Being an architect who designs heavy timber homes, I’ve found that there is a lot of confusion between timber frame vs. timber post and beam construction, even within the industry and among professionals. While there is some gray area in the distinction between them, there are real differences between these styles.
Before we delve into the differences, it should be noted that one characteristic of both timber frame and post and beam construction is the articulation of the skeleton of a building. This is achieved by exposing timber or log components as an honest expression of the building frame, giving it a rugged, rustic appearance. When it is thoughtfully designed and carefully constructed, the beauty of timber construction becomes the primary visual element of a building, and additional ornamentation or decoration is unnecessary. Implicit in carefully crafted exposed timberwork is a respect for the material. This has become a mainstay in true Mountain Style Architecture.
Timber Framing is a traditional form of wood construction that has origins in early furniture making, and can be traced back to early oriental architecture. Some timber frame buildings erected during medieval times in old Europe are still standing, a testament to the integrity and longevity of this building system.
True timber frames rely on tight fitting joinery, the integrity of the materials, and critical geometry to create a self supporting structure. Because mechanical fasteners were not readily available and had to be hand made until relatively modern times, timber frames were (and still are) held together using wood pegs or wedges. By driving pegs into slightly misaligned holes in mating frame elements, timber framers are able to draw parts together to create surprisingly stiff connections. The real beauty of timber frame joints is often what you don’t see – they tend to be intricate hidden surfaces designed to lock together inside the members. The New England Barn Company has a great pictorial glossary on timber frame joints. Timber pegs are usually critical structural links, and hence are made of robust wood species like oak, ash, or maple. Pegs are usually exposed and made prominent to emphasize their importance in the system.
Timber framing is a specialty craft that requires careful joinery, specialty tools, and skilled, patient carpenters. Some purist practitioners of timber framing use only hand tools out of respect for the craft tradition. Timber framing tends to be more expensive than timber post and beam construction, though some of the added cost is offset by the fact that a well designed timber frame doesn’t need to rely on shear walls or infill framing to achieve lateral stability.
If you interested in learning more about timber framing, Ted Benson has some excellent books on the subject.
In the Northwest, Timber Frames by Colin Beggs is a premier builder of timber frame homes. Residing in Sandpoint, Idaho, Collin is a humble young craftsman with extensive timber framing experience, and will be speaking at the Timber Framers Guild Conference in Saratoga Springs, New York this November. His topic is “Rampant Evangelism to Expedite the Evolution of Timber Framers into Master Builders”. Collin notes, “The biggest difference that I find between Timber Framing and conventional construction is the pure joy that the craftsman and client receive when taking part in the process. Timber Frame raisings are an epic event that define the relationship between community and it’s built environment.”
Post and Beam Construction
Many mountain style homes employ some elements of wood timber construction, either as the main structural system or as accents in the form of trusses, roof supports, brackets, braces, or corbels. Post and beam construction often resembles timber framing, with the important distinction that post and beam construction utilizes mechanical fasteners and often steel plate connectors to join adjacent members together. These connectors may be hidden or exposed in various ways. Wood post and beam frames are rarely used as the only structural system for a building, usually they require additional structural elements like shear panels and infill framing to create a stable structure.
Like timber framing, post and beam construction also requires skilled carpenters to create tight, well crafted joints, but fabrication and assembly tends to be less time consuming and intricate. It often takes a trained eye to distinguish between a true timber frame and well done post and beam construction. Cost and the desire for authenticity are important factors in deciding which system to use. Timber post and beam construction shares with timber framing an appreciation for the beauty of wood and careful connections, but nods in deference when it comes to purity of tradition and level of craft.
For more photographs of mountain style homes featuring post and beam construction, see our architectural projects.
There are many great builders throughout the country who build quality heavy timber construction. If you are interested in creating a mountain style timber home, we would enjoy the opportunity to work with you on the design, and can recommend some excellent Contractors. Hendricks Architecture specializes in the design of timber mountain style homes and cabins. Most of the homes we’ve completed are in mountain resort areas throughout the West. Most of our clients are looking for mountain style homes, often with a rugged, rustic appearance. For more information on the mountain style, see Origins of Mountain Architecture in America. If you are interested in a mountain home, or you have any other inquiries, please contact us.
Tom Russell, LEED AP and John Hendricks, Architect AIA, NCARB
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