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Mention of a log cabin immediately brings to mine a rustic structure, sometimes painstakingly constructed of hand-hewn and fitted logs capped with a roof of riven shingles—a dwelling nestled comfortably in splendid isolation among great whispering pines. The simple but stout plank door and single window with the firelight flickering behind face forward into a small clearing, the fruits of months of hard la bor. This is Home, a bulwark against the cold hard world, a symbol of the eternal struggles of man against nature.
A far-fetched picture? Not really. The log cabin is an integral part of our culture. More than 150 years ago, the log cabin was indicative of the American pioneering spirit, of the solid, down-to-earth philosophy and wisdom of the countryman. This feeling was so genuine and for decades so deeply ingrained in our national consciousness that anyone without a log cabin background, especially in the West, was immediately a bit suspect and thought perhaps not to be a true homespun American. This was a false and baseless notion, but nonetheless a common one.
Despite the part it plays in our culture, the log cabin was by no means an American invention. Log cabins and other log structures had been used for shelter and storage in other parts of the world for centuries before the discovery of America. They were common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the Scandinavian countries, particularly in Sweden, and in Ger many and other parts of Europe.
Contrary to common belief, log cabins were not among the first structures erected when this country was colonized early in the 1600s. In the first place, most of the early settlers were not all that familiar with log construction; they were attuned to entirely different types of buildings and surroundings.
In the second place, tools and equipment were in short supply, and so was time and man power for the amount of work that had to be done just for the sake of survival. The first homes were mere shelters, pitched up from anything that would offer the most protection with the least amount of work. Tents were common and so were huts, and many of the more enterprising folks opted for wigwams patterned after the native Indian dwellings. When time, energy, tools, and materials finally did permit, the more permanent structures copied the familiar English cottages and similar European styles that the settlers had known from child hood. In the early colonies, the log cabin was a late arrival.
As near as can be determined, the first log structures (other than occasional log palisades or stockades erected for protection against native Indians and wildlife) appeared in the Delaware Bay area around 1638. These were built by Swedish and German immigrants and consisted mainly of fully round, saddle-notched logs chinked with wattle (a mixture of twigs and clay) and equipped with stone fireplaces topped with mud-and-stick chimneys. From that location, the log cabin spread in all directions with the increasing influx of settlers, and in a relatively short time log cabins were to be found wherever the white man took up residence.
Log cabins became particularly common all through the South, where they served both as permanent dwellings and as quarters for slaves. These cabins were also made with saddle-notched round logs, but frequently were left unchinked and with substantial gaps between the logs. Most New England cabins were of somewhat later origin. Because of the far more inclement winter weather, they were carefully and tightly made from square-hewn logs thoroughly chinked up and plastered over at the joints, and often with intricate compound-dovetail notching at the corners. Small, rugged cabins were introduced early on in the Northwest by Russian fur trappers, long before the territory was really opened up. Meanwhile, as the East marched West in the pioneer movement, more cabins were built, first by the trappers, hunters, and miners, then by the farmers and ranchers. As the land became more settled, the small and often crude log cabin gave way to much larger, more comfortable, and more impressive ranch houses, many of which are occupied to this day.
Log construction was not confined only to homes. A great many of the early forts were of log, primarily because of their strength and impenetrability. Many trading posts (which often doubled as forts) were built from logs, as were farm and ranch outbuildings, taverns, stage stops or roadhouses, hotels, saloons, and other commercial buildings.
Although many log homes, especially the smaller and more austere cabins, were meant to be only temporary until something more stylish and commodious could be built, others were designed as permanent residences, care fully made and well appointed. Many, in fact, were so well put together that they still stand, forgotten and forlorn some 100 years after last having been occupied. Some are still sound enough that they have been resurrected and refurbished over the past decade or so.
There are many reasons for the building of log homes and their widespread popularity in the earlier years of this country. Chief among them was a desire for immediate and substantial shelter that could be quickly and readily, even though laboriously, put together. Second was the widespread availability of the raw material, usually free for the taking—pioneers and settlers often found themselves completely surrounded by the tremendous virgin forests that covered a large part of this country. A third reason was that sufficient land had to be cleared so crops could be raised for food. Because the trees had to be cut anyway, logic demanded that the logs be put to some useful purpose. Be cause in the early days there were few, if any, sawmills, and boards and planks were difficult to fashion and either expensive or impossible to buy, the logs were used whole. This procedure was aided by the facts that good logging equipment and sharp cutting tools were scarce; time and labor had to be put to the most effective use; and the fasteners necessary for plank construction were expensive, difficult to obtain, and heavy to transport.
As the years went by, all of these reasons diminished in importance, and fewer log homes were constructed. Yet they never died out completely. Even in the dark days of the Depression in the 1930s, some log buildings were being erected, primarily because both logs and labor were terribly cheap in some regions of the country.
Today the historic reasons for building log structures have almost disappeared, but the log home has not. Instead, there has been a recent surprisingly large resurgence of interest, involving not only small one- and two-room cabins for hunting camps, but also vacation homes and modern, year-round residences. Most of the year-round residences are substantial in size and contain all the latest conveniences, and some can only be described as palatial. The early log cabin architecture has been modified and upgraded to produce some remarkably handsome homes in which their owners rightfully take an immense amount of pride. What is the reason for this turnabout?
Part of the answer lies in the current and fairly widespread partial rejection of lifestyles that are entirely conventional. There is a restlessness, a sense of being at least partly unable or unwilling to cope with the awesome technological, sociopolitical, and economic complexities of our society, that has led to a yearning for the simpler and more bucolic life of years past. Many people have formed a de sire for a more quiet and less stressful existence that most of us must contend with these days. This has prompted the “back to the land” movement of the past several years. It is a fact that at least a small part of the population is returning to rural and even rustic living. For some, a log cabin or home symbolizes this lifestyle.
There is also a marked desire on the part of many for increased self-reliance and the opportunity to do for oneself as much as possible. Self-dependence and a significant renewed interest in handicrafts (albeit often machine- assisted), have made the log cabin or house a natural choice.
However, the number of persons pursuing this lifestyle doesn’t account for the great number of large and complex log homes that have been erected over the past few years, often at a considerable cost and entirely by contract labor, sometimes on speculation by a commercial builder, and frequently in suburban or even urban settings. There are even entire subdivisions today that allow log homes only, with the homes being built by a developer and placed on the open market with great success. So other factors are at work as well.
One factor is cost, because under certain conditions and with certain designs and construction methods a log home can be had for less cost than a comparable home of standard frame construction. Note, however, that the re verse is often true as well. Another factor is the desire to own a home that is somewhat different in appearance—at least outwardly and per haps inwardly as well—than the much more conventional styles. Or, the owners might de sire to live in a home that is a modem-day symbol of our log-cabin culture and heritage, evocative again of the yearnings for the days of our pioneer ancestors.
Perhaps the most obvious factor, however, is that the log cabin or log home has its own definite, unique charm, and character, and beauty that are fully brought out when the home is correctly built and tastefully furnished. The natural beauty of solid wood as a building material—honest and straightforward and without the synthetic aspects of plastic and chrome—also appeals to many. The fact that the very nature of log buildings allows for a wide variety of both interior and exterior decorating styles is another drawing card, as is great flexibility of design.
So for these and many other reasons—strength, solidity, and practicality, for ex ample—the log home is alive and well these days, and is unquestionably a viable and worthwhile building type that deserves serious consideration by any persons interested in owning their own homes.
Despite all the attractive features, the log home is not for everyone. There are some concrete advantages and disadvantages, many of which depend upon exactly how, where, and under what circumstances the prospective log home is to be designed and built.
Perhaps the most immediately apparent characteristic of a log structure is the impression it gives of heavy, bulky strength. This is more than just an impression; it is a fact, providing that the structure is properly built. The bulk is plain to see, the great weight can be readily imagined. Because of the thickness of the logs, their considerable individual weight, and the manner in which the structural components are locked together, a log home is very strong and sturdy. Even a small cabin is massively hefty for its actual floor area.
In most log home designs, there is a certain amount of overkill in the construction; there is really more material, more strength, and more ruggedness than called for by present-day building standards, or for the job the structure is called upon to do. However, that is the nature of the beast. Consequently, a log home is exceptionally resistant to lateral pressures, external mechanical damage, storm violence, and general wear and tear. A good log structure is windproof and weatherproof, and because of its massiveness gives a fine sense of security against the outside world. It is also relatively vibration-free and soundproof, and the logs themselves provide a reasonable degree of thermal insulation. Also, well-built log structures can be exceptionally long-lived. Some of those in use in Europe today were built before the founding of America.
An aspect important to many is the unique charm and flavor that only a log structure can present. The rustic appearance harmonizes beautifully with country settings, and can do so with plain simplicity or dignified elegance. It also blends in well in more urban settings if properly done. The log house probably has a less adverse impact upon its surroundings than any other kind of house.
Another advantage—one that is variable depending upon the specific design of the structure—is the possibility of integrating the exterior and interior of the building. In most log structures, when the perimeter walls are built and finished, so are the interior walls, and no further additions need to be made. There is no necessity for putting up drywall, plaster, or paneling, and in many cases no need for store- bought thermal insulation (although all of these materials and more can be, and often are, in stalled).
Interior walls can be built in the conventional manner with studs and drywall or paneling, but in many designs they are also constructed from logs. In some instances, the interior surfaces of the perimeter walls are furred out and finished with wallboard in the usual manner. Wherever interior surfaces re main natural log, however, the amount of material and labor needed to complete the structure is greatly reduced. Once the log walls are in place, about the only additional work necessary is a few bits of trim around doors and windows and the application of a finish. Even the floors and ceiling can be built so that they too need only an application of sealer or other finish. In contrast with the conventional plat form frame home, the amount of work required to finish the job and make a livable house once the shell is erected is certainly minimal.
Because of the interior/exterior integration, a log house shell can be put together with surprising speed, especially by a crew of several experienced workers. Once all the materials are at hand and the job is properly laid out, erection of even a large building can take place within a matter of days, rather than weeks. Installation of the electrical system, heating and cooling equipment, and plumbing frequently goes on as the walls are raised and the roof set. Thus, by the time the shell is complete the en tire job is virtually done, and about all that is left is to clean up an assortment of minor de tails and then proceed with the finish work.
This short construction time can be helpful for a number of reasons. There is less pres sure involved in climates where the building season is short. When the time factor is reduced, so are labor costs. The owner can move into a log home much sooner than for most other types of construction (except for modular or prefabricated), especially if moving into an unfinished shell and completing the finish work afterward is part of the program. This can be an important factor if the owner’s present quarters must be vacated on short notice.
There are a number of advantages in log construction that specifically appeal to the do it-yourselfer. For instance, experience in the building trades, although helpful, is not necessary. Those skills that are needed in the bulk of log construction are simple and readily learned by anyone with a modicum of dexterity. Once the project is started, most of the work is repetitive and requires only a normal amount of diligence in putting things together carefully and properly.
As far as building the shell is concerned, only simple hand tools are needed for the most part. Even all the cutting can be done by hand, although using power tools is of course much easier and faster. If the interior of the house is simple, again only a few of the more common hand tools are needed. The more complex the interior design becomes (fancy trimwork, parquetry, or extensive cabinetry, for example), the more sophisticated the equipment needed and the higher the skill level required for construction excellence. Even under these circum stances, however, an advanced do-it-yourselfer can build with little difficulty.
For the do-it-yourselfer working alone or with one or two helpers, when the shell is complete the interior is also nearly done. This can be of considerable consequence. In short, there is simply a whole lot less work to be done in order to make the structure livable. The total amount of time spent on the job by comparison with other types of construction is markedly less, and an owner/builder can accomplish more with somewhat less effort and help over a given time span. This is because of, at least in part, the simplicity of design and simplicity of construction procedures.
There is another factor that the do-it yourselfer will want to consider: cost. Cost per square foot of living space varies greatly, not only with design complexity and the quality of the material used, but also with the amount of “sweat equity” the owner/builder is willing to invest in the construction of the home. There is a potential with log home construction for starting absolutely from scratch, and in this situation cost will be the lowest for a given de sign. The cost will be astonishingly low if the builder owns a woodlot and can fell and yard the logs; construct a foundation; fashion the logs; erect the log shell without the aid of hired help; install the electrical, plumbing, and heating systems; and then complete all the finish work. If the building site is already owned too, the total investment would seem almost ridiculous by comparison with today’s average home prices. But this procedure is certainly not outside the realm of possibility. Many log home owners have built in just that way.
The less you do yourself, the higher the expenses become. Buying the building site, purchasing cut logs from a mill, hiring a work crew, subcontracting the installation of utilities, or ordering one of the various semi-complete or complete log house kits all serve to boost the price greatly. So for most do-it-yourselfers who want to build their own houses, a certain amount of compromise is necessary between sweat equity and capital outlay. Keep in mind that the outlay need not always be cash. Trading services—something you can do for someone who can do something else roughly comparable in terms of time and effort for you—is always a good possibility.
Despite all the favorable points involved in log home construction, there are also some disadvantages that must be considered. Some of them are dependent upon the kind of log home you would like to have, just how you plan to go about building it, and the exact design of the structure itself. Often, even these disadvantages can be worked around or at least minimized by making compromises. If you are only marginally inclined toward owning a log home, however, some of the disadvantages might turn you to another style altogether.
Perhaps one of the most dismaying problems, especially to a person dead-set on building a log home, is the fact that in many places a log structure cannot be built. This has nothing to do with economics, availability, or feasibility, but is simply a regulatory matter. You can’t build a log home because you can’t get a building permit because the zoning laws won’t allow that kind of construction. Absurd, maybe, but true, and there is really no recourse unless you get fired up enough to seek a variance or attempt to get the restrictive law changed. And that’s a struggle. Before you get your plans all set, then, thoroughly investigate not only the zoning situation but also any local building codes that apply. You also might find more regulations that, while not prohibiting log construction, could serve to make it much more difficult or perhaps even prohibitively ex pensive. Check also for any covenants that might apply in a housing subdivision, and investigate any rules that might have been laid down by an architectural control committee. Such rulings are often little publicized, can be arbitrary and capricious, and frequently have little to do with building codes or zoning laws. But they are enforceable, and sometimes can knock a builder’s plans completely askew.
Another potential disadvantage of a log house, one that is most often subjective in nature, is the fact that you can’t plunk one down any which way on just any old building site and expect it to look good. Just what looks good and what doesn’t is always a matter of considerable discussion and is always open to question. For most people, a proper log house site is one with a natural setting, even though that site might not be out in the country. If such a building site is unavailable to you or is marginal, you might want to change your plans or perhaps alter them from a thoroughly rustic type of log house to a somewhat more sophisticated and formal log style (of which there are many) that blends in better with the given surroundings. It is good to keep in mind, though, that the log house is undoubtedly the most honest, most forgiving, and most adaptable of all building styles, and if properly designed and landscaped can be nicely established in virtually any location.
As mentioned earlier, the cost of a log house can be remarkably low. But it can also be remarkably high. If you are planning a turn key design finished down to the last little de tail by a building contractor, be prepared to pay well for it. The chances are good that such a structure will actually cost more than a com parable conventional style. But it will usually cost more because you’re getting more.
Another problem that arises in some parts of the country, especially for the do-it yourselfer who wants to build a log house from scratch, is a lack of materials. Not all the country is forested, and although ordinary building materials are readily available everywhere, logs are not. Furthermore, the logs that are available must be suitable for the job at hand and preferably obtainable within a short distance. Otherwise, building problems and freight charges escalate rapidly.
In places where there are no trees for the taking, there are some alternatives. You can contact a log supplier and arrange to have a suitable kind and number of raw logs either delivered to you, or stockpiled for pickup with your own (or a rented) truck. This option works nicely if the distances involved are not too great. The other possibility is to purchase a precut log house kit from one of the many manufacturers scattered about the country.
Another possible disadvantage of log construction, again depending upon the house de sign and the personnel involved, is the great amount of physical effort needed to erect the structure. It just isn’t a physically easy job. In conventional platform-framing construction, the many components of the structure are comparatively lightweight and for the most part easy to handle. There seldom is much need for any great amount of physical exertion, except in instances where a few heavy girders or beams must be set or a few fairly heavy and awkward sheets of plywood or plasterboard maneuvered into difficult spots.
With logs, the story is considerably different. There are fewer individual components involved than in a frame building, but they are a lot chunkier. Only in the smaller homes can they be readily handled by one person. Larger log structures, and especially those that use 20-foot or longer pieces of 8- to 12-inch or more diameter, often pose some ticklish construction problems that cannot be solved by brute strength alone. Such logs are very heavy and awkward.
One type of wood occasionally used for log walls—though not a particularly good choice—is quaking aspen. It weighs about 26 pounds per cubic foot. That means a 20-foot log of an average 10-inch diameter will weigh in at somewhere around 280 pounds.
Aspen is a relative lightweight; many woods are far heavier (maple, 44 pounds per cubic foot; white oak, 47 pounds per cubic foot). These figures are for woods with only a 12 percent moisture content. Green or partly cured logs, depending upon the species and the length of time they have been off the stump, can easily be twice as heavy, possibly more.
All this means that erecting log walls is not the simplest chore in the world. Physical effort is required, and a considerable amount of caution must be employed. Logs are bulky and awkward to handle. Those that are fully round move as they please and they are often slippery. The butt ends are heavier and roll at a different rate than the lighter tip ends, which just makes matters more difficult. A certain amount of rigging and lashing and the use of leverage- gaining devices is essential, and that requires thought, preparation, and proper execution.
For the do-it-yourselfer who wants to begin from scratch by selecting and felling the trees, the lengthy time span between felling and the completion of a log home shell might be a drawback. Felling is better accomplished at certain times during the year, and if the trees are live and not standing deadwood, the logs must be allowed to cure. Following this step are some rather tedious operations in preparing the logs for construction, and the actual building process itself. Because most of this work is usually done by hand and often with only one or two people providing the labor, the time lapse can be substantial and must be reckoned with. A total period of 3 years from stump to shell for a good-sized dwelling is not at all unusual. So if the need for housing is immediate, an interim solution must be found, or a different type of house chosen.
A number of details in log house construction requires careful attention as the work progresses. Although a log building is forgiving in many ways, if the structure is not put together correctly, a good many difficulties are likely to arise later. This can be a disadvantage if the builder is not willing to pay attention to these details and treat them with due respect. If the object is to bang together a ticky-tacky box with slapdash methods and maximum corner-cutting, log construction is not the route to follow.
In many areas, insect damage is a major consideration, particularly from termites, carpenter ants, and similar creatures that thrive on solid wood. Decay fungi also can wreak havoc upon logs by rotting them away. The severity of these problems depends upon the geographic location of the structure. The wetter the climate or the greater the prevalence of certain kinds of insects, the greater the susceptibility.
Much also depends upon the type of wood used and the excellence of construction. Poor construction methods, like badly fitted joints that allow the entrance of moisture, lack of proper preservatives, improper caulking and sealing, or foundations incorrectly set, just invite difficulties. The wood itself plays a part because some species are much more naturally resistant than others. Hemlock, for instance, has a low resistance to decay and rot, while sugar maple has a high resistance. Some woods, like northern white cedar, are practically impervious to insect attacks.
There is one further characteristic of log houses that can be disadvantageous in those parts of the country with extremely long and cold winters, and advantageous in more temperate locales. This is the thermal insulating value of the log wall. In comparison with an uninsulated ordinary frame and stud wall, a solid log wall is a superior insulator, depending upon the specific species of wood and assuming that both types of walls are properly-built. Compared to the usual frame wall construction of a decade or so ago: 2 x 4 studs, sheathing, exterior siding, interior plaster board, and 3½ inches of fiberglass insulation—a solid log wall holds its own and is somewhat better if thick enough.
However, yesterday’s standard of thermal insulation in dwelling walls is rapidly being replaced in the colder climates by far more stringent requirements in local building codes. The result is that many log wall constructions are no longer considered thermally effective enough to be allowable. This in turn means that the interior surface of outside log walls some times must be buried behind a second, insulation-filled interior stud wall in order to achieve the necessary insulating value. This step raises costs markedly, causes extra work, and eliminates some of the reasons for choosing log construction in the first place.
With most types of log construction, compliance with the new regulations, many of which specify R-19 as a thermal rating, would result in a wall thickness of 13½ inches for even the most thermally efficient woods. Obviously this makes single-log wall construction impractical in most cases, although it can be done. To combat this situation, the kit manufacturers have devised methods of log wall construction using two separated sub- walls, one interior and the other exterior, with an airspace between filled with additional insulating material. Thus the problem can be solved, but only at increased expense. This same basic system can be duplicated by the builder who works from scratch, but again at the expense of greater time and effort, as well as added material. The net result, however, is tremendously energy conserving, and the added cost will be recovered over time in lower heating cost.
BUILDING FROM SCRATCH
The log house is one of very few styles that can be built almost entirely from native materials and by one or two workers. When it is done entirely in this manner, the only cash outlay absolutely necessary is for small amounts of hardware, glass, and materials for the utilities systems. It is also possible for the builder to single-handedly, or with the aid of one or two helpers, construct the entire house, including foundation, heating and lighting, and plumbing. If desirable, no work need be let to sub contractors. Admittedly this is no easy chore, but it has been and is being done.
The first step in building from scratch is to work up a complete set of detailed drawings and diagrams showing the entire structure as it will appear in its final state. Accurate dimensions are important, as is correct engineering. For a successful job you should work out as many details as possible ahead of time. Make up auxiliary plans at the same time to show all necessary specifics, such as door and window installation details, treatments of soffits, lay out of floor joists or roof beams or trusses, and methods of installing partitions. Also lay out electrical, heating, and plumbing systems completely. Work up material takeoff sheets that are as complete as possible, and run cost estimates if necessary.
The next step is locating and selecting logs. The least expensive route, of course, is to use logs from your own lot. This is also the most satisfactory situation because you have complete control over the selection process and can choose exactly what you need and want. If you do not own a lot, perhaps you can purchase suitable logs “on the stump” from some one who does. Then you can fell and limb the trees, buck them up as necessary, yard them, and crib them for curing. After a time you must peel the logs (usually) and treat them with preservatives. Meanwhile, you can build the foundation.
If you don’t have a handy tree supply, you can still build almost from scratch. After working out your plans, determine exactly what you need in the way of logs. Contact a local mill or a commercial log supplier (the closer to hand the better) and purchase the logs. The cost may or may not include delivery to the site, depending on the supplier’s facilities and the arrangements that you can work out. You might be able to purchase the logs either by the board foot, cubic foot, or linear foot. They might also be available either in the round and with the bark still on, or sawn flat on one or more sides. A few suppliers also offer milled logs. You might not be able to make the selection of individual logs yourself, but if you can talk the supplier into it, so much the better. If not, explain to the supplier exactly how the logs are to be used and hope for the best. Try also to work out an arrangement whereby you can return or trade in logs that simply are unusable.
Once the logs are on hand and the foundation is complete, you can begin the actual construction work. There are a number Of ways to proceed, all of which will be explained in later sections. The basic procedure is to first build a floor frame on the foundation and nail down the subfloor to make a working platform. Walls go up next, and windows and doors (sometimes just the empty frames, or bucks) are installed at the same time. Ceiling joists or a floor frame for the second level come next, then subflooring if required, and then the gable ends or second-story walls as necessary. The roof frame and roofing is the last major step to complete the shell of the structure properly.
Porches, decks, dormers, and such are added or included as the house takes shape. In many cases, the electrical, heating, and plumbing essentials are roughed in as construction proceeds, and the finish work is done after the shell has been completed, all “dried in” or “tight to the weather.” Interior partitions are sometimes built during shell construction, sometimes not. Often it is easier and more convenient to let such things wait until the shell is closed up.
Obviously, during construction you can farm out some of the work or hire a number of hands to make the job go easier and faster. Obviously, too, the more work others do, the less you will be building from scratch yourself and the higher your costs will be. Be aware, too, that the work you subcontract might not be done to your liking or come up to your standards—although the reverse also can be true.
The ideal situation from a number of stand points is for the owner to build the log house entirely, start to finish, and this is exactly what a great many prospective log home owners would like to do. However, there are many reasons why this choice is not always practical, or even feasible. The ramifications of doing the entire job yourself versus contracting out part or even all of the job deserve careful scrutiny before you undertake such a large task.
Can you do it all yourself? Maybe, but probably not. The first step is to thoroughly investigate any applicable zoning laws and building regulations, including those that might be highly localized restrictions stemming from a set of subdivision covenants or architectural control committee regulations. In some areas, urban for the most part, no one can build a house unless he is a qualified and licensed building contractor. It makes no difference if the house is for the owner-builder, or for some one else. Other instances arise where either the plumbing, sewage, heating, or electrical sys tem (or perhaps all of them) can be installed only by licensed tradespeople. This could mean that you must figure on subcontracting certain portions of the work whether you want to or not. However, it might also mean that you can make an arrangement with a licensed master professional who will, for a fee, oversee and direct the installations that you yourself make.
Other problems might arise with regard to time. Many areas impose a time limit on the construction of new homes, often requiring that the exterior be fully completed within 1 year. If you don’t feel that you can finish your home within the allotted time working by yourself, obviously you will need to arrange for help of one sort or another. There is also your own time, or lack thereof, to consider. One man working alone or with an occasional part-time helper can easily spend 2 years working full- time to complete a good-sized house, inside and out. Or, you might spend 8 to 12 months getting the house to a point where it can be occupied, and then do the finish work and odds and ends as time permits. There might be a stumbling block here, too: in many areas the house must be inspected by a local authority and a certificate of occupancy issued before the house can be permanently occupied. The degree of completion required before the certificate can be issued varies from place to place.
Be aware that do-it-yourselfers who opt for moving into an unfinished house almost invariably find that completion of the house down to the last detail takes far longer than originally anticipated. Because golf is more fun than pounding nails and taking the kids skiing wins over painting trimwork almost every time, 5 or 6 years or more might go by before the job is done. Building a home is a huge project that eats up hundreds and hundreds of hours of labor, much of it tedious, even if the home is only a small one. The amount of that time you can afford or want to put in yourself only you can decide. Whatever is left over will have to be hired out.
Another excellent reason for hiring out some of the work is simply a matter of know- how, skills, and competence. Do-it-yourselfers as a breed are generally confident, competent, and willing to tackle just about anything. How ever, recognizing your limitations is important when undertaking a task this big. Not all do it-yourselfers have experience, skills, or interest in all of the various trades that go into the building of a complete house. It is by far preferable to work in those areas that you know and like best, and leave other jobs to someone else. A lack of knowledge, confidence, and interest can result in poorly done work, especially if you are pressed for time, and a project as substantial and as costly as the building of a house is probably not the best one with which to experiment.
The most common situation, and probably the most practical for a lot of do-it-yourselfers, is a fairly even split of working alone or with the help of friends and family, and subcontracting. The owner/builder takes care of site preparation, for example, by hiring an excavator if necessary. Do-it-yourself construction of the foundation might be feasible, especially if it happens to be one of the simpler varieties. Shell erection also might be done by the owner/builder. Meantime, qualified electricians, plumbers, and other tradespeople can be busy installing the utilities systems, all according to applicable building code regulations.
The owner/builder then could take care of the finish roofing, exterior trim, doors, windows, exterior finishes, decks, and so on. If a freestanding stove or fireplace is part of the plan, the owner/builder might also install this. Complicated masonry fireplaces and chimneys, as well as other masonry or stonework, might best be subcontracted to a mason. Most of the interior finish work, including the building of the interior partitions, is often handled by the owner/builder, and there is little need to hire anything out except perhaps for carpet installation, tile setting, or some other type of specialized work.
Most would-be log home builders will in deed find it necessary to subcontract certain portions of the job. Other jobs can be done simply by rousting out the rest of the family or gathering some friends and putting them to work, or by hiring one or two part-time laborers as necessary.
When subcontracting, by all means get two or three bids for each job. Then you will have some basis for reasonable comparison. Note, though, that the lowest bid is not necessarily the best one. Check all the specifications and figures carefully, and also the reputation and qualifications of the bidders, before you make a final decision. Beware of the bid that comes in far lower than the others. You also can use the reasonable alternative of hiring subcontractors whom you already know and trust and who have good reputations for giving fair value and good work. In this case, the job can be done on a contract basis at a certain set fee, or on a time-and-materials basis where you pay the going rate for parts and materials plus a specified hourly charge for the amount of time actually spent on the job.
Whichever approach you take, the principal point to remember is that the more you do yourself, the lower will be your overall cost. But try to recognize your limitations so you don’t fall into that dismal trap so common to doing it yourself: biting off more than you can chew.
There seems to be a common misconception that log homes are cheaper to build than other kinds. Under some circumstances, a log home can run to considerably more money per square foot of living area than conventional platform- framed homes. To be sure, a simple one-room log hunting camp with no electricity or plumbing can be knocked together for little more than the cash price of a few panes of glass and a boxful of hardware, under the right circumstances. However, not many buildings of that sort are constructed these days. Most modern log houses contain the normal conveniences and amenities found in any house, even though they might only be small vacation retreats. We do like our luxuries!
Trying to pin down the average or potential costs of log houses in general is an impossibility. Comparisons with houses built by other construction methods is likewise difficult. As noted earlier, the potential for extremely low cost exists with log houses, but that potential is seldom realized. Everything depends not only upon the complexity of de sign and the quality of the materials and appointments, but also how much sweat equity the owner/builder invests, as well as how adept he is at buying materials on sale, scrounging up second-hand windows and doors, splitting roofing shakes by hand, and conning friends into lending a hand for a weekend or two in return for a cooler of cold drinks and a barbecue.
Each case is different, and each situation must be calculated separately. Comparisons between log construction and other types must be carried out among the specific houses in which the prospective owner/builder is interested.
To arrive at the total cost for a scratch-built log house, start with the cost of the building site, including all closing costs and allied expenses. Work up your plans and specifications as nearly complete as possible (though they can be in rough form), run off a material takeoff sheet, gather all the individual prices, and add them all up to arrive at a total for all the materials that will go into the house. Then add any applicable survey expenses, permit costs, building fees, and tap fees (to allow you to hook onto existing sewer and water lines). If sewer and/or water lines are not available, figure in the cost of a complete septic system and/or a drilled well or other water supply. Check with the local power company to see if there will be any charges for bringing electrical service to your building site. Figure out how much, if any, additional labor you must hire, and get bids or estimates for those phases of the construction that will be subcontracted. Put all of these costs together, along with any special expenses that might pertain to your situation (travel, meals out, freight charges, soil test fees, or engineering, for example), and you’ll have the total cost of the house. Then add about 10 percent for contingencies and overlooked items.
For a quick, ballpark estimate that does not include land costs but only the house itself, and in circumstances where you will hire some labor to help in the erection of the shell and subcontract the utilities and the excavating, figure that the total cost will probably be some where around double the cost of materials. Note: this can be a very inaccurate assessment, good only for purposes of off-the-cuff comparisons.
To look at the picture from a different angle, a finished turn-key job by a building contractor might run to $45 per square foot of living area in a locale where building costs are low, to $100 or more in some areas. For complex designs and large houses, these costs would likely be higher. The costs would total anywhere from $67,500 to $150,000 for a finished 1500-square-foot house—which is not very large. By doing everything yourself that you are capable of doing and have the time for—such as building the foundation, doing the exterior and interior trimwork, putting on the roof, and doing all the finishing—you can probably save about 25 percent of the total cost. By providing a great deal of the labor yourself and with the (free) help of friends and family, and perhaps including the installation of the electrical and plumbing systems as well, you might reduce your costs to about 55 to 60 per cent of the total finished value, but probably not much more than that. Halving the completed value is difficult in most cases, unless the structure is small and simple and you are starting at square one in the woodlot.
It is worth noting, though, that some exceptional cases where the owner/builder is capable, energetic, and determined, and also has the time to invest—and assuming the construction is taking place in an area of rising property values—it is possible to construct a log home with a total capital outlay amounting to perhaps 25 percent of the final property value. In the case of a totally scratch-built house, this outlay could be even less—a very tough job, but one that makes your net-worth figure look mighty fine.
First, a word of advice concerning home financing: don’t. If there is any possibility whatsoever to avoid borrowing mortgage money, pursue it with determination. Exhaust all other possibilities first. If you want freedom of action, independence, a minimum of paper work, and bother, and a lack of major monetary worries, plus security, don’t get tangled up with a construction loan and/or a mortgage. There are excellent reasons for doing so, de spite all the ballyhoo about how helpful, advantageous, and socially acceptable a mortgage is.
First, a mortgage often means that from start to finish of the building project you are hemmed in by various regulations governing the construction that have nothing to do with building codes or good workmanship. Every thing that goes into the project, everything that is done, might have to be specifically accept able to the moneylender, and he calls the tune, always. You can even be assured, most likely, of finding a clause buried in the fine print that gives the lender the right to cancel the loan at any time if he spots anything in the construction that he doesn’t like or any deviation from the plans. Furthermore, at any time in the future if you want to change something around, add to the structure, or take out a second mort gage, for example, every detail will need to be cleared with the lender and you could well be denied. Doing it yourself has very little place in the banking world, today less than ever before.
Once you sign the papers—this process alone will take about 3 months, sometimes longer—you are in bondage from another standpoint, too. The terms of the loan might be as short as 5 years or as long as 40, but probably would be either 15 or 30 years. Whatever the case, you are absolutely committed, month after month, to coming up with the prescribed amount of cash.
But you needn’t philosophize to find a prime argument against borrowing mortgage money. Just look at the cost. First there are the closing costs, which are the charges levied against you for such matters as the application fee (nonrefundable), appraisal fee, improvement survey, title insurance, tax certificate, document recording fees, property inspections, credit report fee, and revenue stamps. Then there are the points, or a loan origination fee, which is a percentage of the total amount borrowed that must be paid as a lump sum to the lender at the time the mortgage goes into effect. Points might be as few as one (meaning 1 percent of the amount to be borrowed) but could be as high as nine or ten. Thus, five points on a $50,000 mortgage would amount to $2,500. So you borrow $50,000 but only get $47,500. Or, in some cases, you get $50,000 but have to pay off a principal of $52,500.
There is also the interest charge, which is tacked on faithfully every month. This charge varies among lenders and at different times, but 10 to 12 percent is not at all unusual; rates have been both higher and lower than this in recent years. For example, 10 percent doesn’t sound like a lot for the opportunity of borrowing a substantial sum, and it’s a common enough commission rate among salespeople and agents, so we are fairly well used to dealing with this number. But see what it does to your pocketbook. Let’s use a 15-year fixed-rate or conventional mortgage for $40,000 at the 10 percent rate as an example. The monthly payments are $429.84 per month and the total of the payments over the full term is $77,372. Thus, it will cost you $37,372 to rent out some one else’s $40,000. Now look at a 30-year mort gage, all other details the same. The monthly payment is only $351.03, which looks pretty good, doesn’t it? But look out—the total payments come to $126,370.80. There is a slight fee of some $86,000 for the privilege of borrowing less than half that amount. A 40-year mort gage is even worse, with a total commitment of $163,036 involved.
This gets even better. Be aware that the principal of your mortgage (that is, the original amount you borrow), is not paid down on a straight-line basis. Every payment you make includes a portion for interest (which the lender keeps) and another for principal (which accrues to your credit against the amount you borrowed and becomes your equity). Many lenders also require that the payment include a small sum to be put toward insurance on the property, and another against taxes, but that is apart from the loan itself; they then pay those bills for you. These portions are fixed sums based on the estimated yearly tax and insurance costs, and are adjusted annually as required. The amounts that go toward principal and interest, though, are not fixed, although the combination of the two is. The amount that goes toward the principal starts at a very small figure and slowly escalates over the years, while the portion that goes toward interest starts at a very high figure and diminishes slowly. The first payment of a 10-percent, 30-year, $40,000 note, for example, includes $333.33 for interest and a mere $17.70 for principal.
As though this were not bad enough, the figures do not change at a steady rate. You might logically think that at the halfway point of the mortgage term—180 payments—you would be paying toward interest and principal in equal amounts, and half the loan would be paid off. Wrong! Payment 180 includes $277.86 for interest, but still only $78.16 to ward the principal; about $32,665 remains for you to pay off, not $20,000. You are still building equity only slowly, and don’t pick up speed until the last few remaining years of the contract. The lenders make sure to get theirs first, you see.
Having said all this, it is now time to enter the realm of reality. At first glance and especially in view of the disadvantages of having a mortgage, shelling out $126,000 for a $40,000 house, or expecting a person to faithfully make 360 monthly payments in order to do so, might seem a bit unreasonable. In years past, when neither costs nor charges were so high, a mort gage was a workable method for families to gradually reach the point where they owned their home free and clear. Today, though, the situation has changed and lenders recognize this fact. They are aware that people are using mortgages less and less, so they look upon the whole business as a sort of revolving-door arrangement. Mortgages nowadays are seldom held for 30 years, or even 15. The average length of time that a mortgage is paid down is around 7 to 8 years or so, whereupon the property is conveyed to another owner and remortgaged, and the revolving door spins once more. All the homeowner can do is hope to build up a small amount of equity at a substantial cost to get a roof overhead, but which even so is often better than a rental arrangement. The fact is that most people find there is simply no other way for them to own a house than to take out a mortgage.
Now, let’s take a look at the mortgage picture with regard to log houses. The easiest mortgage to obtain is one on an existing house, either newly built or previously lived in. This type of mortgage is available through a local bank, a savings and loan company, or a mort gage broker. The situation is straightforward, and if your earnings are high enough and stable, if you can come up with the down payment (for a primary residence this is usually 20 per cent of the purchase price or the appraised value, whichever is lower), and if your credit rating and your financial outlook is good, you probably can put the deal together. This, how ever, has little to do with the prospective owner/builder who wants to be at least in part involved in the construction of a new home.
To follow that path, first you need a building site upon which to put your proposed home. However, savings and loan institutions cannot lend money for unimproved land, commercial banks seldom will, and mortgage brokers won’t. (There might be exceptions, but they would be unusual.) In fact, borrowing money from any of the normal sources for the purposes of buying raw land or a building site is practically impossible.
You might well be able to finance the purchase of a building site in a housing development through the developer; this is a fairly common circumstance. Sometimes, too, it is possible to work out a financing arrangement with the current owner of a property, especially if the owner is desperate to sell; this is called an owner carryback. Failing these, you either will have to borrow from private sources or use your own resources to buy a piece of property for cash outright.
The next step is to seek a construction loan, which is a temporary loan that lasts only for the duration of the house construction process, and is then transmuted into a long- term mortgage loan of the usual sort. Basically, you pay an agreed-upon amount of monthly interest, and the lender, usually a commercial bank, pays off the construction bills. The mort gage, when it comes about, might be held by the original lender but is likely to be placed with a mortgage brokerage firm, which might then sell it to a secondary market. Eventually the borrower ends up with a payment booklet and an address to send the payments to. The details of the ultimate mortgage contract are usually settled upon and committed to at the same time as the construction loan is granted.
Today, getting a construction loan and a mortgage is not a simple chore. Lenders are wary, interest rates rise and fall like a yo-yo, and numerous restrictions have been put into effect by both the primary and secondary mort gage markets. Money is available, however, if you can meet the requirements. If possible, shop around for the best interest rate—they do vary at any given time among lenders. For ex ample, if you could shave one-half percentage point off a 10-percent, 30-year mortgage on $40,000, you would save almost $15 a month on the payment. That doesn’t sound like much, but it amounts to almost $5,300 over the term of the mortgage, and that is a worthwhile savings.
At the same time, investigate the types of mortgage contracts available and their terms; these details vary, too. Study the possibilities to see what might be best for you, and don’t be afraid to get legal or other professional ad vice from disinterested parties.
Your main choices will be between fixed-rate (conventional) mortgages and adjustable mortgages (ARMs). The interest rate on the former remains the same through out the life of the loan period, which customarily is 15 to 30 years, although other arrangements sometimes can be made. They are straightforward and you always know just what your payments, equity, and remaining principal balance are, or will be at any future point.
ARMs are much more complex, and you should study them before you commit yourself to one. The initial interest rate is always considerably lower than that of a conventional mortgage, but the lender can raise (or lower) the rate at certain times. The rate on a 1-year ARM can be adjusted after 1 year, a 3-year after 3 years, and so on. When the rate goes up, so do the monthly payments, and the increase can be substantial. There might be a cap, which means that the total increase or decrease can not exceed a certain amount: a 5-percent cap can only go up or down five percentage points from the starting point over the life of the loan. Time periods vary, but 10, 15, and 20 years are common. Other ARM details vary greatly, as well.
Balloon mortgages are also common, and can be very dangerous. Such a mortgage, which can be either a conventional or an ARM type, may be amortized over 30 years, for ex ample, but carry a 5-year balloon. To translate: the loan payments are calculated as though there would be 360 payments, but after the first 60 payments the entire remaining balance (which usually is almost the whole loan amount) becomes due and payable at once, in one lump sum. If you cannot pay or refinance the loan, you lose everything. Although a useful financing tool under the proper circum stances, a balloon mortgage must be handled with great care.
If you plan to pursue the mortgage route, allow yourself plenty of lead time. You probably will need a month to investigate the possibilities, maybe more if a number of them are available to you. Once you make an application for a mortgage loan, you can figure on 3 months or more for processing—again, this could stretch out even further, depending upon the lender and the state of the market. You also must be ready to fill out innumerable forms and supply an immense amount of personal and financial information, including copies of past federal income tax returns. Be prepared for hours of paperwork, delays, telephone calls, and frustrations; this is not an easy job. The lender will make many demands of you, and he sits in the catbird’s seat. A normal process might call for, believe it or not, as many as 200 signatures just from you.
What are your chances of obtaining a mort gage for your new log home? That depends. First assume that you have the required cash down payment, your credit is good, your net worth and general financial standing is substantial, you are an upstanding piliar of the community, and all else is in good order from the lender’s standpoint. As the degree to which you want the builder to complete the home diminishes, so do your chances for getting the construction loan. If you would like only to do some of the interior finish work and decorating yourself or maybe build your own foundation or garage or porch, you might still be in the running. Incidentally, you stand the best chance of obtaining a loan if you already own the building site free and clear—this is one of the first questions you will be asked.
If you contemplate building a home, per haps of your own design, from native logs, and your building contractor is a good one and known to be capable of doing such a job and will build the entire structure, you also might be able to obtain a construction loan. Again, the more you are personally involved in the construction and the less the contractor is involved, the slimmer your chances become.
Finally, down at the bottom of the heap are the poor, lonely do-it-all-yourselfers. To put it bluntly, they don’t stand a chance of getting any financing whatsoever from normal commercial sources. This is true whether or not the land is owned, the trees or logs are on hand, the plan is to use a kit home as a basis, or part of the work will be subcontracted. Even if the owner/builder intends to only act as the general contractor to supervise all the construction, the chances of obtaining financing run anywhere between slim and zero.
Are there any alternatives to this grim picture? Probably, but only in isolated circum stances. For example, if you own a piece of land free and clear, you might bring the utilities in and build a foundation. Then you might be able to borrow enough, on the strength of these improvements and on your own credit worthy signature, to purchase a small log shell kit. Then, if you select an expandable design, you can erect and finish the building and use that to borrow enough to put up an addition, and so on until the house has grown to completion. There are also various kinds of per sonal loans, including family, that might be sufficient to get going with, so that initial small improvements can be used to parlay your way up to a large house and fully established grounds and outbuildings. Cosigning of notes is another possibility, as is trading of services and bartering for materials.
There is also a ray of hope on the commercial lending horizon for log home owners and builders in general. For example, the Proper Mortgage Co. of Gardena, California, has developed a Log Home Division exclusively for log home owners. Justice probably knows more about the ins and outs of log house building and financing than any other lender in the country, and the company is developing a national lending operation for log houses, working by mail and telephone.
Still, much boils down to the fact that if you’re planning to do it yourself, you might have to do to all yourself, money (or the scrounging up thereof) included. This is a discouraging picture indeed, but one that is best faced up to at the outset. But sometimes the determined do-it-yourselfer is able to do some finagling and in one way or another pull together enough cash to get the project well under way. Ingenuity is important in this aspect of do-it-yourselfing (DIYing), too.
Whether or not the building of a log home is an ecologically sound operation is open to some conjecture. This is an extremely complicated subject, and much depends upon your viewpoint. Unfortunately, there seem to be no hard and fast rules as to what constitutes an ecologically sound home. We all need shelter of one sort or another, so considering the building of a new single-family home as a poor use of natural resources is nonsense. We’ve gotten past the stage of living in caves (although we might yet get back to that). This leaves us, then, with the often-raised question of whether or not whole logs should properly be used to build a house, and comparisons with other types of houses and other uses of the wood.
There is little question that there are more cubic feet of lumber tied up in most log houses than in many other styles. That which is used, however, is put to a relatively permanent good purpose, by providing a shelter that should lasts at least a century and, with good care, might survive in usable fashion for two or more. Bear in mind, too, that a log house can be built from a number of species of wood, some of which are not currently employed to any great extent for other purposes and/or are of marginal value from a commercial standpoint. Thus, a re source that is in many instances renewable at a fairly rapid rate is being put to good use. There is not much waste involved in a log home. Slash is left behind for additional wild life habitats and enrichment of forest soils; scraps are converted to fuel, various wood products, or other purposes; by-products of the whole process can further be transformed in some useful fashion. Virtually everything is used up through the construction of a log house, and mostly in a positive way.
The logs that go into a log house might well be those felled in a forest or woodlot thinning operation, or they might be relatively small and spindly, unsuitable for lumber or other commercial purposes. They could well be standing deadwood, killed earlier by disease or fire. Even short chunks, commercially use less, can be used in a log house. Defective wood can also be put to use. Because log house building from scratch is a labor-intensive endeavor, log materials that cannot be economically processed commercially can be used.
Direct comparisons between log and other kinds of houses are difficult to make, as far as ecological impacts are concerned. However, log houses are conservative of both manufactured energy and processed materials. A frame house, for example, is built with materials that are highly processed, involving much machinery, great quantities of energy, valuable petroleum, and other resources—sawn and re-sawn lumber, plywood, steel, plastics, fiber board, and asphalt products. Some of these materials find their way into log houses, too, but usually to a lesser degree. Also, in some respects a log house, especially if owner-built, is likely to be more conservative of materials than other types of houses. Often an effort is made to use recycled or commercially useless materials, and to depend more upon labor and craftsmanship for an excellent structure than machinery and manufactured energy or processed technological innovations.
Admittedly these points can be argued to a degree. However, considering the fact that trees are a renewable resource, it seems reasonable to say that the log dwelling is one of the more ecologically sound options. Com pared to the miles of newsprint, the bales of toilet and facial tissue, the mountains of paper cups, the acres of throwaway containers, and the hundreds of other questionable wood- product consumables our manufacturing plants crank out every month, not to mention the mil lions of board feet of lumber that get shipped to Japan and other faraway points, the log house seems little short of a noble endeavor.
Would-be log house builders who want to start from scratch, or at least contribute substantially to the construction, often ask what personal requirements are needed to bring such a job to a successful conclusion. This is a valid concern. Someone who plans to be little involved, or perhaps will have a contractor take care of the whole job, needs only to decide what to have built, then sign the contracts and the checks. For the do-it-yourselfer, there is much more involved.
The first thing to recognize is that, even if the house is only a relatively small one, the project—taken from start to finish—is a huge one. In fact, it is the largest undertaking most do-it-yourselfers will ever become involved in. The job is not only complicated, it is immensely time-consuming. This being so, per haps the two most important attributes a log house owner/builder can have are patience and perseverance. Both are required in large measure to see you through a long year or two or three (or maybe more) of work that sometimes becomes drudgery. An ability to hold an even temper and keep your chin up in the face of as sorted foul-ups, frustrations, and setbacks helps a lot, too.
As to the physical requirements, they are of less importance than most prospective builders suppose. Great strength is not needed, despite the size and weight of the components of a log house. A working knowledge of physics is of much more help. Heavy logs and other materials should be handled either by several people to make the work easy, or by means of tools and equipment, rigging, and leverage—not by individual brute force. Building a house is indeed a hard job, but only nor mal strength, agility, and dexterity are needed.
The skills required depend upon what you plan to do yourself. There are a number of areas of expertise involved: rough carpentry, finish carpentry, cabinetmaking, electricity, plumbing, roofing, masonry, concrete work, and so on. There are two possible courses to follow. The first is to hire out any phase of the job that you feel incapable of doing competently (or simply are not interested in or cannot do be cause of local regulations). The second is to study and learn, perhaps by doing, those things that you are not presently familiar with. In practice, both courses are usually followed to a greater or lesser extent. If you have some experience in some phases of house construction, you will have little difficulty in learning about and undertaking others. Even if you don’t, you probably can still quickly learn enough to do a fair share of the work, especially with some on-the-spot guidance.
In short, you need not feel that you must be a master builder, an Olympic athlete, and a walking encyclopedia of building techniques at the outset in order to undertake a log house project. No one is. Many a successful log home has been built, both from scratch and from a kit, by many a person who had little idea in the beginning what it was all about. Much more important is an ability to recognize your lack of knowledge or skill, a realization of your limitations, a willingness to learn, and the good sense to call for help just a little bit before it becomes necessary.Home