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logless log homes (concrete logs)

bmauers's picture

I saw this in the New York Times and found it interesting. I'm only offering this as FYI (I have no experience with it). Full article follows since website requires registration, but the photos are worth a visit. I wonder what they'll look like in 20 years.

It sounds like a good idea: very stable (no settling), fireproof, rot-proof, termite-proof. 100 pounds/foot sounds awfully heavy, as does 25% added cost.


>>>"IN the snowy woods of a valley west of this college town, John and Mary Beth Cook have taken up a version of mountain living amended for the modern world. Last year, they completed and moved into a house that looks like many others here in Big Sky Country, with exterior walls formed by logs stripped of their bark. Except that in their case, the logs are made from precast concrete shaped and painted to look like the real thing.

“We like the look and feel of logs because they look like the forest, they look like they belong,” said Mr. Cook, a historian, teacher and outdoorsman who also installed a climbing wall on his rock chimney. “But we didn’t want the maintenance.”

Maintenance is something Mr. Cook knows about. His previous home, where he and his wife lived for nine years, was a real log house several miles away. “Every year you go out to stain it,” he said, “and the building gets a little bigger.” The couple, whose property still has charred trees from a forest fire several decades ago, were also drawn to the idea that a concrete house would be less susceptible to such disasters. “It would take a flame-thrower to start this place on fire,” Mr. Cook said.

When most people dream of a rustic log cabin getaway in the mountains, it’s probably not built of concrete logs. But Stewart Hansen, a co-founder and the president of EverLog Systems, the Missoula-based company that has been selling concrete logs since 2004 and that made the logs for the Cooks’ house, thinks it should be.

Concrete logs, he says, are “worry free.” “They’re sturdier than real logs so there’s no settling or structural instability,” he said. “That means no broken windows or doors that won’t open.” No filling the cracks between logs, or chinking, either (most log homes need re-chinking every 20 years or so); no need to stain the logs themselves (generally required at least once in five years); and no worrying about insects boring into the wood.

Moreover, he added, the fact that they are fireproof makes them particularly appropriate at a time when the climate is warming, homes are increasingly being built in forests and wildfires pose a growing threat across the West.

The idea for a realistic concrete log came about in 2000, when Dick Morgenstern, another founder of EverLog, watched more than a million acres of the Bitterroot National Forest and hundreds of home go up in flames. “Insurance rates went up on homes in the woods,” he said. “Or they stopped insuring them.”

Some 40 homes have been built with logs from EverLog, about 30 of them erected by the company itself.

Products like EverLog’s have quickly won adherents in the homebuilding world. “It looks good, there’s no shifting or movement of the logs, no need to chink and re-chink,” said Pat Supplee, the architect in Missoula who designed the Cook house. “The downside of real logs is gone.”

Not that everyone agrees, especially here in western Montana, where there are five national log home companies and many more small outfits, and where logs, the staple of Western construction for more than a century, remain the trendiest material. For many here, the idea of artificial logs is heretical.

“Architecture 101 says respect the integrity of the materials,” said Joe Campeau, an architect in Helena, Mont., and a proponent of “architecture that represents Montana” and “that says ‘I belong here.’ ”

“Material should represent itself and not another material,” Mr. Campeau said. “Simply put, they’re fake.”

But this view hasn’t dissuaded a number of companies around the country from trying to capture the essence of log construction with materials that get around the downside.

In Charlevoix, Mich., for example, a company called Pine River has been manufacturing a log-siding system called E-log for four years, in which a thick wood veneer — typically pine — on a hardboard backing is wrapped around a half-cylinder foam core. This produces a milled log look-alike, complete with saddle-notch ends, that is close to indistinguishable, once installed, from the walls of actual milled log homes (milled logs are cut to be uniform, unlike the varying logs used in most log homes). “It’s white pine,” said the company president and founder, Mike Way. “I can also create cherry, hickory, walnut or maple logs,” he said, “depending the on the kind of veneer I can get.”

If the inside and outside of a home are done, the look is complete, and the surface even feels authentic to the touch — although tapping them yields a hollow thud. Siding for a 3,000-square-foot house would cost $15,000 to $18,000, Mr. Way estimated, plus $4,000 to $7,000 for installation; saddle-notch ends would add about $3,000.

In Thorp, Wisc., CRC Inc., founded in 2000, has just started marketing a half-log siding that it describes as environmentally friendly because it is made from a fiberglass that, the company says, emits very low levels of volatile organic compounds. The half logs are molded and hollow, with a look that the company owner, Jim McIntire, described as “Wisconsin hardwood, with raised knots and wood grain.” He added that they are fire resistant, durable and, weighing a pound per foot, easy to install.

So far only one home has been done, for Mr. McIntire himself. He said that enough fake logs to cover a 3,000-square-foot house would cost $17,000 to $20,000, and that installation would be another $10,000 or so.

And in Tecumseh, Okla., Stanton Pace, a contractor, has been creating sprayed concrete facades with fake log finishes since 2003. Styrofoam sheets shaped like stacked logs are screwed to a house’s exterior walls, and a concrete mixture is sprayed over the surface and then repeatedly pressed with various three- to six-foot-long rubber stamps in wood-grain patterns (one molded from an old fence post on a farm, another with distinctive knot holes), along with any of 12 stamps used for shaping log ends. Mr. Pace colors the fake logs either by adding coloring to the concrete before it sets or by painting it with a water-based concrete paint. They can look quite realistic, though they also fail the tap test.

“I love real logs, but I could never afford to build a real log home,” he said. “I can afford this.” Mr. Pace founded the Fossil Crete Company, in Oklahoma City, to make the facades. He later sold it and now works independently, using the same techniques. A 3,000-square-foot house, he estimated, would cost less than $10,000 to cover.

Building a house of the same size with EverLog concrete logs, on the other hand, could cost as much as $600,000, Mr. Hansen said, which is close to the cost of a real log home, and about 25 percent more than traditional construction. EverLog’s product is unusual in the world of fake logs in that each cast log is not just decorative but structural; houses are not just covered with but made of the artificial logs.

The logs are cast using 40-foot-long steel forms the width of a log, which were fitted with rubber molds in eight styles, from hand-hewn to round, each made from a real log. Concrete is poured into the mold and heat cured; the roof of the manufacturing shed opens; the mold tips and a crane lifts the log and loads it onto a truck. The logs weigh 100 pounds a foot.

Water-based paint is applied on-site with brushes and sponges, producing a color that cannot quite match nature, though it comes close. The logs do look authentic — without knowing, it is hard to tell they’re not. “A plumber tried to drill a hole in one for a hose bib and broke his drill bit because he thought it was wood,” Mr. Hansen said.

Besides their realistic looks and low maintenance requirements, Mr. Hansen maintains, homes built from his logs are more environmentally friendly than those made from real ones. He acknowledges that the logs are made from an energy-intensive product, cement, and says the company is looking for a greener alternative, perhaps a concrete made from a waste product such as fly ash. But he points out that concrete logs don’t require the cutting of trees, whereas construction of the average log home requires 100 large logs.

Even the most practical arguments for artificial logs, though, are treated with skepticism by some in western Montana. Jon Sellers, the vice president for marketing for Rocky Mountain Log Homes, a builder of real log houses based in Hamilton, takes issue with a fundamental premise of the concrete-log camp, that wood logs are highly flammable. Concrete may be fireproof, he allowed, but logs are fire resistant: A frame house would burn quickly in a wildfire because of air in its walls, but logs are dense and burn slowly, which means they can often be extinguished long before serious damage is done.

But the argument against fake logs that he seems to take more seriously is an aesthetic one, reminiscent of Mr. Campeau’s. “Logs look more natural, and in a log house every log is different, like a fingerprint,” Mr. Sellers said. In the end, “they’re building a concrete house that looks like a log house and isn’t.”<<<

(post #107724, reply #1 of 16)

They look pretty realistic in the brochure at any rate.

(post #107724, reply #2 of 16)

Dang. But they can't be energy efficient ... oh my god ... they got to be energy suckers ... unless they insulate them. Trouble is they would insulate the inside and most times, insulating the outside is best (but it does depend).

There ain't NO free lunch. Not no how, not no where!

(post #107724, reply #3 of 16)

That was my first thought too: Energy???  Assuming the web site that Stuart pointed to is the correct product - they claim R-19 and significantly less envelope leakage than stick framed or real logs.

Edit to add... R-19?  That's difficult to believe....  I looked through their material at their web site.  In some places they say the logs are made from "composite material".  In another place it is called "insulated concrete".  Elsewhere they are just referred to them as reinforced concrete logs.  Can someone tell me what "insulated concrete" is?  If I knew that maybe the R-19 claim would be more aparent to me. 

I'd also be interested to know what the chinking material is made of.  It would appear that the air tightness of their end product is very dependant on the chinking.  I would guess that the water tightness of the wall assembly is dependant on the chinking too.  

I'm not attempting to defame a product that I know nothing about - just asking questions....


Edited 1/24/2009 9:31 am ET by Matt


(post #107724, reply #4 of 16)

There is a lightweight type concrete and gypcrete both of which likely have better R-values. Even if you mixed e.g. vermiculite in w/ the concrete ... but R-19??  BS

Probably another one of the thermal mass claims of 'effective R-value' taking into account mass and air leakage or some such dribble.

There ain't NO free lunch. Not no how, not no where!

(post #107724, reply #5 of 16)

I'm familiar with gypcrete - we use it on our multi family projects.  As far as I know, it has no structural value though.... 

Regarding lite-weight concrete - OK - but what is the compressive strength (PSI) of that?  I wouldn't think 4000 PSI, but I don't know.


(post #107724, reply #6 of 16)

How can 8" thick concrete have an R-19 insulating value?  Could be 12" thick - not sure...


(post #107724, reply #7 of 16)

It appears the logs have a sandwich construction, with a layer of foam insulation in the middle. However, from the drawing I found on their site the foam only looks to be an inch or two thick. I noticed they say it 'performs' at an R-19 value, whatever that means.

(post #107724, reply #8 of 16)

2 inches of foam R-10 likely. Plus the concrete. Performs is the key word ... snake oil speak for 'thermal mass automatically means reduced energy use'. That is a pet peave of mine ... selling thermal mass as an automatic energy benefit. This myth has been twisted for 20 years, now.

There ain't NO free lunch. Not no how, not no where!

(post #107724, reply #9 of 16)

since the foam filled "logs" are only half logs, maybe they're applied over an insulated stud wall?  or over rigid foam?

supposedly since they are artificial, they are regularly sized, and there is no chinking.

I agree with the guy in the article who said a material should represent itself, not some other material.  If you want cementious material for fire resistance, build a g**damned concrete house, or use stucco.


(post #107724, reply #10 of 16)

I always think there is a time and place for just about everything. But I very much respect and appreciate the point of view of having a material be what it is. I had an architecture professor ask us ... is it appropriate to have e.g. plastic laminate attempt to mimic wood? Generally, I'd say no, but even with that there is a place ... somewhere that is appropriate, I suppose. My Hardi siding mimics wood siding in grain pattern. Who might decide what and when it is appropriate to do this? I wouldn't have my Hardi siding any other way ... I don't think; what way would it be? Flat/smooth? Stippled? stuccoed?

Always a good topic; when is it appropriate to fake it?

There ain't NO free lunch. Not no how, not no where!

(post #107724, reply #11 of 16)

Yeah, I was thinking about Hardie Siding as I wrote that.  I guess I'd say it should be flat, as that would represent the casting process more honestly.

But for whatever reason, the wood grain Hardie doesn't irritate me as much as faux logs.  For one thing, it's usually pretty clear what it is- cement fiber board with a pattern.

But it is an open question, especially as composites and engineered materials become more prevalent.  I gues Azek, for instance, doesn't bother me; it's not real contrived, even if it mimics the same shape as a flat wood board.  But Pergo irritates the carp out of me...


(post #107724, reply #12 of 16)

I completely agree with you.. No plastic anything will replace the look of real wood. Plus frankly I don't understand the appeal of fake anything.. If you put up fake stone everybody can tell that it's simply not real.. fake siding?  Same thing..  

 Plastic actaully costs more than the real thing.  In many cases it's even more durable..

(post #107724, reply #13 of 16)

With all due respect, though I've seen some truly outrageous faux rock work that you could NOT tell from real rock even at an inch or two away! I've seen this ued in zoos and in a museum (personally). I've also seen samples of the work online and it is some pretty outrageous stuff!! You get custom rockwork without the weight and problems associated with real rocks.

A couple of examples, not the best

That's a good example of something I wouldn't think twice about doing FAKE. Definately has its place.

I've seen concrete stamping the looks VERY good as well ... looks like real rock, slate, etc. Concrete could be considered a close cousin, I suppose, to real rock. Time and place for everything, I think.

There ain't NO free lunch. Not no how, not no where!

(post #107724, reply #14 of 16)

I'm sorry but I've seen what you are speaking of and because I understand rock, it's night and day.. No piece of concrete however carefully crafted will ever look like granite, Chilton,   marble,  or any of the things it tries to imitate. Just like no printing or forgery of the Mona Lisa will ever replicate the real deal..

 I apologize for the level of snobbishness that statement implies.  I'm guilty of a preference for the real deal and in part that is because I've found the real deal to be possible at a similar price to imitation.

 Maybe that's what comes from having champagne tastes and a beer budget.

(post #107724, reply #15 of 16)

No, I TOTALLY respect your point of view and opinion. I've seen a lot of really bad faux rocks and I've seen some bad concrete stamping/forming, too. Bad work may be worse than no work at all. I like that concrete lends itself to be formed in many different ways, shapes, forms. That in itself gives potential for some degree of imitation. I also think that abstract images may be effective, too. e.g. Concrete that implies rock w/out really trying to be rock, etc.

I hope I didn't imply that I actually like or prefer the faux approach, just that it CAN be a reasonable option and that there is a time and place for everything. I breezed by a few websites with faux rocks ... ooh and there was some pretty tacky looking stuff!

There ain't NO free lunch. Not no how, not no where!

(post #107724, reply #16 of 16)

excellant point.. well stated!