DESIGNING YOUR LOG HOME:
Tips to keep you out of trouble!
by Mercedes Hayes
Nearly every log home is a custom design, whether you are altering a stock plan or starting from scratch. By their very nature, custom floor plans open up a large number of untested challenges - especially if you are trying to design the house yourself. With almost all log home manufacturers, an in-house architect will take your design and turn it into a set of drawings that conform to their building system. Your home will be structurally sound. However, don't necessary expect them to point out every inconvenience or snafu in your design. This is a hands-on business, and in the end, your house design is on you... and you'll have to live with it. Here are a few pointers I can suggest to make your design more efficient.
Open floor plans are the essence of the modern log home. They make a home feel larger, and keep the cook from feeling isolated. However, if you have a second floor you need to consider how you are going to get the plumbing, the electric and the ductwork (both supply and return) to the upstairs rooms. You won't be using the exterior walls for that, so you need to create enough interior walls downstairs to fit all the mechanicals. Each object in all likelihood will take its own space between the 2x4s. Even if you use radiant-floor heating, you'll need ductwork for the air conditioning. There are some systems that use high-pressure ductwork much smaller in diameter than conventional ducts, so there are other possibilities if you are pressed for space. But the best solution is to think ahead. If you're tempted to use an interior full-log wall (or none at all), you may be sacrificing an opportunity to get more ductwork upstairs.
The wisest floor plans are the ones that try to keep the bathrooms together (either back-to-back or one directly above the other) and the shortest runs on the plumbing. This can't always be done, but when placing the upstairs bathroom, try to line it up with an interior downstairs wall. This way the plumbing doesn't have to snake all over the place.
I would venture to guess that log homes are usually notoriously short on closet space. I know my home is. First of all, it would be a terrible waste to put a closet against an exterior log wall. Why hide your beautiful logs? And because we try to keep the square footage down to a minimum, it almost seems a crime to waste precious space on closets. However, there's more than one reason to include them. Not only do we seem to collect more stuff as we get older, but by law in several states the closet determines whether a room is a bedroom or an office. This could affect the resale (or refinancing) of your house. Here is a suggestion: put two closets side-by-side on the wall separating two rooms; the closets may not be huge, but it doesn't change the shape of the rooms. Try to include a coat closet near your front door.
As I'm sure you've already read many times, you can't have too many windows in a log home. The wood sucks up the light like a sponge. If you have a large empty wall, the insertion of a window near the peak not only lets in more light, it adds character. Some people add windows along either side of a shed dormer. In my case, I had to move the roof line to increase the size of my bedroom window, because by code it needed to be 6' square for egress. In any upstairs bedroom you'll need your windows to be large enough to climb out in case of fire. Also remember that too many direct-set windows will decrease the amount of air flow to your upstairs. In my house I added an awning (a small hinged window) to the bottom of stationery windows in my dormers. This helped let air in, but even so the rooms can be stuffy. A ceiling fan helps, but ultimately I may need to add a skylight to create a draft.
One of the more difficult decisions we made concerned how to vent the range hood. If you don't want your stove to be on an exterior wall, you are going to have an interesting puzzle. Will you run the exhaust duct between the floor joists to the exterior? Will the run be so long you'll have to add another fan? I gave in and moved my stove to the exterior wall, but then we had to cut a hole in the logs for the vent. Horrors! How do you hide that? My builder built a little cedar box around the hole and we were lucky enough to have a porch roof underneath, so you can't see it from every direction. Still, this ugly vent is on the front of the house, and had I thought of it, I may have moved the kitchen to the back of the house.
CRAWL SPACE vs. BASEMENT
There are many reasons to opt for a crawl space rather than a basement - none of them particularly comfortable. Aside from the obvious disadvantages of a crawl space, there are a few things we didn't think of. I, in my blissful ignorance, didn't give any thought to the ugly electrical panel. Of course, I knew we'd have meters and a panel, but I didn't think of where they were going. What I didn't know was that by code, we couldn't put the panel in the crawl space. Since we don't have a garage, the electrical panel was installed in one of our rooms on the log wall. Isn't that lovely? Another disadvantage of the crawl space: you'll need a short water heater if that's where it is going, and you may need to purchase a horizontal-mount furnace. Because our water quality was poor, we had to install a purification system. This 54" unit must be mounted upright, and our crawl space is 48" tall. We had to punch a hole through the concrete floor to make room for the unit.
Yes, you want to get the water away from your log home at all costs. There can be challenges; we have an alpine-style home with a vaulted ceiling. However, the roof comes to a deep V on the corners that create a magnificent rain chute. This is not necessarily wonderful when it dumps onto your deck! Because of the generous overhang that comes with a log home, the end of that V projects far from the walls and doesn't make a logical angle from which to hang a downspout. On one corner I satisfied myself with an old-fashioned rain barrel, and on the deck side we had to divert the water to the pergola we built against the house, and ran a gutter along the edge of the pergola.
You should have at least a 1' foot and preferably a 2' overhang to protect your logs. This overhang needs to be taken into consideration when designing your roof line. If you have overlapping angles, make sure you are not creating a water trap or a snow trap. There are times your overhang might bump into another angle of the roof. You may actually have to raise part of the roof a little to make clearance.
This can be one of the most annoying errors you can make and not catch until too late. Think of what your door is covering when opened all the way. Is it covering another doorway? Will two doors bang together? If you are in a tight space, will it open all the way at all? When we installed our bathroom vanity, we didn't think about the door swing until the plumbing was already hooked up. The door cleared the vanity by one whole inch; it could have been worse. You can compensate by swinging the other way (before it's already hung, or your hinges will be on the wrong side). Or, in the design phase you can use a narrower door. Or get a smaller vanity.
The electrical and plumbing layout will not come from your log home architectural drawings. The manufacturer is not concerned about where you put your outlets. Once the plans are firmed up, the time will come for you to sit down with the electrician and mark exactly where you want your outlets, switches and light fixtures. Local code will determine the minimum distance between outlets, but anyone will tell you to put in more than you need; eventually you will probably use them anyway. Even if you don't need it, put your cable and telephone into every room; it's so much easier and cheaper to do it up front. Also remember, you can't ever have too many lights in a log home. Plan ahead for those fixtures - especially the ones in the ceiling. They will not be pretty to add later on.
If you are building a huge log home, you've got so much space it doesn't really matter. But for most of the rest of us, every inch counts. There are some approaches that might maximize your floor space. First of all, do you really need hallways? Some space-saving designs arrange the rooms so they all open into a small hallway. I prefer none at all. Also, consider that every closet door creates dead space. If you can arrange your floor plan so that closet door swings into a place which is already dead (for instance, another closet door or a foyer), you might open up the room a bit. Does your loft serve a purpose or is it merely an open hallway from room to room? Can you put a piece of furniture on it? If not, perhaps it would serve to give it an angle and make your "open to below" space a little smaller.
Hopefully I've helped a little bit. I learned many of these tips the hard way, and I'm sure there are plenty more I haven't bumped into yet. After all, a custom home is one giant learning curve.
About the author: Mercedes Hayes is a Hiawatha Log Home dealer and also a Realtor in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She designed her own log home which was featured in the 2004 Floor Plan Guide of Log Home Living magazine.