Log on to Scandi style: aspiring homeowners are flocking to cabins around the country
Prefabricated houses are attracting the attention of wannabe homeowners, writes Gabrielle Monaghan
When Donna Breen looks out the window of her rural home, Belleview Lodge, she occasionally notices strangers staring at her house from a car parked at the bottom of the driveway. But the unexpected visitors rarely have sinister motives - they're merely ogling the property because it's so rare to see a log house in Ireland.
Breen, who lives at the Co Tipperary three-bed log home with her husband Kieran Bergin and their one-year-old daughter, says: "People stop and stare because the house is so different. I usually find that they are thinking of building or buying a house themselves."
The 27-year-old runs her psychotherapy and online counselling practice from an office in the log house, which is situated on a three-acre wooded plot at the foothills of the Galtee Mountains, between Tipperary town and Cahir.
Breen had previously worked in Dublin and Limerick, but grew tired of the high rents and the stresses associated with city living. In the midst of the recession, she and Bergin decided to pursue their dream of moving to the country and assembling a prefabricated log house from a supplier in Finland. But they were refused a mortgage, partly because Breen was self-employed and because mortgage advisers "looked at us as if we had five heads" when told the home loan would be for a self-build log house.
"The house we were looking at buying from Finland was so much cheaper than building a standard Irish home," Breen says. "It was 2,500 sq ft and the kit with a roof would have cost €90,000, with another €30,000 to finish it off."
Because the couple couldn't secure a mortgage for a log kit house, they went for the second-best option: a log house that was already built. In 2015, they discovered their current home, which was constructed in 1999, when planning rules weren't as strict as they are now.
While Belleview Lodge was a bargain, it was in poor condition: the varnish was peeling off the wood, the first floor hadn't been finished, and they had to replace the wood in the front balcony and rear deck because it hadn't been varnished, exposing it to the elements.
"We spent our weekends and evenings sanding all of the exterior, staining it and varnishing it," Breen says. "My husband added a bedroom, an en suite upstairs and a second sitting room off the first-floor balcony. Before we could put in a wood-burning stove, we had to put bricks behind it so that it wouldn't be a fire hazard.
For centuries, log houses and cabins have been a staple of the landscape in Scandinavia, North America, the Alps, the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In these regions, they are prized for their ability to retain heat during cold winters.
Ireland, however, has a long-standing love affair with bricks and mortar. But our penchant for traditional masonry construction is waning somewhat, amid demand for eco-friendly houses and the popularity of log cabins as garden rooms, gyms, she-sheds, man caves and as eco-lodges in the tourism industry.
Log cabins have even been mooted as an antidote to Ireland's housing crisis, with young couples eager to buy cabins to put in their parents' back gardens as a temporary measure while they save up for a deposit for a permanent home or to escape surging rents.
However, any free-standing structure that's larger than 269 sq ft requires planning permission if the home owner plans to live in it - and planning departments at local authorities tend to take a dim view of log cabins, either as temporary or permanent homes.
In Dublin, for instance, a young couple saving for a house bought a two-bed log cabin for €27,300 in 2016 and erected it in a garden belonging to one of their parents. But Dublin City Council received objections when the couple applied for retention permission. In May 2017, the council granted retention permission for two years, after which the cabin would have to come down or permission could be extended following a review. This was appealed to An Bord Pleanála, and overturned in August 2017.
In March this year, Dublin City councillors voted down proposals to allow for log cabins in gardens of family homes in a bid to ease housing shortages, with most councillors arguing that the move would lower building standards.
Planning permission is the biggest obstacle nationwide for log structures, according to Noel Larkin, a chartered building surveyor who runs Noel Larkin & Associates in Dunshaughlin.
"People think they can plonk a log cabin in the back garden and use it as a self-contained dwelling, but they might not meet planning requirements like having a certain amount of private open space for the dwelling," he says.
"The planners are calling for vernacular-style buildings," Larkin says. "Log houses look fine if you are out in the middle of Switzerland or Austria, but in Ireland, they don't tend to blend in unless they are in a forest or on the side of a mountain."
This status quo leaves house-hunters yearning for a flat-pack log house with few options other than purchasing an existing property. Dublin-based John Goulding is selling his log house, which was shipped over from Finland in 2004 and assembled on a site in Co Cavan, for €135,000 because he and his partner's children have grown up and no longer want family trips to the holiday home.
The home has a veranda overlooking Killyrue lake, outside Cootehill, and has four bedrooms, including an en suite that leads onto the first-floor balcony.
"Two guys from Finland came across and erected the whole thing," Goulding says. "They started the job in the first week of December and within three weeks it was 90pc finished, and was watertight and with the roof done. They came back in January and fitted the stairs and interior walls."
If there are any concerns about the longevity of the structures, Goulding is quick to point out that they could go from generation to generation. "The houses last indefinitely - some log houses in Finland are 300 or 400 years old."