Choosing a Log Home

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This lakeside Idaho log home was designed and built by Rocky Mountain Log Homes of Hamilton, Mont.
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Off-the-grid living in a spectacular setting: Perched at 9,000 feet, this Colorado log home, built by Timberline Builders of Durango, overlooks the Continental Divide and Roosevelt National Forest (top). Handpicked from the site, granite rocks accent the fireplace (above) the great room.
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Forty-eight solar panels and a backup generator power the home and its appliances.
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Two log homes designed by Maple Island Log Homes of Twin Lake, Mich.

Demand for log homes is up, partly because an increasing number of people view them as an attractive — and more sustainable — alternative to conventional housing. Others simply like the idea of living in a log home, for its warm appearance and solid wood walls. Recent consumer surveys show that log homes are one of the fastest growing segments of the building industry, with more than 25,000 built every year, mostly as the homeowner’s principal residence, according to the Log Homes Council of the National Association of Home Builders.

In the late 1960s, a renaissance in log home building began in the United States and Canada with small, simple, do-it-yourself kits mainly designed for back-to-the-landers. Today, modern log homes incorporate many different styles and can follow almost any floor plan. And many of those floor plans are custom designs; log homes now represent about 7 percent of custom homes in the United States. Although some may choose to build their own log homes, most homeowners hire a contractor to do the work.

Trying to select the right log home design can be a daunting task: More than 400 commercial manufacturers currently produce log homes, each with numerous styles and options.

“I’ll be the first to admit it, we make it very difficult for consumers to compare apples to apples, so to speak, because every company has a different package,” says Rich Horn, 2004 president of the Log Homes Council. “That’s why it’s so important to understand exactly what you are buying from the log home manufacturer, and the terms of the agreement.”

Typically, the manufacturer supplies the logs and other structural components, and may offer design assistance and construction services. When the design work is completed, the manufacturer delivers construction-ready materials to the building site. But this is only part of the larger picture, which also includes site work, utilities, a foundation or slab, heating and cooling systems, electrical and plumbing work, cabinetry and finishes, and labor costs. Although prices can vary widely, the cost of a log home shell usually represents about a third of the finished home’s total cost. Most reputable manufacturers can provide an estimate of the final cost to help you plan a budget, secure financing and decide how much of the work you want to do yourself.

Every potential buyer should understand the two main categories of log homes: manufactured and handcrafted. Both use the same general strategy of stacking logs on top of each other to create the home’s walls, but they follow different methods of producing the logs.

Manufactured versus Handcrafted Log Homes

The manufactured log home, as the name implies, is produced in a mill. The wall logs are sawed, planed or otherwise shaped to a specific size and uniform profile. The end result usually has a uniform appearance on both the exterior and interior. Because mill buildings and the machinery in them are expensive capital investments, manufactured log home companies generally are large organizations. And many of these companies also utilize the latest in computer-aided design (CAD) technology. The Log Homes Council has more than 50 manufacturer members that participate in a certified log-grading program and agree to follow a code of ethics.

A wide range of milled packages are on the market, according to Rob Pickett, who operates a log home consulting firm in Hartland, Vt. “Some milled logs are produced and shipped to the construction site, where the builder is on his or her own — not necessarily a problem for an experienced contractor,” he says. “At the other end of the spectrum are highly evolved packages of pre-cut materials that arrive on the job site, all ready to be assembled with the help of detailed instructions.”

Some manufacturers offer training sessions, and sometimes the representative who sold the package is involved in the construction or is available for technical assistance. Some packages include virtually everything needed to erect the house, some do not. As long as you do your homework in advance and work with a reputable manufacturer, a milled log home can be a solid, long-term investment that will appreciate in value with the passage of time.

Handcrafted log homes, on the other hand, are produced from whole logs by artisans. The logs are individually selected for placement in the structure and usually hand peeled. They may be green (freshly cut) or dried.

“Green wood is easier to work with and carve, but taking more time with harder, drier wood gives you the same results in the long run,” says Robèrt Savignac, executive director of the International Log Builders’ Association (ILBA) in Lumby, British Columbia.

The difference is when green wood is used, a greater allowance needs to be made for settling. Whether handcrafters use green or dried wood, they then carefully fit the logs to each other to ensure a structurally sound, weather-tight wall system.

After the entire shell is completed, it is disassembled and shipped to the homeowner’s site. Often, a member of the crew who originally built the shell oversees its reconstruction. Some handcrafters bring the entire crew along. A four-year, 7,000-hour apprenticeship program sponsored by trade organizations and provincial authorities for log home construction now exists in British Columbia — this is intended to assure both the homeowner and the industry that handcrafters follow proper construction procedures in the province. The ILBA also publishes a comprehensive set of Log Building Standards for its members.

The most obvious difference between a handcrafted log home and its milled counterpart is appearance. The handcrafted log home normally uses larger, whole logs that often retain their natural taper. The handcrafted home also is a more individualized project that often contains custom designs, such as unusual stairways, fireplace mantles or ornamental structural features (although these items also can be found in, or added to, a manufactured log home). Because of the significant amount of custom labor involved, handcrafted log homes tend to be more expensive than their mechanically milled alternatives.

“People are using logs because they have made a conscious decision to build with a healthy wood product that is renewable, and they understand there is probably a premium to pay for that building style,” Savignac says. “Most people view the handcrafted home as an individual, more custom-oriented product as opposed to one that is cookie cut from a standard plan.”

Traditionally, the handcrafted log home took longer to produce than a milled package, but that has begun to change in recent years with the development of new, more efficient handcrafting techniques. Nevertheless, the demand for good builders of handcrafted log homes exceeds the supply, and some companies have waiting lists measured in years rather than in months. But an increasing number of people who want a truly unique, customized log home think the wait is worth it.

Energy Efficiency

A log home is not necessarily more energy efficient than other types of houses, but under the right circumstances it can be highly competitive. Many factors affect a home’s energy efficiency, but eliminating air infiltration is one of the most important issues — a drafty wall is a problem, regardless of the type of house. Consequently, one of the most important characteristics of a well-built log wall is that it be airtight. Modern log walls incorporate a variety of different sealing strategies between logs to ensure an airtight fit, including a wide range of tongue-and-groove or spline designs normally used in conjunction with closed-cell foam gasket tape, acrylic chinking, butyl tape or other sealant products.

Another key component of a home’s energy efficiency is the R-value for the walls and roof, a measurement of resistance to heat flow.

Unfortunately, the R-value of an 8-inch log wall is lower than a typical 2-by-4 insulated frame wall. That same log wall, however, performs between 5 percent and 15 percent better than the frame wall for controlling heating and cooling loads over the whole year, according to Bion Howard, president of Building Environmental Science and Technology, a green building consulting firm based in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

This benefit, which has been documented in numerous tests, is due to wood’s thermal mass value — its ability to absorb and later re-radiate heat. “Avoid walls of less than 6-inch thickness in most climates, and 8 inches in colder climates, for sufficient thermal protection levels,” Howard says. “Thinner walls do not take advantage of the thermal mass of solid wood.”

Jeff Christian, director of the Buildings Technology Center at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, has been involved in numerous tests of thermal mass wall systems and agrees the solid wood components of a log home can help moderate swings in temperature and humidity in the home’s living space. But he adds that there are diminishing returns as the solid wood wall thickness increases because “the heat buildup from inside the house just doesn’t go very deep into the log before it radiates back out at night.”

Thermal mass storage benefits aren’t restricted to the structure of your home, Christian says. The type of floors, interior walls and even the size of your library and the type of furniture you own will affect the house’s thermal mass and energy efficiency.

Other factors that influence the energy efficiency of a log home include roof insulation, the heating system (preferably a renewable one), appliances (preferably energy efficient) and the home’s orientation to the sun, as well as the placement and type of windows to take maximum advantage of solar heat gain. But the combination of the thermal mass advantage and the cozy ambiance of solid wood walls makes log homes an attractive choice for many people.

How Green Is Your Log Home?

Although it’s not always the case, log homes can be easier on the environment than conventional types of housing, particularly regarding all the energy used in a home’s manufacture, shipping and construction. “A log home can have lower embodied energy by a significant margin, particularly if locally sourced timber reduces the transportation energy cost,” Howard says.

Manufacturing a log home kit takes less energy than to cut, plane, package, ship, locally transfer and distribute framing lumber, especially since most lumber is shipped from regions outside the 500-mile distance criterion of LEED standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) set by the U.S. Green Building Council, according to Howard.

If a manufactured log home can offer some advantage in embodied energy, then a locally sourced, handcrafted log home shines in this category.

“The handcrafted log home is the poster child for value-added wood products because of its low embodied energy; it wins hands down,” Savignac says. “Someone with the proper training and experience who has a chain saw, a scriber, a measuring tape and a few other hand tools can turn a truckload or two of building logs into a beautiful home.”

There are a few other things you can consider to make your log home as sustainable as possible. In addition to using local logs, you also can ask if the timber came from sustainably certified sources. This is a particularly useful strategy when buying a manufactured log home, where the source of the logs may be harder to track than with a handcrafter. Standing dead timber also can be a good source for log homes, but beware of insect-killed timber, which might still have an active infestation.

“I’m not saying that everyone should be living in a log home,” Savignac says. “But you can replant trees, while it’s pretty hard to replant concrete or steel. Logs are an answer to the green building concerns that many people have today, both for environmental responsibility and for healthy lifestyles.”

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

The size of the average log home in the United States has increased substantially in the past few decades. Fifteen to 20 years ago, the average was about 1,100 square feet. Today, the average is more than 2,000 square feet. “We definitely have seen an increase in the size of log homes that most people are purchasing today,” Horn says.

But this trend is not necessarily mirrored on the handcrafted side of the industry, according to Savignac. “Although there are exceptions, in general I’m finding that people are building smaller and smarter,” he says. “They’re taking more time to design a house that is more functional, but not necessarily bigger.”

So, if your budget is limited or if you simply want to minimize your impact on the planet, join this growing countertrend. Take a little extra time with the design, and you may end up with a better, smaller log home that truly meets your needs — whether it’s handcrafted or milled.

But what is it really like to live in a log home? Tom and Denise Pavao have lived in their 1,800-square-foot handcrafted log home in Ashfield, Mass., since 1997. They spent several years carefully researching log homes before selecting a New York-based handcrafter. The home faces south to take advantage of passive solar gain in the winter. In addition, the Pavaos use a masonry heater as their primary heat source and generally burn between 2 and 3 cords of wood per season.

“The house has a wonderful warmth and solidity about it,” Denise says. “When people come to visit us, they walk through the doors and immediately comment about how cozy it feels. We just love it.”

Horn offers some final advice for prospective log home buyers. “The key to an enjoyable log home-building experience is to do your homework carefully,” he says. “Then, work with a reputable log home manufacturer and be sure you understand the entire process and total costs. And don’t be shy about asking questions.”

Greener Options

Beyond using locally harvested trees for logs and insuring airtight sealings, there are numerous choices you can make to help create a more sustainable home:

  • Energy Star double- or triple-pane windows with high-performance glass and insulated frames are environmentally responsible and will save you money in the long run on heating and cooling costs.
  • Cellulose insulation is generally considered “greener” than fiberglass and is usually less expensive to install in attics. Regardless of the insulation type you use in your attic, the higher the R-value (resistance to heat flow), the more energy efficient your home will be. Also consider wool insulation — a superb natural insulator that can be used between logs. Good Shepherd Wool ((403) 845-6705) in Alberta is one of the few commercial sources.
  • High-tech synthetic roofing shingles made from recycled materials are available that perform as well or better than the actual slate or cedar shakes they mimic.
  • Use low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints and finishes.
  • Heating your log home with a renewable energy heating system — geothermal, solar, wood or biodiesel — will make it greener and save you money over the long term.

You Can Build It!

The following articles from Mother’s online Archive about owner-built log homes will inspire you to fulfill your own log home dreams.

Recommended Books

Build Your Own Low-Cost Log Home by Roger Hard
Hands-On Log Homes by Cindy and Art Thiede
Log Cabin Classics by Robbin Obomsawin
Logs, Wind and Sun by Rex and LaVonne Ewing

Log-home Building Schools

If you’re ready to learn more and get some hands-on experience, look for a log-building school near you:

B. Allan Mackie School of Log Building
Chase, British Columbia
(250) 679-2720

Custom Log Homes
Salmon Arm, British Columbia
(250) 832-3690

Del Radomske’s Okanagan School of Log Building International
Kelowna, British Columbia
(250) 765-5166

Great Lakes School of Log Building
Isabella, Minn.
(218) 365-2126

International Log Builders’ Association
(800) 532-2900

Island School of Building Arts
Gabriola Island, British Columbia
(250) 247-8922

Lasko School of Log Building
Franklin, Ind.
(800) 292-8043

Log Home Builder’s Association of North America 
Monroe, Wash.
(360) 794-4469

Montana School of Log Building
Three Forks, Mont.
(406) 285-3488

Moose Mountain Log Homes
Bragg Creek, Alberta
(403) 932-3992

Palmquist’s The Farm
Brantwood, Wis.
(800) 519-2558

Pat Wolfe Log Building School 
Lanark, Ontario
(613) 256-0631

Rocky Mountain Workshops
Fort Collins, Colo.
(970) 482-1366

Before You Build

  • Buy the land where your house is going to be located before making a commitment to a manufacturer for a specific style, since the site may influence the ultimate design.
  • Have a realistic idea of the total cost of the project before making any firm commitments on a log home package.
  • Find out how long the log home manufacturer has been in business and check the company’s references. Are structural, certified engineering or energy calculation services provided? Talk with previous customers to see if they are satisfied with their houses and with the company.
  • Be sure that your contractor has experience with log construction. Many log home manufacturers can provide the names of good contractors in your area.
  • Significant differences exist between various log home packages and warranties; be sure to carefully read the specifications and the contract so you know exactly what you are getting.
  • Be sure your financing is in place for the entire project before you begin construction.

For More Information

For additional information on the many different types of log homes and manufacturers that are available, these resources can be helpful:

Log Homes Council
(800) 368-5242, Ext. 8576

International Log Builders’ Association
(800) 532-2900

Log Homes on the Internet
Covers a wide range of log home topics, including a list of manufacturers and links to other resources.

Greg Pahl is the author of Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003) and Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005).