Thursday, April 20, 2006

[Advice] Build a Log Home and Be Free!

To fail to plan is to plan to fail. — Some Wise Fellow Somewhere
I have a plan... well, a vision, actually... OK, for now, it's still a bit of a dream. But, I'm in the process of planning out my vision to make my dream a reality.

Though I was born in one of the wealthiest, most free countries ever founded in the history of the world, by the time I came along, most of that freedom had been lost, stolen, given away and otherwise squandered. We have given up our freedom for security; we've given it up for convenience; we've let it slip away piecemeal through various tax, building and zoning codes; we've squandered our freedom on the altar of personal peace and affluence. I've heard that in California, you can actually take out a 90-year mortgage! In order to have the house we want now, we're actually willing to make ourselves slaves for the rest of our lives, paying a multiplier just a little less than our interest rate times the sales price just for the privilege of living in it now (On a 100-year mortgage at 7.5% would cost 7.5 times the loan amount). But is it "living," when we're owned by the house we own. We actually enslave our children with our endless debt, just so we can have what we want when we want it.

Enter Skip Ellsworth, fourth-generation log home builder. Forty years ago, having grown up building log homes with his father, Skip started teaching others how to build log homes the right way. The "right way" to build a log home and Skip's philosophy of life have inspired tens of thousands of people to build their own homes at a fraction of the cost of other stick-and-mortar site-built homes. Skip has now passed the baton on to his son who, every month or so, invites about forty would-be log home builders to Skip's 7000-sq. ft house (Maurice Minifield's home in Northern Exposure) outside Seattle to teach them Skip's way of building log homes.

Now, Ellsworth and his co-teacher, Steve, know alot about building log homes; not just Skip's way, but how others have done it, how the kit home folks typically do theirs and why you want to avoid them like the plague, what makes a "log" home and when it becomes something else. They have a bias toward actual logs (as opposed to perfectly round 'dowels' made from trees, or so-called 'D-logs') because trees have an outer protective ring which naturally helps fight insect infestation; making a dowel or a 'D' out of them removes that protection, as does rough-hewing them into square beams. Additionally, logs have a God-given beauty to them that is destroyed when you make them all look the same: they taper from one end to the other, they bow, they have knots and branches, they 'check' over time and have a strong, rugged beauty to them that you lose when they're no longer logs. Once you start on the path toward log-home building (that is, building with actual logs), you find that there are several building techniques that have been used over the years, and a couple more that are used by kit home makers.

All of us who had Lincoln Logs™ growing up know about the 'chinked' method of building with logs: cut a notch on the top and bottom of the log, near the end, so that each layer's notches fit into the next layer. In this method, all of the 'load' is on the corners, which have been weakened by the notching. Any variation of the 'chink' to make the logs fit together will weaken the logs, right at the point that they're supposed to be holding up the weight of the house.

Kit builders use various 'cuts' into the logs to make them sit on top of each other, each of which contributes to splitting the logs over time (sometimes it's a very short time). Even though the weight is more evenly distributed down the length of the log, the weight from above pressing on the 'cut' below causes the logs to split. What you want is a full intact log on each layer, that is in full contact with the log below it to allow for equal weight distribution throughout. The only way to get logs to sit perfectly on logs is to 'cope' the top log so that it perfectly fits the log below it. This is called the Scandinavian Chinkless method. It's a very meticulous process if done right. Which is why kit home makers and even custom log home builders aren't likely to use this method.

So, the strongest wood-on-wood home is a Scandy. And to have it done right, you're going to have to do it yourself. But there's still a problem: rot. When wood gets wet and stays wet, it rots and disintegrates. Wood is of course very porous and 'wicks' water like the wick of an oil lamp pulls the oil up to be burned by the flame. When two pieces of wood are in constant contact with each other, water will be wicked to points of contact and stay there. Go to an outdoor lumber yard in the summertime when there hasn't been rain in a couple of weeks. As you lift dry boards, you'll see water between them. This water, over time, will rot both pieces of wood, so even though you have a stronger, more evenly-distributed home with a Scandinavian Chinkless home, you still have to figure out a way to keep the moisture out (or let it escape) so that your walls don't fall down from rot on the inside.

Ellsworth and Steve are all about energy conservation. "It's just that it's our energy we want to conserve." So their goal is to teach you the best, easiest, cheapest, fastest, lowest-maintenance, longest-lasting log home building methods and techniques. The object is to get a CO (certificate of occupancy) as quickly as possible so that you can move in to your debt-free home.

Now, they're also about quality construction, which is why they teach the butt-and-pass method. Using this method, you can build with "green" logs and your house won't shrink and it won't fall down. It doesn't settle. You don't have to use telescoping plumbing fixtures and leave big gaps behind the headers of your doors and windows, because the logs aren't moving, even though they'll shrink toward their own center over the first year and continue to expand and contract with climate changes. This is also one of the quicker ways to build.

Wallace Falls Lodge was built by Log Home Builders Association members. All of the wall logs were put up in two weeks by Tim and his daughter (who was nine years old, at the time!) during Spring Break. Then Tim put the entire roof on by himself in another ten days. You can see from the pictures that the place is beautiful, and well-constructed!

One of the great things about the LHBA is you only pay for the initial class. After that, the meetings are free for members to share plans, critique scale models; network for land deals, free mobile homes to live in while you build, sign up to help someone who's ready to build in order to learn hands-on; swap tools, etc. All the meetings are currently hosted at Skip's house in Washington, so there is the airfare, rental car and lodging aspect if you're not local. But Steve mentioned that they were hoping someone would build something big enough on the east coast (because there are LOTS of members on this side of the country, too) so that we could have some of those members meetings in our neck of the woods. I'm game!! ;)

But even if you can't make it to the members meetings, they have a "member's only" forum where Steve and Ellsworth and other "Certified Log Home Builders" share ideas, deals, etc... the only thing you can't get in the forum is face-to-face with a scale model. It's a great place to ask a question, to share your successes and get encouragement.

Do you want to be free? Build your own low-maintenance log home, debt-free. They recommend you take the class at least two years before you start building... the longer the lead time, the cheaper it's going to be; and the less frustrated you're going to be.

If you go to the class, drop me a line (especially if you're in the Mid-Atlantic, more specifically, Southern Appalachia). I'd be glad to compare notes, critique your scale model and swing a sledge to help you make your dream a reality.

Two tips when you go to class: (a) take some slippers to class (Steve says: "There are two kinds of people who take this class. Those who wear slippers, and those who wish they had."); and (b) don't forget your lunch—they have a large fridge and all the standard kitchen appliances, which you're welcome to use.

FREEDOM!!! —William Wallace


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Posted by Jim Bob Howard to Advice at 4/19/2006 08:41:00 PM
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