Timber-Framing Raises the Roof

BENSON Woodworking's offices and sheds blend with the trees on one of the dirt roads that wander through this tiny town overlooking the Connecticut River Valley in southern New Hampshire. It's an isolated spot, but the business conducted here is anything but insular, thanks to the energies of its founder, Tedd Benson.

Mr. Benson, who looks remarkably like actor Chevy Chase, has never been one to settle into the routine. While attending Colorado State University in the 1960s, he led efforts to increase the numbers of minority students and teachers. Later, he started an alternative school in Colorado Springs, Colo. After migrating eastward with his wife, Christine, he pursued carpentry and cabinetmaking - an interest that led, in 1974, to starting his own company.

The inspiration for the firm was Benson's rediscovery of the age-old construction technique of timber framing. "From the 1880s in the US, really almost 100 years, it lay unused," Benson said during an interview in Alstead.

An old New Hampshire barn that refused to be pulled down was Benson's introduction to the craft of joining timbers with mortises and tenons. It got him thinking about a construction method that had figured in such enduring marvels of architecture as Europe's cathedrals and Japan's Shinto temples. His thought: Why not make that kind of construction, with its aesthetic and structural pluses, available to Americans today?

In the nearly 20 years since, Benson Woodworking has tackled projects ranging from single-family residences to a four-story office building in Brattleboro, Vt., nicknamed the "Vermonster" by Benson's crew. Among the company's current undertakings is a major section of a new summer home for the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in Lennox, Mass.

When Benson started out, only a couple of other firms were in this business; now there are hundreds across the United States. What distingishes Benson's approach is a reverence for craftsmanship and his desire to nurture the skills and decisionmaking capabilities of individual workers.

"Basically, what you're buying here is craftsmanship," says Ben Brungraber, the operations director and a structural engineer who wrote a dissertation on timber-frame buildings. In this type of building, he says, "the joinery, the connections, are it." The company's quality standards are stringent: Joints have a tolerance of only 1/32 of an inch. But perfection in these matters is elusive. "Sometimes we're lucky to keep up with the Japanese of 1,500 years ago," comments Mr. Brungraber with a wry smile.

The Alstead headquarters employs 32 people. In the woodworking shop, beams and posts, many as large as 12 inches square, rest on long sawhorses and tables. Some are getting an initial planing; others have been sawn to length, with mortises and tenons carved and shaped. Power tools are much in evidence, but hand work is always needed, says Dennis Marcom, who is chiseling out some rough spots on a Douglas fir beam.

This timber, like many used by Benson, was salvaged from an old building in the West. "You have to chip out `dings' left over from [its] life as a lumber mill," Mr. Marcom explains. "It's part of the territory." Recycled wood makes up an increasing portion of the raw material for timber framing.

The woodworking shop functions inseparably from the design operation upstairs. A central tenet of Benson's is to embrace all aspects of home design - such as plumbing and wiring - in the earliest phases of conceptualizing a building.

Benson's architects, employing both common sense and computer-assisted design, typically follow a project through to completion, often lending a hand at the frame-raising. Strict attention to detail and diligent teamwork also help clients stay within their home-building budgets. Recent ideas-sharing sessions among the staff at Alstead led to a dominant company goal of "improving the quality of peoples' lives." That goal, says Benson, is never served if a builder allows clients to bust their budgets.

That outlook points to a current concern of Benson's - that the construction industry needs to rethink the way its does business. "The structure of the relationships is too adversarial. It begins with the architect, then on to the engineer, who is constrained by what the architect did. Then on to the bids, and people are at the mercy of whoever wins a bid.... The level of commitment at the bottom of this `food chain' is very low. [The actual builders] haven't been involved in the conception at all."

Benson is determined to change that, at least within his own firm. He encourages employees to use initiative and make decisions. Everyone in the shop, for example, becomes familiar with every tool and skill. Foremen, in the traditional sense, don't exist here.

"It makes everybody a thinker, not just a mechanical doer," says Peter Wotowiec, who left teaching to become a woodworker with Benson's firm.

Benson wants to make timber-frame building, which now costs about $15-a-square-foot more than traditional stick-frame construction, available to a wider range of homeowners. He talks of designs that will combine timber-framing with masonry or other materials to reduce costs. "We're going to be good at building prototypes - that's a good role for us. Ultimately, our highest value might be in our teaching," Benson says.

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