Whether it’s a new structure or a renovation, rehabbed materials might fit the bill

Summer is finally well on its way. The robins are singing, the mosquitoes are out. And a young man’s thoughts turn to building things. When I was a little guy, I built birdhouses. A few years later, I graduated to tree houses or just platforms in trees. I learned how to pull nails, straighten nails and even how to pound in crooked nails with a fair amount of success. Even today, when I can afford nails, I hate to throw away old bent nails.

A few years back we had a gal working at the dog kennel who was from Poland. I was salvaging nails from a pile of old boards and filling a coffee can. I asked the Polish girl if they ever threw away old, rusty, bent nails where she was from. “Heck no,” she answered, “you can buy cans of old nails at the hardware store!”

Americans toss lots of good stuff. Funny. We throw away building materials that are worth hundreds of dollars yet will drive five miles to save a nickel on a gallon of gas. Go figure. However, some of us are building material scrounges. When commercial electrical power came to our place a couple of years ago, I built a 12-by-12 power shed just to hold up our service connection and electric meter. That shed was built entirely of scrounged building materials.

The service mast was the only spent money in building the entire shed. The thing was held together with salvaged nails.

I learned to straighten nails from my Dad. The hard way. “Johnny; pull those nails out of that pile of lumber. Keep the nails and make sure they are straight. Got it?”

“Yes sir,” was the only response allowed. I did what I could but the darn goats tumbled that lumber pile into the creek. I got blamed and received a licking. I still don’t like goats. But — I can straighten a can of nails faster than the girl next door can bake a cherry pie.

There are quite a few methods of building that can save the builder money. Alaska doesn’t have all of the options that might be available stateside. Cob houses are mostly out of the question. My dad was from Arizona, thus it is no surprise that he chose stucco on the homestead. My opinion is that neither of these two choices are optimum.


Straw bale houses and cordwood houses seem like reasonable alternatives in the 49th state. I presently live in a cordwood house during 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 good, except for one minor problem ... the guy used spruce for his cordwood. Cedar is the preferred wood. Spruce has a tendency to split badly when it dries. That is a great trait in firewood, but not for the walls of a home. We moved into the house in early November. The winter was a cold one. We had solar power and a very good wood stove. The walls leaked air through the cracks in the spruce logs: the logs are stacked end-way, like — cordwood. One could not keep a candle lit inside the house when the wind blew.

Cordwood building is not necessarily cheaper than standard construction since the framework required is fairly substantial. The time required to gather materials is considerable. The time required to build is substantially longer than other types of construction. Add-ons or modifications are very difficult later down the road. The walls on our place are more than 30 inches thick; you can’t 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 houses fall into the same category as cordwood. They require an elaborate superstructure. Remember one very important thing: the floor and the roof of any structure one might build are likely the most expensive parts of the building. If one considers the saying “time is money,” then straw, like cordwood, is not a decent option.

Pole buildings or timber construction are the easiest and least expensive way to put something over your head that can keep you warm and shed water. Should you desire to build your own place this spring, even if it is to be a little place, look into these two options. Pay special attention to the foundation requirements for each of these “easy” buildings. Nothing with any semblance of permanence is going to come cheap or easy. Then again, I met a guy in Minnesota who built a shed from hay bales for a couple of dwarf goats. By the time they ate their way out, it was spring. Hooray for the darn goats.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.