Read an Excerpt
Building on the Past
What Used to Be
Before we can begin building, we must first understand and look at traditional timber-framed home building to see what we can use and how we might improve on what we find. Before the Industrial Revolution, the craft of building concerned itself with raw materials; with human-, animal-, water-, and wind-powered processes; and with tradition and integrity. Building was a business, but it was a humane business. Your builder lived locally and simply had to do quality work.
Your builder knew the language of building, which determined the layout, material usage, and the construction details. There is little or no language in much of today's building — anyone with a pickup truck and a circular saw can be a builder. This book is an attempt to reintroduce some of the lost building language of timber-framed houses.
In the past, the materials — stone and timber — were often taken from the local forest or quarry and incorporated into the building with a minimum of processing and handling. The builder knew how the stone and timber should be worked and used to their best advantage and the lifespan, strengths, and weaknesses of these materials. Who can claim such a knowledge of twentieth-century materials? If a building was ravaged by fire or storm or suffered from neglect and became unusable, there wasn't a disposal problem: no pollution, no problems. Doesn't this make sense again today? What will disposing of today's homes and their nonbiodegradable materials cost us?
Old builders sited and oriented their houses to take the best advantage of natural systems. Sun, prevailing winds, groundwater, soils, vegetation, and drainage were all considered since great amounts of energy are necessary to alter or compensate for site deficiencies. Because buildings had to work with their environment, they were naturally comfortable with their site, making the occupants more comfortable inside. When fossil fuels became prevalent, we began to build in spite of natural systems; in fact, we often ignored them. We are now at a turning point where we must go back to the older, more intelligent way. We no longer have the energy or resources to continue on our current path.
Today, when we speak of buildings that use local materials, local builders, and local traditions, we use the term vernacular architecture. Tepees, igloos, adobe houses, English timbered buildings, and Norwegian log structures are all examples of vernacular buildings. In a given area, vernacular buildings are the most economical and the most suited to the culture and climate and, in general, make the most sense for that area. When a building anywhere in the world looks friendly, inviting, and at peace with its environment, it is likely that it is a vernacular building. Lately, there has been a resurgence in the study and revival of vernacular building traditions worldwide. The hall-and-parlor house discussed in this book continues the vernacular tradition of much of the eastern United States.
Preindustrial buildings also had romance. Romance is not just something we feel now as we look back — old systems of building even appear to have been romantic in the past. When you combine nature's materials, a lot of handwork, and the ancient traditions of building, you get a building that can really mean something to its owner.
It is precisely romance that prompted the revival of the timber-framed building tradition here in the 1970s. The industrial age had removed most of the romance and craft from building to make life easier for humankind. Some saw the inadequacies of the building industry and, through timber framing, log building, adobe, and other local building methods, people began reviving vernacular traditions. An important change had occurred: The process of building became as important as the end product.
What Is Timber Framing?
Before looking at a brief history of the craft, it is necessary to define timber framing: Timber framing is a traditional building system that uses a skeletal framework of both large and small wooden members fastened to each other with joinery. Principal members may be joined with elaborate mortise-and-tenon joints and locked with wooden pins, whereas some nonstructural joints may be butted together and anchored with iron spikes. Iron nails, straps, and bolts are invariably found in the best of the old timber-framed structures, but at least some of the structural connections rely on wooden joinery. Simply stacking beams on top of posts and fastening them with metal hardware is not timber framing but, rather, post-and-beam construction. Although Europe most often comes to mind when we think of the evolution of timber framing, equally fine traditions of the craft exist in the Far East.
A History of Timber Framing
The craft probably began soon after humans began to use tools to work wood. The use of the mortise-and-tenon joint is at least three thousand years old, as the furniture found in King Tutankhamen's tomb attests, and all of the oldest surviving timber-framed buildings indicate that the craft was already at an advanced state when they were built. We may never understand the evolution of the craft. It is typical that the surviving buildings from the early periods tend to be grand examples, such as ecclesiastical and government buildings: The common vernacular structures undoubtedly didn't survive as well as the cathedrals and palaces.
The majority of the early settlers of what is now the United States came from areas that supported a timber-framing rather than a log-building tradition. In the Northeast, for example, settlers from Great Britain, France, Germany, and Holland all played a role in shaping the building traditions even though each culture had its own preferences for timber species, framing styles, joinery types, and building layout. Some appreciation of the Dutch and English approaches to timber framing can help you understand timber framing as a whole.
The predominant influence of our project house is from the English tradition, which was strong in America, especially along the East Coast and in New England. The first-generation English houses were comparable to homes of the same period in England, though the timbers reflect the quality of the virgin timber found here. In England, the primeval forests were long gone, and the second-growth forests were heavily harvested for buildings, ships, charcoal, and home heating. The English framing system developed in part from the need to use lower quality and often crooked timber. In fact, crooked timbers were used to their best advantage and could even enhance the appearance of the building. The typical frame design was developed to create a structurally stable frame using light members. The roof was trussed (triangulated) at each cross frame, and the special English tying joint was used to tie the roof truss to the wall posts. This joint also came to America and a simpler form is resurrected in our project house frame (see Chapter 3).
When the English settled in America, their homes reflected their traditions with a few variations. The use of curved and crooked timber gave way to straight timber because it was readily available and easier to work. The traditional wall infill system of wattle and daub (woven twigs plastered over with a mixture of clay, lime, and dung) was soon replaced with wood boarding. With the plentiful timber supply and many water-powered sawmills, boards could economically cover a frame as clapboards or become flooring. Riven wood shingles replaced thatch, reducing roof pitches. The forests of America played an important role in shaping the English colonial houses here.
Some builders began using a different framing system for their houses. Instead of framing a multitude of timber studs to support the wall sheathing and interior finish, builders nailed wide vertical planks on the outside of the frame from sill to plate and then nailed horizontal clapboards to the planking. On the inside, they nailed on wood lath and plastered the wall. This system meant considerably less mortise-and-tenon work so the framing was faster and, thus, more economical. By the end of the eighteenth century, New England was covered with these plank-on-frame houses. The project house this book describes is a plank-on-frame house. Originally, planks as thick as 3 or 4 inches were used in the colder areas for added insulation. Many experts state that wood is not a great insulator compared to manufactured insulations, but modern insulation doesn't have the thermal storage or mass of thick planks. During the day, the sun and the cooking fire warmed the wall mass. During the night when the fire went out, the wall cooled slowly, keeping the occupants warm longer. Log buildings also work on this principle. In some houses with very thick planks, you can see that a few builders recognized the inherent strength in the planks for vertical loads and deleted the posts entirely, though plates were still required to stiffen the top of the wall.
A few houses for the well-to-do incorporated both timber-stud and plank systems. For these homes, the planks were fastened vertically to the interior of the major horizontal timbers, which created a wall as much as 11 inches thick. Brick placed between the studs stopped drafts and provided more thermal mass.
The Dutch colonists settled mostly in New York and New Jersey in the rich bottomlands. As with the English, the abundance of timber affected the design of their structures. In Holland, barns and living space were often combined under one large roof, but we see little evidence of that practice here in America. The Dutch timber-framed houses here were typically a story and a half, with a wall (called a knee wall) that rose about 4 feet above the second floor level to give usable space under the roof. Instead of the bay framing used by the English, the Dutch had crossframes spaced 3 to 5 feet apart comprised of two posts, a cross-beam, and perhaps some diagonal braces. These crossframes or bents were tied longitudinally at the top by plates and at the bottom by sills. Rafter couples with a collar (which joined two rafters horizontally) sat on the plate, with the joint usually over exterior wall posts. It was an early modular system: The building could be lengthened or shortened in 4-foot increments. Floor, wall, and roof sheathing spanned across the posts, crossbeams, and rafters. Usually the space between posts was filled with brick or wattle and daub. Most of these houses also had a lean-to for additional floor space.
The Industrial Revolution
In addition to house and frame styles, the craft of timber framing and carpentry in general changed in the nineteenth century. Up to the early nineteenth century, most sawmills were of the water- powered up-and-down variety. Because of the slow speed of these mills, builders still hewed timbers with broadaxes. The mills mostly produced scantlings (smaller timbers), planks, and boards. The faster circular sawmill, introduced in America around 1813 (see Fink ) and usually powered by a steam engine, had all but replaced the older mills by the 1870s, making sawn timbers economical and doing away with all of the subtleties of hewn framing. Jowled posts, tapered rafters, and variations in timber sizes gave way to the standardization of parts. A mid-nineteenth-century barn might have only two timber sizes: 7×7s for sills, posts, plates, and tiebeams, and 4×6s for braces, joists, wall girts, and rafters. Joinery was also standardized. This same barn frame would be unlikely to have any joint but a simple mortise and tenon.
The event that dealt a deathblow to timber-framed houses was the invention of the "balloon frame." George W. Snow developed a system in Chicago in 1832 that used light framing members connected with machine-produced nails (see Sprague ). The advantages of balloon framing were obvious: It used small easy-to-handle pieces of standard dimensions that were connected with a minimum of notching and quickly created a house frame adaptable to any style of architecture. The most important advantage was that it didn't require skilled labor. With a little guidance, most people could build their own houses. The traditional guild-master-apprentice system could be bypassed for all but the largest and fanciest buildings, and the carpenter was effectively replaced by the laborer. Timber framing, however, was still being used for barns well into the twentieth century. Apparently, balloon framing was not trusted for large open buildings such as barns. Today, a variation of balloon framing called stud or platform framing is the norm for wooden house building.
Why Timber Framing Today?
What are the advantages of timber framing over stud framing? Using 2×4s to frame a house is still faster, requires less skill, and is cheaper in many cases. Short-term economics has always been and still is an important factor in selecting a building system. If a timber-framed home is contracted out to a builder, it is likely to cost a little more than a comparable stud-framed home. But if one compares the life expectancy of a timber frame to a stud frame and considers the long-term economics of the environment and our culture, then a timber frame is far more cost-effective because it is built to last several centuries. We should be thinking in these terms. Economics, however, is not the only consideration. A timber-framed house is stronger and the strength is highly visible on the interior. People feel secure living in a timber frame. There isn't any mystery as to what is holding up the house. The timbers also add interest visually. With a timber-framed interior, moldings and other decorative work are unnecessary. For the owner-builder, there are even more advantages. Building a timber-framed house offers more opportunities to save money by using your own materials and your own labor. It allows you to use fewer manufactured products (with all their shortcomings). You can use your own timber or timber from local forests that was cut at local sawmills, which helps the local economy and saves money, and you can be sure the forests are managed for sustainability. There are also less-tangible advantages: The pride in continuing in an ancient tradition, of doing honest work, and of creating a beautiful house with traditional hand tools.
The Project House for this Book
The old way of building was flexible by design. Builders of the past framed many types of buildings, but they generally only used a single structural form or prototype for each building type, which they simply varied in relative size and in finish details for specific projects. There was no need to design or engineer each building from scratch. Houses were generally based on these classic, comfortable, and efficient prototypes. Often, the great strength of these prototypes was their ability to easily expand and become individualized as the owners' needs evolved. This book's primary aim is to reintroduce such a prototype building system: The hall-and-parlor house.
This house form has been with us since the early settlement of America. In fact, the oldest wood-framed house in the country — the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts, which was built around 1637 — is of this form, and the design has stayed with us to the present day. Also referred to as the two-room plan, lobby-entrance plan, or an I-house, the hall-and-parlor house is longer than it is wide and is one room deep. There are usually three sections or bays: a narrow central area containing the entrance, hearth, and stairs, which is flanked by a wider section on either side that usually forms one room each — the hall and parlor. The "hall" was not the hall as we use that word today but a room where the cooking and eating took place. It had the largest fireplace in the house, usually with an integral bake oven, and most activities took place in this room. The parlor contained the finest furnishings and often the parents' bed. The house may be one or two floors but was usually two. The hall-and-parlor house has been chosen as the prototype house for this book because of the many advantages that it offers:
* A couple or a young family will find the design to be an excellent starter house.
* The house can be easily expanded as the family grows and changes.
* The structure is economical to build and maintain.
* Though modest in size, the house is attractive and noble.
* Because it is one room deep, rooms can receive natural light on three sides.
* The layout allows for a centralized radiant heat source.
* The roof design provides unheated storage in the attic.
* Little space is wasted on hallways.
* The form and structure of the house are deeply rooted in tradition.
The hall-and-parlor house offers advantages in its timber framing as well. Because of its relatively narrow depth (usually 14 to 20 feet and 18 feet in this design), timbers that run across its width can be full length but still remain easily manageable and, in many cases, allow for floor space uninterrupted by posts or walls. With a narrow building, the roof system can remain simple and also avoid interior supports. And because it is a full two stories, we avoid headroom problems associated with story-and-a-half capes and structural concerns about posts that extend a few feet above the second floor for kneewalls. The straightforward timber framing makes the hall-and-parlor house a good economical first frame for a beginner. It is no wonder that it was so popular in times past.
Excerpted from "Build a Classic Timber-Framed House"
Copyright © 1994 Jack A. Sobon.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
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