Rustic charm, rural luxury

Log homes have come a long way since pioneer days. Now they're often upscale and custom-built.

Leslie Navaroli says she can sit and stare at her living room ceiling for hours. The huge pine logs form a cathedral ceiling she finds remarkable in its natural beauty, strength, and engineering.

The Navaroli family used to live in a conventional house in central Massachusetts, one hemmed in by neighbors and divided into a warren of drywall-enclosed rooms.

Today, they live in a new log home on two acres of semirural property. It's open inside and to the outside as well, comfortable and cozy as a fur-lined slipper and sturdy as a fort. "It has character, but it's simple," Mrs. Navaroli says.

Not, of course, as simple as the humble log cabin of American history and folklore, not by a long shot. But if the log-home industry has come a long way from the one-room cabin of Abe Lincoln, it still in a sense is built on America's rough-hewn spirit and love of natural surroundings. Except that today's log-home buyers are looking to combine rustic charm with all the comforts of a custom-built luxury home.

The Log Home Living Institute in Chantilly, Va., estimates that there are more than 500,000 modern log homes in the United States and Canada and that more families live in log homes today than at any time in history. In the US, log homes account for 7 percent of the custom-home market.

Aesthetics have always been a big part of the log home's appeal, but increasingly so are size and comfort. The contemporary version of these well-engineered homes, often fitted together with tongue-and-groove joints, sell anywhere from under $100,000 to $8 million. And even in standardized versions, they come as large as 5,000 square feet.

David Allaire, president of Real Log Homes in Mendon, Mass., says things have changed a lot over the 30 years he's been in the business. When he started, customers selected from pre-drawn plans. You picked one, or you didn't build.

Then, about 15 years ago, technological improvements paved the way to greater customization.

"Bring us your plans," is how today's construction generally works, says Mr. Allaire. He spent hours assisting the Navarolis, who arrived with plans in hand.

The couple found that every inch counts, and to get what they wanted on their budget - including radiant heat and a two-car garage - they had to slice six inches off the foyer.

Detailed involvement in the planning typifies log-home owners, who often hope to make a personal design statement.

"You're intimately involved in this process," Navaroli explains. "It's a journey, not a turnkey operation."

And it's a journey that takes patience. Some consumers don't want to take on the whole array of decisions involved in building a type of home they may be unfamiliar with. Fixing problems is more complicated than replacing a couple of two-by-fours. The exacting engineering contributes to increased costs: Log homes typically cost about 10 to 15 percent more than comparably sized conventional homes.

Perhaps these factors explain why many log-home owners are affluent and well-educated. They like to commune with nature but not necessarily live in backwoods seclusion. Their homes are often in resort regions or within commuting distance of urban areas.

"You don't have to turn your back on society to enjoy this lifestyle," says Anne Marie Kupferer, executive director of the Log Home Living Institute, an organization of log-home owners and enthusiasts.

According to the latest figures, Colorado is the most popular place to build a log home, followed by New York and North Carolina. In Maggie Valley, N.C., there's even a gated log-home development called the Smoky Mountain Retreat, where people can rent homes for a week to see if this type of home suits them.

For their house, the Navarolis picked a spot in the town of Douglas (population 5,400), less than an hour's drive from Boston; Providence, R.I.; and Worcester, Mass. The location is convenient for Tom Navaroli, a computer consultant, and ideal for his outdoors-minded family.

Hundred-year-old apple trees dot the lot's perimeter, a clump of shade trees grows at the back edge, and a pond - where the family canoes and fishes - lies just beyond.

To Mrs. Navaroli, a former merchandising executive who's now a stay-at-home mom to the couple's daughters, ages 5 and 8, the setting is calming.

That feeling is not surprising, says Stephen Biggs, president of Town & Country Cedar Homes of Petoskey, Mich. Log homes are a "shelter for the spirit," he says, particularly in the post-9/11 world. They are an emotional investment. Often the seeds of the romance are planted years before purchase.

Jeff Arnold of Heritage Log Homes in Sevierville, Tenn., says most customers have some previous experience with log homes, possibly through a friend or from a vacation or summer-camp experience. This, he believes, overcomes the biggest challenge to selling log homes, a lack of awareness.

"For most people, the thought of building with logs doesn't even cross their mind," he observes.

The Navarolis became captivated while visiting home shows and spending family vacations in a rented log home in Maine.

For inspiration, they subscribed to specialty log-home magazines, which are the dream generators for "log-o-philes."

"I've talked to people who own these homes, and they say the logs actually become like friends," says Charles Bevier, editor of Building Systems Magazine. "Their eyes start to memorize the grain and where certain branches were on the log."

The homes become friends, too. Quite often they are the last ones people plan to live in. That is why owners want their design to reflect their values and tastes.

For years, Carl Reid and his wife debated what to build on lakefront property they owned in Michigan. At first, they wanted to go with a New England seaside look, but it didn't fit the surroundings. A few years ago, in driving by Town & Country's offices, Mr. Reid spied an alluring model that convinced him the search was over.

The interior, which combines white cedar and conventional drywall, seemed the perfect antidote to the heavy-log look the couple wanted to avoid. "It's airy, a little bit rustic, but really refined," says Reid.

Tom Bingham, who runs a family lumber business in Brookline, N.H., built his own log home and recently became a dealer. "I had no idea how much people have left the musty log cabin behind and gotten into nice, bright log homes with a lot of natural light."

More and more, people seem to be mixing logs with other building materials. Wilbur Bontrager calls his northern Indiana luxury home a hybrid of stick-frame and log construction. From the outside, the 5,000-square-foot beauty is clad mostly in wooden shingles. Inside, it uses logs split lengthwise and framed conventionally.

"Using conventional construction for the walls allows you to use conventional methods for wiring, plumbing, and so forth," Mr. Bontrager says.

Many of these upscale homes have the feel of inviting lodges. One homeowner says guests find the atmosphere so appealing, they are reluctant to leave.

Some are on sprawling lots (Bontrager's sits on 85 acres), but even the smaller properties usually are surrounded by enough trees to "frame the picture," Mr. Arnold observes. "When you look at these houses, it seems like the owners want you to look at the whole thing and just go, 'Wow.' "

The Navarolis' 2,800-square-foot home cost roughly $375,000. They built it to look simple from the front, partly to avoid attracting attention. Even so, log-home fans stop to chat. Across the back of the house, the architecture is more dynamic, with lots of glass.

The open floor plan was designed to keep the family together; three bedrooms provide everybody with private space.

Low maintenance and modern livability were priorities (the house is "wired to the hilt," Navaroli says). The towering fireplace is built of cultured stone, resembling river rock. The downstairs floor is an easily maintained tile. The contoured logs, milled to be flatter, collect less dust.

The thick wood provides its own insulation. But because channels and cavities must be bored into the logs for wiring and other systems, "You have to know exactly where an outlet's going, or guess what, you're not getting it," she says.

Navaroli adds that she and her husband eliminated all the cabinets planned under the roof line because they couldn't bear to cover any of the yellow pine structural beam.

"There's a certain allure of log homes," she says, "and you either love 'em or you hate 'em." Clearly the Navarolis love theirs, and realize that while it's not maintenance-free (preservatives and stain must be applied every three to five years), they don't need to think about replacing shingles or clapboards. And the upkeep's hardly a burden, given what the house offers them: peace and quiet, family togetherness, and proximity to wildlife.

"This is our retirement home, this is our vacation home, this is our investment," says Navaroli. The family has lost interest in travel, she adds. Their home beckons like a big easy chair.

"My husband can't wait to get home, to go fishing, to be in the yard with the dogs - for him that's relaxing," she says.

For her, contentment is sitting on the second floor during a snowstorm, firing up the woodburning stove, and watching nature's show outside. "You're home and you're safe," she says, "so why not enjoy it?"

Nuts and bolts of log homes

There are two basic types of log homes, manufactured and handcrafted. The latter may appeal to purists, but factory-milled log home packages, which can easily be customized, are far and away the most popular.

Precut kits are assembled somewhat like a child's Lincoln Logs. The average materials package is $55,000, but that price is usually just for the shell. Add in electrical and plumbing equipment, cabinetry, and flooring, and the final cost can triple.

One of the first choices the prospective owner of a log home must make is to choose the shape of log he or she prefers, whether fully rounded, partly rounded, or square.

Other important decisions are the size of the logs, which generally range between six and 24 inches, the type of wood (pine, cedar, and fir are popular), the stain color, the type of finishes and preservatives, and the chinking (the mortar between logs in some homes. Others use tongue-and-groove joinery and rubber gaskets within the joint to prevent air infiltration.)

The way the logs are secured varies. Some homes use spikes, others screw fasteners, and still others a "thru-bolt" system, in which the logs that make up a wall are stacked over a threaded rod and bolted together.

Owners also choose among different architectural styles, from early American to ranch.

There are more than 400 manufacturers of log homes in the United States. Fifty-five of these belong to the Log Homes Council, whose members subscribe to a log-grading program.

Abe Lincoln, it's safe to say, would be amazed at the transformation of the ol' log cabin, which has morphed into a tight, modern structure.

So log houses have closed the gaps and, because of their thermal mass, are now known for their energy-efficiency, unlike in pioneer days when draftiness was one of their main features.

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