Cabin Fever

Log homes revive a simpler era without sacrificing modern conveniences

March 29, 2009|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,

For more than 20 summers, Lenore Campbell and Leo Tims vacationed in a log cabin at Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland. They were in love with a home for which the structure itself is a defining element of the decor.

The emotional tug of a log house led them to build their own five years ago on a pastoral lot in Monkton. The enveloping warmth of the wood gives the IBM retirees the sense that their home is snuggling them.

"When you walk in, it puts its arms around you," Tims said.

Cabin-style houses, especially log houses, represent not only shelter but a lifestyle.

The couple's traditional house with dormers has a wide-plank front porch, where Campbell has breakfast on warm mornings, and a breezeway over a side porch that leads to a garage in back. Inside, logs with intriguing knots, an open kitchen-dining-living area with a stone hearth and chunky ceiling beams draw the eye. The couple's Navajo rugs hang over a railing that overlooks the two-story living area.

The house, made of uniformly machine-milled pine logs, shares 4 1/2 acres with a hand-hewn wood cabin that's about 150 years old and about 20 square feet.

"It's a sense of history. We put something on this property that's appropriate," Campbell said.

And, she said, they now feel like they're always vacationing.

With an earthy look, log and cabin-style homes exude relaxation. Cabins recall a simpler lifestyle in tune with nature, the perceived romance of taming the frontier and the histories of many countries. Their enduring style has meant more than 25,000 new ones crop up every year in the United States, including a few hundred in Maryland. Even as full-time homes, some on small lots, in the region, they have the air of a getaway.

"They are perceptually remote," said Dale Mulfinger, a Minneapolis architect, "cabinologist" and author of Cabinology, a recently published book on the houses.

Log cabins and their ilk often are thought of as pared-down retreats so small that the smell of breakfast wakes you because the coffeepot and skillet are in action a dozen feet from your nose.

But cabins broadly include the expansive camps in New York's Adirondack Mountains, in addition to smaller cottages around the Upper Midwest's lakes and peaked chalets in Colorado's ski country. Many people include timber-frame and post-and-beam construction systems, known for high ceilings and open floor plans.

"Now a cabin could be 8,000 square feet," said Eric Johnson, owner of Solid Wood Promotions, an upstate New York company that puts on log and timber-frame house shows across the country.

Mulfinger disputes that a house with a mega-bedroom suite and multicar garage qualifies as a cabin. But all cabin-esque homes have this in common: "It's defined by space that is flexible and gets used in several ways. There is more of a general room," Mul-finger said.

They're also rustic, or at least very informal, but not necessarily lacking in conveniences or energy efficiencies.

"An 8-inch-diameter log has an R-21 insulating value," as high or higher than conventional wall insulation, said Monkton Manor Specialties owner Andy Cramer, who was the builder-dealer for Campbell and Tims' home, which was produced by Tennessee-based Heritage Log Homes.

The range of styles and building methods is broad. Whether the structure is handmade or the materials are factory-produced and shipped precut, the work is exacting, or else the result is expensive firewood.

"The log and the timber is all exposed, and every cut has to be accurate," Cramer said.

Builders also said hybrid designs - houses that combine log, timber-frame, post-and-beam and stick-built construction methods - are piquing the interest of buyers.

Malcolm Van Kirk, owner of Malcolm's Sunshine Construction in Frederick, built a hybrid home on a Frederick County hill for two Baltimore physicians who turned to Michigan-based Town & Country, which produces cedar homes, for a custom design.

"Neither my husband nor I are what you would call formal people," said Dr. Ingrid Zimmer, but they didn't want an entirely log or cedar home.

She and her husband, Dr. Isaac Yoon, wanted stucco for some walls, some timber beams, a high wood ceiling and twig railings.

"This kind of gives us the best of both worlds," she said of the house that features posts that are trees whose bark has been removed.

In the great room, she said, "You kind of feel like you are an extension of the trees."

Most labor-intensive and most costly are the handmade homes, in which hand-peeled and hand-hewn logs in varying diameters are fitted together by methods that are hundreds of years old, followed by cabins that are handcrafted but fitted together through computer modeling.

"You do not change the shape of the tree; it is tapered. The difference to the consumer, the person out there, is the difference between buying a coffee mug from a department store and going to a potter to buy one," said Donald L. Breimhurst, a Pennsylvania timber-home hand-crafter.

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