Building This Cordwood Home was a Labor of Love
Nestled in South Paris, it’s artful, efficient, and rock solid.
TEXT BY SARA ANNE DONNELLY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MYRIAM BABIN
Standing in the airy, pine-ceilinged main room in her dodecahedral cordwood house in South Paris, surrounded by mortared walls dotted with the cut ends of logs, Sophia Maamouri says she wanted her home “to be like music. I wanted it to sing.”
Roughed out by Maamouri, an artist and Ayurvedic healer, and her ex-husband in the mid-1990s, and finished and expanded in 2001 when she partnered with musician Jim Kennedy, the house is built of short, peeled-cedar logs stacked crosswise and secured with a mortar of sand, sawdust, lime, and Portland cement. The log ends are left “proud” — cordwood-speak for allowing the wood to peek through the mortar, creating the genre’s characteristic polka-dot look and an uneven finish that reminds Maamouri of her stone-and-mortar childhood home in Tunisia. There is a small studio and a bedroom on the second floor and a wide-open first floor with a central, highly efficient masonry fireplace — the house’s soul heat source — and picture windows that track the sun.
Dating back at least 1,000 years, cordwood buildings make use of inexpensive, mostly natural materials, are hyper-efficient, thanks to the insulating properties of mortar and wood, and, if constructed properly, are as sturdy as stone. Following Rob Roy’s seminal Cordwood Building, Maamouri and her ex bought a plot with the hardpan needed to support load-bearing cordwood walls and dug a wide rubble trench foundation to support them and prevent cracking. The walls went up in sections, with the couple stacking wood, mortar, and an insulating mix of sawdust and pest-resistant lime no higher than four feet per day, then allowing the mortar to set. “The laying of the logs was something I was very particular about,” Maamouri says. “They had to be flowing.” Inside, the couple assembled the brick fireplace and hauled slabs of fieldstone on a sled through deep snow for the hearth and sunroom floor. It took them two years to complete the building shell. Then they broke up. The cordwood house, Maamouri admits, “contributed.”
ABOVE 1) With its cedar-log walls, hemlock framing, pine trim and ceilings, and birch flooring, the interior reads like a field guide to local woods. 2) In the depressed center of the living/dining/kitchen area, a granite-topped brick fireplace, built in consultation with Skowhegan’s Maine Wood Heat Co., is the home’s only heat source.
For a while, Maamouri and her two kids lived in the house without electricity or a bath. After she met Kennedy, a cellist in the Portland Symphony Orchestra, they added one, along with wiring, a modern kitchen, and a stick-built cedar-shingled extension with a basement, music practice room, and primary bedroom suite. (Cordwood doesn’t work well as an add-on and would have vastly delayed completion.)
On a recent summer morning, Maamouri and Kennedy linger in the doorway to their modern, yellow-painted practice room. By contrast, the cordwood main room feels ancient, cool, and monastic. Connecting the two dimensions meant removing a mortared wall, Maamouri explains, which was harrowing because the foundation could have been damaged. So how does one handle repairs in a wood-and-masonry house? Maamouri looks confused. “Repairs would be very unlikely,” she says. “I mean, the house would have to be bombed.” “Or if you had an earthquake?” Kennedy offers. “Yeah,” Maamouri allows, running a palm over a bumpy cordwood wall. “But it would have to be a big earthquake.”