By Marc Huminilowycz
When it comes to aesthetics, it’s hard to beat a log or timber-framed home. With a European history that dates back 800 years—with some of those structures still standing—they’re pretty much guaranteed to fit the land, given that their organic building material is derived from their natural surroundings. Consequently, the structures seamlessly meld into the topography like a toad in a leaf pile.
Although dating back just 150 years, Ontario’s log homes similarly showcase that remarkable durability. Based on a style and technique borrowed from the Scandinavian settlers along the Delaware River south of the border, the province’s first log homes were simple structures hewn from surrounding forests by Ontario’s first European visitors. Small and functional in design, measuring about 15’x16’ (the traditional dimensions of an English cottage), these homes were meant to be temporary residences, sheltering families from the extremes of Canadian weather. Only a handful of carefully preserved log homes can still be found today in locales across Ontario, including Westfield Village in Waterloo County, at Upper Canada Village in Eastern Ontario and in Prince Edward County. But the fact that some still exist (not to mention the hundreds more that have been demolished or disassembled over the years) is a testament to the staying power and enduring appeal of timber.
Today’s log, timber-frame and log/timber hybrid homes are a far cry from the simple pioneer structures built by our forefathers. They offer rustic elegance, the warm ambience of natural wood, technological innovation, energy savings and environmental sustainability since they are built from a renewable resource.
As its name implies, Confederation Log & Timber Frame Homes pays homage to Ontario’s log home building heritage. Headquartered in Bobcaygeon, the company has been in business for over 40 years. Among the leading manufacturers of log homes in North America, Confederation has won numerous awards over the years for the quality, design and energy efficiency of its construction. Its log
and timber-frame packages are shipped across Canada, to 23 U.S. states, England, Italy, Spain, Germany and Japan.
In 2015, Confederation was the proud recipient of the Sustainability Award from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. A few years earlier, the company was the first log-home builder in Canada to receive the Energy Star for New Homes rating. “Our customers were asking us to build their homes to be Energy Star certified,” says Confederation Vice-President of Sales Rich Kinsman. “An audit was done of one of our log homes and we realized that everything we did met the standard. We’d been doing this all along!”
Kinsman points out several features of Confederation log and timber frame homes that make them winners in environmental sustainability. All of the timber comes from select Canadian suppliers that are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, meaning that their forests are well managed. Compared to conventional homes, log and timber frame construction offers superior insulation values and excellent ‘thermal mass’ attributes. Logs absorb heat well and release it slowly. Kinsman compares this characteristic to the sawdust placed on ice in traditional icehouses to prevent melting.
“The weak point in any new home is the windows,” Kinsman admits. “Our double-pane windows are some of the most energy-efficient in the business, but we’ve been recommending triple-pane for maximum efficiency.”
In addition to its building materials, Confederation prides itself on the efficiency of its manufacturing process, designed to reduce costs and eliminate waste, thereby saving valuable resources. “Our log homes are built faster and much more efficiently than conventional homes,” says Kinsman. “Framing, insulation, vapour barriers, external siding and interior drywall are eliminated and electrical is all pre-drilled in the manufacturing process. Depending on the size and the design, a watertight shell can be up in as little as four to six weeks.”
Confederation creates a complete 3D virtual walk-through, which shows customers every angle of their new home, inside and out. The home is pre-assembled at Confederation’s factory, allowing customers to inspect it before it is disassembled, shipped and re-assembled on site. When asked if remote customer sites such as islands pose a challenge, Rich Kinsman brushes off the question as a non-issue. “We’ve been doing this for so long that we’ve pretty much seen it all. No obstacle is a challenge,” he declares.
“Every project is unique and all design is done in-house to meet our customers’ expectations,” says Kinsman. “Our log home costs are comparable to any other custom-built home—from $200 to $300 per square foot. There’s really no cost premium for a Confederation log home. You get premium finishes, a turnkey home that’s ready to move in, and a home that holds its value versus conventional construction.”
By contrast to solid log, Kinsman adds that structural timber frame homes offered by Confederation—featuring post and beam and trusses—are “one of the most expensive ways to build,” For this reason, his company offers customers the option of using timber accents decoratively to save costs.
James King, president of Discovery Dream Homes, can attest to the longevity of timber. Owning a 35-year-old log home that was built when he was a child, King recently sandblasted and refinished the home. “It was easy to do, and it looks like new,” he says.
Discovery Dream homes, also headquartered in Bobcaygeon, is owned by a family that has been building log and timber-frame homes for over 40 years. According to King, 80% of Discovery’s homes, which use FSC-certified white pine from Northern Ontario and cedar and fir from the west coat, are built within 300 kms of its 12,000 sq.ft. production facility, with the remainder going the American west coast and overseas.
“We’re a manufacturer, not a builder,” says King, describing his company’s log home design and production process in detail. “Every one of our homes is custom-designed, which can take six to eight months. A 3D walk-through allows customers to see the finished product from all angles. Next, our robotic K2 Hundegger, a machine guided by our production designer, converts CAD drawings into computer language, cutting each individual component, which really speeds up the process compared to cutting by hand. It has amazing capabilities and is extremely accurate. Everything is programmed and coded, from sizes to drill holes to cornering. We can do finish a complete home package in 1.5 weeks.”
After cutting, the Discovery home is assembled in its factory and thoroughly checked to ensure quality. It is then disassembled, watertight packaged and shipped to the site for builders to construct. Offering its customers log, timber-frame and hybrid options ranging from 1,200 to 5,000 sq. ft, Discovery home costs start from $325 per square foot, King notes.
“We pride ourselves in the customer experience and continually work towards this. We are the brand—you can touch and feel it and see the technology that goes into our homes,” King adds. “Whatever product our customers choose, we take full responsibility for the quality of their Discovery home, from construction to completion.”
Linwood Custom Homes specializes in “hybrid” post-and-beam construction. With over 10,000 homes produced since the company’s inception, 24 homes chosen as finalists in the Canadian Home Builders Association awards (winning three times) and hundreds of home designs displayed on its website, the company’s designs feature true vaulted ceilings with mixed roof systems throughout the home to encompass truss, post-and-beam and timber frame elements.
“Hybriding gives you all the elements you want from log and timber frame, like hand-hewn 24-inch beam supports and true timber-frame elements—some structural—on the outside” says Linwood VP of Sales Craig McFarlane. “We look at the customer’s building site and create specific designs to suit the lay of the land (instead of competing against it) and work within their particular budget. Hybriding homes allows for a smaller building footprint with more glass and passive solar and vaulted ceilings to create the appearance of huge interiors. And they’re very easy to insulate. All of our homes are Energy Star for New Homes-certified.”
Shipping to remote locations in cottage country is also not an issue for Linwood, says McFarlane. “All the components are pre-cut, coded and packaged together for easy transport, even by helicopter if necessary. Building a Lynwood Custom Home is faster than building a conventional home, saving customers 25% in time and money. And we control waste by controlling cutting.”
Near Sudbury, Bob Myers, owner of J. Robert Construction and Renovation, specializes in building log and timber-frame homes made from northern white pine. Over his 20 years in business, Myers has had his share of negotiating a myriad of remote Northern Ontario waterways in getting the job done.
“We often have to transport everything on a barge across a lake—materials, crew, generator, water pump, fire extinguishers, outhouse and two boats (just in case),” Myers notes. “And everything you don’t require afterward needs to be taken back out. Building on an island can cost 1.5 to two times more than building inland. That’s why we tend to build bigger homes—at least 1,200 to as big as 3,700 sq. ft.”
The arduous process–getting logs to the site from the truck, then to the dock, from the dock to the barge and from the barge across the lake, and then from the shore to the site—and caring for the product the whole way—“mostly consists of brute force,” Myers explains. “I was explaining this to a customer one time and he informed me he had access to a football team that was always looking for ways to earn money. When I arrived at the dock to check the logs and barge, I asked him where the team was. He informed me they were already there. As I looked around, the thought hit me that this was a very small football team and that it was going to be a long day. I asked the owner to let me know when the logs were on site, as I would leave a man to supervise. What I had scheduled as a one-day job turned out to be four days. I went fishing.”
But such time off has been rare. Noting the attraction of high ceilings, large windows, fireplaces and the use of “big round logs” of the fir variety, Myers has witnessed an uptick in demand for timber-frame homes over the past six to years. Extolling the thermal mass attributes of log and timber, Myers describes modern, energy-efficient improvements to traditional log building thanks to tongue-and-groove design with gaskets placed between the logs.
He also attributes the success of his small, independent building business to a trusted crew. “They’ve been around for a long time, and they know what they’re doing,” Myers says. “And I’m extremely picky.”
It’s part of continuing a centuries-old tradition of manufacturing homes that, themselves, may stand for centuries. Knock on wood.