This month begins our four part blog article series, “Timber Framing History.” As you contemplate designing and building your timber frame home, you may find yourself seeking a deeper understanding about the origins, geographical adaptation, and traditions of timber framing itself. By knowing a bit more about how timber frame building methods evolved over time, and how today’s machinery and technological advancements have enhanced precision and structural durability, you gain a true appreciation of your home’s connection to ancient history and to tales not yet written.
You have probably heard or read references to the centuries of tradition behind timber framing. These historical touchpoints resonate here at Riverbend every day. And while it is true that there are hundreds of years of timber frame history, you may not be aware of just how many centuries it dates back. Timber framing building methods are so old in fact, you could refer to them in millenniums rather than centuries.
Timber framing is much older than most people realize. As a point of fact, one of the oldest known references to it in the Western World is from Roman architect and author, Vitruvius, writing about the Roman construction technique of opus craticum in his treatise on architecture, De architectura. The House of opus craticum, a half-timbered building in Italy, was buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Ironically, the Roman author was somewhat disparaging of the technique of plastered over wattlework, believing it to be a terrible fire hazard[i]. Yet, The House of opus craticum survives today, an ancient testament to the durability of timber. You can see it here.
While the House of opus craticum is the oldest example of a timber frame building, there are thousands of examples found throughout the world. Some, dating back to the 12th century, have survived. And, many of these serve as residences and businesses to this very day. One example of this is Norway’s Kaupanger Stave Church whose timbers were cut in 1137. The church has been in continuous use since completion (Kaupanger stavkirke, 2018).
Other, more (relatively) recent structures, have become global icons. For example, you may have heard of a Parisian cathedral named Notre-Dame. The Notre-Dame de Paris’ timber frame roof, shown below in this illustration by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879), is a lesser-known element of one of the most famous buildings in the world. Notre-Dame has served as a cathedral and cultural touchstone for over 850 years (La Cathedrale Historique de la Construction, n.d.)
Outstanding examples of timber framed structures exist in other parts of modern Europe as well.
Traveling the famed German Timber Frame Road would likely make anyone fall in love with timber framing– if they haven’t already. The 1,200-mile route traverses nearly the entire length of Germany, connecting several towns, each of which is brimming with centuries old half-timbered residences. For a less arduous tour, visit Quedlinburg where over 1,200 timber frame structures can be viewed and enjoyed in less than a single day’s drive. More than one European town is listed with UNESCO (Official Relations (UNESCO/ERI), n.d.) due to their abundance of intact, inhabitable, useable, timber frame buildings.
The wide use of timber framing in Japan is another example of the technique’s extraordinary geographical reach. Thought to be rooted in Chinese wooden architecture (Fu Hsi-nien, 2002), there is not as much English translated research about timber framing in these parts of Asia as there is for Europe. We do know, however, there were massive and unmolested forests in Japan and China and that heavy use of timber framing in both countries dates back thousands of years (Steinhardt, 1999). Like European craftsman, a regional evolution in techniques left Asian timber framing significantly different from that of the West.
Across much of Europe and Asia, if a supply of appropriate wood species was available, timber frame building techniques were present. In addition, more than one researcher has written about the fact that proximity and quantity of appropriate wood species was no less important than what wood species was NOT located nearby. For example, timber framing was not common in areas with an abundant supply of pine and spruce. Those species produce long, straight logs, perfectly lending themselves to log home construction rather than timber framing. Lacking copious amounts of deciduous softwood, however, meant timber frame building took hold in other parts of the world.
As timber framing spread, regions innovated and developed distinct styles. Perhaps the best example of this is Asian framing’s almost complete lack of diagonal bracing.
In Germany, the northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein became famous for its enormous beams (12” was common) while the southwestern region of Swabia, (think: the Black Forest), is thought to be the birthplace of modern style tenons. The tenon innovation in Europe occurred because builders in southwestern Germany learned that while their timbers “seasoned” or dried, the wood moved. Controlling this movement of the timber frame was accomplished when builders learned to peg the joints (while allowing an approximate one inch of space). This meant timbers now had room to move during the seasoning or drying period, but were still held in place by these wooden pegs.
Today, tenons are an essential part of the joinery here at Riverbend. You likely already know that we use mortise and tenon techniques in every home we create. Please return to our blog in two weeks as we continue our journey through the history of timber framing.
Notes and photo credits
Editor’s Note: This article was authored prior to the April 2019 fire at Notre Dame.
Fu Hsi-nien, X. F. (2002). Chinese Architecture – The Origins of Chinese Architecture (English ed.). Yale University Press. Retrieved from Xujie, Liu (2002). Chinese Architecture – The Origins of Chinese Architecture (English ed.). Yale University Press. p. 11
La Cathedrale Historique de la Construction. (n.d.). Retrieved from Notre Dame de Paris: http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/en/la-cathedrale/histoire/historique-de-la-construction/
Marcus Vitruvius: Architecture, Volume 2, Latin. (n.d.). Retrieved 2018, from University of Chicago: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/L/Roman/Texts/Vitruvius/2*.html#8.20
Official Relations (UNESCO/ERI). (n.d.). UNESCO/ERIWorld Heritage Centre. Retrieved from UNESCO: https://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/de
Steinhardt, N. S. (1999). Chinese Imperial Planning. In N. S. Steinhardt, Chinese Imperial Planning (pp. IX-XI, 1-6, 36). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Timber Framing. (n.d.). Retrieved from Infogalactic: https://infogalactic.com/info/Timber_framing#Carpenters.27_marks
Unknown. (1885-1886). The Popular Science Monthly, Volume 28. Retrieved from Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/popularsciencemo281886newy
Yulia, K. (2011, December 29). La Casa a Graticcio. Herculaneum, Italy. Retrieved from > https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opus_craticum#/media/File:Casa_a_Graticcio.jpg
 Half-timbered in these instances refers to a ground floor stone exterior (or) when a load bearing timber is left exposed on the building’s exterior.
 Depending on seasoning conditions, movement could include shrinking, expanding, and more.
[i] Multiple works available in the original Latin and translated. See “a letter to be sent to Bill Thayer” http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/L/Roman/Texts/Vitruvius/2*.html#8.20
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