When P and I decided to build a cabin to live in, one of our main considerations was to make our rather small abode feel as roomy as possible. I had spent four years at the University of Alaska, P had attended there for a couple of years before he worked on the Pipeline. Both of us were well aware of the dangers of claustrophobia and cabin fever during the long, dark Arctic winters.
We chose to build a rather small place since we did not have unlimited time or money. We decided a place that was 20×24 feet (6×7.25 m) would be big enough for two of us, and if we became three at a later date, we would add on to it. In order to be sure we had plenty of storage room, we built a full basement underneath. This also served as a non-freezing place to locate our 500 gallon (1895 l) water storage tank.
We weren’t far into the planning stages before we realized that it wouldn’t cost that much to make the log walls 10 feet high rather than 7. Then we could put a sleeping loft across half of the space and still have very open ceilings. So that was what we did. In addition to our bed, my desk was up in the loft too, and for the life of me I cannot remember how we got that large Army surplus oak desk up there. It probably involved several friends and a come-along.
In the interests of open space, we decided that the whole ceiling would be a cathedral ceiling with the high point 13.5 feet above the main floor. The loft was 7 feet above the kitchen area, which meant that we could stand upright in the center of the sleeping loft, but you had to get down on your knees to get into bed, which was a queen sized inflatable mattress on the floor in the corner. That wouldn’t work for me that well now, but back then I was young and flexible.
It wasn’t long before it became evident in the planning stages that spanning that open space was going to require one heck of a beam. P did some research and discovered that a glulam beam was probably what we were going to want to use. At that point, we had determined that it was going to be more cost effective to span the 24 feet with the beam and have the rafters run across the shorter span of 10 feet. Even so, with the eave overhang they were going to have to be 12.5 feet long.
We wanted a good overhang on the front of the place so that the porch would be protected from the weather once we got that finished, plus there had to be a little overhang on the back side of the house as well. Our porch was going to be 6 feet wide, and the back side had an overhang of about a foot. All told, we bought a 9″x13″ glulam beam that was 32 feet long. It was the single most expensive item we purchased for the place, and I about choked when I wrote the check for it. At least the cost included delivery. The mists of time have erased the exact cost of that beam from my memory, but I do remember being stunned by exactly how much a roof cost.
In the interests of being able to expand the house easily at a later date, we only put up log walls on three sides. The other side was to be frame, which would be easier to tie into in the future. In addition, the top of the wall on the opposite side from the frame wall was to be framed in as well.
P and I were lucky. We had a lot of friends. People were coming out all the time to help us with various tasks, and everybody knew we were going to need lots of assistance when it came time to raise the frame walls and place the long roof beam up on top of them. We decided to have a party when the time came.
This is one time when our naivete about the construction process made things much more difficult than they really had to be. The day the guy came to deliver the beam, he arrived in a truck equipped with a small crane. Had we known this, we would have had the end walls already up in position, and he could have placed the beam in the notch at the top of them and that would have been that.
However, we did not know that this was the customary method of delivering glulam beams. So, when he asked us where we wanted it, we indicated the two long logs extending out from the walls about 4 feet above ground level, which P had left long specifically for the beam to rest on until it was time to raise it. The truck driver shook his head, and placed the beam there. We sadly watched the little crane drive away, and prepared for our wall and beam raising party the next day.
I cooked a huge pot of stew and we bought a couple of cases of beer. All our strong husky friends showed up with their hammers and saws bright and early one fine Saturday morning. First they put the end walls together and raised them. That took a couple of hours. Then the tricky job of lifting the beam up the ten feet of vertical wall began.
The guys were climbing up and down the logs at the end of the walls as if they were ladders. There were also a couple of long ladders in use. The main work of raising that long and extremely heavy beam was accomplished using ropes and come-alongs. Once they got it up to the roof level, some blocks were nailed to the end walls to keep it from slipping off and we took a little break. Then they went back to work and slid it up the slanted end plates to the notch that had been prepared to hold it.
Now, glulam beams come to the job site completely finished. In order to avoid their beautiful surface being marred, they also come wrapped in very heavy paper. In order to keep from scarring the surface of the beam, we had kept the wrapping on it during the raising process. So, right before they tipped it into the notch, the paper was stripped off. Carefully, carefully, they tilted the long beam and then, CLUNK! It fell into place in the notches. P nailed a small spruce tree we had cut off the property that morning to the end of the beam for the traditional roof tree ritual, everybody gave a big cheer, and then descended on the stew.
We all sat around, enjoying our well earned lunch and drinking beer, merrily replaying the days work. No one had fallen off the wall, no one had hit themselves with a hammer or had any appendages crushed by the beam. We were in a pretty good mood, when one of our friends, who was a caver and an iron worker, decided that he needed to walk across the beam. None of us were too keen on the idea. After all, it was over 13 feet from the beam to the floor, and no one had been hurt that day. No one was anxious to risk injury doing something so frivolous as playing balance beam on the glulam span.
Naming us wimps, the erst-while iron worker shinnied up the walls, and proceeded to walk across the beam, taunting us from his path high above us. Suddenly he stopped prancing around and pirouetting on the beam, and sat down right in the middle, legs dangling on either side of the beam we had worked so hard to put in place.
“Say, guys!” he called down to us. “Guess what it says up here!”
“What do you mean?” we asked him.
“It says TOP!” was his cheerful reply.
We digested this information for a while, cogitating on the implications of that statement. In our ignorance, we had not realized the glulam beams are manufactured with a camber built in so that when they take the weight of the roof on them, they straighten out. It also increases their load-bearing strength, and having one installed upside down is not a good thing.
Since we did not know this, we had a 50-50 chance of getting it right, and luckily we hit the odds right that day. We toasted our good luck, and drank a bunch more beer.
I don’t even want to think about how hard it would have been to raise that beam out of the notches and flip it over.