In a recent post, I wrote about the concept of paedomorphosis and its relevance to the timberframe revival. Here, I’m adding a postscript to that discussion by giving a brief account of some of the important discoveries and lessons derived from three decades of attempting to develop a new approach to design and building.
1. The discipline of off-site fabrication of exacting building elements is a solution in itself. Contemporary timberframers have become masters of prefabrication. One of the significant decisions made in the early days of rediscovering the craft was to move the cutting and shaping operations indoors, where efficiency and quality could be better controlled. The specific manner in which the work happens greatly defines our businesses and our competitive differences. We are learning that the same skills and procedures that allow us to assure highly precise fits in timbers, miles and miles from where the assembly will take place, are easily transferred to other building units, such as panelized floor, wall and roof sections. Step-by-step, we are getting the entire construction process out of the mud.
2. “Virtual before actual” is the modern equivalent of “Measure twice, cut once.” Advanced CAD software improves quality and efficiency. One of the challenging skills of timberframing is visualizing the individual pieces in the context of the entire framework. It can require some fairly high-level mental gymnastics to be able to properly lay out an individual timber by looking at 2D plans and elevations. Before 3D software was truly helpful in conventional building, it was a great boon to timberframers. Now that we are lead users of 3D architectural software, we have the tools in our hands to not only model the frame, but every other detail in the building, from finishes to mechanical systems. In other words, we build it before we build it, with great advantages to the owners and the construction team. These software tools are improving quality, reducing errors and increasing efficiency.
3. Applying advanced tooling to the building process can help to make buildings better and more affordable. Twenty-first century manufacturing technologies and processes make it possible for many industries to improve overall quality and lower costs. The secret to this apparent magic is technology, much of which is focused on eliminating repetitive and dumb work. Since timberframers usually ply their trade from off-site facilities with the opportunity for fixed tooling, they are also prone to invest in systems, jigs and tools that help to improve production and enhance quality. Everything, from large, automated tools to basic Lean Manufacturing strategies is being employed to keep the quality in and get the wasted efforts out. This wouldn’t be notable if the industry were not so behind in adopting the methods and innovations other industries have long taken for granted.
4. Buildings are better when there is evidence of well-executed and visible craft. Not all buildings can have a hand-crafted timberframe, nor should that be the goal, but we know that good work matters. Whether drywall or tile or stair building, there’s broad territory between craft and hack that, for better or worse, infuses the building with its standard. Architecture and the crafts and trades of building should not be separated. Out of mutual respect and sharing of intentions, ideas and capabilities, the best possibilities emerge. Usually, timberframers and designers are usually closely aligned out of necessity, and the experience has given us a deep understanding of both the problems that can arise from lack of integration, and the opportunities that are possible when designer and builder work in concert. We have learned that both designing and building involve teams––not individual efforts or egos––to the benefit of all. Good workmanship can help to heal bad design, but bad workmanship ruins anything.
5. Sustainability means durability. The design and construction goal should be projected in centuries, not decades. One of the inspiring aspects of timberframing is the certainty of a very long life. Two hundred years is not an uncommon age for existing timberframe buildings in this country and, overseas it is not at all hard to visit buildings 400 or 500-years-old. With better knowledge of materials and engineering, we ought to attempt to do at least as well. It’s not possible to know whether a building will do well over time, but just the intention of longevity tends to have a powerful effect on quality. The absence of any such intention does, too.
6. In sustainable buildings, shell and infill are respectively static and dynamic. These elements should be designed and built accordingly. Timberframers commonly know a lot about old buildings because surviving structures often contain unique information and inspiration. If you know the history of old buildings, it becomes evident that the pace of change to the building’s exterior shell is quite different from the occupant-initiated churn that happens to the interior. Two examples: an Internet café I visited in Italy turned out to be in a building constructed in the late 1300s; the home I grew up in was built in 1895 for a gold magnate’s sister, later became three apartments and later still housed 11 raucous children and their saint-like parents. Both buildings obviously have been reconfigured and remodeled and have absorbed various mechanical systems and technology, yet both belie these changes on the exterior. One of the biggest ideas we can bring to the conversation of improving buildings is to develop ways in which shell and infill can be designed and built to respect and facilitate both the stasis and the change we intend.
7. With a more symbiotic relationship between structure and insulation, all homes can be energy misers. Structure and insulation can be separated, with benefits to energy efficiency and potentially, building durability. One of the most urgent aspects in the early days of rethinking timberframing was insulation. If we simply copied the old buildings, our attempt for viability would have failed. It needed a new approach. The first step was to separate the structure from the insulation, which had inherent construction efficiency, as well as thermal benefits. The second step was to use rigid foam insulation and insulated panels (originally known as stressed-skin panels) to eliminate thermal bridges and structural redundancies. These developments have made timberframes among the most remarkably energy-efficient structures being built on a regular basis. While we do not expect that all buildings will be built in exactly this manner, what we know for certain is that a much better standard for all buildings is possible. There’s a fundamentally simple solution: develop systems that complement and support one another, rather than cause conflicts and compromises.
8. A beginning of the definition of a better way to build is more challenging and uplifting work. The central part of the mission statement of our company is, “Through process and product, to improve people’s lives.” It has double meaning. By our work, we are striving to improve the lives of our clients. It is our fervent hope that they and future generations will deeply benefit from a building with deep attributes. But it is also about us. Through the work and the manner in which we do it together, we are trying hard to also ensure that our lives are made better also. These are two sides of the same coin. Whether the work is done in a shop setting or on site, we have an imperative to develop entire processes that engage the head, heart and hands of those who are doing the actual building. When all work is blind compliance, the soul of it is lost. There is no better building industry and no hope for consistently better homes unless we conceive of a system in which the process lifts the practitioners of its crafts and trades, so that the product can lift its occupants.