Freshman Builds Her Own Dorm Room

As a freshman living in the halls, Nickie Barna wanted to be closer to home, but not necessarily under her parents’ roof. Her dad, Professor Bruce Barna (Chemical Engineering), had a huge pile of cedar logs and a plan to build a camp.

Thus was the genesis of what Nickie calls her cordwood dorm room. Started last summer, it is now nearly done and a darn site nicer than any student housing you are ever likely to see.

The two-bedroom cabin is just a short walk from her parents’ home on the Portage. It was built largely by Nickie, a mechanical engineering major, and Bruce, with lots of help from friends and relatives. Constructed in the cordwood style—17-inch logs mortared together side by side—each wall looks like an extremely tidy rick of firewood.

“I’d always been interested in log cabins, and many years ago I ran into some articles on cordwood,” said Bruce, explaining why they adopted the unusual construction method. Cordwood has a couple of big advantages over traditional log construction. “You don’t have to manhandle big logs,” he notes. “And the exterior maintenance is less, especially if you use cedar.”

Plus, he adds, “it was a chance to do something with my daughter.”

“My dad did the corners and windows, and I did the logs,” Nickie says. “Kids can do it. . . . You lay mortar on each side of the wall and plop a log on.” In the space in between, they poured vermiculite for insulation. The R-value is about the same as a well-insulated stick home, she said.

“It was something we could do together, it looks really nice, and it will last forever,” Nickie says. “And it’s kind of addictive. I’ve asked my dad if next we can build a sauna.”

Bruce got in shape mixing mortar and cutting logs. In addition to spearheading the log-laying effort, Nickie also did lots of the plumbing. “She’s gotten right into this construction stuff, which is a good experience for an engineer,” Bruce said. “The plumbing passed inspection. She learned how to solder copper pipe and put together a drain system.”

Cordwood construction is gaining a foothold in the Keweenaw. The preferred cedar logs are relatively inexpensive, and they fit in with the area’s rustic lifestyle. The Barna’s cabin used about eight cords, some of it logged on their own property.

Richard Flatau, a leading advocate of cordwood construction, visited the Copper Country recently and met the Barnas. He was impressed enough by their experience to ask Nickie to present at the Third Continental Cordwood Conference, to be held July 30-31 in Merrill, Wis.

So what’s it like to have your freshman daughter present a paper at a national conference?

“It’s exciting,” Bruce says. “They only hold this conference once every several years.”

As for having his daughter move back home but not under the same roof, “That seems OK to us,” he says. “Sometimes our hours don’t exactly coincide with those of the kids.”