Overview and History of Log Construction
as written in the ILBA Land to Lock up Manual
Log ‘cabins’ have a strong association with rustic and rural North America, but historically log construction has its roots in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Over generations, European builders perfected skills and shared knowledge that culminated in remarkable edifices such as the stave churches of Norway.
The abundance of timber in the New World made log construction a logical choice for settlers. Some of the finest of these early buildings are located in the East and many show the skill and craftsmanship that found its way to this side of the Atlantic. As the building technique migrated westward with the restless pioneers, log construction became more rudimentary, and log structures were often viewed as temporary buildings that would provide shelter until the ‘real’ house could be built. By the early 1900’s, a great deal of knowledge and skill had been lost.
In the 1960’s, a resurgence of interest developed. Almost simultaneously, pockets of independent activity began throughout the continent, but the renaissance of log building was probably best expressed through the B. Allen Mackie School of Log Building in Prince George, BC. It quickly developed into an important place for learning and a mecca for people interested in alternate and eco-friendly building systems.
Log construction has come a long way since then. In 1974 the Canadian Log Builders’ Association held its first annual meeting. By working together to develop techniques and share knowledge, handcrafted log construction has evolved into a sophisticated, highly technical skill.
When thinking of building a log home, there are many considerations to look at, including the style or technique of log construction, design and plans, the character of the land and surrounding environment, contractors and work-flow, and, of course, budget.
Log Home Construction Styles
The type of log building that best illustrates the craft of the log builder is Scandinavian scribe-fit construction. Here, naturally, round horizontal logs are scribed along lateral joints so that the top log fits tightly to the log below. This type of log building commonly uses green wood about 12” to 14” in diameter.
Another option is the chinked building; round or squatted logs with open lateral joints, which are sealed with modern synthetic flexible chinking rather than the mortar of cement and/or straw of yesteryear. Recently, there has been a trend toward log post and beam construction. Many log builders offer this as an alternative to horizontal log work or will integrate post and beam components into a conventional log home. Log post and beam construction typically use large diameter wood for vertical posts, (round or squared) which support horizontal beams. Techniques can vary from simple to very complex timber frame joinery.
Designing and Planning a Log Home
There are several routes to producing working plans for you log home. Many people sketch or self-draft their ideas before taking them to a log building company, designer/drafter, or architect. Some prefer to choose from existing plans. Most people have a very strong idea of what they want.
When designing your log home, consider your lifestyle, the future you are planning and the site on which the home will be built. Too many houses are located on the most scenic spot, rather than enhancing a less attractive location. The land has as much to say about the house as you do; a home that works well on a flat meadow will not work well on a steep slope. Plans are best developed after land is acquired.
Very few handcrafted companies build directly from generic floor plans, and even plans prepared by an architect or designer may require input or changes by the log builder. Enjoy the design process; changes on paper are relatively inexpensive. Collecting a scrapbook of photos, clippings, and ideas can be very helpful to you and your designer. Make a list of rooms you require and their approximate sizes, and then enjoy the process.
Many log building companies offer in-house design services and they also work with qualified designers or architects. If you work with an architect or designer before selecting a log builder, ensure you are selecting a professional who has experience in designing log homes, this will save a great deal of time and money.
Preparation for and Finishing a Log Home
Typically, a log shell is crafted at the log builders’ work site, and then taken apart and trucked to the customer’s land. Usually, a log shell includes all log work, as well as all connectors and materials pertaining to log work. It includes the roof support system, it is drilled for electrical work and has door and window openings cut out. Price may include reassembly on the building site and supervisors/workers as agreed between customer and builder at the time of contract signing. Most log builders can also provide log stairs and railings.
During the construction process, the log builder will communicate as necessary with the customer’s general contractor regarding foundation work and preparation for the log shell. It is important to find a contractor who understands or is willing to learn about the unique issues of finishing a log home. Many owners act as their own general contractor and/or contribute their own skills and ‘sweat equity’ in finishing a home. There can be cost savings and considerable satisfaction in being a part of the building process, but it is critical that one have both the time and experience to organize the sub-trades and keep the work flowing. (Consider where you time and earning power will be most effective).
There are three elements that govern a project: budget, the level of quality, and the size of the building. Choosing any two of the above will determine the third. Finished log homes cost from 25% to 100% more per square foot than conventionally framed homes with the same design. This is partially because the nature of a log home dictates a higher calibre of finish material, and partly because of log and labour costs. Complexity of the design and roof system factor into the overall cost. If maximum costs are an issue, consider building a smaller, more carefully designed and crafted structure. To establish a working budget, itemize all the materials and services required to determine the cost of your dream, then make sure to add in a 5-10% contingency. Be realistic when considering finances. Broken dreams are often the result of poor planning and wishful thinking. Remember that constraints sometimes open the door to creative solutions.
Different types of log work can affect the cost or cost distribution of a project. Fully scribed log work is more expensive than chinked system log work, but the cost of chinking the building will make costs comparable. Simple log post and beam costs substantially less for the log work, but infill materials bring the price back up. Sometimes only decorative log elements are in the budget. Another option is machine profile or milled log packages, they are sometimes less expensive and there are some very good products available.
Interested in Building a Log Home?
What is the difference between a handcrafted and a machined log home?
In a handcrafted building, the log is still a natural log, the only alteration being that it has undergone removal of the outer bark and part or all the “cambium” or inner bark layer. The uniqueness and character that nature intended, is still visible in the finished home. Logs that have been altered from their natural profile, either by hand, machine, or a combination of both, but still “joined” in a process that involves the custom hand-fitting of these components is also still considered to be handcrafted. A good example of this would be a “hewn” log wall profile, where the logs have been flattened on their sides, and then either scribed or chinked together involving the use of scribed interlocking notches, or perhaps incorporated into a piece en piece system of log work. The machined or milled log home is a mechanically profiled log and is designed to be identical in dimension to every other piece in the building. It is no longer a “log”, but a factory run piece of lumber that ‘used to be’ a log. The aesthetic advantage of a handcrafted log building is that it is unique and distinctly different from every other – creating a unique building every time. Prices will vary depending on design, however, the handcrafted log home is much more labour intensive and this is reflected in the price. In the case of machined logs, the costs are amortized into the capital cost of milling and profiling equipment, whose cost recovery factor is based on volume of production, and not so much on labour and skill equity.
Typically, you will find larger diameter and length of log in handcrafted homes versus the machined log home. This larger diameter is beneficial in thermal performance as well as fire resistance values and studies have proven that provided the home is well built, the insulation values are high. There are studies available on the fire resistance of log homes, as well as lateral load testing of log walls.
Are log homes energy efficient?
Yes, if they are built properly log homes are very efficient because of the thermal mass of the logs. A well-built log home is typically cool in the summer and warm in the winter. There are Log Building Standards to use as guidelines for log home construction and each home owner and professionals associated with the building process should be aware of these. (The standards are also included with the Land to Lock up manual mentioned above.)
How much does a log home cost?
There are many variables to the price of a log home, the design, species, style, size, roof structure and finish materials are just a few of the many factors. There is no average price for log homes. A quick rule of thumb is the simpler the design, the lower the cost. Determining your budget and working with an experienced designer or architect and builder will be helpful to future home owners. The ILBA also retails a Land to Lock up manual ($24CDN), which is a great starting place for those considering a log home, and choosing a log building contractor. To purchase, follow the link
Do I buy my land or design my house first?
It is recommended that your land is purchased first, before you spend money designing a home that may not take advantage of the special features your property provides. Keeping copies of plans that interest you is good and provides a starting point when you enter the design phase. Some design experts also recommend a scrap book, where you post clips and photos of features, you’d like to incorporate into the design of your dream home. By looking for design ideas ahead of time, the process should be quicker once you locate that perfect property.
Where is the best place to get ideas for my log home?
There are some great magazines in our Member Directory specific to this industry. Many of the log home builders also offer great brochures and information packages, you will also find a complete list of company members on the ILBA Membership Directory.
What do I look for in a log home builder?
Take the time to find someone you are comfortable with, check current and past references and visit his or her building site and finished homes. You can also use the ILBA ‘Log Builder Interview form.
How do I protect my log home from nature’s elements?
Adequate roof overhangs and eaves troughs will help, as insects and fungi prefer damp wood. Log finishes should be a high-quality product and allow the wood to breath while serving as a water repellent. There are a variety of products on the market. For a list of stain and sealant companies who are members of the ILBA go to the Stains, Sealants & Finishes section of our Member Directory.
How often will I have to reapply finishes?
To preserve the natural beauty of a log home, routine maintenance is essential. The natural elements (rain, wind, sun) where your home is located will determine how often you will need to refinish or reseal, as well as the quality of product used. Regular exterior maintenance, inspecting logs for large cracks that catch water, etc. will assist in avoiding costly repairs.
Are agreements necessary?
We highly recommend a signed contract, with specific details on every aspect of your log construction project. The ILBA has a Log Shell Contract. A contract is essential as it defines the expectations of all parties and provides security to both the homeowner and builder. To purchase the Log Shell Contract, follow link.