A New England family sets out to make their mountain home part of the Vermont landscape.
Story by Lore Postman
Photography by Carolyn L. Bates
When they were ready to build their hand-hewn log home, David and Terri Melincoff had a tough choice to make: they could either site the home to take advantage of a beautiful view of northern Vermont, or locate the home so it looked, well, at home with the property.
The couple chose the second course and they say the benefits significantly outweigh the loss.
“I love driving up to the home and seeing it so settled into its environment,” says David. “It just feels like it’s been there forever.”
The family’s 9-acre lot includes the top of a hill that offers a stunning eastern view of Mount Mansfield, but the Melincoffs passed up that spot, instead siting the house along the western slope, about 30 feet below. “Yes, we definitely sacrificed the eastern view, but we achieved that settled feeling,” David says.
Even at the slightly lower elevation, the home has an unobstructed view of Lake Champaign, about six miles away. David, Terri and their 8-year-old daughter Jessie can watch the sun setting over the Adirondack Mountains, and once evening falls, they have a tranquil view of the lights of Burlington.
Variation on a Notch
Having planned initially to build with stick-frame construction, the couple had finished blueprints in hand for a conventional home that incorporated some logs. Then, one Saturday evening, David turned to his wife and said, ‘Why don’t we just build a log home?’ “We got in the car, drove to the bookstore and got a couple of log books,” he recalls. They never turned back.
Once they’d decided on a log home, the Melincoffs wanted to build a place with one-of-a-kind charm and long- lasting appeal. The first step toward that goal was hiring the right handcrafter. They chose John Nininger, a Vermont craftsman who hand-selects trees in the forest and has them cut, peeled and delivered to the home site. John, who owns The Wooden House Company, prefers eastern white pine, known for growing tall and straight and with minimal taper and few branches. The wood has minimal shrinkage, rarely twists when drying and takes stain well, he says.
At the butt end, the trees can be 32 to 36 inches around. About 20 inches is typical. The logs run 50 to 60 feet long. No logs in the home are spliced or placed end-to-end. Each is painstakingly oriented to fit precisely atop the one beneath it. A wall of hand-hewn logs 12 feet high might have eight courses of logs. The same-height wall of manufactured logs might have 13 to 16 courses, John says.
To connect the corners, John used a notch variation he developed that he calls a “housed-round notch.” The corner intersection looks like a round notch with elements of a saddle notch. The effect highlights the natural contours of the logs and make each corner look more natural than they otherwise might.
The windows are an old-fashioned style, with eight to 12 panes on the upper and one pane on the lower. The wooden floors are wide-board eastern pine.
At the last minute, the Melincoffs asked contractor Rick Reed to enlarge the porch overhangs by 18 inches to bring them closer to the ground and make the house feel nestled. “A person who is just 5 feet tall could reach up and touch the eaves,” David says. At the same time, the couple trimmed the dormer and gable overhangs by half, to about 3 feet, to let in more light.
“It means more log maintenance, but we didn’t want the house to be too dark,” David says. “Vermont isn’t a very sunny state and we knew the wood walls would absorb a lot of light.” Only four walls in the home, in the bathrooms and one wall separating the two upstairs bedrooms, are made of drywall.
To the Melincoffs, living in a log home is more than simply choosing 19-inch diameter logs instead of 2-by-6 studs. “It brings you back to your roots, to the outdoors and to nature,” says David. “It’s a completely different feeling. I’m sure that I could live in a stick-frame home again, but the image of doing that is unpalatable.” David turned to the late Larry Atkins, a long-time friend, architect and log home aficionado, to draw up the plans.
Inside the home, the Melincoffs studied the scale of each room to ensure that none was off balance or went against the cozy feel they were trying to achieve. The kitchen and dining rooms, for instance, have 10-foot ceilings, but the log beams overhead are so thick that they effectively lower the ceiling height by 18 inches or so and give both rooms intimacy.
The large size of the logs dictated that John use green timber. “There simply aren’t kiln-dried logs available in diameters greater than 15 inches,” says John. Working with green timber poses unique problems, primarily having to do with settling. It meant carefully calculating allowances around door and window openings for as much as 5 inches of shrinkage over the course of three to five years.
“It was a true challenge to put things together in a way so they wouldn’t come apart,” says Rick. “John supplied a lot of the details on how to make things work, and other than that, you just try to think things through.”
Just My Style
Rick helped David and Terri achieve the timeless look they desired by making mockups of the effects they requested, or physically trying out techniques and styles before making them permanent. The team laid out several colors and styles of shingles on the plywood roof, for instance, before settling on a wooden variety. Inside, the couple opted to stain their logs a darker, milk chocolate finish instead of the more-common golden honey to exaggerate the home’s age and lend a sense of enduring charm.
“It’s almost the same color as a chocolate lab,” David says.
Rick temporarily installed casing around the windows; then he and David stepped back to test whether the scale, proportion and texture of the molding matched the window and the overall feel they sought.
“If a person hires you to build their house, the process should be as much fun as the result is satisfying,” Rick says. “Our job as a builder is to spend time educating the customer on their choices and then trying to support them in making good choices.”
The Melincoffs trimmed costs by postponing construction of a garage and back decks and waiting to put siding on the walkout basement wall. They also drove to nearby Canada to tap the favorable exchange rates when buying their granite countertops. And they bought less-expensive bathroom cabinets from a home improvement store and had a friend faux-finish them. David also used his connections in the restaurant business to obtain the flooring and kitchen appliances at wholesale prices.
One item they couldn’t find discounted was the log shell. But that wasn’t a concern for Terri and David. “For the same amount of money, I could have gotten much more home [using conventional construction],” says David. “But it’s very worth it. I wouldn’t do it any other way.”