Erik Grankvist, Log Cabins and the Paradox of ‘Better’ Housing — Christopher Roosen (2023)

Is better housing… actually better?

Surely we want modern approaches to improve on the past? To be safer, easier to access and to provide better outcomes. This seems especially important when it comes to our homes, which consume so much of our time, money and attention. But there is an odd paradox that comes with ‘better’ housing.

The more we improve the standards, techniques and materials that surround the home construction industry, the harder we seem to make it for people to actually build homes. Yet, even in this age of complicated housing, one young Scandanavian woodcarver, Erik Grankvist, offers a window into a different time. A period when ancient cultures, with simple tools and time, could build log cabins that resisted the harshest elements.

Erik Grankvist and his quest to build a log cabin

In his videos, Erik Grankvist is a quiet, dark-haired young man. He often wears outdoor clothing and is usually the only subject of his self-filmed series. He started his construction dream in 2018 with the stated motivation that he wanted, after school, to do something different with his life for a while; to live more like his ancestors. In his own words, he had ‘no previous experience’ in construction, so using hand-tools and learning from family and mentors, he’s spent the last few years constructing a log cabin in the Swedish woods.

I’ve watched his quest progress for quite some time, from the first felling with a hand axe, nearly three years ago. The logs come down with a heavy whump. You can almost feel their weight. Erik has made use of either hand tools or a small tractor to drag logs from the forrest to his site, a quiet wooded glen, with a mossy ground, tall birch trees and flowers.

Each log that helps make up the walls and roof of his cabin had to be debarked and then set out on risers to dry. He set up his own workstations, also built from smaller logs. His foundations were flagged stones arranged in dry stacks, the entire platform filled with gravel. A set of short concrete-poured pillars form the rests for the logs.

To shape each log, Erik used rollers, log ramps, and grappling equipment to put the logs into a position to be worked on. Then, for each and every log, he carried out the painstaking process of shaping and chipping out the halfmoon ‘Saddle’ notches that slot one log in perfect perpendicular angles to the other. Just like those log building toys of old.

The logs don’t just sit flat on each other, their rounded edges leaving room for wind to blow through the gaps. Instead, Erik used a steel compass to trace the contours of the topside of one log onto the underside of another. Then he flipped the log over and chiselled out, using nothing but hand tools, long grooves on the underside of the log. Flipping the log back over, it socketed in place with an incredibly tight fit. Moss packed into the grooves insulate the gaps. Then holes bored down through the logs and wooden pins help tie the entire structure together.

The structure is constructed without nails, but rather melds into itself. The wood compresses and sinks with time. Nails would only tear or bend if they were used.

Two triangular stacks of logs formed the end roof frame, with long logs linking the two triangles, leaving the roof to be framed with beams running from the peak of the roof toward the ground. Then log cut slats and eventually birch-bark slats formed the roof.

As the years have passed, on Erik has worked. Inner floors. Hand-built doorway. Underground food storage safe. There’s no way to know what happens off-camera, but Erik seems to have carried out the work mostly by himself. That isn’t to say that more people wouldn’t make the work go quicker. Historically, a set of three to four people might be able to make a simple one-room cabin in a week. A person working by themselves might make a very small structure in a month or so.

Aside from the obvious muscle power, the tools used are rudimentary at best, including: axe, adze and saw. A drawknife is used to pull off the bark. A knife is needed for cutting and marking. Wedges, crimps and log dogs are used to hold logs in place. A mallet is used to hammer in dowels and place logs. A peavy to move logs around. Ancillary tools include: a spirit level, carpentry square to keep things even, chisels to carve out grooves, log scribe and plumb bob to make marks, measuring tape to take measurements.

It’s the sort of equipment anyone can get and learn to use. With these tools, Erik Grankvist may be the most interesting person? to build a log cabin, but he isn’t the first.

A minimal history of log cabins

We’ve apparently been building log cabins for a very long time. The best evidence suggests that the first log cabins appeared somewhere from the Iron Age (~12,000 BCE) to the Bronze Age (~3,500 BCE). Technologically this makes sense. Erik Grankvist might be using pretty much only hand tools, but they are still hard metals to deal with tough woods. We’re not beavers with their iron-laced teeth. We can’t chew trees down. The Iron and Bronze Ages were the first emergence of the reliable metal tools needed to chop down trees, strip bark and groove the notches. The Egyptians were using early tools as far back as 6,000 BCE to build their vast stone pyramids, but they didn’t have access to large trees. So this building style only made sense to appear in the North, in what we know call Scandinavia, Germany and Russia.

C. A. Weslager, who wrote one of the landmark texts on log cabins, notes:

The Finns were accomplished in building several forms of log housing, having different methods of corner timbering, and they utilized both round and hewn logs. Their log building had undergone an evolutionary process from the crude "pirtii"...a small gabled-roof cabin of round logs with an opening in the roof to vent smoke, to more sophisticated squared logs with interlocking double-notch joints, the timber extending beyond the corners. Log saunas or bathhouses of this type are still found in rural Finland.” Cited in:

In a literal piece of historical evidence of this building style, a Russian team of archaeologists found an ancient log cabin preserved in the permafrost of Siberia from the ancient Pazyryk culture of the region, somewhere between the 6th to 3rd centuries BCE. It’s a rare find, given wood, even thick logs, usually degrades and is lost to history. When carefully dug out of the soil, using guides carved into the logs, the team were able to reassemble the entire cabin.

Later, in the Roman era, the architect and writer Vitruvius, in his many volumed work on architecture, noted of tribes in the outlying regions using building techniques that sounded a great deal like log cabins. He notes of the Colchain tribe in Pontus:

“Among the Colhains in Pontus, where there are forests in plenty, they lay down entire trees flat on the ground to the right and left, leaving between them a space to suit the length of the trees, and then place above these another pair of trees, resting on the ends of the former at right angles with them. These four trees enclose the space for a dwelling. Then upon these they place stacks of timber, one after the other on the four sides, crossing each other at the angles, and so, proceeding with their walls of trees laid perpendicularly above the lowest, they build up high towers. The interstices which are left on account of the thickness of the building material are stopped up with chips and mud. As for the roofs, by cutting away the ends of the crossbeams and making them converge gradually as they lay them across, they bring them up to the top from the four sides on the shape of a pyramid.” Vitruvius P. 39

A thousand years later, when the Northerners began their long immigration across the world, to America, they brought with them these construction techniques. On finding vast forests, they married the techniques of the Old World with the large logs of the North America, creating both the practical and mythological log cabin of the Americas. With such a storied history, you’d think cultural opinion would generally be in their favour. However, it feels there are deep cultural apprehensions about this building style.

Log cabin considerations

Log cabins, perhaps by their long presence in history, feel outdated, inadequate. Rustic but not practical. There is a bittersweet irony that they may have many advantages over some of our modern techniques.

The United States National Park Service notes that log cabins built in the 1900s, with careful care, have lasted many decades. As much as could be hoped for any dwelling not constructed of plain stone. I haven’t been able to substantiate the observation, but there is a belief that that solid log cabins actually preserve heat well, given the massive nature of their wall construction. The same goes for believes that log cabins may resist fire unepededtly well. Logs don’t provide voids or thin materials to a fire eating its way through a house. Instead, they may resist the effect of burning. Logs treated well can resist rot and pests as well or better than their stick-built counterparts. They also have the advantage of sequestering carbon.

Log cabins can be even more than simple one room constructions. The Old Faithful Inn, built in 1904 in Yellowstone National Park is constructed at such a scale as to truely defy the log cabin imagination. Its eight-story lobby stretches 185 feet (meters) into the air and it boasts 140 rooms.

Are these sort of constructions more gloomy and monolithic than their modern counterparts of steel and glass? Perhaps. But some good interior lighting can go a long way. There is a wonderful beauty to the solid shapes and forms that are essentially made with endless permutations of logs. Which begs the question, have our building methods in the past thousand years or so improved on our ancient ancestors?

The paradox of home constructions improvements

This is the heart of the paradox of the home construction improvements. In our quest for better homes we’ve evolved our technologies. We use better materials, building codes, safety measures and new engineering approaches that ensure our buildings are safer, drier, use less energy and fulfill our vision. But the paradox is that all of these technological improvements, in methods, processes and materials create a tremendous complexity to building new homes.

Rather than one young man in the forest, working with simple tools, in today’s world it takes dozens of people and years of work to even get to the point of building something. Finding the land and affording it. Putting in a Development Application with the associated geotechnical, environmental, architectural and heritage requirements. Negotiating with the public. Going through cycles of negotiation.

Then applying for Construction Certificates to be allowed to build; which requires engineering designs, more consultation, more reports, more forms, more materials and more planning. Then actually building something, with all the sign-offs and check-ins. Taxes, rates, fees and materials cost. It all adds up. We rarely take away requirements, we only add them. Layer after layer. The cost and complexity of building anything grows exponentially.

Yes, maybe we can’t all have log cabins. At the very least it requires access to timber that is not plentiful anymore for all of us. It also requires time and patience, two things that are probably on short supply.

But I do wonder. In our rush to try to cover off every last contingency, every environmental concern and engineering safety measure, have we created a paradox for ourselves? That its easier, cheaper and quicker for a young man to isolate himself in a forest and build a whole, rather beautiful house than it is for someone in a more urban setting to build their place to live? Not just a little bit cheaper and easier, but tremendously so. When, in all the improvements we’ve made to how we build places to live, did we forget to make it easier to do so?


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Craven, J. (2019, September 19). The Architecture of the Log Cabin. ThoughtCo.

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Haynes, F. J. (1921). Old Faithful Inn Frank Jay Haynes Postcard (Image, Public Domain). United States National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons.

Hegg, E. A. (1910). Building a Log Cabin in Alaska (Public Domain, Image). The New America and the Far East via Wikimedia Commons.,_Alaska.jpg

Jones, J. (2021, August 30). An 18-Year-Old Spends a Year Alone Building a Log Cabin in the Swedish Wilderness: Watch from Start to Finish. Open Culture.

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