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Timber Building Revival: The Return to Traditional Techniques

Timber Building Revival: The Return to Traditional Techniques

The Barn Raising

It wasn’t every day I got invited to a barn raising, but when the opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance. The event took place on a 300-acre parcel southwest of Marshall, owned by Chris Allen and Daniel Larkin, who had managed the restoration of numerous historic houses in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Now, as they settled in North Carolina, it was time to build a place to store their machinery. But this would be no ordinary barn – they wanted a structure that would be just as beautiful as it was lasting and structurally sound. Timber framing, a traditional method of building with heavy timbers connected with mortises and tenons, was an obvious choice.

The Timber Framer

Hired for the job was Barron Brown, a timber framer whose work was held in such high regard that even with an unlisted phone number and no advertising, there was always a long waitlist for his services. Brown had learned the basics of timber framing as a child, building a chicken coop with his grandparents on their farm in Lucketts, Virginia. “There wasn’t a lot of cash floating around,” he recalled. “We would just cut down trees and make beams and posts and put them together, which was what was done before Home Depot came into being.”

After graduating with an engineering degree from Vanderbilt, Brown had worked for the National Bureau of Standards and the Italian government before quitting to pursue his passion for making art and building houses. Unlike most builders, he looked for clients who were willing to invest some sweat equity. “I like to work on projects with the homeowners present,” he said. “It makes the communication loop way shorter so there’s no misunderstandings.”

The Barn Raising Process

At the barn raising, Allen and Larkin worked alongside a handful of others who were there to help out and gain experience. Brown had only one paid employee on-site, his project manager Andrew Vice, a graduate of the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, South Carolina, who had been working with Brown for nearly 15 years.

The goal for the day was to raise the barn’s second bent, one of the timber-frame structure’s load-bearing walls with beams running perpendicular to the ridge. To tap the components of the bent into place, Vice used a “commander” – a large mallet with a log for a head and a tree limb for a handle. When it broke, he fashioned another from a large chunk of locust and an old ax handle.

Brown can build a structure solely with hand tools, but he’s not a masochist or a Luddite. While he did eat lunch using a spoon he’d carved out of a piece of wood, he also used the design software TurboCAD to plan the barn and power tools to make the mortises and tenons in the lumber. An excavator did much of the heavy lifting to raise the bent, as a crane would have been impractical due to the steep terrain.

The Timber Framing Renaissance

Timber framing, once the predominant building method in Europe for more than 1,000 years and equally popular in the US until dimensional lumber became widely available, is now enjoying a renaissance in Western North Carolina. Tom Rouse, the owner of Timber-Building.com, a local timber framing company, discovered the craft in the late 1990s while attending an adventure camp at the Turtle Island Preserve near Boone.

Rouse’s first job was working for an old-timer named Elwood in Sky Valley near Brevard, where he cut his first joints while making a set of stairs. During a 1,600-mile bicycle tour around the British Isles, he observed how elegant the old timber-frame houses looked and how well they were holding up, which inspired him to start working for Blue Ridge Timber Frame in Swannanoa.

When Blue Ridge Timber Frame folded in 2013, Rouse started his own company, Timberframe Horizons. Its first big job was a barn restoration at the Knights Hill Plantation in Camden, South Carolina, which required four tractor-trailer loads of reclaimed timber. Rouse’s new shop in Swannanoa boasts giant windows, radiant-heat floors, and plenty of room to assemble an entire house, reducing the company’s footprint on-site.

Comparing Timber Framing Approaches

While Brown’s operation thrives on word-of-mouth, Timberframe Horizons has a more modern approach, with a slick website, a strong social media presence, and multiple projects in the works at any given time. The two companies differ in their use of machinery and sourcing of materials as well.

Aspect Barron Brown Timberframe Horizons
Machinery Relies primarily on hand tools, with some power tools and an excavator Uses heavy machinery like CNC machines, cranes, and forklifts
Lumber Source Sources lumber from as close to the building site as possible, often from the same county Often experiences supply-chain issues with local materials, leading to ordering lumber from afar
Project Volume Content with building one or two timber-frame structures a year Has multiple projects in the works at any given time
Marketing Relies on word-of-mouth and personal relationships Has a strong online presence and marketing strategy

The Importance of Authenticity

Both Brown and Rouse’s companies value authenticity in timber framing, with Brown expressing disdain for the practice of “trimber framing” – incorporating the look of timber framing without its functionality. “People have been doing this for a long time,” he said. “I don’t fault them for it, but I think it’s kind of silly because I like the form-follows-function design philosophy.”

Harvey, one of Timberframe Horizons’ lead timber framers, shared a similar sentiment, lamenting the popularity of faux timber framing in the area. “If people can get to us earlier in the process, we can build them an actual timber structure,” he said.

A Passion for the Craft

When Brown isn’t building timber-frame houses, he spends much of his time making sculptures, which have been displayed at various venues throughout Western North Carolina. He also teaches workshops on woodcarving and blacksmithing, and is a regular instructor at the Firefly Gathering.

Despite his success, Brown lives a simple life, driving a car that looks like it’s been resurrected from a junkyard and living in a one-room house that lacks an indoor toilet. “I could certainly build myself a much nicer house,” he shrugged. “My wife seems OK with it.”

Brown’s passion for the craft is evident in his work and his legacy. He proudly shared that his daughter is a successful builder in Massachusetts, and his granddaughter built her own tiny house when she was 16. “Raising the second bent for the barn near Marshall took the better part of a day,” he recalled. “Once it was standing perfectly plumb, I asked Brown how long the structure would last. ‘Hundreds of years,’ he said with some satisfaction. ‘Some of the stone walls I’ve built will easily be around for 1,000 years.'”

The Future of Timber Framing

The resurgence of timber framing in Western North Carolina is a testament to the enduring appeal of this traditional building method. Whether it’s Barron Brown’s hand-crafted approach or Timberframe Horizons’ more modern operations, the passion and dedication of these timber framers are ensuring that the art of timber building will continue to thrive for generations to come.

As I left the barn raising, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe and respect for the timeless craft of timber framing. The structures these artisans create not only stand the test of time but also embody the spirit of a bygone era, a time when buildings were not just functional but also works of art. It’s a legacy that Timber-Building.com is proud to be a part of, and one that will continue to inspire and captivate us for years to come.

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