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Turning Spec into Special

Seeing what could be, a Minnesota couple turns a spec house into a unique retirement home.It’s not always easy to see potential—as true for log homes as anything else. But soon after John and Patricia Clay bought their log home in a subdivision in Summers, Montana, they set about uncovering the hidden assets they knew […]
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Turning Spec into Special

Seeing what could be, a Minnesota couple turns a spec house into a unique retirement home.


It’s not always easy to see potential—as true for log homes as anything else. But soon after John and Patricia Clay bought their log home in a subdivision in Summers, Montana, they set about uncovering the hidden assets they knew resided within its walls.

The home began as a project built on spec, or speculation. Because it was being built on spec, the design had to be simple and reasonably priced to keep construction costs down, yet still retain the look and feel of a custom log home to attract a buyer. “We’d never done some of the things we took on with this project,” says Doug Mikkelsen of Old Style Log Works, the company that spearheaded the construction. “It was our first attempt with stone and foundation work, so those things took a little longer than we anticipated. But it was a good experience that brought successful results.”

At just a bit over 2,000 square feet, the home is comfortable, yet not overwhelming. And though it has loft space, all the key rooms are on the main level. This was an important consideration for the Clays, who purchased the home for their retirement. “The floorplan is open with everything being very accessible,” Patricia notes. “While this is not an issue for us now, it could become one in the future.”

View from Dining Room to BedroomThe full-scribe spruce logs are 14- to 16-inches in diameter. They fit tight to one another with shrink-fit, saddle-notch corners and no chinking on the outside. Chinking was included on the inside for aesthetics. It not only brightens the walls, but also complements drywall accenting on the ceilings and some of the interior walls. The inclusion of drywall was partly a cost-savings measure on the part of Old Style Log Works, but also lends a touch of Southwestern energy not often seen in log homes.

One of the most interesting aspects of the home (as the builder notes and visitors underscore) is the way it perfectly suits the site—a lot that has a gentle upward slope to the rear. Old Style Log Works tamed the incline by including a short foundation wall (called a stem wall), which sits into the slope about 2 feet. The front of the home features a river-rock stone base at the foundation that makes up the difference attractively. The stone, which was culled from nearby Flathead Lake, also was used in the surround for the wood-burning stove in the great room.

Privacy is an inherent part of the home, as it sits about 35 yards back from the road. Since the site is relatively secluded, the Clays don’t have to cover the windows with shades and curtains to screen out prying eyes. Skylights also help keep the interior bright, an important detail because deep overhangs on the exterior shade the windows. Patricia notes that when the moon is full, she and John are able to chart its progression across the sky through each of the large clerestory windows at the upper part of the front wall.

Master BedroomInterior Transformation
Doug credits the Clays with bringing the character of the home to life. While it began as a comfortable, attractive residence, it became even better as their vision, imagination and hard work enhanced it.

Though the original plan did not call for a loft, the Clays queried Doug about the possibility. He assured them that it could easily be incorporated. The staircase was a little different matter, as there was no room for a full-size, regular stair. But with a bit of persistence, the Clays were able to have a spiral staircase installed that friends often tell them looks like a piece of furniture.

Matching the flooring and log walls, it blends perfectly, yet has a more finished elegance.

The kitchen was also the site of some changes. “One of the first things we wanted to do was remove the vinyl flooring in the kitchen,” Patricia states. “It just wasn’t the look we wanted in our home.” They were able to hook up with the company who laid the wood flooring in the great room and chose oak planks that matched. For definition, the planks in the kitchen were laid in the opposite direction. A center island with maple top (which was part of the original floorplan, though not included) was also added, as were white enamel cabinet door and drawer pulls. Though the kitchen contained some canned recessed lighting, the Clays put in more and replaced a brass and glass lamp with a more antique-looking piece—a better fit for their style.

Just off the kitchen is a small laundry area, which originally included a toilet and sink, but no laundry tub or cabinets. The Clays had the bath fixtures removed to make room for a deep laundry sink and oak cabinets (to complement the kitchen) for holding laundry supplies. “It turned out so well, we don’t even mind keeping the laundry room door open!” Patricia boasts.

Exterior Alterations
The original exterior featured a porte-cochere with a drive that arched around the front of the home. The Clays redirected the driveway to a new garage on the right side of the home and turned the overhang of the porte-cochere into a charming portico. It’s the first thing visitors see and a delightful entry to their home. John and Patricia both admit to spending plenty of time on this portico as it overlooks a natural wooded area at the front of the house. The garage itself is cleverly devised: It looks like a real log structure, but actually is log-trimmed cedar.

Support posts on the portico are augmented with gussets, which not only increase stability, but also create a wonderful rustic element for the facade.

ExteriorThe Clays put their landscaping talents to good use, upgrading plantings around the home, and installing a rock garden at the front and a firepit near the portico. The rock garden features stone pulled from the excavation of the foundation during the building of the home.

Completing the Decor
Patricia believes that like most long-time home owners, her decor and furnishings have developed into an interesting and comfortable mix of styles. She calls this eclectic style “Mother-in-law’s Attic” and laughs about the diverse yet appealing combinations that ensue from such a decorating approach. However, she insists that though the style might seem hit and miss to some designers, it works for her.

The couple brought along some antiques they already had and added a few others including a Hoosier cabinet—a sort of baking center with deep drawers and a pull-out work board topped with zinc. She reserves it for storing linens and other kitchen items, but also uses it as a unique spot to showcase her collection of antique kitchen utensils. “Glass-front cabinets are so pricey,” she explains. “This gave me a less expensive alternative and still fits in perfectly.”

While Patricia names the kitchen as her favorite spot in the house—where guests seem to naturally gravitate—John is partial to the loft, which is filled with books and old fishing rods and gear. Patricia even covered its rattan furnishings in upholstery with a fishing theme so John, the resident angler, would feel right at home.

The true attraction of this home, however, is some undefinable quality that Patricia calls its “good feeling.” With a manageable size, loads of windows and a sense of blending perfectly with outdoor areas, the place is just right. But it took the Clays to see what it could be and put time, cash and hard work together to make it happen.




Upward Spiral
After John and Patricia Clay bought their log home, they needed more room. They determined that the existing attic would be better used as a loft. This was a simple remodel. They just removed one wall above the living room to create the space, but then a staircase would be needed for access.

In order to provide options to the Clays, Richard Crooks of Skyline Stair Company in Whitefish, Montana, visited the home. After evaluating the size of the living room and the height to the loft, Richard determined that a spiral staircase would be the Clays’ best choice. A spiral staircase, which has a center pole, would use much less space than the next viable option, a curved staircase, where the treads don’t attach to a center pole. “Spiral staircases have a lot of pluses and minuses,” Richard says. “They use less space, but they are steeper and you can’t carry a lot up the stairs.”

For this reason, Richard says that spiral stairs are great additions to a home that also has a main staircase or that’s accessing a small area like a loft.

Richard also cautions to check local building codes before installation. Codes do govern the use of spiral stairs because of their narrow treads and steep rise. 

For resource information, see the August2003 issue of Log Home Living.




Story by Paulette Dague
Photography by Heidi A. Marty







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