China Property

Chinese embrace natural draw of log cabin holiday retreats

With 500 of the timber structures built near cities across the mainland, people are embracing such spacious homes as an escape from city life

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 6:19am

Think of log cabins and what comes to mind are charming chalets in the Alps, rustic retreats tucked away in the woods, cosy second homes in Vail and Aspen.

But these days, oak log homes - solid, spacious, and earthy - are showing up in unexpected places, including brand new developments in Xiamen, Wenzhou and Shanghai.

In what is a new and surprising addition to the residential landscape around bustling Chinese cities, developers are looking towards log homes as an innovative way to appeal to buyers seeking out interesting second or holiday homes.

"Our souls need a certain amount of connection to nature - and that's particularly so in China, with so many people living in high-rise apartment buildings in densely populated areas," says Lynn Gastineau, owner of Gastineau Log Homes in the US state of Missouri, a company at the forefront of the move towards log cabin homes in China. "When you have people in that kind of an environment, there's more of a need to get back to nature."

Gastineau - whose company has been around since 1977 - first went to China in 1995 to discuss the idea of doing a log cabin development in Beijing (at the time investors were looking at building a Disneyland there).

"They wanted log homes adjacent to the project for people to stay in while visiting the park," she says. "They also had acreage where they were going to put a golf course with large executive log homes built around the course. The economy became such that both projects were not completed.

"I was ahead of the curve at the time. It was too early for the Chinese market."

But gradually, oak log homes gained appeal: housing in certain parts of China became almost as expensive as in parts of America, leading builders to decide that if they were going to spend a lot of money anyway, it may as well be on something unique.

A couple of years ago, Gastineau travelled to China with her state's governor on an economic development mission. While there, she signed an exclusive agreement with a Shanghai developer to build log homes; a 5,500 sq ft "cabin" served as its model unit, in Shanghai.

"This sort of thing had not been available to the Chinese before," said Gastineau; the first log cabin home in China was built in the early 2000s.

She says there are now about 500 scattered around the country - most from Gastineau, although there are one or two other smaller American suppliers. They've sprouted because the right economic conditions have allowed builders such as Gastineau to finally satisfy a previously unmet need.

With a product like this, buyers were able not only to build a log home but also express their individuality and creativity with something natural and nurturing. "Log cabins really do that - you walk in and they surround you and restore your spirit," she says.

Gastineau works primarily with developers, although some are individual purchasers. The developments are within easy travel distance of large cities, typically have more temperate climates and are marketed as places city dwellers can retreat to on weekends and holidays.

She is in talks with developers in a number of regions with building sites that could hold 50 to 350 homes. The average cabin is 2,400 square feet with three bedrooms; most are double-storey and many have traditional vaulted ceilings.

Gastineau's team of designers and engineers create the homes according to customers' specifications, and then the 20cm-thick planks of solid oak timber are shipped, along with a detailed set of blueprints, to the site where the homes are constructed.

The company is shipping a 6,000 sq ft model home for Pudong, and is working on a 283-hectare development in the mountainous regions of Wenzhou, with a potential for 500 homes. She also ships to other parts of Asia, such as Japan and South Korea.

Despite their earthy appeal, log homes can cost more than conventional plaster-and-concrete-block homes, but they are cheaper to build in China than the US because of lower labour costs. Packages are from US$40 to US$60 per square foot, which includes the complete exterior of the home (logs, roof, doors, windows, porches, shingles, trim) and all the internal structures such as floors, interior walls, staircases and doors. Construction roughly doubles the price per square foot.

Her company offers a deluxe version, which includes additional touches using Western red cedar wood and grooved porch ceilings of incense cedar.

Gastineau says cabins require less maintenance than regular homes, which need new coats of paint every few years, for example. Also, these hefty homes are built to withstand earthquakes, typhoons and other natural disasters.

"People buy log cabins because of the way they look, and the feeling it gives them," she says. "But they justify buying one because of all the other reasons - the strength, durability, the use of natural products, the green aspect."

Gastineau finds that Chinese property owners want different things from their log homes than their American counterpart: they tend to go for the same sort of size, but they do not seek out the large master bedrooms and bathrooms that are a hallmark of a coveted US home. And although the ideals of log homes extend to a cosy, tactile interior - think bearskin rugs, crochet throws and woodsy colours - Gastineau says that the structures are versatile, lending themselves to all sorts of interior looks.

"I've seen some very modern designs," she says, "including a loft-style one with exposed ductwork. They can be Victorian in style, to extremely clean and modern."

Gastineau believes that as more Chinese homeowners seek out something different from generic residences - be that boxy apartment buildings or the mini-mansions popular in new housing developments - more of these sturdy log cabins will be dotted across the Chinese landscape. "Here is an individual home that feels rooted in nature, away from the rush of city life, getting away from that high-density population. People really want that."