Deluxe Log Homes Put A New Spin on Rustic Past

Europeans and particularly the Japanese are taking a keen interest

NOTHING evokes nostalgia for North America's frontier days like relaxing in a log cabin.

But today such rustic homes have become refined by Jacuzzis, skylights, and even indoor swimming pools - a far cry from the dirt-floored dwellings of men like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

Sales of inexpensive log home kits took off in Canada and the United States in the late 1970s and the appeal has grown steadily since. Log homes - both simple and deluxe - are now a billion-dollar industry here and in the US with fast-growing markets in Europe, Japan, and Taiwan, and emerging markets in Eastern Europe and the Caribbean.

The Beverly Hillbillies would doubtless feel proud that their neighbors have seen the light: Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Dan Aykroyd, Gregory Peck, and Barbara Mandrell all own log homes. Yet trendy as these houses are, thousands of retirees and other regular folks are still the biggest buyers of log homes - and live in them year-round.

It is estimated that about 1 million log homes are in everyday use in Canada and the US and another 15,000 to 25,000 are being built each year. If inquiring about your own log dream home, however, please be careful when referring to today's log structures.

``No, don't call them cabins, a cabin is something on a ship,'' says Doris Muir, from her 52-acre Cosby, Tenn., log headquarters with its custom log pool. ``You must call them log homes.''

Hundreds of craftsmen build beautiful log homes every year, but a number of companies have devised ``log systems'' of pre-cut kit homes that Ms. Muir says are superior to all but the best hand-crafted work.

Top quality systems are employed by companies like Laurentian Log Homes Ltd. in Val-Morin, Quebec, and 1867 Confederation Log Homes, which is one of Canada's largest log-home manufacturers.

CONFEDERATION, based in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, northeast of Toronto, uses a system of interlocking grooves pre-cut into flat-sided white pine or cedar logs. This provides for a tight fit between the logs but allows them to expand and contract.

A typical kit costs from $30,000 to $120,000 (Canadian; US$22,600 to US$90,500), excluding electricity, plumbing, and construction, which usually cost as much as the kit, the company says. The total cost is about the same as a standard wood house.

``The rounded type of log is still an ideal a lot of people have - the kind of log cabin where Abe Lincoln grew up, with dirt floors you have to sweep out,'' says Mike Murphy, Confederation vice president. Flat-sided log homes are as common in Canada as the round-sided log, but more resistant to cracking, he adds.

The company's log system makes almost any design possible, Mr. Murphy says. He says he expects to sell 120 units this year.

Most impressed by Confederation's system are the Japanese. In April, Confederation began shipping its largest Japanese order so far, a restaurant and management center for a golf-course on the island of Hokkaido. Murphy says he thinks Japan will make up about one-fourth of the company's market, with another quarter in the US and half of sales in Canada. Confederation projects it will have $12 million in sales this year.

Canadian sales are beginning to grow after the recent recession, Murphy says. The US market, especially the southeast and Midwest including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota, is already doing well, Muir says.

Jim Barna Log Systems is one of the largest US manufactures of log homes in Oneida, Tenn. And many people study how to build their own log homes at the company's research facility.

In Canada, there are several log-home building schools, including one founded by renowned builder B. Allan Mackie in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Pat Wolfe in Ashton, Ontario.

In Port Hope, Ontario, Donald and Valarie Clarke have high hopes of fixing up their five-year-old log home, which they say was not finished off inside when they bought it. ``I think with a log home you get a challenge and it's unique,'' Mr. Clarke says. ``We went out looking one day at log homes and fell in love with them. It's just the rustic look I guess.''

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