Roughly 75 percent of the timber in this log home comes from nearby north Ontario and Quebec and has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as sustainably grown. The FSC label doesn’t tell a consumer everything about the wood, but the designation covers environmental impact and the forestry management plan, and is considered the best third-party certification available for the industry.
“The main company that supplies our company is a family operation. My father bought from his father about 25 years ago,” explains Rob Wrightman, president of True North Log Homes. “They’ve always replanted, so it was kind of a natural for them to [become FSC certified]—and it permitted us to become that also.”
That sustainably harvested wood now makes up the framing and walls of his home, which Wrightman says he opens as a show house frequently to show clients and others the advantages of log homes.
With this project, Wrightman wasn't just building a house for himself and his family - he also sought to create a stellar product that would display the different features and options that make his company stand out from the crowd.
The 3,300 sq. ft. home includes a large garage and separate apartment, and the layout roughly follows the company's Citadel model. With its turrets, sweeping floor space and timber frame kingposts, it's definitely not a starter home. Wrightman, who founded the Ontario, Canada-based company with his father in 1986, says visitors to the house walk away clearly recognizing the psychological and environmental benefits of a log home.
To the uninitiated, a log home might bring to mind a log cabin - some rustic, one-room structure built atop stone foundations with a lot of air infiltration and little insulation. But log homes these days, Wrightman says, are modern and tech-savvy, created with computerized machinery and many on-site labor savers (thanks to assembly work done in advance).
The result is a line of homes that can be quickly built in dozens of different shapes, and whose basic exterior take only a few days to erect. Wrightman explains how True North works with customers. The first step is the same one Wrightman took when he decided on a new house: choosing its architecture. "We sit down with clients and do drawings," he says. "They might like one model more, or might pick some things out of the plan book and then add unique feautures to create their own design."
Customizing is easy as well - provided it's done in the design phase, not after the materials are shipped to the site. "Everything's very automated," explains Wrightman. His factory features an assembly line, but with only five workers - so each house has a lot of hands-on attention to detail. One worker prepares the logs, which are white pine heartwood and purchased already squared, by running them through a tongue and groove planer and dovetailing the ends. The others then operate computers to lift the wood, move it through machines that precisely cut the logs and drill component cavities, and finally transfer them out of the the factory.
It's not a true assembly line, of course, because nothing is actually assembled in the factory. The logs are all trucked to the construction site, where a builder certified by True North joins them together - without using nails or screws - to create a weather tight exterior shell. If there isn't a trained log home builder nearby, True NOrth will send a supervisor, who might spend 40-60 hours overseeing a local crew. That's not as expensive as it sounds, says Wrightman. "The cost might be $3,500 to $5,000, but it knocks a week off the build, and that can be thousands of dollars in savings."
In fact, with a skilled builder, the home’s shell—complete with windows, roof trusses and a subfloor—can be up in three or four days. Completing the interior takes several more months, as cabinets, flooring, electrical, HVAC and other systems are added. Wrightman’s own home required about a year to finish, due to its complexity and the stresses of running a company and a construction site simultaneously.
Many clients retrofit their designs in order to increase the structure’s sustainability. Low-e windows are required in Ontario, but customers can order highly efficient windows if they choose. “Some customers are out in the boonies and don’t have access to power, so we’ve done some design work to beef up roof trusses so that they’ll accommodate solar panels,” says Wrightman. In his own house, he added spray foam insulation, radiant floor heat, and boosted soundproofing in interior walls by filling them with sheep’s wool.
But it’s the homes’ construction system and materials that make them particularly green. One of the less-appealing secrets of log homes is that wood shrinks as it dries out, leaving gaps between the logs. Many builders make up for the subsequent energy loss by comprehensively chinking the holes, but True North has patented a couple of systems—the log lock and the key lock—that tighten the house as it shrinks. The log lock is a rod running through the center of every log that’s spring-loaded to tighten, while key locks are corner components that keep those joints snug.
Developing the home’s components in a factory also accounts for a smaller carbon footprint; after all, the logs are all cut on site, meaning less transportation costs and much less materials waste.
Talk to log home enthusiasts, though, and they’ll swear that the homes’ sustainability ultimately derives from their base material: wood. For one, says Jeremy Bertrand, past executive director of the Log Homes Council, wood is a very good insulator. “The transmittance of heat through wood is the lowest of all building materials,” he says. “Our industry argues that solid wood is better than conventional insulation.” Many log homes do use traditional insulation for basements, crawl spaces and attics, but it’s not quite as crucial as in conventional homes.
More important, says Bertrand, is the fact that using solid wood requires less manufacturing and far fewer chemicals than typical building materials. “There will be a day in the not too distant future where an all-wood home is regarded as one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly homes to build,” he says.
Wrightman certainly agrees. With wood, he says, “you’re getting a product at the front end of its lifecycle.” Compare that to a stick-built house, he adds, “where a lot of energy is used to rip material into smaller pieces to make the house.” And at the end of its life, a frame house’s materials head to the landfill, while wood can be used over and over in various forms.
But with its all-wood interior, the house is also simply a cozy space for his family to relax in. "We've been very happy with it," says Wrightman, with characeristic Canadian understatement.
To view this article as it appears in our October 2012 issue, with additional photos and sidebars, please visit our Magazine Archive.