Plywood Homes Were Lighter and Cheaper, and You Could Build Them Yourself

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Promo image. Douglas Fir Plywood Association

Another look back at some great designs for inexpensive homes.

After speaking at the New York Passive House conference last Friday, architect Susan Jones, designer and owner of a lovely house built out of Cross-Laminated Timber, was asked if she thought that it was the right material to build a house out of. She answered by noting that it isn't the most efficient use of wood, something that I have wondered about as well, in posts like What's the best way to build in wood? You don't need four inch thick solid wood walls to hold up a one or two storey house.

second homes

Douglas fir Association/CC BY 2.0It is an issue because it seems these days that everybody is gaga over Cross-Laminated Timber, sometimes described as "plywood on steroids". However a recent tweet by Cory Doctorow reminded me that designers used to build with just plain old plywood few years ago. On TreeHugger, back when the pictures were small, I wrote that Plywood Designs from '60s Have Lessons For Today, looking at the Douglas fir Plywood Association's wonderful Second Homes for Leisure Living. At the time, I admired "the modesty of the plans, the small, multiple use spaces."

Up-in-a-Jiffy Vacation

Jiffy House

Douglas Fir Plywood Association/CC BY 2.0

But perhaps it is time to have another look at these home designs, because they were incredibly modest in their use of materials; these houses were incredibly light. They are not exactly built Passive House standards; most have no insulation at all, being second homes often built for under a thousand dollars at the time.

Jiffy Interior

Douglas Fir Plywood Association/CC BY 2.0

This up-in-a-jiffy vacation home might not be insulated but might pass the blower test; the walls are a single layer of plywood "nailed directly to studs with battens over the joints, sealed with non-hardening mastic for weather tightness. And just like $800 million startup Katerra, you can prefab panels: "This is another cabin that can be pre-built at home in sections and assembled quickly on-site."

Two-Stage Expandable

Expandable House

Douglas Fir Plywood Association/CC BY 2.0 They also got the idea of the Grow home, that expanded as your needs and budgets allow. It is all so simple.

Expandable house interior

Douglas Fir Plywood Association/CC BY 2.0

It has a 16 x 20 foot sleeping-living area complete with kitchenette, toilet and shower, dressing space, fireplace and spacious sun deck.

"Convertible" Second

Convertible House

Douglas Fir Plywood Association/CC BY 2.0
Another phased design, "Architect Henrik Bull achieves the construction economies and livability of conventional box-like structures but eliminates the boxy appearance with two rectangular units- one for living and one for sleeping, connected by a 16 x 20 "convertible" canvas covered gable."

Convertible Interior

Douglas Fir Plywood Association/CC BY 2.0

It is actually a rather neat design with the shared bathroom between the bedrooms, the least cottage-like design in the book.

Ranger A-Frame

Ranger A-Frame

Douglas Fir Plywood Association/CC BY 2.0

A-frames are wonderfully efficient in their use of materials, and are very easy to build. They are great in snow country because they "shed snow readily and still resist mountain blizzards."

Ranger Interior

Douglas Fir Plywood Association/CC BY 2.0

They are not terrific for space efficiency, with those sloping walls and small second floor, but this one is big enough in plan to get a substantial ground floor and sleeping balcony above.

Versatile Shorehill


Douglas Fir Plywood Association/CC BY 2.0

I just like the simplicity of this one. A big open room, sofa beds instead of separate sleeping rooms, great colours and comfy furniture. "Exterior fir plywood serves as both inner and outer wall- presenting a durable paintable surface to the elements on one side; a warm friendly atmosphere inside.

Shorehill Interior

Douglas Fir Plywood Association/CC BY 2.0

And they note that modular construction isn't limited to factory production:

Plywood's large consistent panel size makes it possible to take full advantage of the economies of modular construction... also presents possibilities for expansion into a full-time home later.

It also uses very little material; you could probably build every one of these houses with a pile of wood that would fit in a pickup truck; because these homes are so small and minimal there isn't much in them. It just uses less of everything.

But good old plywood doesn't get the love that CLT or LVL (laminated veneer lumber) get. Perhaps it should be renamed with a cute anagram, say CLV for Cross-Laminated Veneer. Then we could build all these cool little buildings again.