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Earth-Friendly Log Home in Iowa

Two nature lovers build the home they've wanted for 30 years.
by Suzanna Logan | Photos by Joseph Hilliard

Following a small sign down a desolate road and into the woods may have the makings of a scary story, but for Pat and Roger Gingrich it was the long-awaited beginning to a happy ending.

Although the house sits on only 1.5 acres, there is plenty of room to experience nature. Homeowners Pat and Roger Gingrich say they spend more time outdoors than ever before. Both enjoy feeding the frogs in the pond and gardening, but the real treat for them is bird watching. "We have all sorts of birdhouses, and we know who is there and who is having babies," Pat says.

In the 1970s, the couple began collecting log-home magazines and dreaming of building their own home. For the next three decades, work and family responsibilities kept them in the heart of Iowa City. “Our dream was on hold, and I was getting antsy,” says Pat, who had decorated her guest house like a log home and framed pictures clipped from her magazines. “One day, I told Roger I had 10 years of high energy left, so if we were going to build that dream house, we better get on it,” Pat says with a laugh.

Soon thereafter, Pat and her daughter were driving a few miles outside of Iowa City when they spied a sign in the trees pointing down an eroded road. They followed the sign to a 1.5-acre lot covered with thick underbrush. Despite the property’s messy appearance, the south-facing slope won over the Gingriches: It would allow plenty of light and heat into the great room, helping to minimize energy usage.

As self-proclaimed nature lovers — Pat is a biology teacher and Roger a biology major — the couple wanted a home that would be practical and welcoming for not only themselves and their guests but for the surrounding environment. The home’s interior is totally bathed in earth tones, including the wood ceilings, walls and floors as well as the dusty orange cast of the stones used in the fireplace, the kitchen and the bathroom.

Rather than relying on a single type of wood, the Gingriches chose a mixture of hickory, white cedar, alder, pine, red cedar and a hard maple for the home's interior. "It brings a lot of variation and character when you use woods of a different species all together," explains builder Mark Loughren of Custom Crafted Homes.

To build the 5,100-square-foot home, they enlisted Mark Loughren of Custom Crafted Homes. Conscious of making earth-friendly choices, he installed a geothermal unit and crafted a rear deck of Brazilian ipe hardwood rather than chemically treated lumber. Further lowering energy usage and avoiding the settling issues of a full-log home, the walls were constructed by sandwiching fiberglass insulation between plywood sheathing and covering it with half-log siding.

A series of track lights set along the perimeter of the great room walls highlight the beauty of the cathedral wood ceiling. "A wooden roof is a piece of art, so you must light it like any art piece," Pat says. The lights were placed at the height of the Gingriches' extension ladder to ensure the bulbs could be changed with ease.

In addition to keeping energy costs to a minimum even in the snowiest winters, the insulation, plywood and half-log construction maintains serenity in a home often full of friends and family. “The layers really dampen the sound, as do the lightweight concrete floors,” Mark explains.

The design is functional, but it’s fun, too. Watching new guests discover the home is one of Pat’s favorite aspects. “I didn’t want a house where you walk in and immediately know where everything is,” Pat says. “I wanted there to be some mystery where you can explore.”

Although the house sits on only 1.5 acres, there is plenty of room to experience nature. Homeowners Pat and Roger Gingrich say they spend more time outdoors than ever before. Both enjoy feeding the frogs in the pond and gardening, but the real treat for them is bird watching. "We have all sorts of birdhouses, and we know who is there and who is having babies," Pat says.

Because the Gingriches wanted larger-than-average logs, the builder chose Engelmann spruce, which, along with larch, grows a fat tree trunk. “We built the log elements, then they did everything else,” he says. “Everything else” included laying flooring, building stairs, trimming the window frames, applying stucco to the exterior gable ends, installing lighting, landscaping and, notably, chinking the logs.

To make the home comfortable for the visiting guests, the Gingriches designed two very different guest quarters. “The two loft bedrooms keep people feeling in the action, while the room in the basement is very private for those who want their space,” says Pat.

Besides a bed and bath, the downstairs includes a recreational room with a wet bar. “We built that so the kids would want to come home,” Pat says. The rec room is popular with guests, but the Gingriches spend most of their time on the main floor, in the master bedroom and the great room.

Although they enjoy the 29-foot prow window in the great room, the couple have found the triangular glass shape to be an obstacle. “To do it over, we would choose a window that is not so customized so it can be replaced more easily,” says Pat. She adds that cleaning windows that soar 39 feet above the ground requires professional help: “We are happy to see the sky and forest, but the windows have been a challenge,” she notes.

In all, the couple says the home maintenance has been easy. Each year, they spray for bugs and wipe down the logs. The staining has required more work than they expected, necessitating a coat every two years, but the Gingriches don’t seem to mind. “People ask us, ‘How can you leave this to go to work?’” says Roger. The answer is, it’s not easy. “This is the sort of place that makes you feel like you are on vacation every single day.”

Geo-thermal unit

Geothermal Heating System

More often than not, summer evenings find Pat and Roger Gingrich relaxing on their deck with dinner or a glass of wine. The wind in the trees, frogs in the pond below and bird calls are the only audible sounds.

The drone of an air conditioner is noticeably absent thanks to the Gingriches geothermal unit, which is 13 feet below ground in a 60-foot square and concealed by a pond.

Installing a geothermal unit was a simple choice for the couple who wanted to reduce energy costs and protect valuable natural resources. “It was not all about the money savings for us, but our electricity bills are about half of our neighbors,” admits Pat.

The Gingriches highest utility bill has been $243, impressive considering local temperatures usually remain below freezing during January and February.

Pat advises that homeowners must take some precaution if using a geothermal unit in an area where snow and ice are the norm. “You need to insulate around all the ductwork, especially if the coils travel through attics or other cold areas,” she says. “One of our two heat pumps is in the unheated attic over our garage, so we have placed insulation around that unit so that as little heat as possible is lost.”

Besides being easy on their pocketbooks and the environment, the couple has also noticed an increased comfort level with their geothermal system. “It offers more even heating than a regular furnace,” notes Pat. Programmable zones allow floors to be kept at different temperatures.

There was one unexpected aspect of using a geothermal unit in a log home. The couple must set out humidifiers on each level to keep the wood from drying out. “Our wood walls take up a lot of water!” Pat exclaims.

Home Plan Details:
Square Footage: 5,100
Bedrooms: 4
Bathrooms: 3.5
Log species: pine
Builder/general contractor; log provider: Custom Crafted Homes, Cedar Rapids, IA (888-438-1704;
Countertops: Rock Shop Granite and Marble, Hiawatha, IA (319-393-3847)
Hardware: Emtek Products, Inc., City of Industry, CA (800-356-2741;
Mantels; railings: Out of the Woods Log Furniture, Anamosa, IA (319-462-5695)
Roofing: CertainTeed Shingles, Valley Forge, PA (800-233-8990;
Windows: Weather Shield, Medford, WI (800-222-2995;

A brick-style backsplash throughout the kitchen complements the neutral coloring of the floors and countertops. It also blends nicely with the kitchen's country theme.

Published in Country's Best Cabins
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One Response

  1. One of the best things I did was to seal off my foundation vents, seal the crawl space with 6 mil plastic and tape, and insulate the inside of the foundation with foam sheets. This has cut my heating costs in half.

    A vacation rental serving Yellowstone National Park

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