Timberframe Paedomorphosis

After listening to me talk about our company’s history, one of our very smart clients (They are all quite brilliant!) told me that the contemporary timberframe movement is akin to a concept from evolutionary biology called “paedomorphosis” (also “pedomorphosis”). He may be right. Paedomorphosis was a term coined by W. Garstang in 1928 to explain how an evolution could escape from a blind alley. Arthur Koestler wrote about it fairly extensively. Two quotes get the idea across.

“The principle cause of both extinction and stagnation appears to have been over-specialization with its concomitant loss of adaptability to changes in the environment…” Janus: A Summing Up

To put it simply, the phenomenon of paedomorphosis indicates that in certain circumstances evolution can retrace its steps, as it were, along the path which led to a dead end, and make a fresh start in a new, more promising direction.” Ghost in the Machine

Paedomorphisis is a useful concept. It’s another way of thinking about the idea of paradigm shifts that Thomas Kuhn analyzed in The Structure of Scientific Revolution. It suggests that the process of change isn’t necessarily transformational (metamorphosis), but instead can simply recreate something familiar in a new way. I’m already out of my area of expertise so I won’t push this too far, but I must admit that I like the implications. Were today’s timberframe pioneers unwittingly driven by some deep genetic impulse? Have we been on an ambitious paedomorphic mission all these years? I don’t know, but I’m sort of flattered by the prospect.

In any event, paedomorphosis does reflect the idea that some of us had in mind when we started in the timberframe revival in the early 1970s. We intended to approach the work with modern tools and allow the timbers to be a prominent design feature. Mainly, it was our hope to use timberframing as a basis from which to develop an improved building system. Just as a bridge is not normally the destination; the medium (in this case) wasn’t intended to be the entire message.

I’ve been in business for 36 years, 34 of them with a focus on timberframe homebuilding. As a young carpenter, I had enough good experiences to inspire me to be a builder, and enough bad experiences to be motivated to develop a viable alternative to conventional building methods. In an attempt to make a leap forward, I decided it might be useful to step backward.

My initial fascination with carpentry was probably simply an outgrowth of my innate impatience. I was a sucker for the immediate gratification. When asked, “What did you do today?” I liked answering with a physical description of what specifically had been accomplished. As builders, we are able to literally measure the dimensions and precision of the work achieved in any time period and know, with some objective certainty, that what had been constructed would have lasting effect. I also liked the team sport of it; the action and energy of working with others to make buildings rise from piles of parts and pieces and raw materials. From the good carpenters, I learned to appreciate that dissatisfaction is healthy, and eventually accepted the continuous refrain that bounces back and forth between “not good enough” and “not fast enough.”

But I also learned about how dismal the work of building can be. I spent some time as a framing carpenter in some tract home developments. It stigmatized me about stick-framing, causing me to ever after have difficulty appreciating its better possibilities. I am still stuck with the memory of the crudest possible work cultures: building sites polluted by a pounding rain of curses, insults and verbal pornography; a pervasive co-worker attitude that seemed to suggest that information was for nerds, communication was for sissies; therefore communicating information was jobsite heresy and profanity filled the air with human sounds. Before I knew much of anything about building, I saw a place where shoddy workmanship was encouraged, making shortcuts and deceptions (“It’s %&*$#@ good enough! They don’t %&*$#@ check that.”) standard practice. I saw—and was complicit in—homes being built like miners’ shacks.

Later, I worked with carpenters who did excellent stick-framing, but the damage was done; thereafter I was looking for a better way to build. This is what eventually spurred my interest in timberframing. I yearned for a building process that would be more directly defined by a disciplined craft, and I hoped for homes in which a certain inherent beauty and durability would be natural outcome.

I had become fascinated with early American timberframing and couldn’t understand why it had been abandoned. 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 electric power tools and powerful material handling equipment? And if the old style timberframe house—with its typically 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 to build a bridge to the future of homebuilding, not as a reversion to ancient methodologies.

I did some trial projects in 1974-75 and by 1976, I was a full-time timberframer. I soon discovered that my idea held some apparent synchronicity, as there were several others who had also started to timberframe at about the same time. By the late 1970s, a group of scattered timberframe revivalists were communicating regularly about projects and progress. In the early 1980s, we founded the Timber Framers Guild to help facilitate and energize our need to support and encourage each other and the growing ranks of new enthusiasts and professionals.

Timberframing has proven to be an excellent basis for rethinking and reinventing a process for homebuilding. What has now emerged, after decades of development has its own identity, vastly different from its historical antecedents, and is not constrained by much of the loggerheaded assumptions from the more dominant conventional methods. Since we are trying to make an ancient building method viable and effective for the needs and aspirations of twenty-first-century homeowners, timberframers have done a lot of pioneering and innovating by necessity, if not by inclination. And it’s certainly not all about the timbers.

On our “paedomorphic” journey, much of what we’ve learned was already known, but has been forgotten. The oldest surviving book about design and building was written by the Roman architect Vitruvius over 2000 years ago. His proposition was that good buildings are a balancing composition of function, strength and beauty (utilitas, firmitas, venustas). When buildings are conceived and built in this manner, they are also sustainable because they are loved for their beauty, appreciated for their usefulness, and survive the rigors of time because they are resilient and strong. The Vitruvian principles are about results, not methods.

The biggest lesson from paedomorphosis is to not lose sight of what’s important or it will have to happen again.

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