The dream came before the plan. We are currently in our mid-60s and recently retired. We began thinking about retirement and a retirement home more than 10 years ago, so this has been a dream long in the making.
It started with a model home tour. It was a winter day, which for our city of residence at the time — Atlanta — meant it was too cold to boat and perfect for browsing. The exterior of the model brought flashbacks of living on Lake Mohawk in Sparta, New Jersey, in the 1990s. There is a warmth and coziness that transcends time with the look.
All kinds of questions started to pop into our heads soon after leaving. But the seeds had been planted. Here is a detailed account of our building process.
Step 1: Research
All the sage advice from sales people and log-home magazines is to get your land first, then pick a plan. That didn’t quite work for us. We needed to convince ourselves over time that we really wanted a log retirement home.
Over the next five years, stopping to look at model log homes became a part of our travel routine. We ordered log-home magazines, and read articles, bent page corners and kept a box or two filled with ideas. We also started to visit the annual log-home shows to try to sort through the many choices and do the inevitable comparison shopping. We listened to selected seminars at the shows on building your dream.
The confusing part is largely the choices; there are so many. Much depends on what you want from a materials provider. Do you want logs only, logs packaged with some of the building materials, or a package with all the building materials and plans? Also, will you do the actual building? Will you be the general contractor? Do you need a general contractor? These are just a few of the decisions to be made. Some are easy; others are not.
There is not necessarily a right or wrong decision to be made here either. To be sure, there are a multitude of log-home companies. Each provides a different level of product/service.
Frankly, most of the decisions are more about knowing yourself. What are your construction capabilities? How much time and budget do you have for this? Should you act as the general contractor? Do you prefer to deal with a big company or a small company?
So, this becomes a personal decision versus a right/wrong decision. For us, the unique combination of important traits led us to select Southland Log Homes for our materials.
Step 2: Land Acquisition
We knew we wanted a lakefront log home. The magic of the water has us thoroughly seduced. By the time we started looking at property, we were living on Lake Norman in North Carolina — our third lakefront home. We wanted retirement living to be the same.
The “where should we buy” decision was not really difficult. Our two adult offspring both lived in Virginia with their spouses. We saw our choices in Virginia as being Lake Anna or Smith Mountain Lake. Lake Anna was closer to our offspring, but Smith Mountain Lake was closer to our retirement image. We visited the lake several times, which included a pontoon boat rental to see much of the lake and its shoreline. We surfed the web for real-estate agents and land.
In 2005, we made contact with a marvelous real-estate agent who knows the area. We told him what we wanted: a parcel of land with some hardwood trees, an open water view, not too far from basic shopping and our maximum price. He found every piece of available land that met our criteria, but we learned quickly that, to get the view we wanted, we would need to up the ante by about 50 percent. We did, and we now have 2.5 acres of hardwoods with just less than 300 feet of shoreline on the outside edge of a cove with great views.
Step 3: Floor Plan Development
With a lakefront property, we naturally wanted to take advantage of the best view of the water we could get. We focused on designs that were two levels with a great room in the middle of the house and a loft area overlooking the great room. We wanted a master bedroom on the main level and two other bedrooms on the upper level.
Southland Log Homes’ Coosa model provided the exterior look and the interior square footage that we thought was right for us. But we made some major modifications and, in turn, created a new plan called the Roanoke. Here are the changes we made:
- We didn’t like the one-way walking pattern of the original plan or the master bathroom serving as main-level powder room. Instead, we designed a master bedroom in the front and a master bath in the back, with two walk-in closets separating the spaces. Opposite the interior bedroom wall and hallway, we designed a laundry room and a separate half bath.
- We eliminated a mudroom that didn’t make sense for our lifestyle and elevation of the house; in the process, we omitted a door in the kitchen and picked up space for more cabinetry and countertop surface.
- We felt the staircase was too close to the front door. Our simple solution was to push the staircase toward the back of the house by about 2 feet, which created a more spacious entryway in the process.
- We decided in the dreaming stage that a wood-burning fireplace was a “must have.” We tried our best to place it anywhere except the end wall, which faces the best lake view, but no other placement made sense. So we made ourselves content by assuring plenty of windows on both sides of the fireplace.
- On the upper level, we opted for two bedrooms and a large loft overlooking the fireplace and the lake — a perfect spot for desk work, computer work or simply reading. For the primary guest room, we wanted direct bathroom access so the room would be more of a second master suite. The second bedroom would be used primarily as a quilting studio, so we made sure there was ample storage space.
- We debated between having a separate garage and a full basement or a split garage and basement; we decided to split the walkout level in half, leaving us with room for an oversized two-car garage and a very adequate sized family/entertainment/game room. We opted to have a full bath roughed in along with plumbing, electrical and heating.
Step 4: Team Building
Our instinct told us we wanted a very experienced builder with good references and local knowledge. But when you don’t know the area or have limited contacts where you are going to be building, it’s hard to know where to start.
Our Southland salesman recommended the best builder in the area and made arrangements to meet this builder at our home site. We had a lot of discussion at the property site about the particular model of home we were interested in building. The builder had great insight and thought-provoking comments about what would work best on our land. There was good chemistry, and we suspected that would come in handy over time.
Step 5: Site Preparation/Package Delivery
We discussed the site preparation phase with our builder, with immediate issues regarding access to our property because of the nature of the land, narrowness of the driveway and clearance for delivery of our building materials. The solutions involved clearing the mature hardwood trees on our property to provide the much-needed space for maneuvering vehicles and staging building materials and, later, a septic field, as well as parking for the flatbed trucks.
Our planned solutions worked flawlessly, and the package was delivered without a hitch. The package, in part, included pre-cut kiln dried 6-by-8-inch southern yellow pine logs rounded on both sides and standard roofing, interior doors and pine flooring. To combat weather and theft, we bought heavy contractor rolls of plastic and covered every pallet, while firmly attaching the plastic with a staple gun, and had large logs from trees we had cut placed around the building materials so no trucks could get close for loading.
Step 6: Excavation and Foundation
There is a bit of risk involved with any excavation. No one really knows what may lie under the next shovelful of earth. We had very little rock overall; however, when we got down to what would be the basement, we ran into a major rock obstruction. A breaker was rented, and it made quick work of eliminating the rock issue.
Now it was time to site the house. The original idea was to position the house for maximum exposure to lake views, but when we double-checked this placement against local code, we realized that the house could be no closer than 12 feet to the property line. This measurement is from the corner (closest point to the property line) to the closest house feature, not the house itself, and our 8-foot-wide covered porch would take us over the mark. So we shifted the house by about 11 feet to keep within code compliance.
Our builder and excavator presented a different issue we had not considered. We had designed the walkout basement to be positioned away from the lake as a garage. If we left the house foundation as we currently had it staked out, it was going to make it difficult to maneuver cars into the garage. So we rotated the house counterclockwise by about 6 to 8 feet. It doesn’t sound like much, but it did impact the view.
Being that the land is quite sloped, the footers were constructed at several different levels (a bit like stair steps), as the foundation walls would need to be much higher on the lake side versus the uphill side facing the front of the house. The cement for the footers took about a week to cure.
The next step was laying the foundation. The foundation forms are built like an erector set. Every place a window or door would be located — in our case, two garage doors, five windows and one sliding glass door — required construction of a wood frame inside the steel forms. As the cement is poured, a long, vibrating probe is pushed down through the wet cement to ensure there are no air pockets.
When the process is finished, it is critical that everything is plumb, level and square. Laser technology is used to check that is the case.
Step 7: Stacking the Logs
Suddenly, it seems that things have shifted into a higher gear. The sill plates have been attached to the foundation, immediately followed by the installation of the floor joists for the first level.
The subflooring quickly gave an appearance of much progress, as there was now a new level of the house to walk on. The time had finally arrived for the first course of logs to be laid.
The first course was meticulously laid. The diagonal measurements from the corners of the house were taken to determine how square the first course was. With the laying of each log, the square was used to check and recheck the log as level and plumb. Then, the logs are fastened in place.
The first-floor stacking of the logs continued for 20 courses. (The standard is 18 courses, but we opted for 20 to give us 10-foot ceilings on the first floor.) The top of the second-floor girder beams and floor beams needs to be flush with the 20th log course. The girder logs are supported by vertical support posts cut to length on-site. They are put in precise positions and made plumb. With the second-floor girders in place, level and plumb, the second-floor beams can be installed, then the floor decking after the house is “dried in.”
Log courses for the second floor walls were then laid. After the second-floor walls were completed, the gable ends were constructed.
Step 8: The Roof
The log-home roof couldn’t come too soon for our liking. Quickly after the second-floor beam system was complete, a new crew of about six roofing specialists showed up. Our log home called for rafters. Rafters are supported at their lower end by connecting them to the exterior walls. Rafters at the peak are supported by either a nonstructural ridge board or a structural ridge beam. Our house required both.
Our roof design included three dormers. There are two gable dormers on the front of the house and a shed dormer on the back, each having a double window. On each side of the dormer openings, additional rafters are added to support the weight of the dormer walls and roof. As the dormer walls were built, they were plumbed and diagonally braced until the roof, partition walls and gable ends were completed. Then the dormer walls were securely fastened to the permanent structure.
With the completion of this roof and dormer framing, the roof was ready for the sheathing.
Had we opted for a standard shingle roof, one could have quickly been put on at this stage. However, we wanted to have a forest-green metal roof that would enhance the log-home look while adding the durability of metal. What we didn’t count on was that the decision meant a bit of a construction delay.
After the roofing is complete, precise measurements are taken; the fabricator of the roof makes the majority of the cuts, as each roof is essentially custom cut to specifications provided by our builder. The process from measurement to delivery of the metal roof system was about two-and-a-half weeks. Once the metal roof was delivered, the process of fastening the roof over the roofing went quickly.
Step 9: Interior Touches
Finishing work covers a broad array of construction disciplines and skills. It includes interior wall construction, mechanical considerations (plumbing, heating, ventilating, air conditioning and fireplace construction), interior finishing, cabinetry, handrails, stairs, porch rails/ceiling, and gutters/downspouts. Here are details on a few aspects of our finishing processes:
Interior Wall Construction: Because our logs are round on the inside as well as on the exterior, we had to decide if we wanted the Sheetrock to be cut to conform to the curvature of the logs or to cut a ½-inch vertical groove in the logs in which to slip the flat edge of Sheetrock into the logs. We opted for the groove method, as it struck us as being ever so slightly neater in appearance.
Electrical Installation: We knew from our early inspections of model log homes that the electrical plan should be well thought out, as adding wiring in log walls after construction is considerably more complicated than during construction. So we took our time going over each floor of our house plans. Most important, we thought about how we live and made certain to have adequate outlets. We added a few more of these outlets than the plan called for on each floor after giving some consideration to the placement of furniture pieces against walls and the way we decorate.
Plumbing Installation: Much of the plumbing for the kitchen and bathrooms is obvious, but we needed to think about the extras we wanted. Inside the house, we added plumbing for a small round copper bar/vegetable sink on the center island in the kitchen. We also wanted a utility sink in the garage to keep messy cleanup work closer to the source. Outside, we wanted external cold-water faucets in both the back and front of the house.
In addition to plumbing installation, time-consuming decisions revolve around plumbing fixtures. The choices are immense, and so is the cost, which runs from pricey to very pricey. We went over budget in frequently used areas and were more conservative in the other areas. In summary:
- Kitchen – We chose a white porcelain farm sink and a hand-hammered round copper bar/vegetable sink for the island.
- Bathrooms – In general, we opted to step up from the big-box store fixtures with plastic innards to more costly (hopefully longer-lasting) upgrades. For the half bath, we chose an old-fashioned toilet with a high wall-mounted tank and pull chain to complement the aura of a log cabin. The big add-on for the master bath was a soaking tub with air jets and a heated back. The remaining two baths are more standard, with a quality fiberglass shower tub and shower stall.
Mechanical Considerations — Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC): There are many choices to consider in this area. We considered radiant heat, and geothermal heating and cooling, but both of these we ultimately rejected because of the additional cost. Natural gas would have been our next choice, but that is not available in this area. So we ended up opting for a heat pump with a propane backup.
For efficiency, it’s best to keep as straight of a run as possible to the mechanical room (off the basement garage for us) where the furnace is located. After considering options, we chose to have it next to a hall closet on our bedroom wall. We tried to take advantage of this by building an extra linen/storage closet in the master bedroom, which incorporated this large cold air return.
Finishing of Walls: The interior walls/ceilings of the bedrooms, bathrooms and hallways are Sheetrock. For the great room and loft ceilings, stairway walls to the loft, and dormer in the great room, we opted for tongue-and-groove cedar. This provided a continuity of the wood look and feel that we wanted in our home.
Hang Interior Doors: We wanted six-panel wood doors wide enough for handicap access if that should become an issue in the future. Our builder explained how relatively inexpensive it would be to upgrade to solid wood, which provides a greater sound barrier. So we eliminated the hollow core doors from our package.
Cabinetry Work (Kitchen, Bathrooms, etc.): As with any product or service, it is our belief that your purchase choices are price, service, quality — pick any two. You can only pick two of the three; otherwise, the person supplying the product/service will not survive in business. For us, we gave up a bit on service, as that was the least of our concerns during a long building process. This decision resulted in our twice needing to make a trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains to work with our Amish cabinetmaker.
These trips to the mountains were eye-opening. His shop was a buzz of activity, and the products he had finished or was still working on represented some of the finest cabinetmaking we have ever seen. He listened carefully, and his designs were done the old-fashioned way in pencil without the aid of computers with CAD/CAM software.
Step 10: Move-In Day
Our dream is now a reality. After all this time of imagining, planning, choosing and building, the hard work is over. The finished product is a dream come true, and we are very ready to settle into a new beginning in our log home.
Would we do it all over again? There’s probably a split decision in our household on that question. It’s probably a decision that is too soon to properly consider. Like most things worth doing in life, there are ups and downs to the journey. Was the journey worth the time, effort and money? We would answer that with a resounding “YES!”
To read a full account of the Curnows’ building experience, visit their blog through countrysbestcabins.com.
Square footage: 2,200 (plus basement)
Builder; doors; roofing; stairs: Oak Creek Builders (540-320-9252; oakcreekbuildersllc.com)
Cabinetry; mantels; railings: Brushy Mountain Enterprises (540-921-1382 ext. 1)
Countertops: Johnson Granite (800-208-1427; johnsongraniteinc.com)
Log provider; stain: Southland Log Homes (800-641-4754; southlandloghomes.com)
Windows: Best Built – now Atrium Windows and Doors (800-322-8050; atrium.com)