Green Building

This chapter describes the building materials we are using in the Florida Solar Cracker House.


The single most important building material in our house is wood. Although not a large house, with less than 1400 square feet of heated living space, when the porches and raised deck are considered, a large volume of wood (24,000 board feet) is required. Itemized lists of the lumber required were sent to several sawmills, and to our considerable surprise, the total cost averaged almost $20,000. Anyone who has priced wood in the last few years knows that wood prices have been rising rapidly. The idea of using wood harvested by clearcutting was also very unappealing, so we started looking for alternatives.

Numerous magazines on the subject of back-to-the-country living carry advertisements for portable sawmills, and we found several with recent feature articles on adventurous individuals with no prior woodcutting experience who bought a sawmill and cut the wood for their homes. We collected information on all of the portable sawmills we could find, and started investigating sources of pine logs. After several days of getting nowhere talking to loggers on the phone, we decided to try calling tree surgeons. What a difference! Suddenly we were talking to people who were interested in what we were doing, and able to help. One big advantage of getting trees through tree surgeons is that they cut the logs to your requirements, and have the equipment to deliver and stack the logs where you want them. The other big advantage in our eyes, is that they fell trees from yards at the owner's request, so that all of the trees that would go into our house were going to be cut anyway. When we don't buy the logs, they are typically taken to a local logging company and sold for plywood. We pay about 20% more than the logging company and get excellent service and the finest logs. This picture shows a log that we got that had been struck by lightning. Ring counting dated it at 105 years old. This log yielded the highest quality #1 grade lumber that we could not afford at the lumber yard. Normally, lumber purchased for home construction is #2 grade and substantially cheaper, with knots and numerous defects.

Confident that we had a steady source of logs, and well informed on the portable sawmills on the market, we made the decision to buy a new Silvacraft bandsaw mill for $6,700. The economics were that all the logs would cost approximately $6,000, and with an estimated $1,000 in blades and other expenses, and $1,000 for having the lumber professionally graded (this is required by code), we would end up spending roughly $5,300 less than the lumber would have cost from a commercial sawmill, and we would have a sawmill after the house was finished. The downside, of course, is the tremendous labor involved in sawing, cleaning, spraying, stacking, and drying the lumber. This photo is a view looking toward the mill. On the bed is the log pictured above that we are cutting into a cant (a squared off log).

The advertisements talk about cutting over 1,000 board feet of lumber a day. We have not been able to come near this rate, and typically cut a maximum of about 300 board feet in a day. We bought the sawmill in June of 1995, and as of this writing, August 1996, we have cut 17,000 board feet of lumber. Of course, we are working on many projects and do not devote full time to cutting. The mill is a very simple machine. The bed is low to the ground (about 6" to a foot up). The logs are stored in a neat stack to the left in the picture of the mill. They are rolled up on ramps that are about 6 feet long onto the bed. For smaller logs, say below 14" in diameter and 20 feet long, two (small, wimpy) people can roll them up using cant hooks. A cant hook is shown in the picture, leaning against the log. For larger logs, we wrap a rope around the log and roll the log up using a come-along. Once the log is on the bed, it is leveled to correct for taper. This is done using a 6 ton jack to lift one end, then putting pieces of lumber between the bed and the log. Finally, the log is secured to the bed with a large screw-type clamp.

The mill is, basically, a large, horizontal bandsaw on wheels. You push the bandsaw blade through the log manually. This picture shows Randy in the process of making a cut. It takes about 5 minutes to make a cut through a large, 20 foot log, and the result is a cut so smooth that you hardly need to do more than sanding for the finished product. You can cut faster, but the result is a much rougher cut. It is essential to keep the blades razor sharp and the teeth at the correct pitch. We have our own blade sharpening and tooth setting equipment and Randy has become an expert at blade maintenance.

The next photo shows one of our stacks of timbers. Each piece has been cleaned, sprayed with Timbor, and neatly stacked with stickers for drying. The stack is weighted down with concrete blocks and stored in the yard with a tarp over it.

To be continued . . .