By the Lumbers
To create his dream cabin, Mr. Raphael traveled the country, taking photographs of log lodges at a number of national parks because he was enamored with the architecture. He then met with Jay Pohley, president of Pioneer Log Homes in Victor, Mont., and together, they came up with a design for the home, located in Windham, N.Y. The exterior features native stone and hand-peeled standing dead timber—trees that were killed by wildfire or disease and then harvested from their setting.
Once an icon of humble Americana, evoking images of Abe Lincoln, log homes are getting larger and more elaborate, with intricate truss work, expansive windows and even contemporary, curved elements. Instead of dark, low-slung cabins, homeowners are opting for airier, lighter versions with open layouts.
Advances in log-home building have also been driving luxury construction. The chinking, used to fill the gaps between logs, is commonly synthetic in the newer homes. The acrylic polymers adhere to wood better than the traditional sand-cement chinking, which pulled away from the wood as it expanded and contracted, allowing cold drafts, rain and bugs inside. As Mr. Pohley puts it, “synthetic chinking saved our industry.”
Some builders also use logs reinforced with steel rods to minimize sagging as the house settles over time—a common side effect of log homes. The technique also allows architects to create more complex designs.
And builders are increasingly constructing what are called hybrid homes—log homes with a traditional lumber framework that is covered by a veneer of half-logs, half-cut timbers or stone on the outside and inside. This method makes it easier to install electrical, plumbing and insulation in the home, says Ellis Nunn, an architect in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Mr. Nunn and his wife, Sharon, recently designed a 25,000-square-foot hybrid home for a client in Chattanooga, Tenn., with 10 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, staff quarters, mood lighting and automated doggy doors. The 10-acre estate includes a log sports pavilion with tennis courts and an outdoor entertainment area where the owners host charity events, and a log guesthouse.
Still, the downturn in the economy has put a dent in the log-cabin market in recent years. Murray Arnott, a log-home designer in Ontario, says he saw a steep drop in demand starting in 2009. And even with the real-estate rebound, log homes remain a niche market.
Mr. Raphael put his log home on the market for $12.5 million a year and a half ago; it has already had a price drop and is now listed at $9.75 million. He says he “put his heart and soul” into the home, but that he’s selling because he’s ready to move on to another project.
John A. Burke Jr., a broker who sells homes in New York’s Adirondacks, says there is a market for handcrafted log homes, albeit a small one. That results in more inventory than demand. “Log homes have so many unique characteristics that sometimes people say, ‘Let’s just build our own,’ ” Mr. Burke says, which compounds the surplus.
Jim McKinney, an investment banker in Chicago, worked with PFB Corp.’s PFB.T +0.99%Precision Craft Log & Timber Homes in Meridian, Idaho, on his nearly 7,000-square-foot vacation home in Jackson Hole, Wyo., which cost about $3 million. By using steel-reinforced logs, Mr. McKinney was able to get a 27-foot-wide floor-to-ceiling window framed between cedar logs, giving him sweeping views of the Grand Tetons in his great room. “It looks like the trees are coming out of the ground,” Mr. McKinney says of the logs that hold the window.
“I wanted it to be really, really old looking,” says Mr. McKinney, who built a master bath with wood reclaimed from Old Faithful Lodge at Yellowstone National Park and hung a “Bath 25¢” sign outside the steam shower.
He had the walnut floors on the main floor hand-scraped and the granite countertops in the kitchen torched and sandblasted to make them look rough. Finishing touches include a wood-paneled icebox, silver dollars imprinted in the bar with an old brass cash register sitting on top and a great room that has an 18-foot canoe perched in the corner.
Building a luxury log home takes about six to eight months longer than a traditional timber-framed home and costs 10% to 40% more because of the labor involved in hand-crafting elements of the home. Typically, the bark is hand-peeled off the logs with a drawknife to give it a rustic, uneven look. Logs often are notched, another time-consuming task, so the corners can be fitted together.
Delivery costs typically comprise 2% of the overall project cost because most handcrafted log-homes are constructed on a factory or logging site and then disassembled and numbered for shipping. For a $5 million log home recently completed in the mountains of Cyprus, Jim Banner of Precision Craft estimates the fees for 25, 40-foot-long shipping containers cost about $100,000.
Prices for logs have increased about 15% in the past five years, in part because fewer mills are logging. At the same time, the amount of standing dead timber that is available is increasing as forest fires and infestations such as pine-beetle kill become more prevalent, which has kept prices from rising faster, Mr. Pohley says.
The most popular type of log used is the Douglas fir because of its strength, followed by lodgepole pines, which are about 10% to 20% cheaper. Other high-end choices include Western red cedar and Engelmann spruce.
There are unexpected challenges. For example, Judith Carpenter was asked to decide the placement of every light switch and electrical outlet before her 9,000-square-foot farmhouse in Norwood, N.C., was completed in 2008. Unlike homes with Sheetrock over wall studs, it’s hard to cut openings in the logs and pull wiring through after the home has been assembled. Five years later, Ms. Carpenter says there are one or two places where she wished she put in outlets—particularly in the bedrooms.
Ms. Carpenter, a former state champion in trap shooting, runs the property as a retreat that includes trap shooting, a tilapia farm and a soon-to-come shrimp farm. The $3 million main home has three bedrooms and six bathrooms and includes a downstairs game room with a pool table and home theater and nearly 1,000 square feet of outdoor porches.
Ms. Carpenter wanted a log cabin because it stands apart from the brick- and vinyl-sided homes in the area. “It’s unlike anything else around here,” she says.
Log cabins can stand the test of time, lasting a century or more, with regular maintenance. Most log homes should be restained every three to five years, builders say, to prevent sun damage, and rechinked as needed to prevent air infiltration. Mr. McKinney, the Jackson Hole homeowner, is currently rechinking and touching up a few spots that have been worn down from the sun and from when the sprinklers hit the home, even though it is only a couple of years old.
Some log-cabin homeowners invoke nostalgia and childhood fantasies in their designs. Race-car driver Tony Stewart recently completed a more-than-15,000-square-foot home with six bedrooms and 12 bathrooms in Columbus, Ind., that is reminiscent of Bass Pro Shops, a company that is one of his sponsors and that uses the same supplier of logs in Mr. Stewart’s home, according to people familiar with the project. The residence has a 1,600-cubic-foot aquarium, two trout ponds and a two-lane bowling alley, according to a brochure by the home’s builder. A lower level includes a game room and two racing display cases, plus an actual Indianapolis 500 car hung on the wall. Mr. Stewart declined to comment, but people familiar with the project say the home is, as one person put it, “a far cry from a cabin.”
In the end, Mr. Raphael hopes his passion for his log home rubs off on potential buyers. He has enjoyed spending Christmas there, inviting friends over to play ping pong in the game room and gather in the kitchen to watch hockey games while food is prepped.
“Sometimes, I live there for weeks on end,” Mr. Raphael says. “It’s a great place to have hot chocolate and burn a fire.”