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Log building in Scandinavia and the Baltic States

LOG BUILDING IN SCANDINAVIA AND THE BALTIC STATES

Norway and Sweden

Dovetailed corner on Latvian house
Having recently been involved with a log building project in Cumbria and an extended tour of meeting log builders in New Zealand earlier in the year, I was very pleased to be able to attend the International Log Builders Association (ILBA) annual conference in Riga, Latvia in October, 2005. I was able to attend this event through the generosity of Woodland Heritage and the additional support of the Forest Enterprise North West England District.

In order to familiarise myself with the cultural traditions of log building that has been so predominant in Scandinavia and the Baltic States, I incorporated a brief tour of the excellent historical buildings museum ‘Maihaugen’, situated in Lillehammer, Norway, which contains approx. 160 log structures, 70 of which date back to the 1440s. Lower sill logs that are heavily laden with resin are chosen specifically to withstand splash back and driving weather conditions. Hollowed out logs are used for guttering – ingenious ! Due to the slow growth of the vegetation in this climate, and the tall straight form that most forest trees seem to adopt, Norway is abundant in log building materials. Another forest product that was used extensively in log buildings was moss, ideally Sphagnum, which was used as an insulation material packed between the logs in the lateral groove. The museum has a wonderful collection of buildings, and clearly illustrates such a strong cultural link to Norway’s forests.

Travelling through Norway and Sweden by train provided a great opportunity to view the plantations of Silver birch and Norway spruce, which seemed to be managed so effectively in terms of producing straight stems with clean trunks, and very small lateral branching towards the top half of the tree.

Latvia

The ILBA’s decision to hold their annual conference in Latvia was with the specific aim of tapping into their rich heritage and knowledge of log building that has emerged over many years. The conference was jointly organised by various educational bodies in Latvia – incorporating technical, craft, construction and agricultural establishments, with a view of providing comprehensive information to all levels of interested individuals regarding the log building profession.

Day 1 comprised site visits to 3 different styles of log homes within a few hours drive from the capital, Riga. Our first visit was to view a classic Latvian style construction, where the wall logs have been ‘hewn’ (flat sides cut on the logs) on the inside of the building and also on the outer logs just where the corner notches and window profiles are situated. Traditionally, Norway spruce provided an ideal log building material, with Aspen used for roofing shingles, although spruce could still be used for shingles as long as only the lower trunk of the tree was used.

Our second visit was to view a fully hewn building in progress that incorporated dovetailed corner joints, another form of building style used in Latvia, and which is especially prevalent in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Most buildings are erected in the yard, where on completion the logs are numbered, dismantled and then transported to their final destination. Adjustable jacks are used as temporary foundations for the log work to rest on.

The final visit of the day was to view a building styled on the North American tradition, using fully round logs and notching all corner joints with a shrink fit ‘saddle’ notch. Although it was initially the Norwegian and Scandinavian settlers in the 1700s who introduced their log building skills to the States, the North American pioneers were quick to adopt their own style, and have now become the forerunners in the log building industry today. Only 10 years ago, many Latvian log builders were still cutting all notches and lateral grooves with an axe, whereas in America, the chainsaw was being widely used to complete these tasks as early as the 1960s.

Day 2 was the beginning of the three day conference, where qualified and experienced lecturers were to introduce topics directly relating to the history of wooden buildings in Latvia, and the current direction for the construction of wooden houses. The advantages and philosophy, practical aspects such as maximising inherent isolative properties, natural daylight and the interior considerations for a log home. On opening the conference, the Minister of Agriculture and Land welcomed all the Latvian and foreign log builders, and expressed the point of timber being Latvia’s greatest natural resource. He predicted a healthy future for the craft of log building to flourish, and was committed to encouraging good quality craftsmanship, in conjunction with preserving Latvia’s 47% forest cover.

Classic Latvian style log home
Architect Raitis Jelevics stated that log building reflected a unified method and harmonious design in Latvia, and could never be industrialised, as the building process requires a ‘feeling’ from the architect and craftsman. It was mentioned that a bewildering array of high tech products in areas such as glazing and ventilation can create unnecessary information overload to a log builder. A lack of processing is beneficial to the wood’s integrity, and a huge saving in terms of energy production costs. Simplicity is a key factor in log home design, so builders should resist incorporating foreign materials and highly technical construction methods.

Riga Technical University emphasised the importance of using natural materials to furnish a log home, such as wool, linen, cotton and leather. The environment produces a wonderful array of natural colours into the home, providing a contrast to the heavy presence of the log work, therefore creating a general well-being and harmony, inside and out.

Andris Spaile talked about log building apprenticeships currently available in Latvia, which have been in existence since 1997. All students take part in practical training on various projects in the form of placements, and after one year, have the necessary skills to undertake employment with one of the many log building companies now starting to emerge in Latvia. There are now three log construction schools in Latvia.

A highly respected log building company in Latvia, ‘A-Koks’, was represented by their architect Vilnis Vaivars, who made some inspirational observations on the craft of log building:

  • To allow craftsmen to express themselves
  • Encourage craftsmen to belong to a guild, or association and to share ideas
  • Use natural, local materials wherever they can
  • Work closely with architect and owner to adapt buildings to their surroundings
  • Ensure that log building remains a nonindustrialised craft
  • Primary influence derives from Latvian style building designs
  • Craftsmen draw on experiences and innovations of North American builders
  • Strive for originality and appreciate high level of craftsmanship

Day 3 started with Janne Jokeleinen, a teacher of

'Hewn' logs and dovetail notches, Latvia.
log construction techniques, speaking about traditional Finnish log architecture. Finland’s building style has been influenced by Swedish, Norwegian and Russian techniques, which incorporates hewn logs and the ‘long’ and the ‘short’ dovetail corner notch. A locked dovetail corner is now most common, which provides great strength and rigidity in the construction. The oldest dwelling had a small in scale, simple design, whereas bigger buildings were constructed of four or five independent frames and then joined together. The Block Pillar churches (1500- 1750) were the finest examples of Finnish wood architecture, as well as the Finnish railway stations (1860-1950). The pine logs often dictated the size of the building (9 to 10 metres), which needed a supporting wall in any length more than 6 metres. Janne emphasised the importance of the harmony between the architectural form and the log structure, of which since the 1950s, much has been lost. Finnish architects need to gain more knowledge of log structure and respect architectural rules.

Vilnis Kazaks spoke of the challenge for log building companies to revert back to building small, low impact dwellings rather than large ‘elitist’ showcase lodges. This point was reinforced by Priit-Kalev from Estonia, who stated the importance of keeping alive vernacular architecture and the need to train young craftsmen through Tartu University’s Viljandi Culture Academy. Estonian log construction companies now orientate towards export, especially Norway, and are involved with building designs that have little cultural significance to Estonia. A renaissance in Vernacular style construction is needed, and is being addressed by the Union of the Producers of Hand Made Log Homes in Estonia.

The conference concluded with a lecture from American log builder and teacher Robert Chambers on a new technique of log scribing that he has patented, known as the ‘Accelerated scribe’. Traditionally, the process of log construction has always been done by adding one log at a time to the building, where only the top two logs can be worked on at any one time. Using the accelerated scribe method, all the logs can be stacked, scribed and cut all at the same time, due to the use of metal fixing devices that are used to position and hold up all the logs in the walls. His company has produced approx. 200 buildings in five years using this method, which has made the building process 30% faster if being used on a regular basis. Robert predicted the manufacture of fully automated hand crafted log homes in the foreseeable future, although there would always be a market for hand crafted homes made solely with an axe and chainsaw – at a premium price.

Day 4 concluded with a summary of the conference, and a discussion about log building standards, a subject that arose on numerous occasions from some of the guest speakers. In the U.S. and Canada, they have developed over the years clearly set out log building codes and practices to adhere to, whereas in the whole of Europe (except Norway), no standards exist for each country, although the American standards are used as a ‘general’ guideline. Some people stated the importance of companies getting together to write a European Code of Practice before Brussels and the E.U. decide to implement their own and maybe unrealistic version of the Standards. Due to the variety of climates within Europe, it was stated that to write a set of standards applicable to all countries would prove to be a very challenging task, and poor countries such as Estonia would find it difficult to implement these standards within their culture. It was agreed that this issue needs further consideration, and that Latvia would be happy to host another ILBA conference in the future.

I personally felt that there may have been more of an emphasis on sustainable forest management in relation to the continued supply of raw materials, to safeguard the future of the log building craft in Latvia. There are however companies that support using timber merchants that provide an FSC chain of custody.

Conclusion

I am very grateful to all the log builders, both in New Zealand, Latvia, and the few that exist in the U.K., who have given their time and enthusiasm to show me some of their builds and explain why they have adopted their own particular techniques and building styles. We have definitely witnessed a strengthening within the industry over the last 35 years, instigated by the Canadian log builder B. Allan Mackie, who encouraged so many people to build their own homes, thanks to his enthusiasm and courage to teach these traditional skills all over the world.

Since this time, we have also seen a very positive collaboration of some of the world’s most talented and innovative log builders, who are constantly thinking of ways to improve handcrafted techniques, and are willing to share their ideas through the International Log Builders Association, which continues to grow in membership.

By supporting the process of using round logs to build, which almost eliminates the need for a sawmill and its associated waste products, we are utilising a building material that can be obtained from renewable, natural resources. Surely the handcrafted log home is an excellent example for value added wood products, especially because of its low embodied energy compared to other more ‘conventional’ materials. F.S.C. certified timber could also play a big part within the log building industry, and some companies are already showing a commitment to build with trees that are from sustainable, certified forests only.

‘Logs are an answer to the green building concerns that many people have today, both for environmental responsibility and for healthier lifestyles’. (Robert Savignac, president of the ILBA, 2005)

Michael Read

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