OK, well first off, how many people walk into a car dealership and say that they’re shopping for 4,000 pounds of car? Right. About zero. You also don’t find many folks asking their salesperson how much a car costs per pound. (It wouldn’t be that hard to figure it out, of course – just take the final price and divide by the curb weight. My Honda Pilot cost about $9 per pound. If I’d bought the Mini that I wanted to get before my cerebral cortex kicked back on, I would’ve spent about $11.50 per pound. Long distance trips are a lot less cramped, but my teenage son doesn’t get to pick up his date in style. I figure I got a deal.)

So why do so many people go shopping for houses based on square foot price? Well, partly because for some time realtors and builders and developers have been using that number as a benchmark. In a period of ever-larger McMansions and starter castles, that square foot price has gained more in currency than in value, even though it was probably never intended to be more than a benchmark, an arbitrary basis of comparison.

There are so many variables in the construction of a house — overall quality and extent of finish, exterior materials, interior materials, plumbing fixtures, kitchen, labor and material costs in a given area, property values, mechanical requirements, and on and on. Sure, you can figure out the square foot cost after the house is built, but its usefulness on the front end of a project is limited.

For our part, we’ve seen square foot prices for houses — before factoring in the timber frame – range anywhere from $125 to $300 a square foot, and in excess of $750 a square foot at the stratospheric end. Our timber frames have added to those costs, but exactly how much depends on how you do the math, and is a purely retrospective exercise. About the only answer we can give to the question we started with is — it depends.

It depends on how much timber framing you want. Some clients want the whole enchilada, a whole house timber frame with timber even where you’ll never see it. Others want a few simple accents here and there. Most would prefer something in between, a hybrid structural roof system and timbers in the areas where they’ll have the greatest visual impact – a kitchen and dining room area, a great room or family room, maybe a front porch and some other exterior timbers. (As an interesting aside, retrofitting timbers is almost always more costly than planning for the timbers in advance, and using them to structural advantage.)

There are lots of other factors that affect the cost of a timber frame, but we’ll address those another time. For now, suffice it to say that when shopping for a timber frame it’s usually better to start with an idea of how much you can afford to invest in this timeless craft and then try to find the timber framer that will give you exactly what you want.

– Tim Diener

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