Terry and Sandy Wolf took a big step; they committed themselves to building a 985-square-foot cabin on a remote island off the coast of Alaska, a home in which they now live year-round. Carl Crombach is a regional sales manager in the burgeoning Southeast; his dream of building a getaway in the secluded hills of northern Georgia turned into a source of income when he became a dealer for the log home manufacturer from whom he bought his house. Tony Varnadore teaches junior high physical education. Three summers ago he completed a kit log home for his family; now he uses that experience to help others work on their log kits.
These people all have something in common. By working with preplanned log home kits rather than building from scratch, they've discovered, each in his own way, how to avoid at least some of the headaches that building a home is sure to bring.
The appeal of a kit package goes beyond the solid charm of the finished dwelling. Even though the term kit, to some people, smacks of an uninspired low-budget fix, the log-building industry has learned to use the techniques of assembly-line production to ensure quality, creativity, and adaptability to home-buyers' needs.
How is that possible? To start, the manufacturers can be selective in the raw timber stock they use. Some opt for old-growth trees or dry standing deadwood rather than secondary or newer growth. Depending upon where the companies are located (and many have several plants or ship their logs from various places), they offer cedar, pine, cypress, eastern spruce and hemlock, aspen, and other species. All of these woods are structurally sound, but some have added benefits. Cedar, for example, is naturally insect-repellent and is less apt to decay or shrink than most other woods. The pines are less expensive but have to be properly harvested and dried to achieve an acceptable moisture content. Cypress has the advantage of being moderately decay- and shrink-resistant, spruce is strong and stiff, hemlock is hard but light, and aspen is easily worked, with a straight grain and a fine, uniform texture.
Another point is that the factory setup makes it easy to custom-design a structure. Chances are that among the many styles generally available—contemporary, chalet, ranch, saltbox, gambrel- or gable-roofed, and so on—one would suit the fancy of even the most particular individual. But if some aspect of the framing or the floor plan isn't quite right, many manufacturers are prepared to make changes in anything from window placement to wall location to roof pitch. Alterations like these, and other aesthetic choices such as flat- versus round-sided logs, are smoothly translated from paper to wood by an experienced staff and by automated cutting and milling machinery.
Finally, this production approach has consistently proved itself the most reliable way to make accurate cuts for the joints and fits that are essential to a strong, tight, well-built home. Far from disparaging the skills of on-site contractors, a professionally planned package offers the experienced builder or raw first-timer an equal chance to start off right. Moreover, the adverse effects of bad weather, inadequate help, and unfamiliarity with codes and inspections become much less of a factor since the critical work has already been done and double-checked.
Choose Your Log Home Kit Intelligently
A log home kit is probably the foremost mail-order purchase one could make. You laugh? Most buyers initiate the process by contacting several dealers or manufacturers for a postpaid brochure and information package describing each company, its products, any options, and some basic terms; more elaborate packets may cost $5 or $10, and some firms even sell introductory videos.
From this information, the customer can begin to understand what he or she may be in the market for, but it takes some careful reading to sort out exactly what will be provided for the money. The fact is that there are about 300 log home manufacturers doing business right now, and each sells homes in a slightly different way.
Of course, you'd expect to follow up your "window shopping" with telephone calls and probably a visit with a local manufacturer's representative (if one's available). But it also pays, early on, to look for indications that the company you plan to trade with is serious about their business and is in it for the long haul. Don't be afraid to ask for references from past customers or to inquire about conventional financing and compliance with local building and fire codes. Too, membership in organizations such as the National Association of Home Builders, the North American Log Homes Council, and the National Institute of Building Sciences keeps manufacturers abreast of changes within their field.
Roughly, what you'll be faced with are three separate categories of kits, and your decision will be based on cost and on your own ability to participate in the construction.
If you're looking for a basic, minimum-cost package, and are prepared to be responsible for a lot of additional materials plus a good deal of planning and labor, a "bare walls" kit is right up your alley. As the name suggests, you get only the pre-cut and numbered logs needed to erect the house walls. The appeal, of course, is the price (in the $4-per-square-foot range) and the freedom to make most of your own choices. Some firms even sell raw, uncut logs by the foot.
The "structural package" is a popular, middle-ground approach. It consists of walls plus the overhead framing: beams, rafters, and roofing. Prices range from $15 to $25 per square foot of floor area, though that will increase with the selection of group options such as insulated windows, loft beams, and stairways. This type of kit is a good bet for the owner-builder seeking to trade time for money, because a lot of choices are left open.
Finally, the "turnkey" kits are the most complete packages available. But it's very important that, as a buyer, you understand exactly what the company you're dealing with means by complete, because each one's definition varies. Generally (but not always) you'll be buying a fully weathertight structure, but one devoid of spikes and fasteners, interior walls, finish flooring, and extras such as porches, railings, and incidental trim.
The finished cost of a house built from any of these packages will vary according to your location and degree of self-commitment. Do, however, realize that it's quite common for a home with all the finishing touches completed to total up to three times the cost of the original package—or $45 to $80 per square foot, depending on your area. Why? Because you'll have to factor in expenses common to any new house: the permits, surveys, foundation, plumbing, septic and electrical systems, basic insulation, and those must-have extras such as cabinets, porches, decks, garages, walks, and whatever else you can imagine.
Log Cabin Specifics: Wood Types and Insulation
Before you make up your mind to purchase a kit, there are a few other matters to consider that are pretty much specific to log structures regardless of who builds them. Caulking, or chinking, between the logs is critical to aesthetics and to insuring a draft-free environment. Though it's true that nearly all manufacturers use some type of spline-and-gasket system between each horizontal log course, slight gaps may occur as the wood shrinks and settles. The chinking bond replaces old-time mortar as a means of sealing these openings over time and presenting a smooth, finished appearance to the wall faces. It's important that the chinking method you choose be resilient enough to do the job, and that it comes with some kind of long-term guarantee.
The logs themselves also need to be protected against rot, insect damage, and decay. Since the Environmental Protection Agency effectively restricted the use of harmful preservatives four years ago—including pentachlorophenol, creosote, and to some degree chromated copper arsenate—the trend is toward more benign sodium borate compounds such as those sold under the brand names Tim-Bor, Boracare, and Safbor. Make the effort to find out how the timbers you'll be buying are protected.
Insulation, or lack of it, may also be a concern to those in northern climates. A well-sealed and well-chinked structure with eight-inch or larger logs is moderately protected in itself. However, more than one log home company offers an optional insulation kit that, though it adds significantly to the finished cost of the house, can give it a thermal buffer up to an R-32 value. Several companies offer intrinsic solar designs that effectively supplement, and even replace, artificial heating. (One manufacturer said he calculated that in three years his solar log home would save enough over the cost of heating with wood to pay for the structure's own timbers!)
And, maybe most important of all for those considering taking on the construction themselves, do look into the manufacturer's policy on postsale assistance. All should be willing to help to some degree, but that support can range from telephone consultation to various levels of on-site aid to complete seminars or attendance at a builders' school. Not all this help comes free, however, so be sure to investigate what's available at what cost, even if you're contracting out the assembly work.
As thousands of people have discovered over the past two decades, kit log homes offer a builder flexibility unmatched by most other types of housing. If you're looking into an alternative that's becoming more mainstream every year, don't overlook the possibilities that solid logs present.