Money Matters

timber frame design

The extent of timber frame in your structure is just one of the many factors contributing to the overall cost. Explore the tabs below to learn what else you must take into consideration.

Ah, the money! “How much do timber frames cost?”…

Or, “How much do timber frames cost per square foot?” Or, “How much more do timber frame houses cost than conventional houses?” Or, “About how much would a timber frame addition measuring 20′ x 36′ cost?” Whichever way the question is phrased, the new timber frame enthusiast is going to be dealing with the financial dimension of building a custom home with timber framing. Some companies will downplay the issue, giving simple formulas like “Timber framing in a home adds on average about 15% to the cost of the house”, or “The square foot cost of a timber framed home is usually around $X”.

 

We think these answers are worse than nonsense, and prefer to take a somewhat more circumspect approach. The addition of timber framing to a custom house isn’t going to break the bank. There are lots of ways that the warmth and character of timber framing can be included in a custom home project without having to mortgage your grandchildren’s future. But there are so many variables in the construction of any custom house — with or without timber framing — that the simple formulas and one-size-fits-all mentality actually do everyone a disservice — the builders, the timber framers, the designers, and, most importantly, you, the client. Here are some of the things that need to be considered when dealing with the all-important money question:

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Factors Affecting the Cost of a Timber Frame Home

With every new house, whether it’s a tract home in a development or a highly customized and highly designed home, there are countless factors that affect the final cost of the home. Timber framed structures are no exception. Here are some of the things that affect the cost of a timber frame:

There’s a fairly wide range of species that are suitable for timber framing, and of course they vary widely in cost. At the lowest end of the scale of the most common species are hemlock and white pine, then white and red oak and southern yellow pine, then Douglas fir, then cedar near the upper end. There are plenty of other choices that cost even more, like mahogany, purple heart and other tropical hardwoods, cherry, and so on, but these are a good deal less common. For most timber frames, Douglas fir is the most popular choice. Oak might come in second, and the least costly species third. Bear in mind that even though the cost of the timbers affects the total cost of the frame, timber costs aren’t the only cost factors. The raw materials for a timber frame might make up 30% or so of a total timber frame proposal price, so lowering the raw material cost by 10% would theoretically lower the total price by 10% of 30%, or 3% of the total price. Sometimes this is worth it, but other times this sacrifice might not be the best idea.
The idea of using timbers that already have a history, sometimes a long one, is inherently attractive. Timber frames frequently utilize timbers salvaged from old structures dating back as much as 200 years. Many mid-19th century barns have been dismantled and carved into new “old” frames. Some frames are re-assembled as they were, but most use the wood as a raw material for a new design. The majority of these structures use the wood in its current state, but sometimes re-milling is called for. Frames fabricated from old barn timbers will often have evidence of their previous lives: mortises and peg holes, alignment markings, dates and other incised carvings, insect damage and rot, wear, and so on. For some time now, timber framers have been competing with recycled flooring manufacturers for this resource, and the result has been a steady increase in raw material costs. Recycled barn timbers can cost twice to three times as much as fresh-sawn material, and that’s just the beginning. These timbers are available in a wide range of species; basically, barn builders felled whatever timber was available to them on their land. A single structure might contain several species. There is a thriving industry of saw mills and recycled timber middle men that can supply this material reasonably reliably. Lead-times for recycled timbers can be long, since the timbers one might need for a project may not be in the warehouse and will need to be sourced from other suppliers, or you may need to wait until just the right structure is dismantled. Some recycled barn timbers are hand-hewn, bearing the marks of every single blow that shaped the log 150 years ago. Others were pit-sawn, or even circular-sawn in a steam powered saw mill. Old factory and mill buildings are another common source of recycled material, and these timbers are almost exclusively sawn. In any case, if you are looking for the old-world rusticity of recycled timbers, you should expect to pay a premium.
During the earliest years of the timber framing revival, in the 1970s, most timber frame structures mimicked the framing methods of our early American ancestors — the entire building structure was framed with heavy timbers. As the popularity of timber frames spread and projects got bigger, more complex and more ambitious, timber framers started to look for ways to maximize visual impact and minimize financial impact. The modern timber frame hybrid was born. Nowadays you have the choice of timber framing an entire house along highly traditional lines, or restricting and hybridizing the timber framing in the areas where they will have the biggest impact. There are significant budgetary implications. A past client put it most succinctly: “Why should I put timber framing in areas of the house where it won’t be appreciated?” Much of our timber frame work follows that simple logic, but we always welcome the strict traditionalists and purists, too.
Many of today’s residential designs favor complex roof lines. Since timber framing is above all a method of framing the roof, and since soaring ceilings are one of the main attractions of a timber-framed house, that complexity naturally carries over into the timber frame. Timber frame cost is, of course, in direction proportion to timber frame complexity. There are ways of reducing this complexity without having to sacrifice the charm and ingenuity of the timber frame design. Your timber frame designer should do his or her utmost to help you understand this issue, and to get the most cost-effective and aesthetically dazzling design.
Mountain tops, islands, cliff-side job-sites, remote locations with limited access and no utilities — these are great places to put a timber-framed house. They’re also great places to increase the cost of a timber frame; the same would hold true for the whole project, though, so you already knew this. On a more mundane level, there are job-sites that are just plain difficult — lack of access for the crane or the truck delivering timbers and panels; wetlands that have to be kept away from; job-sites in exclusive or metropolitan communities with limited or no economical accommodations for the timber frame crew. Geography, topography, and demographics all play a part in the budget.
Competitive Bids

It seems to be conventional wisdom that you solicit competitive bids whenever you are looking for construction services of any type. Occasionally, a client will make a sincere good faith effort to get an “apples to apples” comparison between bids coming from a select group of timber frame companies. We believe that in construction the “true” apples to apples comparison is an urban myth, plain and simple. There are so many things that affect the bid process, so many differences that are not apparent, that the elusive apples to apples competitive bid rarely, if ever, really happens. Here are some of the things that might affect the comparability of a set of competitive bids:

Timber framers are a pretty passionate tribe. And one of the things we timber framers have argued about — passionately, even heatedly — is the place of automated machinery in our age-old craft. It used to be that a machine could carve a timber frame for a lot less money than a team of skilled craftsmen could. The economics of the industry aren’t so clear-cut anymore, but we think it’s fair to say that a company that invests in an automated machine to cut timber frames is putting economics ahead of craft. A machine timber frame company operates under a fundamentally different business model from one that insists on the highest level of hand-crafting. We think that the difference is conspicuous in the kind of frame you’ll get.
The grade — or quality — of the timber can make a pretty big difference in the cost of a timber frame. As an example: for a Douglas fir timber frame, our company uses exclusively a grade called “select structural, free of heart center (FOHC)”. With the exception of a few additional timber quality specifications, select structural is the highest grade of timber under furniture grade. A timber grade that many other companies often use for their timber frames is number 1 and better, boxed heart. (Boxed heart timbers contain the heart wood; in soft woods this increases checking and twisting.) This may not always be indicated on a proposal. In our proposals the grade of timber is always spelled out as clearly as possible.
Kiln-drying wood naturally adds cost to manufacturing. Does it also add quality? The answer might seem obvious, but it isn’t always so, in our opinion. The main justification for the added cost of kiln-drying is to control shrinkage of the timbers in service. We think there are different ways to approach the problem of shrinkage, and they don’t always demand kiln-drying. Be that as it may, kiln-drying timbers is another cost determinant to be aware of.
It’s not always easy for the layperson to see where one design differs from another. If you’ve hired and paid a timber frame professional to design a timber frame for you, and circulated the design drawings to every timber framer you’re considering, you still can’t be 100% positive that different timber frame companies will execute that design identically. Some companies may adopt short cuts to reduce costs, others may assume practices and quality standards that they just won’t compromise on. And there are different quality levels in the designs themselves. If you were to ask three different timber frame companies to design a timber frame to fit a certain structure, you would get three different designs. One or more of these designs could potentially have design flaws or design choices that are less efficient, both budgetarily and structurally.
As in the previous heading on timber frame design, the size of the timbers — and consequently the amount of raw material — in a particular design is a variable that isn’t always easy to pin down when a timber frame company gives you a bid. You may actually prefer the look and feel of smaller timbers, but then again you might not. For most laypersons, it can be pretty hard to get a good feel for the scale and weight of the timbers as they will appear once the frame is built. Some timber frame companies will purposely keep the timber sizes to a bare minimum in order to be able to tender the lowest possible bid. Other timber frame designers will aim for pleasing proportions and design consistency.
There are more and less labor-intensive ways of designing and carving joinery. One of the methods we’ve come to employ wherever at all possible is called a “housed” joint. Imagine a timber measuring, say, 4×6; and imagine one measuring 8×8. The two timbers mate, with the smaller one perpendicular to the larger one. The ubiquitous mortise and tenon joint is used for this connection. A housed mortise and tenon joint has the entire smaller piece inserted into a 1″ deep recess in the larger timber. The mortise starts at the bottom of the recess (the “housing”). This way, when the timbers start to shrink, a gap won’t open up between the two, as would happen if the tenoned piece simply butted up against the mortised piece. Housing takes more time, but the joinery will look a lot better in a few years when the timbers have reached equilibrium.
Cost Control

Any new custom home construction or addition project has the potential to suffer budget over-runs and unforeseen cost increases. Maybe the biggest cause of exploding budgets is “scope creep”: a project is designed to meet a client’s budgetary requirements, then gradually added on to and expanded in scope. An extra foot or two here, some additional timbers in the foyer, raise the roof a little bit for extra second floor headroom, and so on and so forth. Before you know it, the project budget has grown by 10, 20, 30, 40 percent or more. Every architect, builder and timber framer has a moral obligation to his or her clients to help put the brakes on when the scope of a project starts to creep up. It’s not always what you want to hear (Who wants to be told that you can’t have something for the price you want to pay?), but it happens so often that it’s worth noting. This is human nature, so it’s going to be one of those areas that will require vigilance and discipline.

Financing

If you plan to use a bank or other financial institution to help fund the construction of your timber frame home you’ll be expected to establish the value of the home once completed. This is true pretty much across the board for custom home construction loans. The problem with timber frames for some banks is that they’re not common enough to be able to easily establish comparable values. For those banks this seems to be an insurmountable obstacle; for others it’s no problem at all. Make sure your bank or mortgage company isn’t going to throw you a curve once they find out that there are heavy timbers involved. Sometimes the discovery occurs late enough in the process to cause some real anxiety.

Budget

If you walk up to a farmer’s market stand and ask for five dollar’s worth of tomatoes, an unscrupulous salesperson might be tempted to hand you four dollar’s worth and keep the 20% for himself. You’d have to trust that person implicitly to treat you fairly and honestly.

The same thing would apply in an analogous situation with a contractor. You wouldn’t go to a builder and say “I’d like $350,000 worth of custom timber frame home, please,” but you ultimately should be able to trust your builder and timber framer with your budget number. And you should be able to rely on him or her to help you stay on track, budgetarily speaking.

Cost

In our experience, timber framing can add anywhere from a few dollars a square foot on up to the stratosphere. We’ve done projects at every level. In our area — with our economic conditions and typical construction costs — budgeting around $175 per square foot (for the whole house with some timber framing) wouldn’t be unrealistic. Anything below $150 for a custom home with anything more than a few token timbers would be. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 a higher overall quality and greater extent of timber framing become possible.

Hopefully, this information is useful for rough budget purposes. When it comes to fitting a timber frame into your overall construction budget, find a timber framer you feel you can trust and have an open conversation about your budgetary constraints. Most of the timber framers we know will make an honest effort to give you as much of what you want as possible for the money you can spend. Timber framers, by their very nature, want to timber frame. The cooler the project, the better.

Click here for an article by Tony Zaya on money matters in timber framing.

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