Logarithm

An Oakfield company has developed a formula for building cost-effective, energy-efficient homes using northern white cedar.

By Rob Sneddon / Photographed by Jason P. Smith

When the housing market crashed in 2009, the log home industry was particularly hard hit. Tough new International Energy Conservation Code standards mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act left some companies reeling. “But we were excited,” says Gabe Gordon, marketing director for Katahdin Cedar Log Homes, in the Aroostook County town of Oakfield. “The system that we had could already handle them.”

Katahdin, it turned out, was on the cutting edge of “green” log-home construction — even though that wasn’t the original goal of the company’s founder, Foster Gordon, in 1973. Back then, the driving force was simple Maine pragmatism. “My grandfather knew that he couldn’t be successful unless he was using 100 percent of every single log,” says 32-year-old Gabe. “Otherwise it would have cost him too much because of the waste factor. That was one of the core philosophies that the company was built on.”

From the start, the idea was to use excess cedar for fencing or other products, such as bark mulch. Katahdin’s current president and CEO David Gordon — Foster’s son and Gabe’s father — has taken the “no waste” philosophy a step further. Sawdust and the remaining wood waste fuel a biomass boiler to heat the mill, saving the company $400,000 a year in fossil-fuel costs.

Katahdin’s innovative behind-the-scenes practices have been critical to its success, but the company also has distinguished itself with its products. Katahdin houses are not the rough-hewn log cabins of Abe Lincoln legend. Rather, they’re cutting-edge, custom-built homes made with northern white cedar, which is available in abundance in The County. And while Katahdin does provide DIY builders with raw materials for off-the-grid camps, that’s just a small part of their market. The company has also developed a nationwide network of builders who produce “stunningly gorgeous mansions with incredible vistas and views,” David Gordon says.

Katahdin applies decades of experience to the latest computer-aided design technology for greater efficiency.

“It used to take six people two days to process the logs for one home,” Gabe says. “Now two people can do two homes in one day.”

The process is fully digital, resulting in laser-guided cuts that conform precisely to each customer’s plan. “You can only be so fine lining something up with your eye and a measuring tape,” says Gabe, who spent a summer in high school cutting logs the old-fashioned way.

Cut logs are labeled with bar codes and stacked in the appropriate order to speed sorting and assembly time onsite. “Really, it’s like putting together a big puzzle,” says Berwick carpenter Dan Doucette, who recently constructed his first Katahdin Cedar Log Home. “Everything fits together. If you feel you need to cut something, you’d better double check because you probably made a mistake.”

Doucette worked with longtime Katahdin dealer Steve Howard of Howard Construction. “I built using many other log-home products before I started using Katahdin,” Howard says, “and they have overcome a lot of the problems other companies had. Some other companies are so rigid in the way they do things that they’re resistant to change. Katahdin wants to progress.”

The company’s desire for greater energy efficiency has inspired its most significant innovation. “When Dad started out, the log homes that we were manufacturing only had the R-value of the logs themselves,” says David. (R-value is the measure of a building material’s thermal resistance.) “And, frankly, because we live up here where it gets so brutally cold, I didn’t feel that was really warm enough. So when my sister built her house [in the 1970s], we incorporated some insulation on the inside, then cedar paneling, which made it dramatically warmer.”

Katahdin’s energy-efficient system has evolved into its Arborwall line of solid cedar homes, which feature clapboard exteriors. That’s become a popular choice for what Gabe calls “a great classic-looking oceanfront home that has all the same attributes of a traditional log home, but with a totally different appeal. That’s created a ton of interest from people who never would’ve considered a log home in their wildest dreams.”

Katahdin’s greatest competitive advantage is its location in Maine’s North Woods. With its resistance to insects and rot, and its relatively low moisture content, northern white cedar is the ideal building material for log homes. “We dry [the logs] down to the level where they will stop shrinking,” says Gabe. “That’s vital to be able to insulate a log home.”

And a well-insulated home is vital in Oakfield, where wintertime temperatures have dipped as low as 50 degrees below zero. “But inside the house you would never know,” David says. “You’re snug as a bug in a rug, with a gorgeous view of the snow drifting around you.”

Rob Sneddon is a contributing editor to Down East magazine.

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