Eighth Wonder of the World

or Russian History of Log Home Architecture

Wood is the foundation of some of the world’s greatest historical construction projects and Russia’s rich history of architectural beauty is no exception to this. Russians have a unique and special attitude with respect to their forest resources. This attitude is based on old Orthodox culture and Russian rituals associated with logging and construction. Russians have used wood to build everything from simple peasant homes to elaborate breath taking cultural statements such as Tsar Alexei Wooden Palace, famed for its fairytale style roofs (Figure 1).

The wooden palace created in the 17th century was designed primarily to show to Russians and foreign guests the grandeur of the Tzar’s power (Figures 2 and 3).


Figure 1. (above) The Great Wooden Palace reconstruction was completed in 2010.


Figure 2. (above) The Great Wooden Palace has 270 rooms.


Figure 3. (above) The Great Wooden Palace has an area of 7239 square meters.

See more amazing exterior and interior pictures of the Palace:  http://www.angelfire.com/pa/ImperialRussian/news/kolphotoalbum.html.

A simple concise form of housing, wood construction techniques showing outstanding skills of Russian architects was honed over centuries and used extensively for housing.  The result is a raft of handcrafted buildings that have been handed down for generations.  In St. Petersburg alone there are more than 18000 peasant wooden houses and buildings which were built before 1917 and are still in good condition (Figure 4).


Figure 4. (above) A peasant family in front of their log cabin.

And since the construction of housing in Russia's vast territory covers a variety of climatic zones, which largely determines the type of structure needed, the architecture of the houses varies considerably by region.

However, only a fraction of the historical large monuments and associated documentaries on Russia’s wooden buildings relating to the end of the XIX century have survived.  Unlike the peasant dwelling or wooden church architecture, large mansions and palaces, unfortunately, did not survive the numerous wars and fires.  Except for the occasional few manor buildings which themselves are in poor condition, information about earlier period monuments must be drawn from archaeological materials, paintings by famous artists, historical manuscripts and the vast number of peasant cabins that have survived

The skill of the ancient Russian handcrafters impresses our contemporary architects.  Wooden houses were built from logs without using a single nail while using a wide variety of carpentry techniques.  The peasant buildings or ensembles of royal mansions combined the monumentality of blockhouses and light frame extensions and summer rooms with sacramental and scenic interior and exterior trim (Figure 5).  


Figure 5. (above) Window frame carvings.

In areas rich in forests containing Pine, Oak, Hickory and other hard woods, it was mainly the Pine tree that was used in the construction of log houses and rarely the deciduous trees.   The long straight trunk of the Pine tree combined with the skill of the Ax man permitted nearly an air-tight stacking of the logs (Figures 6 and 7).   Among the large variety of methods for stacking the logs were "in a paw", "in the cup", and "swallow tail" techniques, which have been used successfully to date.  The ax, which of course was used for felling the trees, was also the main carpenter's tool. 


Figure 6. (above) Stacking of logs hasn’t changed much.


Figure 7. (above) Log Stacking.

It should be noted that Russian ancestors were ax virtuosos.  With this universal tool they did almost all the work, from logging to carved elements on the facade. The secret to the popularity of the ax is simple. The fact is that in the old days, it was observed that sawn wood is more susceptible to moisture and decay when compared to wood processed with an ax.   The compressing blows of the ax make the wood less hygroscopic.  Therefore, despite the fact that the saw was known for a long time, they rarely used it.

Russia is known for more than 50 types of log cabin designs.  However, the most common was the simple five-wall - cabin which is a four wall rectangular house divided with a fifth wall to create two halves, usually equal.  This design created a large living area with windows for good lighting and a stove or earthen hearth for heating and cooking and a smaller sized ‘business’ area that was typically used for shelter of livestock or grain.   If the family did not have need of a ‘business’ side they would often have a doorway connecting the halves.    Openings in the walls were small to avoid having to cut logs and to minimize heat loss.  However, windows were common and came in a variety of styles that were typically ornate on the exterior (Figure 8) reflecting the craftsmanship of the builder.   Creativity in the utility of windows was also exhibited such as in the “Sliding” window where the hole was cut down in the middle of two logs (Figure 9) and a track carved into the wood for sliding a board across the opening.  Over time, these windows were replaced with mica and only in XVIII-XIX centuries builders began to use glass.  Rough boards from splitting logs were used for doorways and floors were typically made of clay.

See more pictures of the interior: http://www.spbrb.ru/gallery/church_kiji.htm.


Figure 8. (above) Ornate carvings where common on the windows.


Figure 9.(above) A creative sliding window was often used when glass was not an option.

To complete the interior furnishings of these log homes, large stones were placed in the corners as seating areas or thick logs were installed at various levels of the log wall to act as chairs or shelving (Figure 10).    Larch or oak wood with great resistance to decay were used for these chairs.  To increase this resistance, wood was often burned at the stake, or coated with tar.


Figure 10. (above) Interior décor using wooden benches and shelving.

Foundations for wooden buildings were not set in concrete or other such materials but were made by placing logs directly on the ground.  This, of course, often resulted in moisture gaining access to the interior and thus over time, more and more buildings were constructed with a mezzanine and a loft on the upper floor. In regions with long snowy winters, wooden floors were raised as high as possible above the ground to protect the house from moisture and create an additional space in which to store supplies, grain and livestock under these floors.

One of the oldest methods of construction of the roof is the gable design, the essence of which was the fact that the logs gables shorten the closer to the ridge they are (Figure 11) creating a triangle roof.  Such simple construction techniques for the roof were used until the end of XIX century, when the use of truss structure became dominant and which is preserved to this day almost unchanged.


Figure 11. (above) Simple gable roof design.

During the construction of churches and castles the ridges were improved, taking the form of bulbs, the crown of which was a cross, pole or other wooden decorations (Figure 12). 


Figure 12. (above) Example of the craftsmanship of bulb roofing.

For centuries Russians have used shingles for roofing.  Shingles were made of wood from fir, ash, and most often  spruce. Properly made shingles were called cracked shingles.  To obtain these shingles, they used straight pieces of tree trunk, located between the separate branches with a minimum number of knots and a length of 24 inches.

They axed shingles radially around the tree trunk. To do this, an ax and a hammer were used to make wedge-shaped pieces of wood with a thickness of 3/4”.  Each piece was treated with a two-handed wedge cutter until they got the tear-shaped parts with thickness that tapered to about 3/8”.  A special tool - shingled Strug – was used to cut grooves length wise and then the shingles were dried for six months.   When ready for use, the shingles were pre-impregnated with anthracene oil and painted.

In Russia, handcrafted log houses competed successfully with the stone houses for centuries. But in the first half of last century, devastation caused by the civil war put builders in the situation having to find a cheaper alternative.  The production of panel prefabricated wooden houses using examples of houses in Sweden and Finland first started in St. Petersburg.  The low cost and short time of construction of these houses have attracted a lot of fans, and the houses were called "Finnish".  Popular collapsible designs came after World War II, when it was required to provide the population with cheap and fast built housing.  The best architects were involved to create cheap complex projects for rural construction.  Many of those houses built are preserved to this day giving shelter to several generations of Russians (Fig. 13).


Figure 13. (above) Popular designs after WWII.


Since ancient times in Russia, wooden houses have been decorated with carvings, turning the wooden house into a work of art.  Manufacturing and wood processing contributed to the emergence of an entire galaxy of famous carvers, among which the most famous masters are of the Russian North regions.  Carving designs on valances roofs and window boxes combined with paintings emphasized the individuality of each house.  Carving motifs were flowers, grass, animals and birds, among which they especially respected the rooster as the messenger of dawn.  Basic decoration focused on the pediments, window frames and shutters, or a porch decorated with carvings.  Carvings were used not only to decorate the outside of the home, but also in its interior.  Refectories poles rigged as a harness and "pumpkin" emphasizing the beauty of the wood and its unique properties.  Art carver passed from generation to generation and has preserved to this day the tradition of Russian wooden architecture.


Figure 14. (above) Intricate exterior carvings.

The 21st Century has set completely new challenges for log home manufacturers.  The use of high-performance construction materials has transformed the art of wooden home construction into a higher level of Russia's traditional architectural and building systems from solid wood (with milled and round logs) to frame and panel. Logs, themselves strong and solid, are now enhanced and protected with high tech sealants and coatings vastly extend the life of the log buildings.  As an example, 10 years ago Perma-Chink Systems introduced flexible chinking to the Russian log home market. Perma-Chink technology has replaced the old Russian technique of “konopatki” or sealing gaps between the logs with hemp, dry moss, etc. (Figure 15) Now Perma-Chink® and Energy Seal® flexible textured chinking that seals the open gaps between logs to eliminate heat loss and air infiltration are used widely in Russia.


Figure 15. (above) Each row of logs sealed with dry hemp around the perimeter of the house first outside, then inside. Click Here to view the entire project video.

After all, the log house today – it’s not only a traditional log cabin, but the building, which has absorbed all the achievements of the advanced technologies of the construction industry.







В.Г. НИКОЛАЕВ, обозреватель

Источник: СтройАзбука