. This was a difficult task due to the recent changes in Part 9 for building envelopes. Instead of sawn timbers or more traditional, engineered materials, the use of rough lumber (tree trunks and limbs) made engineering the building envelope an interesting undertaking. To provide proper structural resistance and insulation, the roof was constructed with Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs). Working within the parameters of the building materials – cordwood, rough timbers and SIPs – and the constraints of the home's dodecagonal shape, GS Engineering Consultants Inc. was able to optimize the house's structural integrity and engineer a home that conformed to both the vision of the homeowners and the Ontario Building Code. For GS Engineering Consultants Inc., this home stands as a testament to their ingenuity and their commitment to solve even the most unique engineering problems and support their clients' unflagging dedication to build their dreams.

When the infrastructure is complete, the Pillons will be living in an entirely off-the-grid, self-sufficient home. Living in the county, the Pillons draw their water from a well and have a septic tank and weeping bed for wastewater disposal. Solar photovoltaics will power the home's electricity while solar collector panels will heat its water.

With the house almost completed, the Pillons are grateful for all the help they received throughout the building process – from their experience with cordwood expert Rob Roy in upstate New York to the advice and support they received from GS Engineering Consultants Inc. and their friends and fellow cordwood homeowners, David and Bernice Fraser. “Finding someone who has been through the experience, that can be a mentor, is really, really important because it's so different and it's so challenging. If people find they are interested [in cordwood building] and they want to embrace this challenge, we want to be able to share our experiences as well. . .David and Bernice paid it forward to us. We're going to pay it forward to anybody else.?

From its recycled materials, hand cut logs and embedded bottles, stained glass and marbles to its off-the-grid status and green roof, the Pillons' new house definitely falls within the unconventional. And, it is this unconventionality, coupled with Mike and Roberta's personalities and enthusiasm, that make this house a home. Through their creativity, determination and hard work, Mike and Roberta Pillon have proven that their home is, truly, where their hearts are.