Old-style timber-frame homes are back, offering openness and
NELSON, N.H. — It's a crisp October morning deep in the New Hampshire woods, and Tedd Benson is two stories up, straddling a 12-foot-long oak beam, looking as if he's on the ride of his dreams.
He's actually piecing together the dream home for a young couple. They've chosen a house formed of massive timbers, the kind of home that honors the majesty of wood, creates soaring ceilings and expansive rooms, expresses warmth and authenticity - and can last for centuries.
With acrobatic agility, Mr. Benson and his five-man "beam team" grab a matrix of rafters as it is lowered by a crane onto posts, which are the squared and planed trunks of New England oaks.
As the timbers descend, Benson holds ready a long chisel and hefty hammer, just in case any joint doesn't quite match up and needs a quick trim. The ends of the timbers, carved with mortises (holes) and tenons (projections), must fit into each other with millimeter precision.
After a bit of huff and puff by the crew, the honey-toned timbers pop right into their appointed notches.
"She's in! We've got it!" Benson yells, like an astronaut who's realized liftoff. The crew then hammers long wooden pegs into the "joinery," which is so strong that a giant could pick up the house - and it wouldn't collapse. There's not a metal nail or metal brace in sight.
The crew then breaks for the traditional house-raising feast, provided by the new owners. One worker says he will hoist a pine bough to the ridge - "in thanks to the wood" - as a reverent gesture.
The owners, Patsy and David Beffa-Negrini, look with pride at the skeleton of their home. It sits in stately simplicity overlooking a shimmering lake, ready to be enclosed with high-insulation panels and then wood siding. A copse of trees has been reconstructed into a work of art.
"I can't imagine living in any other kind of house," Ms. Beffa-Negrini says. "The wood is so beautiful." The couple also likes timber framing because it allows the downstairs rooms to be open to one other. "I'm not fond of internal walls," says Mr. Beffa-Negrini. Timber frames don't need load-bearing walls as most other types of houses do.
After the feast, Benson, president of Benson Woodworking and author of the new coffee-table book "Timberframe" (The Taunton Press, $40), talks about his 27-year-long vision to revive and adapt the art of timber framing, an ancient craft all but forgotten in America for over a century.
Beams that inspire
As a young man from Colorado, Benson began his career as a cabinetmaker. But one day he walked into a Massachusetts house built into the 1700s. He looked up at the ceiling - and never looked back.
"The way the thick timbers fit together just mesmerized me. I had no idea such things could happen," he says.
Today, his company, based in Alstead Center, N.H., is one of dozens of timber-frame companies that will build anything from homes to theaters to ski lodges. Also known as post-and-beam construction, the craft commands a small but growing niche in the housing industry. The prices of such houses vary by locale, but tend to be at least 10 to 20 percent above average.
A revival of timber frames began in the early 1970s when several carpenters such as Benson began to study and replicate old houses and barns.
Some of them liked the potential for creative craftsmanship. Some preferred the down-to-earth quality of hand-built homes where the structural integrity is visible. And some saw timber frames as a way to build in a more energy-efficient and nature-friendly way.
Still standing after 360 years
Two centuries ago, timber frames were the most common type of house in America, long before architects began to dominate the business. Timber craftsmen were bred to the trade, passing down their know-how to apprentices, leaving few written records. A master housewright was both the designer and the builder - no need for an architect.
The fact that a few early American timber-frame homes - the more refined cousins of log homes, which have solid wood walls and simpler joinery - still stand after 360 years is testament to a type of construction that dates to medieval Europe, with roots in the ancient world.
In America, timber framing fell out of favor in the mid-1800s after the invention of the rotary cutting blade - an idea suggested by a Shaker woman who had watched her spinning wheel turn. Lumber became thinner and mass-produced, ending a long tradition of hand-hewn timbers. Nails, too, became machine made instead of hand-forged.
The advent of two-by-fours meant home building required less skill and labor, with carpenters using multistud "stick" construction (or "balloon framing"). Instead of the big bones of timber frames, houses were made of many little bones.
As Americans migrated west, they were able to build cheap shelter from smaller and younger trees. These changes eventually allowed architects to launch the Victorian era of house designs. And styles have evolved to such suburban favorites as today's executive mansions.
The revival of timber framing is partly a revolt against today's often-flimsy houses, fickle trends, and the feeling of a loss of control over the basics of shelter.
"For owners, seeing the timbers takes the mystery out of house construction," says Tom Goldschmid, a Benson designer.
Hand-hewn vs. machine-cut
During the 1970s, pioneers of the revival had to figure out the old joinery, consulting timber framers in Europe and Japan where the tradition never died. Benson, in particular, conducts stress tests to improve the strength of frame designs.
This time-tested method allows design flexibility. It permits an architect to treat the basic parts of a house - structure (timbers), "skin" (outside walls), services (wires, plumbing, etc.), and interior space plan - separately.
In a "stick" house, the walls, structure, and services are all part of a whole. And in the fast-changing digital age, that's a disadvantage.
"How people wire up their house is starting to determine the structure of the house. With timber frames, we can separate the two," Benson says. "Wires and plumbing are more easily accessible. You don't have to rip up drywall every few years for the next electronic trend.
"The timber frame can last 300 to 500 years [with a metal or slate roof], the outside 'skin' 100 years, the space plan 25 years, and services two to five years."
Such durability, along with the sheer beauty of the buildings, has won timber framing a following. The Timber Framers Guild of North America, founded in 1985, has hundreds of members today.
But the industry itself has developed an ideological split.
Traditionalists want to stay with hand-cut timbers and classic joinery, bringing a personal touch to the trade and a rough-hewn look to homes. But companies such as Benson's innovate with designs by architects and machines that cut joinery.
"I want to bring timber framing into the 21st century and make it appealing again so that it will stay with us as a craft," Benson says. "We can't be stuck on past designs. That would be like driving a car by steering with the rear-view mirror."
Typical home buyers are over 40 and have already lived in one or two houses. They want a house that's casual and welcoming, but also formal and strong.
"The buyers say, 'This is going to be our last house and we want do it right,' " explains Richard Neroni of Timberpeg, another New Hampshire-based timber-frame company, which claims to be the largest in the US.
Many buyers prefer to use "green-certified" timbers - those not taken from old-growth forests or from clear cutting.
Also coveted are giant timbers salvaged from old docks, mills, and warehouses. They are often made of fir and long-leaf pine - well-aged, dense, and full of character - species that were the "steel" of early industrial buildings.
But the commonly used species are plentiful Western fir and Eastern white pine. For Benson, it is the strength and stability of timber frames that, early on, pushed him into the trade.
He recalls in 1971 trying to pull down an old barn with a chain pulled by a truck. It didn't budge. Then he used a bulldozer - the barn only swayed. He finally took it apart, timber by timber.
"Right then," he says, "I determined that I would build only timber frames."
ON THE WEB *www.tfguild.org (Timber Framers Guild)
*www.homebuyerpubs. com/tour.htm (timber-frame home producers)
*www.loghomeliving.com (timber-frame home source guide)
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society