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Build your own Log Cabin

Text: Marianne Heron. Pictures: David Morgan. Article from the July 2013 issue of Country Life Magazine.

Save a fortune by building your own mortage-free, eco-friendly log home.

The log home built by Cathy and Roy Trembath in Wilderness Heights.Building your own log cabin sounds like the pinnacle of self-sufficiency. It also demands much practical skill, far more than I possess, and is not something I could learn in just two days. But, hey, there is nothing like a challenge and, with visions of rugged Swiss-style chalets and bearded lumberjacks floating in our imagination, David and I set off for Wilderness along the Cape Garden Route, and a weekend log home building course that proved to be the most fun possible that is still legal.

Surprise number one is Roy and Cathy Trembath’s log home in Wilderness, where the course is to be held. It isn’t squat and clad in brown bark but is a handsome three-storey house built of big, silvery tree trunks. These turn out to be eucalyptus – inexpensive, hard, beetle-resistant and with obliging bark that can be peeled off like a banana skin.

Roy Trembath gives his log home building course. Surprise number two is that the number of women on the course equals the men: Robert, Vanessa, Molly, Phillip, Arina, David and moi. They come from all walks of life, from physiotherapist to restaurateur and from as far afield as Limpopo.

Only one has serious building experience, most have DIY credentials, one has been given the course as a birthday present, and there’s one who’s NSWS (Not Safe With Screwdriver). Me.

Huge savings

We gather at 8am around a long dining table, with cups of Cathy’s excellent coffee and Roy’s log-building course manuals. “I don’t do fancy carpentry, this cost me just R42,” says Roy when someone remarks on his handsome table.

Detail of the log house showing the butt and pass construction in eucalyptus logs.“I wanted a table and it took me just five days to make from start to finish.” Impressive. The huge saving in doing it yourself is one of the compelling reasons for DIY – building your own log home can be accomplished at just one tenth of the cost of a conventional house. Roy estimates a cost of around R880/m2 for a log home compared to a minimum R8 500/m2 for bricks and mortar. Other plusses include good insulation, low maintenance, sustainability and strength and durability. To illustrate this Roy tells the story of a log home that was washed down the Mississippi in a flood and came to rest perfectly intact on a sandbank (not a test to be tried at home though).

But what about the time and labour? It took Cathy and Roy just four months from the start of building to get the walls up and the roof on. Cathy, now a sports injury massage practitioner, did all the drilling to first floor level and they moved in after a year once there was hot water and a toilet. It took two years for Roy to complete all the interior work, a short time compared to the decades he would have to work to pay off the mortgage on a conventional house.

Planning

Planning is key and involves a model made of dowels and properly drawn plans.“It’s easy to build and it’s unskilled work,” says Roy encouragingly as we open our manuals. “We are only going to spend two to three hours on how to build the house; the rest is how to design and how to deal with details. The best advice I can give you is to plan.”

That planning begins with making a model from wooden dowels, which helps to see the way the structure works and the number of logs needed, and continues with drawing plans, costing and planning application. True to Roy’s word, by lunch time we have covered peeling and seasoning logs, cataloguing and storing, the butt and pass method of building, and the most important foundations. This includes their layout, and making shuttering for the concrete pier blocks.

Along the way I am acquiring a whole new vocabulary peppered with words like rebars (galvanised steel bars to fasten the logs to each other and to the foundations,) and ‘double butt’ (the log that goes between the cap logs at the top of the wall). Roy has a way of demystifying the building process, making it sound simple, but he also warns of the pitfalls. Trying to get quick-setting concrete out of a hole in the ground when you have put it in the wrong place isn’t exactly easy.

Detail of the log house showing the butt and pass construction in eucalyptus logs.A tour of the Trembath home is an excellent lesson in practical building: how to position the house relative to prevailing wind, the sense in stacking wet rooms above each other, ensuring the kitchen sink has the best view. Roy has some great throwaway lines: “I sum up everything in terms of time and money. This staircase took three weeks to make and I spent about R300 on two bottles of glue. You don’t have to be a carpenter, it’s just a frame with treads.” Hmm, the words tricky and sticky occur to me. Roy reckons a staircase involving an architect and a builder would have cost around R60 000. And the interior decoration to turn the logs silver was a once-off job costing just the same as a container of pool chlorine. “I hate maintenance,” says Roy.

Scribing logs

Chamfering the logs in butt and pass construction.  A supply of neatly stacked planks.We all picnic together overlooking the Touw River valley and the panoramic peaks of the Outeniqua Mountains. In the afternoon comes the part I had been dreading. We are going to learn to scribe fit logs, which involves cutting a curve out of the lower log so the next one can rest in it. I can’t imagine how you cut curves with an electric saw, something I have always avoided using.

As it turns out, far from the chainsaw massacre of my worst imaginings this is easy – and, once you know how, even satisfying. The tricky part is learning to draw the mirror curve, or scribe set in the lower log on the one above, using a compass and pencil with a spirit level attached, so that they fit together perfectly. We try out the fit a couple of times before we get to the point where – theoretically at least – you can’t get a razor blade between the logs. “Give it a clop and you’ll see where it is hitting,” suggests Roy. Getting the scribed logs, which lie fat end to thin end, to lie level is another challenge but we manage it and earn a “splendid, well done guys,” from Roy.

Sawing, roofing, lifting

Roy demonstrates plane cutting with a band saw. We watch a demonstration on sawing planks using a band saw. “The easiest way to do this is to get your wife to do it,” advises Roy. We deal with roofing, from ridge poles to rafters and from purlins (roof beams) to planking, for the rest of the day. Tomorrow we are going to learn how to lift heavy things. “When I have taught you how to lift you will be able to lift anything, except maybe the Baalbek stones,” promises Roy. There’s a host of advice about building plus other information from hanging doors to how to avoid coming unstuck – maybe that’s not quite the appropriate term – on a staircase.

Roy and Cathy met in London, where Roy from the Cape was working as mechanical engineer and Cathy, an Irish midwife, was in charge of a labour ward. By the time their son Conor was seven they were ready for change. Roy had done a course with the North American Log Home Builders Association and had already designed their future home.

Cathy Trembath relaxes on her stoep. They bought a plot in Wilderness, unseen. That was three years ago and now Roy gives one or two courses a month. “If I had built this place with a mortgage it would have cost me about R2 400 000 and that would have meant 17 years of having to earn about R85 000 every month. But I am not a slave to the bank, I am mortgage-free.” It’s a persuasive argument.

Afterwards I feel empowered. I won’t be stuck for shelter if I wash up on a desert island and I’m looking at the stand of mature pine trees at the bottom of our garden in an entirely different light.

Roy and Cathy Trembath 082 060 7474 email roytrembath@gmail.com www.logbuilding.co.za

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