Secrets of Success
By Stacee Sledge
Log Home Living, February 2005

Three log home design experts weigh in with their tried-and-true tips for successful log home living spaces.

Like any custom home owner, you want your new space to be unique and stand out from the crowd. And although log home manufacturers offer an array of tantalizing stock floorplans with a surplus of bells and whistles, some folks feel like the only way to get that one-of-a-kind feeling is to go custom. Enter the independent designer.

One of the most daunting requests designers face is the square-footage boom. Many modern home owners ask for rambling, luxurious homes, but striking a balance between spaciously comfortable and cavernously inhospitable is no easy feat.

Whether you dream of living in a mammoth log, manor or owning a cozy cabin, listen to the varying thoughts of these design experts to gain insight into why some prefer small spaces while others love to go large—and find out the tricks of the trade they employ in rooms of any size. 

The Great Room
Let’s begin with the graddaddy of log home living spaces—the great room. To the architects and designers of award-winning architectural firm Ellis Nunn & Associates Architecture in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, great rooms are just that: great, grand spaces. But that doesn’t mean skimping on the cozy quotient, according to the firm’s Vice President Sharon Nunn.

“We design our homes so that couches and side tables can be grouped around the fireplace, with another seating area in front of the view from the great room windows,” she says. “That way, several groups can carry on conversations in the area they wish to be in—whether it’s in front of the fireplace at night or in front of the spacious windows during the day.”

From her firm in Langley, Washington, architect Mira Jean Steinbrecher has designed great rooms in an array of sizes and has her own ideas about what works in a log home great room. “I think the secret in those spaces is to keep them from getting too tall,” she says. “I was at the Inn at Old Faithful and watched all the chairs under the balconies fill up first in the mornings, because people feel more sheltered and safe there.” She finds this true in any sort of large room. “We want something that relates to our human scale. If it doesn’t, it’s hard to feel settled.”

One of the main dilemmas in a log home is how to design the great room so that seating areas will enable full appreciation of both hearth and exterior views. “What people forget is that after dark, the view changes,” says Mira. “Unless you’re living on waterfront with ships’ lights passing by or design your landscape with enough lighting to make your garden visible at night, there’s nothing to see in the windows but your own reflection.”

Mira makes sure furniture placement allows views both outward and inward, and always includes comfortable conversation groupings.

For Brandon Miracle, technical design department manager at StoneMill Log Homes in Knoxville, Tennessee, the great room is a large and open gathering space. “Inevitable obstructions such as stair landings and exterior doors must be placed thoughtfully to maximize the available space,” he says. Ultimately, the size of the great room depends on the furniture Brandon must accommodate.

The Kitchen
If you’ve ever read an article or watched a show about kitchen design and remodeling, you’re familiar with this essential room’s two major components: the shape (think L-shape, galley and island) and the ideal work triangle (the three legs that comprise the distance between the stove, refrigerator and sink. But when you’re building a home—especially a log home—there are other factors, such as size, volume and organization, to consider as well.

To accomplish these objectives, Mira always returns to her design rules on scale and comfort. “A kitchen can be any size you want it to be,” Mira says, “but it needs to have manageable work areas.” She’s created spacious kitchens with separate baking, clean-up and cooking centers, but stresses that each individual work center must have a comfortably sized working triangle. “If you have two work centers, you need two triangles. The refrigerator can sometimes live comfortably outside that rule,” she says.

Those mandates can apply to any kind of custom kitchen, however, certain aspects of a log home kitchen require special, more specific attention. “In a log home, I always install a flat ceiling in the kitchen,” Mira says. She has two reasons for following this design dictum: It helps to contain cooking odors, and it makes effective lighting possible. “If the design calls for exposed log beams overhead,” she say, “I usually put drywall or gypsum board behind those beams to bounce more light back into the kitchen. It also makes things easier to clean.” Good advice for a task-oriented room such as this.

The Dining Room
When considering the dining room design, Mira talks with clients about how many eating spaces will really be enough. “Many people need to have a bar because that’s where they’ll feed the kids; a breakfast nook, because that’s where they’ll really eat; and a dining room for holidays,” she says. “If the budget is grand, that’s fine; but if it’s not, my philosophy is ‘let‘s just find the best place to eat.’”

Positioning the dining room in a floorplan is always an easy call for Brandon. No matter what the size, he prefers to place it in a corner. “It allows easy access to the kitchen and opportunities for a lot of natural light,” he says. “Also, if you have a back porch or deck, patio doors or French doors work well to give you outdoor access and extended dining space.”

Wherever the primary dining area ends up, one of the key design elements it should have is a bank of windows looking out onto one of the best views your site has to offer. According to Mira, an enchanting view helps to enhance the dining experience. She also looks for flexibility in the dining space. “I like to keep one end open so you can add extra table space at major dinner-oriented holidays,” she says. “Even if it’s a nook at the end of the kitchen, extra seating can be added.”

And, of course, lighting is important, so again Mira puts a flat ceiling above the dining area to keep the room more comfortable and make effective lighting more feasible. “If I can talk a client out of a cathedral ceiling, I will. I’m almost never successful,” she says with a laugh, “ but I have had a few victories.”

For Mira, it comes down to a simple, though overlooked, design edict: “Why spend a lot of money on volume, when you could spend it on quality.”

The Master Bedroom
Once upon a time, the master bedroom had its primary function: sleep. All you needed was a bed, a closet and space for a dresser or two. But today’s bedrooms have grown into elaborate master suites—complete with sitting areas, integrated bathrooms and even kitchenettes. Why this evolution? Because home owners long for a private retreat at the end of the day. The space if often large, but it also has to be cozy.

Just as the designers at Ellis Nunn & Associates. In the high-end, luxury houses that are the hallmark of the firm’s designs, creating a spacious yet comfortable master bedroom can be a bit of a challenge. “Many of the homes we build range from 4,500 to 12,000 square feet,” Sharon says. “Our master bedrooms tend to be grand at the owner’s request. But we strive to maintain a warm, familiar feeling in our designs.”

That translates to a master bedroom suite that’s usually around 500 square feet including a fireplace and sitting area and one executive-level request. “Most of the home offices we design are located directly off the master bedroom,” Sharon says, “Our clients tend to use them first thing in the morning to take care of their business before they joined their families in the other public areas of the home.”

When it comes to designing what she considers to be the perfect master bedroom, Mira adheres to one golden rule: Don’t make it too big.

“Our ancestors were cave dwellers. They felt safe in snug, confined spaces, and that sense of assurance has stuck with us,” she explains. We want to feel cozy when we sleep. There’s nothing sheltering about a cathedral ceiling.”

In the master suites that Mira designs, she creates distinct spaces for sleeping, bathing, dressing and lounging. But even in a larger space that encompasses different functional areas, she likes to keep things cozy. “By differentiating these spaces, large room dimensions feel like they’re on a more human scale,” she says. “They also keep one sleeper from disturbing the other.”

When you’re planning your own luxurious master bedroom suite, as yourself one question: Do you really need a super-sized sitting area in your master bedroom? Mira points out that, more often than not, a reading space need only be large enough for two. “So many people have romantic notions of enjoying coffee and the view from this space,” she says, “but most often it’s used far less frequently than the owners envisioned.”

The Master Bathroom
The master bathrooms in Nunn’s designs are also quite large, often averaging around 400 square feet. “We typically include his-and-hers separate areas, as well as enclosed spaces for the commodes,” says Sharon. “We often design an additional space between the master bedroom and bath that houses a coffee bar area with a small refrigerator, microwave and sink as well as a closet containing a stacked washer/dryer for convenience.”

Not everyone subscribes to the bigger is better philosophy, however. When Mira focuses on the master bath area in her designs, she prefers to keep it on the smaller side. “We want our bathrooms to be warm, comfortable and easy to take care of,” she says, adding, “I typically put the toilet in its own compartment for privacy.”

Mira believes that there are three things important to have in every master bath, regardless of size: easy-to-clean surfaces, proper ventilation and good lighting. There also are a few design elements she steers her clients away from. “I never put a closet directly off a master bath because of moisture,” she says. “It could work in a dry climate, but mostly it means you end up ironing a lot.”

When designer Brandon Miracle drafts the ideal master bath, he focuses a great deal of attention on the size and style of fixtures that will be used and designs the space accordingly. “I lean toward a vanity with one sink and plenty of counter space, as opposed to having his-and-hers sinks,” he says. “Corner tubs are very space-efficient, but can be difficult to clean. A stand-alone shower is sometimes a better bet for the corner. For the ultimate soaking experience, I’d go with a clawfoot tub. With their gentle incline and depth, they’re very inviting.

The Loft
Lofts go with log homes like peanut butter goes with jelly. It’s one of those design elements that just seems to complete the quintessential log home picture.

A typical loft found in Ellis Nunn’s high-end designs is located off a bridge overlooking the great room. This cozy space is often used as an office or a reading area.

According to Brandon, there’s not usually much to design in a loft as far as layout is concerned but it can be a delightful addition to any home. “I like to design this space as a small indoor getaway, a sitting room or an open den. I imagine a peaceful place to read, relax or play a little guitar.”

Mira includes a loft in her designs mostly because people expect them, but in her opinion, they have a definite downside. “They offer no acoustical privacy,” she says. “People say ‘We’ll just stick the TV up in the loft,’ not thinking about the fact that it can be heard throughout the house.”  She has successfully integrated them as offices or extra sleeping quarters for those who don’t need complete privacy, but in her estimation, “It’s a bit like living on a busy street.”

And while Mira agrees lofts can be and ideal place to enjoy great views, she finds that clients don’t actually spend much time gazing at the scenery from this perch. “They’re living their lives. It’s just in their dreams that they’re taking the time to stare at the views.”

But that’s what building a log home is all about—living out your dreams. It’s important to heed the advice of your designer (after all, it’s his or her job to point out potential advantages and pitfalls), but ultimately, the only person who can plan the right home for you is you. If a huge master bath or a cozy loft is what you’ve always envisioned, then go for it. Let the dreaming begin.

Stacee Sledge writes on design and decor from her home in Bellingham, Washington.

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