Log buildings

As I mentioned last week, I recently spent a couple of days at the Chateau Montebello, the world’s largest log hotel. Ironically, that same weekend, another famous log structure, the central building at the Minaki Lodge in northern Ontario, burned to the ground.

Both Montebello and Minaki were built more than 70 years ago. But today, log construction is enjoying something of a renaissance.

Minaki Lodge, “northern Ontario’s architectural jewel” (a.k.a. “Shangri-la with blackflies”) opened in June of 1927. It went through several owners during its troubled existence and was abruptly shut down six months ago. The October 12 fire was actually the second time the lodge has burned: it burned to the ground on June 11, 1925, the day before its grand reopening after extensive renovations.

Minaki Lodge never captured the public’s imagination the way the Chateau Montebello did when it was built in 1930. Three huge buildings of logs, containing four million cubic feet, were constructed in just four months. At the peak of construction, 3,500 men were at work. Ten thousand western red cedar logs were used–placed end to end, they would stretch more than 70 kilometres.

Both Minaki and the Chateau Montebello used a style of log construction called either the “Scandinavian technique,” or the “scribed” technique, to set it apart from the more common “chinked” technique.

Chinked log buildings are made of fully round logs notched at each end. The inevitable gaps between the logs must then be plugged–chinked–with some material. In pioneer log cabins, this was clay or moss. Later, chinking was done with a cement-based material that cracked easily and had to be replaced often. Since the 1970s, however, log builders used synthetic chink, an acrylic latex combined with fine sand that can be made any color.

The Scandinavian technique doesn’t require chinking. Instead, each log is carefully peeled and then the bottom is hollowed out to fit shape of the log below it. The logs fit so tightly together that they themselves keep out leaks and drafts. The walls also have an organic look to them, as if they have grown that way. Buildings made this way have lasted for centuries.

All log buildings face certain challenges. They’re heavy, so a very sturdy and stable foundation is a necessity to ensure that the logs don’t settle off-vertical, leading to gaps and leaks.

All logs are subject to attack by insects and fungi. These days, most logs are kiln-dried or fumigated ahead of time to kill insects such as woodborers and any decay fungi that might be present.

Log decay is hastened by water, so log buildings are designed to keep the logs as dry as possible. Most log buildings have a large roof overhang or a covered porch for that reason. Of course, all logs absorb some moisture from the air (and lose it when the weather is dry). This means the design must allow for settling, shrinkage and expansion, especially over doors or windows.

Although logs can be left untreated (especially if they’re a species, such as Montebello’s red cedar, that has some natural resistance to decay), that means they’ll eventually turn gray, which most people don’t want. For that reason, and to make the logs last longer, the logs used in modern buildings are usually treated.

The Montebello logs are painted either a very dark brown or black (I could never decide which). Today its less common for people to paint their log buildings; instead, the logs are usually coated with high-tech water-repellant treatments, which work better and don’t peel (although they may still have to be reapplied from time to time).

Despite the fate of Minaki Lodge, buildings made with logs are actually fairly fire-resistant–because it’s a lot harder to get a big log burning than it is a smaller piece of wood, as anyone who has ever lit a fireplace knows. Wood is also an excellent insulator. Properly constructed log buildings are even considered at low-risk of collapse in an earthquake. And, of course, they’re lovely, homey, and make you feel like your somehow living the simple, relaxing life, even if you’re really in a five-star hotel like the Chateau Montebello.

Alas, the one thing they generally aren’t is cheaper to build than regular homes. Nor are they allowed in some places, depending on local zoning bylaws and building codes–two reasons why we don’t see more of them than we do.

All I know is, based on my experience at Montebello, I could live very happily in one.

Provided, of course, that it comes with room service.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2003/10/log-buildings/

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