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"Skyline Shangri-La"

Country's Best Log Homes, January 2003


Landscapers find the ideal site for their log home among the towering redwoods of Northern California.


Don Modica had dreamed of building his own log home ever since he worked in Breckenridge, Colo., many years ago. "I saw a lot of old miners' cabins, and that always stuck with me," he says. "I always loved them, and wanted to own one."


His wife Julie admits that the log home was Don's idea, but she fell in love with it, too. "I was always into country houses," she says, "and as long as it has a big porch and deck I'm totally happy. The log house is great."


Don and Julie had lived in two conventional homes. Over the years, they gutted and remodeled each with the help of their friend, building contractor Greg Pincombe. So when they decided to build a log home on their wooded acreage in the Skyline area south of San Francisco, they naturally turned to Pincombe again.


Despite nearly 20 years in the construction business, Pincombe had never built a log home. "But building is building," he says. "It was a little different, and it was fun." He added that the Modica home has led to other log home projects.


Don and Julie knew what they wanted, so they sketched their own rough design working with Pincombe. "Julie had looked at a ton of log home magazines," says Don, "and it all fell together." They submitted their sketches to Precision Craft Log Structures' design department, and the company drew up the final plans.


Don and Julie Modica have a thriving landscaping business in Redwood City, and they searched for a long time before they found the perfect spot for their new log home. "I wanted to stay close to my business. But it's tough to find places that are away from everything though not so far away that I can't work," he says. "We were lucky to find this place. It's 7 1/2 acres. We abut an open space. We have no neighbors. It's right up to the woods." Part of the property was once a Girl Scout camp, and it was the perfect location for a couple in the landscaping business. Both Don and Julie love working outdoors, and they've spent every spare minute landscaping their grounds. "I've got 1,200 grapevines in right now," says Don, "and I've built a giant pond. I've got a vegetable garden and 300 tons of rock walls. We've got a really nice property, and it's all terraced."


The Modicas chose PrecisionCraft Log Structures in Meridian, Idaho, after considering several manufacturers. Another log home owner they visited recommended that company, and Don and Julie were pleased with the rustic look of their logs. They chose hand-hewn, 8-inch-diameter logs of western red cedar for its weather and insect resistance as well as its beautiful appearance. The home is built of Precision Craft's most popular log style, full-round, double tongue and groove using their through-bolt construction method. "We kept it very simple for a cabin look," says Don. "We didn't want a lodge or anything like that." The rectangular house comprises 2,800 square feet with three bedrooms, one full and two half-baths on two floors.


Once construction began, Precision Craft's representative spent only a couple of hours at the jobsite because Pincombe had the project well in hand when he arrived. "It's all in the preparation," Pincombe says, "in how you do the foundation and subfloors. Precision Craft's specs are very detailed, very simple to read." Because of the stringent building codes in San Mateo County, it took some time to get all the necessary permits. "We lived in a little shack on the property that we thought we'd be in for six months to a year," says Don. "Little did we know we'd be in it for three years before we could even start this house." Once they poured the foundation, though, Pincombe and this crew completed construction in less than a year, despite the fact it was California's wettest winter in nearly a century.


The house sits on a hillside overlooking the terraced gardens Don and Julie have created, their large pond and a little outbuilding Julie and her daughter converted to what they call an "ice cream shack" for pool parties. Hundreds of towering redwoods form the backdrop for the view from the deck, and in the spring 150 rhododendrons burst into bloom down below.


To meet the county's earthquake code and to stabilize the foundation on the sloping site, Pincombe drilled down 28 feet and placed piers 2 feet in diameter every 8 feet. "That house isn't going to go anywhere," Pincombe exclaims. He was impressed with Precision Craft's through-bolt construction system that torques the logs into place, compressing the wood and reducing settling. "The house is very tight."


Don and Julie chose to surround themselves with wood--from the full-log perimeter walls to the two-inch cedar log siding on most interior walls, to the knotty pine ceilings and floors in most rooms. The only drywall in the structure is one wall in their daughter's bedroom and the walls in one bathroom. Pincombe finished the exterior of the logs with Sikkens four-coat natural finish. "We wanted something that would enhance the wood without changing it too much," says Don, "because it was such a pretty color already."


To harmonize with the hand-hewn logs, they chose a cobblestone fireplace with a 35 foot chimney of stacked rock and a flagstone hearth. Julie's brother, Tim Burns, is the stonemason who built it. He chose a redwood burl from the Boulder Creek area as the mantel. The Modicas selected Pella windows and doors throughout the house because they wanted true mullioned panes with all-wood frames.


Because of the home's open plan, Pincombe says getting the plumbing from the second floor back down to ground level provided a challenge. He resolved the problem by hollowing a large log that rises in the great room and running the sewer pipes inside. Don and Julie intentionally designed the house using the great room concept. "The whole floorplan is wide open," says Don. "We did it that way because we have a lot of people over, and it's a great house for parties. When you're in the kitchen, you're not separated from the rest of the living area."


The kitchen is Julie's favorite room in the house because it contains so many treasured collectibles, like their Hoosier cabinet with flour sifter and porcelain top, and family heirlooms like Julie's grandmother's glassware from Italy. "Don and I measured the kitchen during the planning stage and found places for all these old pieces," says Julie. "It worked out really well, and there are hardly any new built-in cabinets." They bought the off-white cupboard, and Julie and daughter Gracie painted the bar stools in bright colors to contrast with all the brown.


To take advantage of the panoramic view from their home, the couple included an 8 foot wide covered deck that runs the length of the house overlooking the valley below, and another main deck with barbecue and eating area on the side. "It's almost like having another room," says Don, who admits the deck is his favorite part of the house during the summer when he spends most of his spare time outdoors.


After the home was finished, the Modicas added a porch to their front entry. "During the winter when it rains so much, we realized you're walking right into the weather," Don says, "so it's nice to have an overhang and roof for protection."


The Modicas enjoy their home in every season. "This log home stays super cool," Don says, adding that they feel no need for air conditioning in the summertime. "There's a definite difference between this house and our former conventional homes. It can be 90 to 100 degrees outside and if everything's been kept shut, it will be totally comfortable inside. During a winter storm, we just feel really safe inside by the fire."


Greg Pincombe says he enjoyed the view while he worked on the Modica home. "It's so quiet up there compared to where I live in the Bay Area," he says, "yet it only takes me 20 minutes to get to their house. They've got their own little Shangri-La up there."