Building an Authentic Log Cabin

Log cabins have sheltered people for thousands of years, primarily in northern Europe, where trees were plentiful and the need for insulation was high. Immigrants brought the design across the ocean to North America, and log cabins are now associated in the American mind with pioneers, the Midwest and Abraham Lincoln.

Log cabins fell out of favor as American society became industrialized and specialized, and the appeal of building one's own house became less obvious. But in recent years, log-cabin building has experienced a resurgence, probably as part of the bigger do-it-yourself movement occurring across the country.

Log home kits on the market today make building a home a more achievable dream. But many people looking to build their own homes want to do it from scratch, perhaps even cutting down the trees themselves.

Whichever route you take, it seems like a huge undertaking, but experts insist that it's relatively easy and far less expensive than building a conventional house.

Pull Quote

Due to the permitting process, buying a kit is often an easier way to go.
  1. [Quote] | I stacked my house for $10,000. I had plenty of money left over!

  2. [Attribution] | John Powers, co-founder of the Log Homes From Scratch Fellowship

Permitting Concerns

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  2. [Body] | John Powers, co-founder of the Log Homes From Scratch Fellowship, based in Texas, lives in a log home with his family and advises others on how to build their own cabins. He's an advocate for log homes as an affordable option. "I stacked my house for $10,000," he said. "I had plenty of money left over!"

    The first thing most potential builders worry about is permitting, because log homes appear to be so different from other structures. Powers, however, has never had a client or colleague fail to get approval to build. "Most building inspectors are unfamiliar with log homes, so you might need an engineer, and he'll sign off on it, which will allow the city inspector to sign off as well," he said.

    Greg Landess, vice president of sales and marketing at Blue Ridge Log Cabins in South Carolina, says zoning issues and city codes are the same with log homes and standard houses. "We build to the same codes that any site builder does," said Landess, whose company makes modular log homes that can be adapted to special orders and shipped to building sites. "The hookups are the same as with any other house."

    The permitting process is one element of log-home building for which buying a kit is the easier way to go. Every kit arrives preapproved by an engineer. As far as from-scratch builders are concerned, however, that's the only benefit to buying a kit. Just about very DIY log home website has an entire section dedicated to the evils of kit homes. It's an opinion, but strongly held.

    Log homes can have all the amenities of standard homes, though wiring and plumbing can't be contained in the exterior walls; they're usually run through the interior walls or partitions. And for some, the term "cabin," implying a small, simple home, isn't the right word. Landis has worked on an 8,300-square-foot log home.

From the Ground Up

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  2. [Body] | Whether you build from a kit or from scratch, you'll have to decide on your foundation. A regular slab could crack under the weight of the stacked logs, so Powers recommends using either a very deep slab, running at least 2 feet below the freeze line, or securing your log home with a series of 2-foot-wide cement piers.

    The next issue gets to the heart of the matter: the logs themselves. Some purists -- and Powers is one -- don't treat the wood they choose. "I don't believe in treated logs," Powers said. "With untreated wood, there is less outgassing, less chemicals; the logs can breathe. It's about health, really."

    Untreated wood must be protected from the elements in some fashion, however, which is why Powers' roof extends into a 9-foot overhang from the sides of his house. It keeps the logs out of the sun and rain while creating a porch.

    Generally speaking, the best wood for log cabins is cedar, and the worst is oak. There are many reasons, however, to go with whatever wood is easiest to procure. For one thing, it is cheaper if the wood comes from nearby and there are no shipping costs. "I say cut down any tree you can find," advised Powers.

    It's also more earth-friendly, as bringing in wood via truck or train increases fuel consumption and pollution.

    Perhaps a more important reason for using local logs, at least for people who want their homes to last a long time, is that local wood is less appetizing to local bugs than wood shipped in from another climate. "I'm in East Texas, so Louisiana isn't far," Powers said. "But if I brought in a delicious Louisiana cypress, the bugs would've eaten it up."

Building the Cabin

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  2. [Body] | Once the wood is collected, it's time to start stacking. People sand down the logs to different degrees, but it's largely a matter of taste: how rustic you want your home to look. Either way, the exterior contains the strength of the house, as the interior walls are never load-bearing.

    Powers has noticed that the thing people in log homes fear most is fire. The idea that a log home would burn quicker than a standard home is pervasive but not true. "They burn slow," Powers said. "Your house could burn 10 hours and not collapse.

    "Think about building a fire: You have to split a log to burn it."

    These thick-walled structures maintain mild inside temperatures and have a reputation for surviving hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters, all qualities attributed to their thermal mass, which also makes log homes notably energy efficient.

    "Think of a round log, with pores inside the log," explained Landess. "When it gets sun on the outside, those pores warm up inside the log, [which] traps it in, so it works as insulation throughout the night."

    In terms of cost, aesthetics and energy efficiency, a log cabin could be it for a crafty person looking to take on the ultimate DIY project.

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  • [From a Kit vs. From Scratch] | The fight between log cabin traditionalists and log home kit sellers is contentious. The latter group aims to make the process simple, while the former says building your own is easy enough and cheaper.

    John Powers, who built his log home from scratch for $10,000, has priced out kits of the same square footage that cost well over $100,000. The kits also contain wood that's been stripped and treated, which removes some of the rustic, out-in-nature element that many log home owners crave.

    "The kits have all the draftiness of a log home without the thermal mass," Powers said.

    Still, they do make the process simpler, from the warranties and building instructions to the engineer's certificate that comes with each kit. For someone with more money than time, it could be the better option.

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