How an Industry Leader in Sustainable Building Got His Start

Updated: Jul. 22, 2024

Richard Flatau is one of the country's foremost experts on cordwood homes and a leader in sustainable building techniques.

Cordwood houses smell like ferns and earth and moss, like the woods on a warm day. That makes sense, since they’re made from short logs. The round ends of the logs reveal themselves from a bed of mortar and a natural insulation of sawdust and lime, all sustainable materials. There’s a warmth to the place you can feel.

These homes display sustainable architecture and come in all shapes and sizes. For the last twenty years, the home of my husband’s Uncle Ed sparked my love for these strong, beautiful structures.

What Is a Cordwood House?

Circular and two stories, it’s made from locally sourced wood, mostly trees Uncle Ed cut down on his own land, then debarked and dried. The little details stand out, like the recycled glass bottles intricately placed inside the walls. When sunlight hits them, they shine blue and yellow, and red and green across the wood floor.

Cordwood houses can be one of the purest forms of sustainable building if the materials are locally sourced. Being a man of nature and not of waste, Uncle Ed took this idea to heart, fashioning bones from deer he hunted into door handles and hooks. The wood stove heats the home all winter long. It’s magical.

Some women dream of diamond rings; I dream of cordwood structures. When I had a chance to speak with Richard Flatau of Cordwood Construction, I couldn’t believe it. For years, Uncle Ed talked about Flatau, who helped bring cordwood houses to the Midwest in the 1980s, becoming a leader in the field of sustainable building.

Peace Sign Cordwood With Logo courtesy Richard Flatau

How It All Began

Richard Flatau grew up in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, when people were “questioning just about everything in society,” he says. There was a strong movement to go back to the land, something Flatau says “happens periodically throughout the world and throughout the eras and ages and eons.”

Though he grew up in Detroit, he loved nature. His family occasionally went camping, but it wasn’t until after high school that Flatau truly started exploring. “It was just the right thing to be out in nature, to be walking in the woods,” he says.

Richard At Cec holding a logCOURTESY RICHARD FLATAU

This feeling guided his life as he traveled, earned a college degree and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. He want to learn about the greatness of the universe.

Flatau returned to Wisconsin from a sojourn down the West Coast, visiting communes and working as a carpenter, when he met his wife Becky. He was heading out to pick apples for $1.50 an hour and asked if anyone wanted to come along.

“So this one gal said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to come,’ ” Flatau says, smiling.

After that, they started dating. But in lieu of more traditional dates, they instead painted houses, helped people with remodels and worked in a garden. They acquired skills together while learning how to make decisions without fighting.

Determined to test their relationship in a new environment. He took a job teaching English in Europe. “We went over there and lived for a year and a half,” Flatau says. “Went to Russia, went to Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark — all over the place.”

They got married overseas and returned home, ready for their next chapter.

The Cordwood House

Preferring to build their own home and live mortgage-free, the Flataus dreamed of farmland and gardens. So they looked at all different kinds of building styles, including log cabins, straw bales and cob from England.

Two main problems confronted them. There wasn’t much information on how to build a sustainable home, and you couldn’t do it easily in Wisconsin because of the harsh winters.

Then they read an article in Mother Earth’s News about Jack Henstridge, who rediscovered a method for building cordwood homes in New Brunswick, Canada. Henstridge’s story inspired them.

They bought 40 acres in rural northern Wisconsin and mapped out their plan. They read everything they could get their hands on: Henstridge’s book, Building the Cordwood Home; Cordwood Masonry Houses: A Practical Guide for the Owner-Builder by Robert L. Roy; and Stackwall: How to Build It by the Northern Housing Committee of The University of Manitoba.

Rich, Becky and their dog at the Cordwood Classroom courtesy Richard Flatau

It’s hard to believe anyone could plan and build a home based on a couple of books, but they did. They still hired plumbers and electricians, but did as much as they could on their own to save money. It would have gone much faster if they had more help, but they were far from family and friends.

Richard spent a great deal of time sourcing local wood. He put an ad in the local newspaper and spoke with a forestry agent to see if anyone was cutting cedar. If he saw cedar logs in someone’s yard, he knocked on their door to ask if he could take it.

Once he had what he needed, they started building. Soon they were ready to sell their house in town and use the money to finish their new cordwood home.

Forty-five Years of Sustainable Building

Where others gave up on their dreams of self-sufficiency, the Flataus made it happen.

For the past 45 years, they’ve lived mortgage free in their beautiful home. Flatau wrote an article about it for Mother Earth News in 1984, spawning interest. Visitors from as far away as Europe and South America wanted to see their home, which wasn’t easy since they only had a rural route number. Many stopped at the local fire station to ask for directions.

There was so much interest Richard decided to write a booklet for people who wanted to learn more. They sold about 50,000 copies “right out the gate” worldwide, he says. That led to a full-sized book, then a video.

All of this knowledge and experience went into teaching others. The Flataus led workshops and built cordwood structures all over the U.S. and Canada, collaborating with other cordwood builders. They’ve examined what failed in other attempts and learned better sustainability techniques.

How to Get Into Sustainable Building

If this story inspires you but you feel intimidated, Flatau recommends starting small and pursue sustainability bit by bit. Add a living roof to a shed, or make one wall of that chicken coop cordwood from locally sourced materials.

You could also find and use secondhand materials. Flatau’s wood stove is from 1929, and part of his flooring came from an old railroad depot. And learn how to use basic hand tools like a miter saw or a nail gun.

“Working for Habitat for Humanity is another way to improve your building skills, or get building skills if you don’t have [them],” says Flatau.

Whether you’re handy already or just starting out in DIY, you can certainly take on sustainability.