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We moved into our off grid cordwood house towards the end of December 2017. What was surprising? What was different from being in a “normal” house? We discuss all the details in this post.
This means we’ve gotten to learn about actually LIVING in our cordwood house for the first time during the WINTER.
I get a lot of questions about what it’s like to live in a cordwood house and how it handles cold weather. While we haven’t lived here long enough to have a “history” of performance, these are our first impressions two months into living here.
2021 UPDATE: This is our fourth winter living here, and we’re noticing patterns of how our house behaves in the cold weather. Our original observations still seem to hold true! I’ve added notes and made changes to our responses as applicable.
Here’s an in-depth report with answers to common questions we’ve gotten this winter about our cordwood house.
Cordwood Houses In The Winter
First, if you’ve never seen our homestead project before, here are some quick facts about it:
The house is 30’x34′ with a stud framed mudroom on the front measuring 8’x12′.
The cordwood walls are R-16 with 8 inches of softwood sawdust mixed with lime in the center cavity of the wall.
The roof and stud wall insulation is open cell spray foam with a rating up to R-40 at its thinnest points in the roof, and R-20 in the walls.
There is approximately 855 square feet of living space on the first floor with a loft over the second half of the house measuring about 300 square feet.
Our primary heat source is a soapstone wood stove made by HearthStone, with the secondary being the radiant heat in our slab foundation.
We took advantage of some passive solar principles in our home design: oriented the home to solar south, lots of windows on the south face, fewer on the east and west, small windows on the north.
“Can you build a cordwood house in areas that get cold weather?”
This is probably the number one question I get from people, and the answer is a resounding YES. There are numerous cordwood homes throughout Canada and the northern United States.
Cordwood homes, when built properly, stand up to the cold, ice, and snow in ways that traditional construction simply can’t. I’ll address why throughout this post as I go into more detail about our particular house.
You can learn more about proper cordwood construction practices here.
How OUR Cordwood Home Has Performed in the Winter
Every cordwood house and every location is different. Here’s some context to help you out.
- Gardening Zone 6B
- Average yearly snowfall: 12 inches
- Average high temperature: 43 F
- Average low temperature: 26 F
2018 Original Post Date Stats:
- Lowest temperature: -6 F (happens most winters, though people here will definitely complain like it’s a big deal)
- Highest temperature: 76 F (confusing and alarming when winter isn’t actually over yet)
- Snowfall: lower than normal, we only had 2 inches on the ground at any given time
2021 Update Stats:
- Lowest temperature: 4 F
- Highest temperature: 44 F
- Snowfall: 26 inches from November through February
Use these quick stats to give you context for how we answer these questions. Kentucky is certainly warmer than Canada, but we still experience sub-zero temps now and again.
1. How does cordwood handle the cold?
Until now, we’ve both only ever lived in older stud-framed homes with forced-air heating and cooling. Given this, we had no idea what to expect with an insulated cordwood house versus a standard home.
The thermal mass of the walls holds heat for HOURS. This includes heat from the sun and outside air as well as heat from the radiant system and wood stove.
That being said, if the walls are cold it takes a LONG time to warm up. We went out of town for several days when the temperatures didn’t get out of the low teens, and had lowered the set temperature on the radiant, which was a mistake. Getting the house warmed back up to a livable temperature took several hours but once it reached that temperature it held steady.
2. How well does the passive solar design really work?
Imagine a sunny but bitterly cold day. The sun is blazing but the outside temperature barely gets above zero.
Because we have a lot of south-facing windows we can take advantage of the sun on frigid days like this. The heat of the sun warms the walls and the slab, meaning that on those kinds of days the house stayed comfortable without maintaining a fire in the stove AND without the radiant heat ever kicking on.
Even on very cloudy days, the amount of light reaching the windows is enough to avoid having the lights on. This means we’re saving power and harnessing energy no matter what.
That said, I do wish we could have developed a design to face the long side of the house towards the south. The bedrooms on the north wall do have a tendency to feel a little bit colder, but the difference is pretty slight. On a positive note, this actually makes sleeping much more comfortable, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.
3. Do you have enough power to get through winter days in a cordwood house?
The nature of cordwood actually plays quite nicely with an off-grid power system.
Our home is entirely off the grid, which means we have a system of solar panels and batteries to power our home.
The system we had (at the time of this writing) was relatively small at roughly 1.14 kW worth of solar panels. Since our radiant heat system uses electricity to power the pumps and keep the propane water heater on, it does eat up about 250-500 watts of power at a time while it’s running.
Fortunately, the nature of the thermal mass and insulation in our home means our radiant heat system doesn’t have to kick on nearly as often as it might in a typical stud-framed home.
On those days with high temperatures in the single digits, our radiant kicked on every few hours at the most. Every other “normal” home I have ever lived in keeps the heat running almost constantly all day and night when the temperature is that low.
You can read more about our experiences with off-grid solar power in the winter here.
4. Does the house creak or moan in high winds?
No. Not even a little.
This was a weird one to us because we’ve never been in a house that doesn’t creak or groan at least a little bit in a high wind.
Honestly, we’re not sure if it’s because the walls are so stout, because of all the insulation in the roof, or because we have two sets of hurricane clips on every truss (long silly story).
Either way, our house doesn’t flinch at the few winter storms we’ve had with sustained winds of 50 mph or more.
5. Is cordwood drafty?
No, thankfully. Some of our old reused windows were a little bit but even those weren’t that bad.
The cordwood walls aren’t drafty because there is an 8-inch cavity of insulation in the center of the wall. Even if there is some log shrinkage the air has to pass through the insulation to get to the other side.
You can sit right next to any part of the wall and even in a high wind you won’t feel a draft. The issue many people face with this is if the walls are completely solid or uninsulated. When those logs shrink there’s nothing in the middle to act as a buffer to the air.
6. Do you have problems with log shrinkage?
Not particularly. There has been some shrinkage, which is to be expected with wood, but nothing major. Know why?
We dried the vast majority of our logs for a little over a year to approximately a 12-16% moisture level. However, we did end up cutting some trees down during the summer right before we started our walls. They managed to dry to about 16-20% in the hot summer sun, but they weren’t nearly as seasoned as the others.
To make the most of this situation, we put the most seasoned logs in the walls that received the most direct weather hits on the west and north. We put the newer logs on the east wall, which receives almost no direct beating from the weather in our area.
As a result, the most dramatic shrinkage I’ve seen is about 1/8th of an inch. More typical shrinkage is barely visible to maybe 1/16th of an inch.
If you have to build with “wet” logs, be prepared to use something like Log Jam or Permachink to mitigate the shrinkage you get. But if you have the option and the time, cut and prepare all of your logs at least a year before you build.
You can learn more about how we prepped our cedar logs here.
7. How is your interior air quality? Is it as “sealed” as a lot of newer homes?
The indoor air quality in our cordwood home is quite pleasant compared to traditional construction.
Here we have the double effects of cordwood construction and the total lack of forced air heating and cooling in our home.
Cordwood by its very nature is sealed yet breathable. Because the logs have their end grain facing out on both sides of the wall they allow an exchange of air through the grain. This has kept our inside air from ever feeling or smelling stagnant.
And since we aren’t blowing germs and dust through any vent systems, we’ve managed to reduce our winter sniffles quite dramatically.
Additionally, our indoor humidity tends to hang out between 35-45%, so it’s low but not “nosebleed low”. Plus it lets our laundry air dry super fast!
8. Do you have any issues with bugs inside your cordwood home this winter?
No! No issues at all except for stinkbugs and the occasional ladybug. This has been a pretty interesting thing to see since I’ve been so accustomed to seeing spiders and house centipedes all winter long everywhere else I’ve lived.
I haven’t seen a single spider or centipede all winter long. During the summer I would watch carpenter bees fly up to our house and hover as if they’re checking it out. Every single time they’d just fly away without even making contact with our house.
I chalk this up to the large amount of cedar covering everything. The cordwood is cedar and all of the siding on our house is cedar, so it’s fairly pest resistant.
The only bugs that don’t seem to care are the stink bugs, which while harmless are completely annoying. We had a stink bug crawl into a smoke detector at 3:00 in the morning and give us all a scare. So hey, if anyone has any great stink bug solutions that actually work please share!!
So there you have it! Everything we’ve learned about our cordwood house over the last few winters.
I hope we hit the main questions that people ask, but I’m sure you might have more. If I missed something, feel free to leave your question in the comments below!
Also, this is the fifth winter the cordwood walls have existed, and the fourth winter living in it. I’m sure that as the years roll by things will change. We’ll do our best to keep you updated, especially all of you aspiring cordwood builders out there.
Want to know more about building with cordwood? Grab our free eBook showing exactly what went into building our home: