The medium is NOT the message

I am first of all a carpenter and builder. I like shaping and assembling materials and I like to see buildings rise from the ground because the forces of brain and brawn made it happen. It’s a process that gives honest and direct feedback in response to physical effort, which is nearly always equal parts gratifying and motivating. You can literally measure the quantity and quality of the work achieved in any time period and therefore know, with some objective certainty, that it will have a lasting affect on lives and communities. But those same observations incessantly reveal that it could have also been done better. Good builders are proud, humble and addicted.

After nearly 35 years and over 700 buildings, I can say that our company has continuously improved and, project by project, year by year, made some remarkable achievements in nearly every phase of design and building. I can also say that nothing we’ve done has been perfect. Somehow we’ve managed to both improve dramatically and still have as far to go as we did in the year of our founding.

I am also a timberframer. As a young carpenter and builder, I worked to relearn and reinvigorate the craft of timber joinery as a way to infuse the building process with more craft and greater inherent beauty and durability. I couldn’t understand why timberframing had been abandoned by the late 19th century. If it had proven to be labor intensive and inefficient in the days of hand tools, why wouldn’t it fare better in the age of sophisticated power tools and material handling equipment? And if the old style timberframe house—with its typical poor insulation, low ceilings and dark spaces—was obsolete, then what about a modern version with expanses of glass, open living areas and super-efficient insulation? I essentially squinted hard and saw timberframing as a structure upon which we could build a bridge to the future of homebuilding, not as a reversion to ancient methodologies.

Even more than I could have imagined, the effort of reviving timberframing has proven to be an excellent basis for rethinking and reinventing the process of homebuilding. It has grown into a healthy industry and has attracted to its ranks scores of great craftspeople and builders throughout North America and overseas. Inch by inch, we have collectively raised the bar of homebuilding craft and quality. Over the last 25 years or so, our impact has been real and profound.

In my company, I am now dog-paddling in a pool of talent and energy, as I work with a large group of hard-charging carpenters, engineers, architects, building systems specialists, woodworkers and project managers. I can no longer say that my skills are the best in any of those disciplines. Luckily, I still have a role. I keep my eyes on what’s next, as we continue to improve on that bridge to the future of homebuilding. A better way is always just around the corner and there’s always another corner. I’m finally at peace with the notion that the original dream is, in fact, a towering cathedral that won’t be finished in my lifetime. It’s satisfying enough to see it taking shape and rising upward.

But it is important to understand that just as a bridge is not the destination, the medium (in this case) is not the message.

Timberframing has indeed taken us away from the loggerheaded conventional wisdom about how homes should be built and turned our whole emerging industry towards innovation, both by inclination and necessity. Here are few things we’ve learned from the timberframe perspective:

  • Homes are better when they are infused with well-executed and visible craft. Architecture and building crafts should not be separated.
  • All built volume is valuable and shouldn’t be wasted.
  • A sustainable home is a durable home. The design and construction goal should be projected in centuries, not decades.
  • Structure and insulation can be separated, with benefits to energy efficiency and potential building durability.
  • All homes can be energy misers.
  • Shell and infill can be separated, with benefits to adaptability of the building to its inhabitants over time.
  • Homes’ environments should be malleable to the inhabitants.
  • Fabricating building elements in controlled conditions, and using the site for assembly only, improves quality and efficiency.
  • The discipline of fabricating exacting building elements is a building solution in itself.
  • Advanced CAD software improves quality and efficiency. “Virtual before actual,” is the modern equivalent of, “measuring twice and cutting once.”
  • Applying the best of modern technology to the building process can help to make buildings better and more affordable.

Now that most of my professional life has been spent with timberframing nearly always playing a central role in our building process, I have come to realize that it has matured into a system that, like the conventional methods we have tended to spurn, has potential for its practitioners to get mired in ruts of conventional wisdom. Timberframing has limits:

  • A timberframe doesn’t automatically make the house better.
  • A high performance, durable building results from keeping an eye on every detail.
  • A well-crafted timberframe in a badly designed home is a waste of time and timbers.
  • Neither a frame nor a building shell is a house.
  • Most local contractors aren’t able to work with timberframe buildings effectively and efficiently without training.

All good building stems from keeping the priorities balanced and focused. The oldest surviving book about design and building was written by the Roman architect Vitruvius over 2000 years ago. His famous triad of objectives for buildings still describes the fundamental goals for good quality building today. He essentially said that good buildings are a composition of function, strength and beauty (utilitas, firmitas, venustas) and that none should be sacrificed for the other. I suggest that when buildings achieve this, they are also sustainable because they are loved for their beauty, appreciated for their usefulness and survive the rigors of time because they are structurally strong. It goes without saying that the principles defined by Vitruvius don’t describe a method, but a result.

After 35 years, I will always be a timberframer, but I won’t only be a timberframer. The objective of making high performance, sustainable, beautiful and affordable buildings is far more important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *