Technology reinvents Vermont’s log home industry

Technology reinvents Vermont’s log home industry

Marcel, Joyce

Abe Lincoln would have a hard time recognizing log cabins today. Even before Lincoln became president, log homes had been a uniquely American aesthetic. When the first settlers arrived from England, before they could establish saw mills, they built their homes out of logs. That tradition, born of necessity, continued as the country moved West. And it became magnified in the huge lodges built as mountain getaways by the extremely wealthy a century ago.

Today, people still build their homes out of logs, but the technology is much advanced, and there is no way that today’s sophisticated, high-end, all-wood homes could be called “log cabins” anymore.

Vermont has a booming log home industry, although it comes as a surprise to many people. That’s because you don’t often see these homes from the road,

“The thing with the log home, in most cases, is that people will put them back away from the road,” said Jonathan French, owner of Northeastern Log Homes, Inc, “So you’re not as apt to see a log home as you are a stick-built or conventional home. People buy them because they love the feel of the wood. We get a lot of people who will maybe work in Boston, or in another metropolitan area. They drive in to work and their home is out in the suburbs. I’ve had people say that when they get back to their log home, they’re almost on vacation again. It’s a warm and inviting feeling when you’re surrounded by wood.”

Log homes are sold in pre-cut kits, or packages.

“It’s like a big puzzle,” French said. “A heavy puzzle. But it’s something that people could put together themselves.”

Besides Northeastern, which was founded in Vermont and keeps a sales office here, but has its manufacturing plant in Maine, Vermont has two other companies that manufacture and sell their own log home kits. These homes are sold all over the country and are exported to such exotic places as Turkey and Japan. About 10-13 other companies represent, and often serve as contractors, for kits produced by manufacturers based in other states.

These log home kits, which cost an average of about $50,000, come with sills, girders, floor joists, wall and gable logs, windows and doors, basement stairs, railings, a roof system, and other materials. The finished price of a log home, excluding land, averages $149,000.

“We do not supply any masonry work like chimney or foundation, or plumbing, heating, electrical work, finished flooring on the first floor, kitchen cabinets, and any insulation that goes in the roof,” French said.

Therefore, in addition to the cost of the kit, log homes offer a strong economic “spillover” effect. The home buyer also has to buy land and hardware, hire a contractor, and engage plumbers, electricians, masons, and flooring experts. The industry also supports craftsmen who make rustic furniture, cabinets and decorations that go well in log homes.

There is even a company in Guilford Vermont Slate Art – that makes slate switch and socket plates for them.

Log homes are made, naturally, of logs. The outside of the log is stripped of its bark but remains rounded. The inside, which becomes the visible interior wall, is milled flat. The variety of available home styles is endless, but high, vaulted “cathearal” ceilings are a typical feature, and many manufacturers can custom-design their homes.

“The log homes today are not rustic like people think,” Foster said. “We’ve designed buildings that finish out at millions of dollars. We have done commercial buildings too, but primarily, we do primary residences or second homes, or, for a lot of people, third and fourth homes.”

People who love the look, feel and warmth of wood are especially attracted to log homes.

“They’re very energy-efficient, very green-friendly, and very homey and rustic, I guess you could say,” said Jay Foster, president of Real Log Homes in Hartland. He lives in a log home located on 67 acres of land with a 70-mile view.

“If you think of your grandmother’s feather bed, like it says in the John Denver song, log homes just appeal to a very warm, homey, caring, nurturing climate. They’re for somebody who doesn’t like stainless steel or a sterile environment.”

And Tom Stanhope, owner of Champlain Valley Log Homes in Swanton, who is a representative for Lokn-Logs, Inc of New York, says of his log home, “It’s warm, it’s comfortable, and my house is eight years old and you can still smell the wood.”

Vermont’s log home companies are privately owned and closely guard their .sales figures, so it is difficult to put a dollar amount on the industry. Some log home representatives sell as few as two or three homes a year, some make and sell many more than that.

But they are all part of a booming, if little known, billiondollar-a-year national industry that represents 6.5 percent of the custom-built housing market, according to the Log Homes Council, part of the of the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, DC.

The typical log home owner is married, has a family income of more than $50,000 a year, has a college degree, and uses the home as a primary residence, according to the council. There are currently more than 400,000 log homes in the US and Canada. Annual production of log home packages has increased 41 percent since 1988.

Log homes are as energy efficient as standard houses, said Craig Wolinski, the council’s program manager.

“We have a research lab that did research comparing log homes to conventional stick-builts, and they were found comparable,” he said. “The log home had a lower R value in the walls, but overall, they were comparable.”

However, log homes require more maintenance than more conventional homes.

“But it’s not overwhelming,” Wolinski said. “The big thing is to keep it dry. You need larger overhangs. And it’s recommended to get a foundation so the actual logs are several inches, maybe several feet off the ground, so the logs aren’t sitting on the ground collecting moisture. But if you maintain the house, it will last forever. If you reseal it and clean it up every two years, it will look like the day you bought it 30 years down the road. They hold their value if you take care of them.”

The homes’ stability is a big attraction.

“We’ve had houses come through an earthquake in Italy completely unscathed while buildings collapsed all around them,” Foster said. “That was three years ago in August. We had a building in the Lyndonville area that was washed out in a flood. It floated down the river, and my understanding is that it lost bricks off the chimney and a porch post. We had a house that went through Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed Homestead, Florida, and it only lost a few shingles. Other people took refuge in it. We had some that went through wildfires in California. We had a house that even a number of firemen took refuge in because it was safe. Why didn’t it burn? Ever try to start a fire with a log?”

American log homes are desirable all over the world.

“We sell a pre-cut log home that we ship to all of the US, plus Turkey, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Canada,” Foster said. “Europe tends to be environmentally friendly, and log homes are more in tune with their current living style. Japan has a tremendous attraction for Western and cowboy items, and log homes are often associated with cowboys. Also, they have a tremendous desire to get away from masonry-style construction.”

Log Home Producers

To get a handle on the log home industry in Vermont, Vermont Business Magazine talked to many of the people working in the field. Here are profiles of some of the companies, large, small, new and old. (For a profile of one dealer’s experiences, see sidebar.)

* Northeastern Log Homes was started in Groton in 1972. It now has over 45 standard designs, excluding its new Camp and Cabin series. It exports all over We world, and employs 70 people, including staff in sales offices in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Kentucky. It also manufactures post-andbeam homes, which it sells from an office in York, ME.

The company’s kits start at $28,000 for a small home in the budget-minded “Traditional Home Series,” and can run upwards of $125,000, excluding land, shipping and labor. The Camp and Cabin series runs between $11,100 and $23,000.

“My father, Doug French, started the company,” said French. “At the time, there were several log home companies selling through dealership networks. With the network, it means, in a lot of cases, if someone buys a home through the company, they could become a dealer. So there were people out there selling log homes who were not trained.

“My father thought it would be better to sell direct. So we opened a sales office in Groton and in Kenduskeag, ME, where the factory is. Since then, we have also opened offices in Louisville, KY, and Westfield, MA. This is our 30th year, and we have continued that same philosophy, ‘where we sell direct. We don’t use dealers or middlemen.”

Northeastern sells many homes in Japan, where they can be found in the woods as well as at the edges of rice paddles.

“My father sold the first building in Japan in 1982,” French said. “A few years later, the couple that bought the building wrote and said they had friends who wanted one of our homes but didn’t speak English. So they asked if they could work with us for their friend. By then my father was out of sales, so he passed that on to me. That was probably my easiest sale that year, so I encouraged the people to find more friends.

“In the early 1990s, when the economy was really down here, their economy was flying, and we were shipping 30-35 buildings a year to Japan. Now, with their economy the way it is, the last couple of years our business has dropped off, and we’re only shipping five to six buildings a year.”

Northeastern also has its buildings in Ireland, South Korea, Russia, Israel, and the Cayman Islands.

“There are log home magazines,” French said. “If people have an interest, they can pick up that magazine anywhere in the world. The Internet has also changed things significantly. If someone wants to learn abut log homes anywhere in the world, they could find our web site.”

Most people who buy these pre-cut kits hire a builder to build their homes.

“A lot of times, it might be a builder we give them the name of,” French said. “On occasion, we have people who build their own homes. Back in the 1980s, the banks were more willing to let homeowners do that, and about a third of the buildings we sold were owner-built. But banks felt more comfortable having a builder involved. They would rather finance the extra cost so that they’re assured the building will be completed. The only drawback to a home built by the owner is that after working nights and weekends, when they have the roof on and a few rooms done, they might postpone the rest.”

* Real Log Homes, the brand for Vermont Log Buildings, Inc, has been selling log home packages since the early

1960s. The company’s main office andmain plant is in Hartland, but it manufacturers in other states as Well.

“We produce most of the buildings we sell east of the Mississippi out of the Hartland plant, and the ones we ship to Europe,” Foster said. The company employs between 100 and 150 people.

“I never really stopped to count,” Foster said.

The company makes its Vermont home packages out of Eastern white pine. “In the other plants, we use southern yellow pine, western white woods, and western cedars,” Foster said.

According to Foster, the company has produced somewhere around 30,000 homes since 1962.

“The number of homes isn’t relevant, because one home can be twice the size of another home,” Foster said. “We produce homes that are 1,500-square-feet and homes that are 16,000square-feet.”

Inside, log ‘homes are predominately the color of pine or cedar. Because people buy them for the feeling of being surrounded by wood, they hardly ever paint the walls.

“You just don’t paint a log home,” Foster said. “They do have drywall and interior partitions, but generally, you put a preservative on the walls that may have a tint, up to and including even a whitewash, but you don’t paint them. It’s part of the natural beauty of the wood.”

* Authentic Log Homes of Vermont, located in Hardwick, is owned by Julie and Gary Darling, who employ four people. The business, which primarily serves the New England area, has been in existence for 30 years; the Darlings bought it eight years ago.

The company manufactures its own log home packages and sells, on the average, 20 homes a year. Julie Darling was the only person willing to reveal sales figures; her company sells about $750,000 worth of homes a year.

“We try to promote that we’re a real Vermont company,” Darling said. “This is a family-owned and family-operated business. We use native white cedar. We also drawshave. That means that the exterior bark is removed by hand. It makes our product a little more unique. The interior is milled flat.”

The Darlings, like many in the industry, live in a log home.

“They’re warm and inviting,” Darling said. “They have a different ambiance about them. I like the natural feel of all the wood around me.” The company is so small that it does not even have an Internet presence.

“If I didn’t pick up enough sales each year, the first thing I’d do is get a Web page,” Darling said. “But we’re small, and most of the work we do is by word of mouth. We don’t need to advertise. We love dealing with the customers. By the time we’re done with the project, we’ve become friends with them.”

* Bart Lund owns L&M Log Homes in Brandon, which sells the Ward Log Homes fine from Maine, the oldest log home company in country. He has been in the business 25 years and is now semi-retired.

“I’ve sold between 25 and 30 log homes in 25 years,” Lund said, “Now I do one-to-three homes a year..

* Anne and Al Beauchesne of Waterbury Center are representatives for Kuhns Brothers Log Cabins of Lewisburg, PA. Their business is brand new; they started in 2000. Their first year they sold three homes.

“Kuhns Brothers is the only truly kiln-dried log home,” said Anne Beauchesne. “That’s a very important benefit for customers. That reduces the shrinking and checking of the logs, as opposed to air drying them. Our log homes appraise with high-end custom homes, which they are.”

The Beauchesnes got into the log home field in the traditional way – by building their own.

“We spent a long time doing it, and now we have the opportunity to help other people,” Beauchesne said. “Our model log home is also our primary residence. We work with local builders and real estate agents and mortgage lenders and appraisers and tradespeople to provide a service for people who want to build their own dream log homes. We use as many Vermont people and products as we could.”

In the wake of the September 11 tragedy, some anecdotal evidence suggests more people are moving to the country. As a result, inquiries about log homes have picked up, Beauchesne said.

“People are reprioritizing their lives,” she said. “We’re getting a lot of calls from out-of-state people, from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts. And – absolutely, a great deal of it is related to 9/11. People are looking for a totally different lifestyle. They want, the warmth and comfort of a log home, the relaxed atmosphere. Log homes are very open in their floor plans, and they’re conducive to family gatherings. Many downto-earth folks appreciate the quality and the environment.”

Copyright Boutin-McQuiston, Inc. Apr 01, 2002

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