Log homes have become more available, accepted

Why the allure of the log cabin in these days of space voyaging and computers? ''Part of the allure is that more people today want a home that is distinctive, different from other houses in the neighborhood,'' says Rod Hayes, a log-home builder in West Plains, Mo.

''Most of the people building better log homes don't merely want a house built of logs,'' he adds. ''They want their own taste and personality to be reflected in the style and design of the building.''

In large part, the growth of whole-wood housing coincided with the trend to more energy self-sufficiency brought on by the Arab oil boycott of 1973-74. But much of the interest has been boosted by better technology and manufacturing methods that produce weathertight, thoroughly livable log structures.

The log house of 1983 is not the log house of a hundred years ago.

Growth in the number of companies producing pre-cut or ''kit'' log homes has more than kept pace with the demand for them. Between 1970 and 1980, for example , more than 100 log-oriented building firms came on the scene in the United States and Canada.

In the last few years, of course, some of these firms have disappeared, beaten by high interest rates and a lagging economy. Yet many of them remain, along with veteran log builders, such as Maine's Ward Cabin Company and Michigan's Boyne Falls Log Homes.

Now, with construction showing some signs of recovery, log-home manufacturers are poised to increase what is admittedly a small share of the total housing market.

''We're guardedly optimistic, with the increased interest in home building and more housing starts,'' declares Tod Schweizer of Traditional Management Inc. , Hanover, N.H.

''I think log construction will hold its share, but how rapidly we increase our percentage of total new-housing units depends on how well the economy recovers.''

Traditional Management Inc. is the corporate parent of Real Log Homes, with manufacturing plants in Arkansas, Vermont, South Carolina, and Montana. The company, founded in 1962, has a national marketing network and helped to establish the Log Homes Council of the National Association of Home Builders.

Builders see a significant pent-up demand for housing. In more normal economic times, an estimated 2.2 million new housing units would have been started in each of the past two years. Last year, by contrast, barely 1 million new units got off the ground. If interest rates remain stable at 12 percent or less, building economists expect 1.3 to 1.4 million new housing starts in 1983.

It is hard to estimate what percentage of those new homes will be built of whole logs. Actually, organizations that measure such things have never been able to get an accurate fix on what share of the housing market belongs to log construction.

For one thing, log homes are not only built by national firms, but also by local builders and even homeowners themselves. Thus, they do not always show up on county tax rolls as log buildings.

''Frankly, I don't know that we want to see a rapid revival in building,'' says Mr. Schweizer. ''I'd prefer a more moderate rate of growth that gives the construction industry time to adjust.''

The housing industry, both log and conventional construction, is starting from a long period of depression, Mr. Schweizer points out. A too-rapid growth might mean a return to some old bugaboos that have disturbed the industry in the past, such as escalating costs of materials and labor.

In some ways, the log-home industry has better credentials now than it did a dozen years ago, when the current boomlet began. One boost came from a recent test of a log building in the Washington, D.C., area by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS).

The NBS study, funded in part by the Log Homes Council, compared a log wall with a rated insulative value of R-10 with a conventional stud wall insulated to a value of R-12. (The R-value is a measure of the degree to which heat passes through a substance).

Results of the test indicate that a log house was up to 45 percent more energy-efficient during periods of fairly rapid temperature change.

Researchers thus conclude that the thermal mass of a solid wood wall effectively cuts energy consumption during both heating and cooling seasons by more than would be expected by R-value alone.

Log construction is being used for more public and commercial buildings, which gives the technique more exposure to potential homeowners.

Rocky River Log Homes Inc., of Monroe, N.C., erected the log buildings at Disney World in Florida; the Alabama State Parks Commission chose to have a Liberty Log Home from the Centreville, Ala., firm built as the park office at a new recreational lake.

Overseas demand for North American-built log structures is picking up as well. Green Mountain Log Homes in Chester, Vt., is exporting more than 20 units to Norway and National Log Construction Company, Missoula, Mont., has just completed an 8,000-square-foot ski restaurant in Japan.

In the US there is apparently less reluctance among mortgage lenders to finance log construction now than there was a few years ago.

''Well-built log homes are better accepted by lenders than they were just 10 years ago,'' says Mr. Schweizer, who says that many bankers and savings-and-loan managers once were prone to put all log buildings in the ''cabin category.''

That no longer is the case, he concludes.

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