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LOG HOMES TODAY ARE ANYTHING BUT HUMBLE ANCIENT ART OF TIMBER FRAMING CAPTURES PORTION OF REAL ESTATE MARKET HERE

The log home, symbol of pioneer America and the shelter from which presidents sprang, remains a small, but thriving part of the home-building industry.

But disregard that mental image of a small, dark, single-floor cabin, patched with creek mud, heated by an all-purpose fireplace, with young Abe Lincoln reading in front of the fire.

Today's log home and its cousin, the timber frame home, are as far away from that cramped image as 19th Century politics is from perestroika.

The use of logs and framing timber in homes is growing, in terms of popularity, square footage and price. Builders are using large expanses of glass in contemporary styles, equipping the homes with every conceivable amenity. Some wooden exteriors even can be made to not resemble wood.

Surveys indicate that the typical purchaser is a move-up buyer and professional with an income greater than $40,000. And the home is a primary residence, possibly in the suburbs, not just a weekend cabin or hunting lodge hidden in the woods.

"Log homes today are definitely big ger and more contemporary than in the past," said Roland Sweet, managing editor of Log Home Living magazine in Chantilly, Va. "Nine out of 10 log homes today are used as primary residences."

It's estimated that more than a quarter-million log homes are standing throughout the country. Log Home Living's third annual industry survey found that 14,353 log homes were built in 1988 nationwide, down about 2,500 from 1987.

However, the sales volume totaled $413 million, a $12 million jump from 1987, indicating that fewer homes were sold, but at a higher price. Home sizes generally range from 1,200 square feet to 3,500 square feet, but 4,000-square-foot to 6,000-square-foot homes are not uncommon.

Prices also vary. A home building package or kit, minus electrical wiring, plumbing fixtures, foundation and some interior finishes, can run about $30 per square foot. A turnkey project, where a log home builder-dealer does everything and hands the keys to the buyer, can run in the $70-per-square foot range.

"You can put up a log home cheaper than conventional housing, but log homes are not cheap," Sweet said.

Timber framing is a bit different. If you've ever witnessed an Amish barn raising, you've seen timber framing construction at its intricate best.

Timber frame dwellings have been around since the time of Christ. In this country, many of the 100-year-plus barns and old New England homes used timber framing, also known as post-and-beam construction.

"Our timbers are fastened with large wooden pins called dowels," said Jon Hasselbeck, president of Alternative Contracting in Cambria, near Lockport. "The joints of the timbers fit together like joints in your furniture. It's like building one large piece of furniture."

Turnkey costs for timber-framed homes can range between $80 and $100 per square foot.

The increased popularity of solid wood as a primary building product began in the early 1970s, partly due to the back-to-nature movement of the time, Sweet said. People rediscovered the old-fashioned, comfortable feel of wood.

Another reason for log homes' popularity was the rediscovery of wood as an energy-efficient material. Properly constructed, log homes can be just as or more fuel-efficient than conventionally constructed homes.

"You can't put an R-value on a log, but tests have shown that you can save as much as 25 percent of heating and cooling costs with a log home," said Andrew Zilker, marketing director for North American Log Home Systems in Colden.

Log home proponents contend that just because their product is solid wood, doesn't mean it will suffer from a termite problem. Pine, a very popular log home wood, can be treated, and cedar, which naturally resists insects, is more expensive, but available. Builders point out conventional homes contain wood; termites basically don't know the difference.

Another minor problem is log shrinkage. Because the wood is organic, over time it will settle or shrink. But a builder can allow for the half-inch to one-inch of shrinkage expected, Sweet said.

Log home manufacturers also helped their business by putting their wares into so-called kits, containing many if not all of the materials needed to build a home. Kits could be delivered to a site and put up by the buyer.

But today, due to the sophistication of the product and its size, most buyers hire professionals to build their home, and the low-end producers are being driven out of business, Sweet said. Log homes today are not cheap.

"When you add the costs of things like a foundation, ceilings, wiring and plumbing, log homes may cost more than a traditional built home," Sweet said. "But remember, you're using solid wood, 6-inch to 8-inch thick walls, not a wooden frame."

The log home building industry actually contains two types of producers: manufacturers, who turn out the precision-cut packages, and handcrafters, who design and build log homes using many of the ways of our forefathers.

Manufacturers are known for the uniformity and consistent quality of their logs, which allows the logs to be joined in mid wall. Handcrafters take what nature gives them to work with, shaping a wall with the available log.

"We have our own company which builds the kits we sell, or we sell the kits to a buyer, or allow the buyer to finish the home themselves," said William Ball, owner of Akron-based Wilderness Log Homes of Western New York, the Western New York builder-dealer for Plymouth, Wis.-based Wilderness Log Homes.

An attorney by trade, Ball, like many wood builders, got involved in non-traditional construction because he liked the style and wanted to own his own log home.

Three years ago he teamed with long-time conventional builder James Kron Jr. and purchased a Wilderness franchise.

North American Log Home is not a franchise, the company's manufacturing plant and log home storage yard has been located in Colden for 14 years. It manufactures 75 to 100 pre-cut log kits yearly, which are shipped nationwide to about 50 builder-dealers.

"There are so many styles available today, many people just don't realize what can be done with a log home," Zilker said. The company offers 50 floor plans off its standard models, with customizing of any and all home facets up to the individual.

Alternative Contracting's Hasselbeck doesn't have standard floor plans; his typical 2,800-square-foot to 3,200-square-foot homes are built to match an owner's desires.

The timber frame's vertical support posts are connected by girts, or horizontal connecting members. The timbers generally are red and white oak. Hasselbeck then spans the 12 to 16 feet between the vertical posts with 4-foot-wide by eight-foot to 16-foot-long stress-skin panels. The panels are comprised of plywood on the outside, insulation in the middle and conventional drywall on the inside.

The panels allow a buyer to side a house with any siding product, with the interior looking just like a conventional home. The only difference is the interior posts and beams are exposed.

"We can do virtually any style of home using timber framing," Hasselbeck said. "The construction lends itself to large, open rooms and cathedral ceilings."

Proponents agreed that the outlook for their product is bright, as solid wood builders follow the general trend in home building today: designing homes for the move-up, higher-priced market segment.

Certainly a far cry from that old, drafty, one-room cabins pioneers built on the edge of civilization decades ago.

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