In today's energy-conscious era; Post-and-beam houses make old-fashioned sense
Newport, R.I. — The Two-story red-painted restoration house tucked among its colonial neighbors here arouses no curiosity from the front, yet any illusion of 18th- century living is shattered by the passive solar greenhouse on the side.
Dan Paquette's home is one of many old designs being built by his firm, Sakonnet Housesmiths.
While others turn to intricate innovations, Mr. Paquette says he can face escalating oil prices with equanimity -- and his dependable post and beams.
Mr. Paquette gazes with wonder at the oversize photo - 10 men perched atop a skeleton roof - which dominates his office. "On a house-raising day," says Mr. Paquette, "everyone sits and beams like a proud father."
The time-honored tradition of neighborhood hands joined in tackling the superhuman task of erecting a house in a single day with interlocking dovetails, mortise and tenons, and real community spirit, is being revived throughout New England by Mr. Paquette's energetic craftsmen.
To pay for his education, Mr. Paquette built conventional Cape Cod houses. It took the mid-1970s recession, however, to convert him to a building technique of the past. His first job was an 1830 cowbarn in Plympton, Mass. Instead of tearing down the classic post and beam, he persuaded the proprietor to opt for remodeling.
"From there on it became a handson experience," he smiles.
Together with a group of similarly minded friends, Mr. Paquette combed libraries and tore down old buildings for more information on the building technique.
"As we did, we found it was such a common-sense approach," he declares. "All we need to do is look backward to see how developed they were. They had a terrific consciousness in terms of orientation and window placement. We're just relearning. Good ideas are good ideas whether they were 200 years ago or now."
While the post-and-beam method of construction attracted a following for its aesthetics, it proved to be very efficient in heating, the builder adds.
"In the past, they put plaster on the wood and that was that," he continues. "It was cost-inefficient to build a post and beam."
But when Amos Winter of Jaffrey, N.H., developed the R-30 (equivalent to about 9 inches of fiber-glass insulation) stressed-skin panels specifically for them, it made a big difference. In sharp contrast to the usual porous insulation of fiber glass or cellulose that entrap air in the framing cavities but which require venting to prevent summer overheating and get rid of condensation in the winter, Mr. Winter's novel insulating panels are nailed directly to the outside of the framing and become part of the structure itself.
"Forty tons of massive native oak are enveloped inside the monolithic skin of insulation, storing up a lot of heat in the mass of the frame," says Mr. Paquette. And as there are no framing breaks, there is no heat loss through air infiltration.
"It can never rot and it actually is stronger than any conventional 2X4 wall."
When a passive solar system is incorporated into the plan, the Btu requirements are so minimized that nothing more than a wood stove or occasional electric heat backup is required.
The first house in which his company installed the 4 1/2-inch insulation panels, located in Tiverton, R.I., used only 120 gallons of oil in the winter of 1979-80. Mr. Paquette figures his new home will cost no more than $500 to heat for an entire year. The solar greenhouse provides some 40 percent of the heat.
More people now seem to be taking notice of what he is doing. In the last three years, his firm has built about 20 houses and three more are planned in New Hampshire, Maine, and on Martha's Vineyard in the coming months.
The fact that purists may complain about combining post-and-beam construction with solar doesn't bother Mr. Paquette.
"We have a respect for the traditional with the use of the contemporary," he responds. "We have to take what was good along with us and see what's around now. We analyzed traditional methods and improved upon them. It really is the best of both worlds.
"People do not want to live in heat tanks but homes,m and it's the hybrid that's really going to be the house of the future."
Nor does he admit that he is a passive solar builder either. He asserts that his main areas of concern are superinsulation, placement of the house on the lot , design and orientation of the windows and outside doors, a central chimney, and the use of shutters to lock in the heat.
Amazingly enough, the post-and- beam frames can accommodate a wide range of styles, from traditional 18th- century lines with small, intimate rooms, to highly contemporary gambrels with vaulted ceilings.
All framing members are cut and fit before construction. Thus, an entire house can be erected, sheathed, and insulated without a single nail.
"With a post and beam, the first thing you do is what shows," explains Charles Ficke, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate who studied solar design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and spent three years in the field before serving almost solely as a designer to Sakonnet Housesmiths.
"It's just like building a piece of furniture," he adds. "A great deal of logic has to be incorporated into the frame."
Prices of his houses run from around $55,000 up to as much as $225,000, according to Mr. Paquette.
"I think the houses we enjoy most are the smaller ones where you have to be creative," he smiles. "We prefer that to a big ark oozing out energy."
What impact has the economic downturn had on his business? "I ate beans and franks a lot in 1974 and made it through," he says good-naturedly. "I don't know, we're having a busy year during a bad time.
"My next direction is a structural foam house. The exciting thing is we haven't even tapped its potential yet. We're coming into some nice times, despite the doom-and-gloom prophecies.
"We've got lots of new materials and a crisis. The threat of hunger will make you do things you wouldn't believe."