No walls needed -- inside

Construction: Timber-frame houses are among the darlings of the luxury-home crowd.

July 04, 1999|By Charles Cohen | Charles Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For those construction site fans who like to witness the rise of civilization -- you know who you are -- the building of a timber-frame home is a sight to behold.

David Adamson has a special interest in this remote White Hall construction site that has become a daily pilgrimage site for him. It soon will be his new 4,800-square-foot home.

"I get very excited about seeing that type of thing," he said, after arriving at the construction site.

Moving about much like skyscraper steel-beam walkers, two workers put themselves at the edge of a partially built frame, made from hewn timbers, on a hill above a still unspoiled valley just south of the Pennsylvania line. Their precarious position demanded craned-neck attention as Adamson watched his home take shape a timber at a time.

In one moment the workers sledge-hammered a huge wooden beam into its newly notched home as if it were a giant Lincoln Log. In the next moment they pulled out chisels like airborne craftsmen and shaved the joinery a hair thinner to send the next beam into its proper spot.

There is a thrill to watching a centuries-old construction method progress so efficiently.

As Glenn James of Craftwright Inc., a timber-framing company in Westminster, put it: "We always joke here that we're building furniture that people live in."

The carved mortise-and-tenon technique of timber framing has become a much-sought-after feature in the high-end construction trade of building custom-built homes.

Although the technology, even with the addition of rotors and saws, hasn't changed over the centuries, timber framing gives new buildings the illusion of historic preservation.

Timber framing was common primarily in old barns and industrial buildings such as mills and factories. The technique employs mortise-and-tenon joinery, large timbers and oak pegs. Not a single nail is used.

With its roots in communal barn-raising, timber framing has become the latest aesthetic in a trend of luxury-home building that's cropping up in rural landscapes across the country.

George Green of Cedargreen Timber Frames, in Oxford, Pa., who with his three-man crew is building Adamson's White Hall home, said houses have been getting larger in recent years.

The largest home has been a 6,000-square-foot structure. However, erecting a 2,000- to 3,000-square-foot home is more common.

The higher cost of timber framing used to force people to go small, but now Green is finding that people are willing to pay for size and quality. Small timber-framing companies, which can handle about a dozen structures a year, are no longer building homes for "back-to-earth" types. Their customer base has expanded to people who like to mix and match styles and to those who have a penchant for traditional rustic living.

"It's a lot more mainstream and a lot more upscale," said Joel McCarty, executive director of the Timber Framers Guild of North America.

About 3,000 timber-frame homes were built in 1987, according to a study of the 25-year-old framing revival industry published in the Forest Products Journal in January.

Jonathan Orpin, president of the Timber Frame Business Association and president of New Energy Works Timberframers in Rochester, N.Y., estimates that today timber-framing production has reached 4,000 homes.

Without including the price of land, a turnkey timber-frame home in the Maryland area costs an estimated $110 to $140 a square foot -- about 10 percent to 20 percent higher than a conventional home of similar quality.

TV program stirred interest

Much of the popularity is due to media exposure and specialty magazines. Six years ago, the television show, "This Old House," featured a timber-framing project that seemed to do a lot for the obscure industry.

Because timber-frame homes use cross-beams to support each floor, no interior walls are necessary and rooms can be as open as city lofts. Timber frames allow interior decorator-types to dream big.

With their frames covered by insulated panels, these homes can reduce heating costs by up to 40 percent, according to industry builders.

The labor in timber framing costs about $33 a square foot, and that's just for the skeletal structure and the installation of the timbers.

The actual assembly of the home is only the last step in the labor-intensive process. Much of the work takes place during a two-month period in which beams are prepared, pre-fitted and numbered.

The historic look

Similar to the way in which renovators of old homes showcase brick walls and beams, builders of timber-frame homes inject a historic look into a contemporary style by placing Sheetrock next to recycled mill beams.

"Out of our shop in the past two years we've been building with recycled material," said James, whose company is building a lighthouse-frame home in Kent Island and a barn structure for a school in Montgomery County. "I'm talking about the kind of material that, a hundred years later, you can still see the hew marks where some guy swung an ax."

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