MY VALENTINE TO THE TIMBERS THAT WILL MAKE OUR HOUSE

It’s time for an update on building our house because things have been moving along swiftly this winter.

Last summer we went over our 44 acres with Roald Gundersen and Della Hansmann from Whole Trees Architecture, selecting specific trees to be part of the house based on both their suitability for construction and how their removal would affect the health of the woods. (See my post The First 100 Trees for our Home) Next, we peeled the trees where they stood, so they could begin the drying process, which also serves to make them lighter and easier to move once the trees are actually cut down.

When the ground froze (although this spookily mild winter there has been less frozen ground to take advantage of than usual) the trees were felled and pulled to the area around the barn.  (See my post Tree Felling Begins)
This month our building foreman Brian Dalstrom and an assistant have started prepping the timbers and are starting to join them together with custom cutting and shaping.

This month because of health issues, I have not been able to be involved in the process as much as I would like, but Sunday, Doug and I were out at the land making final adjustments to the building site.  Fitting the house, the future garage and the solar panels into the hillside is challenging, and many hours have been spent with levels, tape measures and compass to come up with the best possible configuration.  We are getting very close.

This is a merged panorama that shows where the sun is at rising, noon and setting this time of year. Our house will be aligned to take advantage of this solar arc.

We got out to the land before sunrise because we wanted to see exactly where the sun is coming up at this time of year.  Every branch of every tree and every leaf and twig on the ground was covered with delicate tracery of frost, making it a challenge for me to concentrate on compasses and tape measures.  By noon, we had a good sense that the house, garage and solar panels will all nestle in and work together like the gears in a clock.

Then we took time to look at the timbers Brian has been shaping.

Timber frame at dawn

Timber frame buildings are made of bents, and bents are like a cross-section of the building.  They define the outer shape. In our barn, which was a more traditional timber frame structure, they looked like this.

Doug helping to set the back barn bent in place.

Unmilledtimber framing, as it is done by Whole Trees builds upon the opportunities that occur as unique branching shapes are fitted together.

The pieces are not joined with the traditional joinery  of milled timber frame – the time necessary would make it cost prohibitive.  Ultimately, metal nuts and bolts will hold the pieces  in place, but the joinery does nestle customized shapes into existing natural curves, and many natural branching columns are left intact, creating connections that strengthen the joints.

Looking at the same bent Doug is standing by at dawn (above) from another angle.

In general, the load-bearing capability of the posts and beams will be exceptionally high, and I’m glad they are going to be strong.  When Doug and I lived in the Netherlands, we lived in a 300-year-old farm house.  Since then, I have never wanted to build anything that would last a second less.  That is an important element of sustainability.

But I am even more glad that these joints are beautiful.  They are a reminder that there are ways of working with nature, rather than conquering it.

Sure, it’s quicker and cheaper to toss together a structure out of “2×4”s.  But what is the final product?  How does it welcome and shelter you?  How often are you reminded of how you owe your shelter to trees?

I admit it.  I’m in love with this house already, and it’s only a bunch of trees piled around the barn.

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7 replies

    • Hi Neal,
      I’ve passed your email along to my builder, and if they don’t get back to you shortly, I’ll give them a nudge on the matter.

  1. Thanks Eleanor.
    Thursday I put in a really full day working on the finish work of some of the posts and beams, and I felt it this morning. Now by mid-day, I feel confident I didn’t overdo. I’ve actually been in “training” for helping to build the house since early winter. Because my daily writing life is all too sedentary I’ve been pushing my limits regularly and expanding them so I can tote that beam and lift that bale this summer. After yesterday, I feel like I’m on track.

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