Saturday, January 24, 2009

LOG-less log home?!

IN the snowy woods of a valley west of this college town, John and Mary Beth Cook have taken up a version of mountain living amended for the modern world. Last year, they completed and moved into a house that looks like many others here in Big Sky Country, with exterior walls formed by logs stripped of their bark. Except that in their case, the logs are made from precast concrete shaped and painted to look like the real thing.
“We like the look and feel of logs because they look like the forest, they look like they belong,” said Mr. Cook, a historian, teacher and outdoorsman who also installed a climbing wall on his rock chimney. “But we didn’t want the maintenance.”
Maintenance is something Mr. Cook knows about. His previous home, where he and his wife lived for nine years, was a real log house several miles away. “Every year you go out to stain it,” he said, “and the building gets a little bigger.” The couple, whose property still has charred trees from a forest fire several decades ago, were also drawn to the idea that a concrete house would be less susceptible to such disasters. “It would take a flame-thrower to start this place on fire,” Mr. Cook said.
When most people dream of a rustic log cabin getaway in the mountains, it’s probably not built of concrete logs. But Stewart Hansen, a co-founder and the president of EverLog Systems, the Missoula-based company that has been selling concrete logs since 2004 and that made the logs for the Cooks’ house, thinks it should be.
Concrete logs, he says, are “worry free.” “They’re sturdier than real logs so there’s no settling or structural instability,” he said. “That means no broken windows or doors that won’t open.” No filling the cracks between logs, or chinking, either (most log homes need re-chinking every 20 years or so); no need to stain the logs themselves (generally required at least once in five years); and no worrying about insects boring into the wood.
Moreover, he added, the fact that they are fireproof makes them particularly appropriate at a time when the climate is warming, homes are increasingly being built in forests and wildfires pose a growing threat across the West.
The idea for a realistic concrete log came about in 2000, when Dick Morgenstern, another founder of EverLog, watched more than a million acres of the Bitterroot National Forest and hundreds of home go up in flames. “Insurance rates went up on homes in the woods,” he said. “Or they stopped insuring them.”
Some 40 homes have been built with logs from EverLog, about 30 of them erected by the company itself.
Products like EverLog’s have quickly won adherents in the homebuilding world. “It looks good, there’s no shifting or movement of the logs, no need to chink and re-chink,” said Pat Supplee, the architect in Missoula who designed the Cook house. “The downside of real logs is gone.”
Not that everyone agrees, especially here in western Montana, where there are five national log home companies and many more small outfits, and where logs, the staple of Western construction for more than a century, remain the trendiest material. For many here, the idea of artificial logs is heretical.
“Architecture 101 says respect the integrity of the materials,” said Joe Campeau, an architect in Helena, Mont., and a proponent of “architecture that represents Montana” and “that says ‘I belong here.’ ”

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