Locavores Should Be All Aboard This Home-Grown House

The Recorder, December 2, 2016, by Richie Davis

Brian Donahue’s “New England Good Food Vision 2060,” showed how the region could produce most of its own vegetables, dairy products, and much of its own meat — and still leave plenty of room for a sustainably harvested forest in southern New England.

And to demonstrate how to make better use of the region’s woodlands, the Brandeis environmental studies professor and part-time Gill resident has used the 100 wooded acres on his Bascom Road farm to build a home that showcases locally harvested, mostly “low-grade” timber. He built a home that not only supports the local economy, but also “makes a connection” with the surrounding landscape.

The two-story, post-and-beam house that Donahue and his wife built appears modest on the outside, but the 2,500-square-foot structure makes use of hemlock, black cherry and other classic New England woods, and at a cost that he says isn’t much more than a similarly sized, custom-built house.

Some of the most arresting features are the simplest, like stone for the hearth and entranceway, pulled right from the nearby Falls River, and balusters that are simply young sugar maple, beech, hornbeam, hickory and elm poles with their bark removed.

“This is about making use of local woods in ways that make some kind of silvicultural sense,” said Donahue. “Most New England farms are more than half woodland, and we use shockingly little of the wood that we could, because some people are reluctant to cut it and because the economics are not great at the moment, and it’s so laborious to harvest it on a small scale, compared to the price of wood on the global market. If you drive down on 91, you see all these trucks headed north and they’ve got high-quality sawlogs on them. … So this is not like we’re going to build all the buildings in New England in this style, though we think we could build six, eight, 10 or 12 a year in each of these little hilltowns.”

When he says “we,” Donahue — who made use of his sabbatical year from teaching to work on the project by hauling a lot of the material, making doors and adding his own labor — is pointing to a team of area loggers, mill workers and carpenters. They worked on the house, designed by architect Tom Chalmers.

“It was just a personal way for us to build a house that expressed the woods on the property,” says Donahue, although it turned out to be an odd expression. After all, he had expected to be using mostly the oak and pine, “the default stuff” that tends to get used primarily.

But back in 2010, when Donahue was looking ahead to a project, the market for wood was down, and forester Lincoln Fish pointed to going against conventional wisdom: cut the low-value timber, instead of “high-grading” the woodlot. Or, as Donahue tells it, “Leave the best, cut the rest.”

So while they left in place high-quality pine and “beautiful, two-foot (diameter) oak,” Donahue said, logger Ed Klaus used low-impact techniques to remove birch, hemlock and other trees that could be fairly easily removed for 200 to 300 cords of firewood and 100 to 200 board-feet of pine and oak lumber or logs to sell. The hemlock needed thinning because of the pest wooly adelgid.

“The least valuable thing up there is hemlock,” because it tends to have plenty of knots and is prone to ringshake, or separation of fibers along its annual rings,” he said, “so a sawmill’s not going to get a lot of high-value clear boards from the outside of the logs.”

But the hemlock is fine for timber framing, so with their tops cut off and the center cut provided 8-by-8 exposed beams that Donahue says are not only strong but beautiful as well. The wood was milled by Michael Idoine of Wendell on his portable bandsaw and David Bowman in Cummington, whose mill has an extension that allowed for sawing the longer logs.

That generated plenty of hemlock 2-by-4s, which came in handy for sub-flooring, covered by black birch.

“Black birch ends up playing a really big role,” Donahue says, pointing out how he also used it for trim and for cabinets, partially because of how well it looks with hemlock.

“We had some nice black birch up there that’s not growing anymore, so we cut a bunch,” he said. “Black birch is a coming wood, because the deer don’t eat it. We have a hard time re-generating oak for our floors in Massachusetts, but black birch is growing great guns, so you’re going to see a lot of black birch in the next century.”

Bowman suggested to Donahue using black cherry they found by taking a walk around a back lot mixed in with sugar maple and white pine for curve braces to the hemlock frame, for contrast.

“We cut out some really curvy ones, ones that have very little value, but we wanted the curves,” Donahue says. That left the rest of the cut-up cherry logs to be used for window sills, posts and risers on the stairs, all from “the least valuable cherry on the property.”

The white pine used for siding the new house, ironically, is not sourced locally, but is from Vermont, because Ward Clapboard Mill there can cut quartersawn, or vertical grain, clapboards which are believed to be long-lasting for siding.

The only oak used in the house was for the porches, Donahue said.

Forester Fish said, “Most lumber is mass-produced, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper and more efficient to do it on a large scale than it is piece by piece. But there are other options that can sometimes actually be a whole lot better and more interesting — like their black-birch cabinets.

“What’s so terrific about their job,” Fish says, “is they showed successfully that you can use local people who know what they’re doing and get a superior product from stuff that does not get valued very highly by our present market system. There are a lot of things you can’t do with crooked lumber, but (the cherry curve braces) are a beautiful example of where crooked lumber is actually an advantage. If somebody understands, they get the perfect product for next to nothing.

Donahue, who spent about $500,000 on the project, explains, “If someone’s custom building a house anyway, it’s going to cost about the same. But they’ll be buying local stuff, so it will be employing more than the carpenters and contractors; it will be creating work for a whole new set of foresters, loggers, and mill workers.”

Part of the price is reflected in features like a masonry stove made from Ashfield mica schist and Connecticut granite, but Donahue says, “It’s not a big house; it’s not that fancy. If someone wanted, you could do versions of this that would be pretty reasonable in price, especially for somebody who could put a little sweat equity into that. People who can stretch to do this can give a strong boost to the local woods economy, and get these artisans employed.”

Donahue — his specialty is studying, and applying, ways to maintain a sustainable agricultural economy based deeply in New England’s agricultural history — sees reviving the woodlands economy as similar to “the local-food, slow-food approach,” with many of the same affordability dilemmas that challenge the local agriculture movement.

“The overall economic conditions are the same facing the wood industry, because you’re up against the large-scale, global production system that many of us believe is cutting a lot of corners to make the production so cheap, in its environmental impact, its use of labor and all the rest.”

Donahue, who is president of the Massachusetts Woodlands Institute, said, “We could use our woodlands to provide steady work for our craftsmen, not just at the level of building the house but by utilizing the timber,” said Donahue, although he admits that the lack of sawmills that once buzzed with activity is an important missing element.

The big picture, he said, also involves “a combination of ways that we as a society decide that, on a whole variety of levels, that we want this stuff and are willing to pay for it … (along with) a change in the global market, so competing sources actually become more expensive, and a decent income for people doing the production. It’s a much larger puzzle than just getting more clever somehow in the way we use our local woods on our own.”

But there are hopeful advances, like “game-changer” wood technologies like the kinds of cross-laminated cross-timbers made from low-grade lumber, like the Department of Natural Resources’ multi-story Design Building being constructed on University of Massachusetts’ Amherst campus.

In an article about his home that he wrote last year for Brandeis Magazine, Donahue — who plans to eventually move here full-time — says, “We need to take the time to reconnect the sources of our lives to the landscape we inhabit, and to involve our children not only in growing food, but in harvesting trees and building houses.” By creating wildlife habitat, improving forest health and helping the local economy, “The benefits of local wood ripple outward,” he said.