B.C. log home builders reach overseas for new markets

Local companies increasingly serving customers outside of the province

Artisan Log and Timber Homes vice-president Josh Littler: “lots of people have an emotional attachment to a log cabin or log house” | Chung Chow

When settlers first came to B.C. in the 1800s, many built log homes out of necessity. Today, log homes are more of a luxury.

Whether it’s a cozy little trapper’s cabin in the woods or a large fishing lodge with a stone fireplace and an ocean view, there is a rustic romanticism to a dwelling made from logs.

“Lots of people have an emotional attachment to a log cabin or log house,” said Josh Littler, vice-president of Artisan Log and Timber Homes, a family-owned business based in Mission.

But log home building, which boomed in the 1990s, has declined in recent decades in B.C. While sourcing good raw timber and finding skilled workers willing to make log building a career has always been a challenge, many log home builders say those challenges have become increasingly pronounced.

Worse, the B.C. Energy Step Code introduced in 2017 has made it increasingly difficult for log homes to meet energy efficiency standards without compromising esthetics, and as a result, fewer log homes are being built in B.C.

“We do a lot of overseas work,” said Peter Sperlich, president of Sperlich Log Construction and past president of the BC Log & Timber Builders Association. “Germany and Japan probably account for 70% to 80% of our sales. We don’t build that many domestic homes.”

Sperlich and other log home builders say building codes need to change because they fail to recognize some of the inherent values of log home construction – things like thermal mass, durability and carbon content.

And as a value-added industry, it employs more people per tree than sawmilling. According to one estimate, 110 cubic metres of wood can employ one log or timber builder for one year, compared with the 2,000 cubic metres it takes to employ someone at a typical sawmill.

While some customers in B.C. have log homes built for their primary residence, most are vacation homes.

Another market is tourism: fishing and ski lodges. Log buildings can range from small trapper cabins to post-and-beam lodges or mansions.

While esthetics are the main attraction of a log cabin or lodge, Littler said there are some practical advantages to log construction, one of them being durability. In Estonia, where Littler has taught post-and-beam construction, he has seen log houses that are 1,000 years old.

“You keep the rain and sun off your house – especially the rain – and it seriously will outlast generations of families,” Littler said.

“They’re robust, they’re strong, they’re heavy. We’ve got houses that have been through hurricanes in Texas and earthquakes in Japan, and they survived natural disasters, I’d say, better than most buildings out there.”

Some customers also like the “natural” feel of log houses, which use fewer materials with embedded carbon, and the logs themselves can sequester carbon for generations, which gives them something of a green premium.

“We don’t use a lot of fossil fuel in the making of a log home,” said Sperlich, “and it captures and stores a considerable amount of carbon, so it has some very green benefits that, right now, things like the building code don’t take into consideration.”

Log home building is something of niche within the construction sector. Whereas the tools of the trade for a typical carpenter are a hammer and saw, the main tool for a log builder is a chainsaw.  It can be a challenge to find workers willing to stay in the log building construction.

“We would expand, but we can’t,” said Dirk Schuirmann of BC Log Cabins in Prince George. “We can’t find anybody who wants to work.”

Added Sperlich: “It used to be a certified trade. We just didn’t have enough critical mass for the government to keep our program running. It is still a certified trade – you just can’t get a new certification right now. There wasn’t enough new apprentices signing up, and the government put it on ice.”

There are some private builders who teach log house construction, but many who go into the trade simply learn it on the job, and Littler said more of his employees now come from Europe.

“We hire quite a few Europeans who come over on one- or two-year work visas,” he said. “They’re super passionate about wood construction in general. The odd time they decide to stick around and become a Canadian citizen and become an integral part of your team. Truth be told, that is where the best labour comes from right now.”

Like many of the log home builders in B.C., Artisan is a family business. It was started by Littler’s parents, Rob Littler and Katherine Hammond. The company has a show home and office in Mission and an assembly yard in Salmon Arm, where the logs are delivered, peeled, notched, assembled and then disassembled.

Once the disassembled building is shipped to the construction site, it can be put together by a crew of two to four people.

“You can put a house together with two skilled log builders because everything’s been cut to fit already,” Littler said.

Artisan will build about 15 log homes this year.

While B.C. still makes up about 70% of the company’s business, other log home builders, like Sperlich and Schuirmann, are seeing most of their business coming from outside of B.C.

Schuirmann points to the Energy Step Code as a reason why fewer log homes are being built in B.C. Traditional round-log houses can get low insulation ratings under the regulations, he said.

“That is why it is so hard to get a building permit nowadays, if you want to build a conventional round-log house,” said Schuirmann.

Schuirmann uses European-style square timber construction, one advantage of which is that structures built with that method can be easier to insulate.

“With a square log, we can add an insulated system on the inside easily, and you cannot do that with a round-wood,” Schuirmann said.

For a home or lodge made from round logs, insulating the interior would compromise the esthetics. People like the look of the logs – that’s one of the reasons they will pay a premium to have a log home built in the first place.

Sperlich said the BC Log and Timber Builders Association has been working with the National Research Council to try to verify the inherent insulating value of the thermal mass of large timber construction to get their insulation values recognized in building codes.

As for sourcing logs, that is becoming increasingly challenging in B.C. Artisan builds mostly from cedar and Douglas fir, which are not cheap.

“Finding western red cedar especially is difficult,” Littler said. “It’s expensive. There’s a small handful, at best, of suppliers that supply the log home industry.” •