It’s the bark, not the bite

Living in a bark house never seemed so cutting edge. As green building surges in popularity throughout Western North Carolina, a new book titled Bark House Style: Sustainable Designs From Nature (Gibbs Smith, 2008) highlights the rustic aesthetic of bark shingles, a traditional building material that’s making a comeback as an element of green design.

“Breath-giving”: The entrance to the 0clubhouse at Diamond Creek, near Banner Elk. Photo From Bark House Style

The trend may be due in part to the conversation generated anytime a new bark installation is completed.

“People stop their cars and just stare,” says Nan Chase, one of the book’s coauthors. “It’s like living in a tree.”

The hefty hardcover book, which details historic chestnut bark structures as well as modern applications of poplar bark siding, was written by locals Chase and Chris McCurry.

McCurry and her husband, Marty, co-founded Highland Craftsmen, Inc., a Spruce Pine-based manufacturer of bark shingles. The photography, which showcases the rich texture of this unique material in a host of settings, was done by Todd Bush.

Homes made with bark siding haven’t been common in the Blue Ridge Mountains since the early 1900s, when the forest canopy was still thick with towering chestnut trees. (Bark House Style features some fascinating historic photos of giant chestnuts that seem to loom as tall as the redwoods of the Pacific Northwest.)

Long before the European settlers arrived, bark was utilized by Native Americans as exterior material for wigwams and longhouses. The early architectural style that inspired today’s bark structures originated in Linville, according to the book, where an old country church still sports 2-inch thick chestnut bark shingles that have lasted more than a century.

Today’s version of bark shingles are crafted from poplar, as chestnut trees have long since disappeared from the American landscape, killed by a devastating blight. In its modern incarnation, the poplar bark siding has won the favor of builders and architects constructing everything from resort lodges to mountain homes, shopping centers and country clubs. Bark House Style credits Marty McCurry, a native of Morganton who studied chemical engineering and architecture before launching the bark-shingle business, with reintroducing the forgotten art to Western North Carolina’s craftsman builder community.

A home that’s sheathed in the same stuff that protects trees certainly looks earthy, but what makes it any more environmentally friendly than regular wood siding? Bark shingles are considered to be a reclaimed material, because it’s a part of the tree that often goes to waste after the tree has been felled for lumber.

To harvest the bark, the shingle craftsmen tag along with logging crews harvesting poplar for furniture or other uses. They strip the bark from the tree just after it’s been felled, using antique, handheld tools that are designed to remove it intact. From there, the cylinders of bark are flattened and cut—by hand—into standard shingle pieces. Then they’re kiln-dried for moisture resistance. It’s a back-to-the-land material that actually seems to be processed in a sustainable fashion.

The other green aspect of bark siding is its durability: With the ability to last 75 years or more, it requires no replacement and very little maintenance, and it can be installed without any binding agents.

“The big surprise to me,” Chase says, “is that both the heat insulation and sound insulation are superior with bark houses.”

who:  Bark House Style co-authors Chris McCurry and Nan Chase
what: Meet the authors at the launch party and watch a demonstration of bark shingle installation
where:  Accent on Books, 854 Merrimon Ave.
when:  Sunday, Sept. 7, 3 p.m.

 

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