They are icons of the Canadian landscape, rough-hewn testaments to both a pioneering spirit and an unforgiving climate. But now, log homes are weathering a different adversary – modern building codes.
As governments push for greater energy efficiency, builders of traditional log homes across the country fear they could be left behind. And some worry the day will come when they will no longer be able to build log homes as we know them.
“If this direction continues, then I think log homes will certainly be the first ones to come into a crisis situation,” said Peter Schleifenbaum, owner of EcoLog Homes, a builder based near Haliburton, Ont. “We’re certainly not there yet, but we’re heading that direction.”
The log home’s main problem is its walls, typically erected without conventional insulation. Provincial governments tend to measure building materials by their “R-value,” which tests their conductivity of heat – and logs do not score well. Now the federal government is proposing more stringent energy-efficiency rules for the National Building Code of Canada, a benchmark for provinces and municipalities.
Mr. Schleifenbaum fears log homes just won’t be the same if they are forced to incorporate more synthetic materials – such as plastics, foams and laminates – at the expense of exposed timbers and traditional joints. A modern look and feel will erode the authenticity that attracts buyers, he said.
“It’s going to become more of a conventional home, not the icon and the individualistic expression of Canadian living it once was,” he said.
Not everyone is sounding the alarm just yet. Bob Warren, president of the B.C. Log & Timber Building Industry Association, said the industry will no doubt face “some challenges.” But he’s not overly concerned because Canadian codes usually allow a home’s energy efficiency to be measured as a whole, and a weak wall rating can be offset by upgrades to heating and ventilation, or insulation, windows and doors.
Some building codes have exemptions – Ontario’s, for example, which has permitted a lower log-wall R-value to be offset by extra ceiling insulation since 2006.
“Personally, I don’t think [rising standards are]a problem,” said Dan Sayers, chief building official for the Municipality of Dysart et al, an area with many log homes near Haliburton. “Does it make it a little more difficult for [the builders] Probably, but unfortunately that’s part of every industry.”
When considered scientifically, most would admit log homes are not beacons of energy efficiency, said Hermann Thoene, owner of VanIsle EcoLog Homes, based in Victoria, B.C., and not affiliated with Mr. Schleifenbaum’s company.
“But do you want to wipe them all away just because of efficiency?”
Builders like Mr. Thoene also argue that R-values – also used in federal EnerGuide ratings – don’t account for thermal mass storage, the phenomenon whereby wood absorbs heat or cold and then disperses it very slowly, keeping log homes temperate. He describes his own log home as “the most comfortable living climate I’ve ever experienced.”
The federal government counters that its measurements are sufficient, because while the thermal effect is real, there is no evidence that it provides a constant benefit making log homes efficient year-round.
“[We]are keenly aware that log homes cannot meet the wall value, and very interested in making sure they are not eliminated,” said Frank Lohmann, a senior technical adviser with the National Research Council of Canada’s Canadian Code Centre.
Mr. Thoene, however, said log homes are a tiny fraction of the housing market and could become “collateral damage.” Governments across Canada are giving fewer exemptions to the rules, and B.C. is expected to raise its required EnerGuide rating from 77 to at least 80 this fall, and higher still in the coming years.
Log homes can be built to earn EnerGuide 80 ratings in some climates, but it is costly. If those ratings climb much higher, builders fear they could become prohibitive. Kevin Lee, director of the federal Office of Energy Efficiency’s Housing Division, expects builders will just have to innovate to keep pace.
“Could there come a point that it does become difficult for log homes to be built the conventional way? Sure, that’s possible,” he said.
Mary Ann Macdonald would rue that day. She and her husband, Ed, are retired teachers whose land in Harvey Township, north of Peterborough, Ont., includes a log cabin dating to the early 1800s. The Macdonalds gave history lessons to schoolchildren in it, with a wood stove burning.
“I get goose bumps every time I go in it, every time I look at it,” she said. “I cringe, actually, when I see the changes. The history is going and going and going.”