The cabin logs on to sophistication Home: A Baltimore County couple built a log house using traditional techniques but including all the modern amenities.

February 11, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

People build log homes because they love their rustic look and cozy feel. But one couple in northern Baltimore County wanted all that and more.

They wanted their home to have a handcrafted look and a sophisticated design. They wanted a contemporary structure with lots of open spaces and light that still felt warm and homey. And they wanted a setting where their rather formal traditional furniture, Oriental rugs and Chinese porcelain wouldn't look out of place.

"Friends who have heard us talk about having a log home are always surprised when they see it," says the woman of the house.

What their friends see is a home as up-to-date as the technology of its radiant heating system, and as traditional as its method of construction, a centuries-old craft called scribe-fitting. It's a log home on a grand scale.

Forget nails and caulking and dried wood. Forget log cabin kits. A few craftsmen (in this case John Nininger, owner of the Wooden House Company in Vermont) are building homes from giant green logs -- fitting them together as if they were one. The builder cuts a notch along the bottom of each log so it sits tightly on the log below, the way "a rider straddles a horse," as it's been described.

The techniques involved have been perfected in Canada in the last 20 years or so, but the craft is much older. Norwegian churches built by scribe-fitting in the 12th century are still standing.

The owners spent three years investigating before they decided they didn't want a manufactured or kit home but a structure handcrafted with scribe-fitting. Crucial to the process was Arthur Valk, one of the few architects in the area with experience in the design of such houses.

"It's very exacting design work," he says, because the logs are put together green, and as they dry over the next three years the house shrinks some 6 inches. Properly designed, this makes for an even more airtight structure; but the rest of the house has to be constructed to allow for the settling. The contractor, John Hummer of Ilex, was chosen because he is a timber framer.

"He understood the problems of a shrinking house," says Mr. Valk. No nails, for instance, can be used between the logs and any other part of the house because they would inhibit the natural shrinkage.

There were other considerations. The owners had very specific room sizes in mind to accommodate the furniture they loved, and nTC the result would be a house almost as wide as it was long. That was problematic for two reasons: First, it would be hard to get as much light as the owners and Mr. Valk wanted to keep the house from "being like a cave," as the wife describes it. Second, it meant an unusually wide roof span for a log system.

Mr. Valk's solutions were plenty of skylights and two 64-foot-long trusses to support the roof rafters. He ran glass around the house between the walls and roof. The roof seems to float above the walls, lending the house a surprising airiness.

"Arthur's vision to see the house without its being built took a lot of talent," says John Nininger of the unusual design.

Beneath the high roof is a mezzanine, with comfortable seating areas on each end and large storage closets. (Another bedroom could be constructed here eventually.) The mezzanine overlooks the huge common room on one side and the foyer on the other.

With these flowing spaces, there is none of the confined feeling you might expect in a log home.

This is particularly important because the house is set deep into the woods, in a hollow of a 78-acre lot near Monkton. It doesn't get much direct sun in the summer, so Mr. Valk designed the main rooms with large windows and a series of glass doors that open out onto a terrace off the kitchen and common room, and onto a deck off the master bedroom.

Once the Wooden House Company in Vermont got the architect's drawings, Mr. Nininger personally selected and marked each giant white pine for its straightness and uniformity of size. From each of these would come a huge log, as much as 2 1/2 feet in diameter. (About half as many of these logs are used to construct a wall as the logs in a kit home, according to Mr. Valk.) The advantage of using such large logs is that their weight compresses the joints for a tighter fit, plus they add more insulation to the house.

The logs were hand-peeled and scribed, and the house was assembled in Vermont. (This first construction can take anywhere from three to six months.) It was then taken apart and shipped to Maryland on five 60-foot flatbed trucks. The reassembling was done in a couple of weeks.

Of course, this house is much more than just logs and glass. The interior walls are painted a pale celadon green, so pale they almost look off-white. The cool color contrasts beautifully with the warmth of the white pine.

In the common room and master bedroom are fireplaces built of antique brick and stone, which give the rooms character and textural interest.

The front doors open into a foyer inlaid with squares of South African slate. Its rich reds and golds are striking.

The foyer leads into the common room, which in turn flows into a one-of-kind kitchen -- a showcase of beautiful woods and materials. The cabinetry is anagre, a tiger-striped wood with a greenish cast, edged with mahogany. The counters are Brazilian granite. The ceramic tile floors look like fissured marble, while the center island has a large butcher block top of maple.

The rest of the ground floor consists of a study, dining room and two full baths.

In the basement are two guest bedrooms, an exercise room and another bath.

It's an extraordinary house, as far from a traditional log cabin as anyone could imagine; but Arthur Valk is already thinking ahead to his next house using the scribe-fitting process.

"There are a lot more things we could do with the vernacular," he says.

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