timber Frames, Conservatories, Special Construction

Timber Framing: Tips for Specifying

The classic timber frame makes an extremely strong, durable, traditional-looking building. But timber framing is a highly specialized skill, and working with a timber framer takes some special know-how.

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Though simple and rugged, the traditional timber frame takes some highly refined skills to design, engineer, detail, fabricate and erect. One hundred fifty years ago, these skills were plentiful and handed from father to son in the craft tradition. Today, many timber frame designers are as familiar with CAD as they are with an adz, but timber-frame know-how is not widely dispersed in the design and construction community. Thus a timber-frame project today often involves a triangle of client-architect-timber framer. And sometimes for good measure there will be a different contractor who will complete the finished surfaces once the timber frame is erected.

With this triangle -- or quadrangle -- of relationships, the opportunities for misunderstandings and botched communication are significantly greater than on more conventional design-build projects. Timber framers are specialists whose knowledge and experience can spell the difference between disaster and a highly pleasing project outcome -- if architects and their clients make proper use of them. Here are some tips that will smooth the process:

(1) Make sure the timber framer is involved at the very start of the design process. That way, you can avoid getting committed to a design that doesn't make the best use of timber framing's strengths and aesthetics. There are also some tricky issues involved with making a timber frame design that is both engineerable and able to meet building codes.

(2) Early consultation with the timber framer allows the framer to do a value engineering of the proposed design. For example, the framer could point out the folly of specifying 10 1/2-ft. bay spacing, if the framer has 12-ft. timbers to work with.

(3) Normally, the timber framer will be expected to propose the technical details, such as wood frame materials, layout, appropriate loading and beam spacing.

(4) There are two ways to start a timber-frame design: (a) With the frame itself and work outward toward the "look" or (b) With an architectural concept and work inward toward a timber frame that will support the concept. But to avoid conflicts between these two visions, it's essential that the architect and timber framer work closely together from the outset.

(5) On most timber-frame projects, it's possible to complete up to 40% of the construction work in the timber framer's shop, which can be an advantage in locations where on-site labor is expensive, scarce or both.

(6) Several types of timber-frame packages are available: (a) Bent framing, erected in sections on site by crane; (b) Post-and-beam construction, erected piece by piece in the field; (c) Pre-assembled stress-skin panel enclosures and (d) Wrap-and-strap enclosures that are assembled on site. Not all timber frame contractors offer all options.

(7) Some timber framers prefer to work with recycled timbers for their strength, character and patina. Other timber framers work only with new timbers such as southern pine, Douglas fir or eastern white pine. And some timber framers will offer the option of recycled or new timbers.

With all of these options and decisions to be made along the way, the relationship between architect and timber framer should be a collaboration. They should work together to educate each other.

Click here for a list of timber frame contractors and craftsmen