Every timber frame project has a story, and every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. The information we’ve assembled here–by no means exhaustive–forms the bones of those stories. We hope that you’ll find something of use here, whether you’re still in the dreaming phase or have already committed to the project. Of course, there’s no substitute for a conversation with a real live human being.
There’s always somebody in our office that would be glad to talk with you about your specific project.
“OUR RECOMMENDATION RATE IS 100%”
Why Lancaster County Timber Frames?
This is the part where you’re expecting us to toot our own horn. Here are a few of the things that we think set us apart from our competitors:
…We really do have to beg your indulgence for a just a little shameless self-promotion.
Here are a few of the things that we think set us apart from our competitors:
We Raise Our Own Frames
Ownership and Experience
Awards and Accomplishments
Notable Projects and Clients
We think that CNC (computer numerical control) machines are great for working with homogeneous materials like plastics and metals. But they’re much less competent when working with an organic material such as wood, where the critical eye of the craftsman and the passionate soul of the artisan guiding an edged tool still holds the advantage. Our best craftsmen have told us that if we ever let a CNC machine in the door, they’re going to march right out that door. Not that we needed this threat to make up our minds.
A notable trend in the industry is the emergence of the so-called “virtual timber framer”. This is a company that puts itself out there as a hand crafted shop, but then outsources their projects to a machine shop. They might do a little re-work on the frame, and then put the frame up. But the personal, passionate investment of the dedicated craftsman is missing. Building a timber frame structure is something you just don’t do unless you are passionate about it. It just doesn’t seem right to us for the fabricator to take the passion out of the process.
We Raise Our Own Frames
We don’t farm out the carving of our frames, so why would we sub out the raising? In our company, the craftsmen that design and carve the frame are the same folks who show up at your job-site to erect it. We figure nobody is going to understand the frame and the house it goes with better than these guys, and nobody is going to take care of handling the frame, and making sure it is exactly what the our clients expected.
Quality is our mantra. It is reflected in everything we do, from each joint being initialed by the craftsman that carved it; to a housing for every joint, however difficult that is to accomplish; to the wrapping of the timbers before transporting them and owning our own erection rigging and gear, so the timbers are never touched by anything that might mar or scuff or dirty them. We never forget that the timbers are going to be a magnificent part of your home.
At LCTF we’ve always said that ours is a small company and that we’d like to keep it that way. Of course we’ve grown, but we’ve tried to manage our growth responsibly. During the last couple years of economic uncertainty we’ve been rewarded for this prudence by being able to weather the building industry downturn with a mercifully small impact. We’ve remained in good standing with all of our suppliers, while other companies have faltered; and while we, like other companies, have a bank line of credit, we keep it in our back pocket, unused. The company has almost no debt, unlike some larger firms that focus on volume, and we will have full ownership of our facilities in another year and a half.
Ownership and Experience
Other than an engineering graduate who we hired in the last year, every employee at LCTF has been with the company at least five years, and all of them own a portion of the company. The two founding partners have a combined experience in the field of 50 some years. We take great pride in our team, and when we do welcome new hires, we look for experienced timber framers who want to be a part of the “family”.
Awards and Accomplishments
Our work has been recognized by local, state, national, and international awards. It has graced the covers of half a dozen magazines and has been featured in numerous publications. One of our projects was even made the focus of an HGTV “Dream House” series. We’ve written most of articles on timber frame hybrids as well as a book on the subject.
Many of our business partners — general contractors and architects — have been working with us for quite a few years. Having the chance to develop a relationship of trust and a spirit of collaboration is one of the most rewarding parts of what we do, and makes every repeat project a pleasure, even if thorny problems arise.
Notable Projects and Clients
We approach every project we do with the same passion and commitment to quality. Occasionally, though, we’re honored to participate in a project of note, whether because of the scale or the level of complexity or architectural originality, because of how conspicuous the project ends up being, or the celebrity of the client. Here’s a list of some of our notable projects and clients:
The Clubhouse at Pine Barrens Country Club, Lakehurst, New Jersey
The Wedge Restaurant at Liberty Forge Golf Course, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania
The Longenberger Barn, Frazeysburg, Ohio
St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Johnson City, Tennessee
Notaviva Vineyard, Purcellville, Virginia
The Three Season Room at Gulph Mills Country Club, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania
The Gettysburg Battlefield Museum and Visitors’ Center, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
The River Restaurant and Brewery, Radford, Virginia
The Great Harbor Yacht Club, Nantucket, Massachusetts
The I-70 Visitors’ Center, Frederick, Maryland
Doug Allen, Weatherman at WGAL (NBC affiliate)
Dallas Green, Philadelphia Phillies
Prosser Mellon, Patriarch of the Mellon Family
Rusty Leaver, Owner of the Country’s Oldest Cattle Ranch (Founded 1638)
Arnold Palmer, Golfer
Bob Wright, President of NBC
Jim Johnson, Patriarch of the Family that Founded the Johnson & Johnson Company
A company like ours is a part of the whole social fabric, and we believe that giving something back to the society should be an integral part of the way we do business. One piece of this is our commitment to environmental responsibility. All of our timber materials are harvested from sustainably managed forests. The same forest products companies that supply Forest Stewardship Council materials supply us. We use only low VOC finishes, and optimize our production and material usage to save on waste.
We donate our timber off-cuts to some of our needy neighbors for firewood to heat their homes. We frequently donate money, our time, and materials to Habitat for Humanity. And we’ve been contributing to the Child Fund International for over a decade, as well as recently becoming a sponsor of the SPCA.
Where to Begin?
The process of building any custom home — let alone a timber framed custom home — can appear to be a veritable minefield. Sometimes it is, but it can also be a lot easier than you might think. Actually, it can — and should — be a pleasurable and stimulating adventure. When the construction is finally done and the dust has settled, you will have a new dwelling that you can take comfort and refuge in, and relate to like no other house. The construction process will be the beginning of a story, and soon it’ll be time for you to start writing the middle part of that narrative.
If you hire us to build your timber frame, we’ll be helping you to write a part of that story, too. It can start in a myriad of different ways. Some of our clients come to us without anything more than the certainty that they love the unique environment of a timber-framed dwelling. If that describes you, we can start off by helping to give form to that idea. Some of our clients employ us to provide the entire package of design services, from the first bubble diagram to the completed set of construction documents with professional engineer’s seal. (See Your Home Our Design Services)
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are clients that have already worked with architects, designers and builders before our phone even rings. Your design/build team might be putting a finished design out to bid, or might be looking for a timber frame design professional to consult with on the nuts & bolts — or mortises & tenons — of timber framing, putting the finishing touches on the design.
There are as many permutations, it sometimes seems, of these extreme cases and everything in between as there are timber frame projects. However you approach the process, though, we like to consider ourselves a part of the team that will help to make your timber frame project a reality.
So what does the process usually entail? Not everything happens in the same order as listed below, but typically the process breaks down into a few basic stages:
Getting a Handle on Your Budget
Finding a Timber Framer
Finding a Builder
First, of course, comes the decision to build a timber frame home. For many of our clients this decision is made during a gestational period that may have lasted years. Some clients come to us early on, even before they’ve actually determined whether they can afford to build a timber frame. We’ve found that clients who have carefully researched timber framing and timber framing companies often find it easier to make decisions along the way.
Getting a Handle on Your Budget
At this stage, one of the questions on almost everyone’s mind is: “How much do timber frames cost?” (See “Money Matters” page) A timber frame will definitely cost more than a conventionally built house, but how much more is hard to say, at least until a host of variables has been pinned down. There’s no simple pricing formula for a custom-designed and built timber frame. And it makes no sense at all to embark on one of the next stages — the design phase — without answering a related question: “How much can I afford, or, how much do I want to spend on my timber frame project?” Once you have an approximate figure in mind, you can start to ask the question “How do I get the timber frame that I want for the money that I can or want to spend?”
Unless you’ve put all the money aside that you will need for your project, you would also do well to give a little thought to financing arrangements. It’s happened more times than we care to recount that a client gets a full head of steam up, only to find out that the bank isn’t going to play nice after all. Some banks have no experience with timber frame homes, so shepherding the financing package through the construction loan and mortgage process can be rocky. There are financing companies out there, though, that do understand timber frame projects, and these companies will, in general, be easier to work with.
Don’t forget, though, that you’ve got to have a piece of land on which to build your house. Most of our clients — but by no means all — have already found and bought the property they want to build on. Once you know what the land looks like, you can begin to envision the house that you want to live in on that property. Any good architect or designer — or timber frame designer — should be able to help you understand how to situate your house on your land. Experiencing the property in all four seasons, if you have the time, is helpful. The point of this is to be able to optimally design your home — to fit your budget, your unique personal style and desires, and to maximize the use of your land.
One consideration that is all too often overlooked: will the building and zoning authorities allow you to build the kind of house you want and where you want it? It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised. We’ve had projects stored in our warehouse for up to five years while our clients thrashed out an answer.
Finding a Timber Framer
At some point, you’re going to have to start looking for a timber framer. We’ve had clients who’ve spent a year or two vetting us, come to see our operation and projects several times, solicited bids from numerous competitors, checked our Dunn & Bradstreet report — the whole shooting match. We’ve also built frames for clients halfway across the country whom we’ve never met (they put the frames up themselves) other than through email and phone conversations.
By far the best way of handling this part of the process, though, is to get to know the timber frame company. You’re going to be spending a pretty fair chunk of change, and you’re also going to be spending a lot of time with the company’s designers and craftspeople, and even with the office manager. All other things being equal, we feel that the relationship is probably more important than anything else in making this decision. The quality of your relationship will leave its mark on the whole process — and by the way, this works both ways — from before you even sign a contract to the time the last timber has been joined into the frame.
If at all possible, visit your timber framer candidates, several times if possible. Try to get a flavor for the way they work, and if you think your styles will be compatible. Money is going to be an issue, so make sure to get your questions on the table right from the start. This doesn’t mean that the lowest estimates should be the only ones to get your attention — in fact, quite the contrary. It is fairer to everyone to try to establish a base line for the things you want in your timber frame, and then work to develop enough trust in a company to advise you on the realities of cost and quality. And “trust” is the key word here.
Another keyword is “communication”. If your styles of communication don’t mesh, and if you’re not satisfied with the level and quality of the communication, get ready for a bumpy ride. Building a quality timber frame home relies heavily on the quality of communication between all members of the design and construction team.
The bottom line: You’re going to be in a partnership with your timber framer, one that will last anywhere from a few months to a year or more. Make sure that the one you choose is the right one for the journey.
There are as many ways to design a timber framed house as there are timber framed houses — well, maybe not quite, but you get the point. Most timber frame clients are so thrilled with the craft and the look and feel that they tend to be intimately involved in the design phase. The design phase can start as early as the first stirrings of your imagination, or later in the process, say, after you’ve bought land and started to look for a timber framer. You can have the house designed by an architect or other design service, or buy a set of house plans online, and then find a timber frame company to expand the design to include the frame.
By far the best method, in our humble opinion, is to bring a timber frame designer in at project inception. Finding a timber framer you feel comfortable working with becomes a part of the decision-making process, rather than an afterthought. A whole host of mistakes in the design process on up to final construction can be avoided by having a timber frame designer involved at the earliest stages. And there’s an inherent cost-savings associated with this approach, as well, avoiding the common pitfall of having to re-design and re-re-design the house, the frame, and everything else, in order to meet your budget.
Finding a Builder
Some timber frame companies strive to offer a complete package of services and products — from architectural and construction design on up to the house keys. The attractiveness of this option is obvious: no need to orchestrate multiple players’ activities with all the inherent pitfalls of that approach. Unfortunately, this approach, for all its convenience, lends itself to a one-size-fits-all mentality. It will be a lot harder to get a home tailored to your vision using this approach. So unless you want to either settle for a cookie cutter product, or stand up on the conductor’s podium and direct everyone yourself, you’re going to need a general contractor to get your timber frame home built. Finding the right person and/or company for the job is, well, a job.
Since there are so many different kinds of timber frame projects and clients, it’s hard to make any prescriptions about how, and at what point, to start looking for a general contractor. Your timber frame company should be able to recommend contractors that they’ve worked with in your area, and this is usually a pretty reliable way to find the right one. If the general contractor has some experience with timber frame homes, so much the better, but that’s not absolutely essential. The timber frame company will easily be able to bring any competent builder up to speed on what’s different about timber frames.
You don’t need to have a finished set of construction documents to start vetting general contractors, but you won’t be able to start getting a handle on budget until you have at least an architectural set with some basic information about the building. You might want to get to know the builders first, and see some of their work, before even turning a set of drawings over to them for bidding. In this case, you can start the selection process as early as you want.
In our opinion, it’s best not to wait too long to start interviewing contractors. You don’t want the selection to be just an afterthought. Competent builders can provide a wealth of extremely valuable guidance on things that will affect the price of the finished project. As with most things in a timber framing project, developing a relationship of trust early will pay dividends later in the process.
If you’re interested in building a timber frame home, by definition you’re interested in home design. There are lots of ways the design process can be handled, and here at Lancaster County Timber Frames we’ve worked with just about any variation of the process imaginable. Since every project we do is custom, every new project requires us to shift gears and adapt to project specifics.
The many permutations of the design process that we experience could be described as a continuum, from a complete design package arriving at our doorstep, to just the barest inklings of an idea.
What Do We Do When We Quote a Timber Frame Project for You?
You Bring Us a Complete Design
Some clients — whether homeowners, architects or builders — come to us with a complete set of plans, including a fairly well fleshed out timber frame design. The most we have to do is refine and amplify the timber frame design, do a little bit of engineering, and submit a bid. We’re always happy to work with your designer or builder, and over the years we’ve developed strong working relationships with quite a few.
An architect that has a bit of experience in designing for a timber frame has a leg up, but it’s by no means essential. One of the things we think we do well here at Lancaster County Timber Frames is help designers and builders understand the peculiarities of timber construction so that everything goes smoothly.
We Develop the Design with You from the Ground Up
A lot of our clients have been noodling their timber frame home ideas for a long time, and sometimes they have a pretty well-developed idea about what they want before they even call us. They may have identified the style of timber framing they want, and some even have CAD or hand drawings to show us. Another variation of the actively engaged client that we frequently encounter is one that has found a plan in a magazine or online that they love, but they want to change a “few little things”.
We can work with you in two different ways to flesh out the design: one, we can take your ideas and create construction drawings that you can take to your bank and your building department; or two, we can refer you to an architect or building designer to round out your design and get it ready for bidding and construction. We’re happy to handle it any way that makes the most sense, from any point of view — budgetary, aesthetic, scheduling, or whatever else.
Gone are the days when a timber frame home could be built with a few sketches and a skilled journeyman timber framer. The reality of modern construction codes is that most, if not all, residential and commercial structures have to bear the seal of a licensed professional engineer (P.E.), certifying that the design drawings describe a viable structural system. We have two engineers here at Lancaster County Timber Frames, but all of our design work is reviewed and sealed by a third party P.E. licensed in your state. Every timber frame project proposal includes the costs of this engineering analysis.
Past clients have asked us why this engineering review is necessary, when timber frames have stood the test of time, sometimes for many centuries. This is true, but some of the timber frames that aren’t around anymore didn’t get dismantled — they dismantled themselves. Engineers have an important role in greatly minimizing the risk of that happening, and the occasional contortions builders have to go through to get an engineering seal is usually a small price to pay for peace of mind.
Occasionally, we’re asked to prepare a full set of construction drawings. Every one of our designers has years of experience with building technologies, CAD design, and construction practices. One of our designers is certified by the American Institute of Building Design, and the others are working towards certification.
Our construction document sets are tailored to satisfy the specific requirements of your municipal building department and your general contractor. A building department usually wants to know about things like codes and zoning ordinance compliance, taxable living area, structural soundness (sometimes), and so on. A builder wants to know how he’s expected to construct the house so that he knows how to bid the project. Neither of these entities is too concerned about the details that will affect the overall feeling and architectural virtues of the house, except insofar as they affect their areas of authority or their bottom lines.
And different construction jurisdictions and general contractors differ widely in what they need to see. We’ve had clients who got a permit and a builder with drawings that were little more than a napkin sketch. In other cases, our drawings have had to satisfy multiple bureaucracies and demanding builders. Whatever your situation, our architectural and construction drawings will be tailored to fit your needs.
Do I Need an Architect?
It depends. A lot of the projects we handle that have been architect-designed are projects that have a high level of design identity — they’re “highly designed.” That is, the creative hand of a professionally trained and recognized architect has touched every minute aspect of the project. An architect can include as much information and detail in her design as you want, and might even be quite happy to tell you what you should and shouldn’t like.
Our “complete” design packages, in contrast, assume that you will be actively involved in decisions about all kinds of design-related matters. You might actually spend time with your builder shopping for everything from wall coverings to roofing, from plumbing fixtures to lighting fixtures.
In sum, we offer a construction document service that is right for some clients, but not for others. We can help determine which approach to the design process will work best for your project. If it seems the best course is for you to employ an outside design service, we’d be happy to recommend some of the architects we’ve worked with over the years. If it looks like working on the design with us from soup to nuts is the best route, we’ll be happy to discuss the scope and range of our services in greater detail with you.
What Do We Do When We Quote a Timber Frame Project for You?
Typically, when a prospective residential client contacts us about a project they’re planning, we take whatever information we can get and develop a conceptual approach to the project. What this means in practice is that we will do a fairly quick conceptual design, which includes a virtual 3d model of the timber frame, and sometimes even a simple virtual model of the house. This conceptual design tells us exactly how much material and labor will be needed to complete the project, and is the best basis for tendering a responsible and fair budget proposal.
Depending on the completeness of the information we are working with, we can get pretty close to the mark right out of the gates. We’ll send you a .pdf version of the drawings along with a written budget proposal. If nothing changes in this first conceptual design, you can pretty much take the proposal price to the bank.
We don’t charge for this service, unless we have arranged with the client beforehand to provide fairly extensive design services. The work we put into one of our “free estimates” represents a speculative investment on our part in our prospects for working with you. We realize that not every client we provide these estimates to is going to end up working with us, but we do hope that prospective clients who have solicited project bids from us will acknowledge the amount of effort we put into an estimate, and pay us the compliment of letting us know where we stand with them, even if they decide to go elsewhere.
From our point of view, this first round of design drawings is helpful to establish a baseline for your design sensibilities and budgetary constraints. It’s a first pass, nothing more. It helps to focus the design process on important issues. In other words, it’s easier to say what you do and don’t like about a design if you’ve got something to look at, than if you’re speaking in the abstract.
If you’ve been scouring the magazines and internet for plans and ideas one thing to beware of is the “small” matter of copyright. In an age of vastly expanded access to information, intellectual property rights conflict is actually a very big deal. It’s also big business — copyright lawyers have been called the new personal injury lawyers. And copyright infringement is a matter for the federal courts — really. Apart from the ethical issues, the penalties make it just not worth it to trifle with this law.
If you’ve worked with other designers before coming to Lancaster County Timber Frames (especially on the timber frame design), we have to make sure that the designs you’re asking us to work with have been legally acquired. It used to happen fairly frequently that a prospective client would approach us with some drawings from one of our competitors and ask us to do something with the design — bid on it, develop it further, enlarge it, reduce it, make it snazzier, etc.
We understand the need to be sure you’re getting good advice and not being taken advantage of — in short, to get a second opinion. From our point of view, though, we’d rather not see our competitors’ drawings, especially not if we’re being asked to bid on the project from those drawings. Conversely, we expect that our drawings won’t be shared with other timber frame companies, either. As a courtesy to our competition, when we receive a set of drawings with a competitor’s title block, we routinely give them a call to see if the drawings are rightfully the client’s to disseminate. If they’re not, we just have to decline to bid on the drawings.
What we’d really much rather do is develop a new concept based on your project program, without looking at someone else’s drawings, unless your right to use them is clearly established. This doesn’t really allow you to get a “true” apples to apples comparison, but the “true” apples to apples comparison is a bit of an urban legend anyway.
Timber Frame Design Choices
People build timber frame homes because they choose to — nobody has to have a timber frame in their house. If you’re building a timber frame home — or thinking about it — you’re in effect telling everybody that when it comes to creating a dwelling for yourself and your family, it’s you that’s deciding on how it looks and goes together, not a builder/developer putting up cookie-cutter McMansions on a tract of old farming land.
With heavy timbers, you don’t usually just open a sample book and say “I’ll have one of those, please.” So get ready to make a lot of choices; choices about architectural style, materials, surfaces and finishes, extent and scale and complexity, and so on. We hope the following will shed a little light on the kinds of things you’ll have to think about.
We’re fond of saying that timber framing is a method of construction, not a style. In other words, you can adapt heavy timber construction to a wide spectrum of architectural styles and philosophies. Not so with building methods such as adobe or log. With these construction methods, they are the style. Who can — or wants to — imagine an adobe Victorian house, or a post-modern log structure?
Since building with heavy timber has been around for so long, it has been adapted to architectural styles spanning centuries and continents. We’ve built timber frames for homes and commercial spaces that have run the stylistic gamut from medieval hall to contemporary, from craftsman to postmodern. All of this to say, timber framing can be naturally adapted to your personal sense of architectural and interior style. Your architect or one of our designers can help to realize your vision.
Timber Frame Design
Architectural decisions have a big influence on the design of a timber frame. Is the timber frame a major component of the structural system, or is it a purely decorative retrofit “trim-ber” frame? How do window and door placement, interior walls and partitions, floor plan and roof layout affect the overall design of the timber structure?
Within a given set of factors affecting design, there is a seemingly inexhaustible range of design options and permutations available. A competent timber frame designer should be able to elicit from you the information needed to create a design that will match your vision exactly. Often it’s as simple as showing one of our designers an image or two of something that really speaks to you. Of course, there’s also a vocabulary that it helps to know, so that you don’t have to rely quite as much on gestures and phrases like “that vertical thingy”.
Just as there is a wealth of architectural and timber frame design possibilities available, so too is there a plethora of options for the timbers themselves. This choice is highly personal, and is driven mostly by the overall feeling that you would like to evoke. Timber frames can feel rustic and simple, or sleek and contemporary; and there are plenty of in-between design sensibilities that can be satisfied, too.
We’ve built timber frames from Douglas fir, white and red and mixed oak, hemlock, white pine, southern yellow pine, longleaf yellow pine, cedar, maple, poplar, American chestnut (recycled) and even Mahogany. This isn’t by any means an exhaustive list of the species of timber that could be used. In our company Douglas fir is by far the most popular species. Each has its advantages and disadvantages — in appearance and suitability for a particular project, and in cost.
Grade of Timber
Many species are available in various appearance and structural grades. The grade selection of a timber frame depends partly on personal preferences — some people prefer a rustic, simple look; and structural requirements — some frame designs need timbers of the highest strength to accomplish long spans and handle tension, for example.
Condition of Timber
This has to do with its moisture content at the time of fabrication. Historically, timber frames were fabricated from fresh-sawn or partially air-dried timbers. This is still true today, but kiln-dried timbers are also available now, and a good many timber frames are fabricated from recycled timbers. The moisture content of a timber determines how much shrinkage you can expect to occur in the timbers after they have been erected. By far the most stable are recycled timbers, since they’ve had plenty of time to reach equilibrium.
As we’ve already mentioned, both new and recycled timbers can be used for a new timber frame. Recycled timbers lend themselves well to a more rustic feel, but we’ve done timber frames with recycled material in very contemporary spaces. Recycled timbers are taken from factory buildings dating back to the 19th century, and from barns and other old utility structures dating even further back. In recent years, the recycled flooring industry has started to compete for these old timbers, and the cost has climbed steeply. Consequently, a timber frame fabricated from recycled timbers can be significantly more costly than one using fresh-sawn timbers.
A lot of our frames are fabricated from timbers planed on all four sides and sanded dead smooth. But by no means all of them. We regularly fabricate timber frames of rough-sawn timbers — band-sawn or circular-sawn. These are usually wire-brushed to minimize the “hairy” surface of the timbers. At the far rough end of the spectrum, there is a true hand-hewn surface, replete with hewing marks.
Recycled timbers are frequently hand-hewn, but on occasion we have taken smooth-surfaced timbers and given them a faux hand-hewn appearance with a broad axe and adze. Another treatment of the timber surface is “curve planing”. This process is accomplished by using a hand power planer with a blade that has a slight curvature. The blade “scoops” out the wood something like an adze might do, and gives an approximation of a hand-hewn surface. Note that any surface treatment other than the standard “surfaced 4 sides” (S4S) mill finish will add cost to the timber frame budget. Note also that rough-sawn timbers attract and hold dust more than smooth timbers.
The most common finish for an interior timber frame is a clear penetrating Danish oil, a polymerized Tung oil product. This finish isn’t really suitable for exterior applications, though, and some form of UV light blocking and moisture repellent finish is required wherever the timbers will be exposed to sunlight and the elements. Many clients ask us about dark stains. There are a number of good reasons why dark stains on timbers don’t make a lot of sense. The most common timber species for frames are softwoods and these tend to accept stain less evenly than the hardwoods like oak. A dark stain on Douglas fir tends to look blotchy and uneven.
Probably more objectionable, though, is the way the stain looks after the timbers have moved around and checked a little bit. Since the stain isn’t a natural color, any areas that are exposed during shrinkage and general movement of the frame will be conspicuous and unsightly. Handling the dark stained timbers during the raising is also a problem, since if they are marred by the handling they can be very difficult to re-touch. And dark stains are generally more difficult to re-touch after they have been in service for a number of years. Even though there are good reasons to avoid the darker stains, aesthetics often overrules these objections.
In the right environment, with the right kind of design, a dark finish on your timbers might just be the ticket. Light finishes can be stunning too. We’ve done frames with pickled or whitewashed timbers, and while they can be just as troublesome as dark-stained timbers, the effect can be equally dazzling.
Timber frames don’t spring up overnight. We’ve been involved in some projects that have had gestation periods as long as five years. That’s not usually the norm, but then again, there may not really be a norm. There is, however, a somewhat predictable trajectory once everyone is ready to sign contracts and set the ball rolling. Here’s a typical project workflow up to the completion of the timber frame work:
General Contractor is brought on board; construction plans submitted to building officials; Permits issued; Timber frame contracts signed and deposit paid.
Timber frame design finalized and engineering seal received.
Timber order placed.
Timbers arrive in shop and fabrication work commences, progress billings issued.
Builder completes excavation and grading, foundation work, and main floor deck framing; if the timber frame is a hybrid, the conventional wall framing is completed up to the necessary point; foundation is back-filled and site prepared for arrival of timber frame.
Timber frame site manager inspects site to verify site conditions and accuracy of framing and foundation work.
Timber frame is delivered by tractor trailer or flat-bed truck, crane and other raising equipment arrive on site; timber frame raising crew arrives.
Frame is off-loaded and staged, spread out to make timbers accessible for the planned sequence of operations.
Frame is erected, fastened into deck or foundation or conventionally-framed walls; final touch up work completed.
Timber frame enclosure work begins; built-up roof, SIP walls; timber frame is fully dried in.
Timber frame crew leaves site and general contractor brings in his/her crew and subcontractors to complete project.
That’s a lot of planning, sequencing, coordinating, communicating, telephone calling, ordering, paperwork handling, etc. — not to mention the efforts of the timber frame craftspeople carving a giant jigsaw puzzle that has to go together right. So it should be obvious that keeping things moving along smoothly is pretty critical. Project managers have a term for complex endeavors like this — critical path planning. If one or more of the necessary steps of the process is late or incomplete or incorrectly completed, the whole project falters.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s hardly a part of the process of building a timber framed home that’s quite as devoid of sex appeal as the contract. Yet, contracts are a vital part of the working partnership that you will have with a timber frame company. We think that, in the final analysis, the contract is a pretty simple thing: a statement of our commitment to you, and your commitment to us.
Below is some of the most important information about our contracts. Of course, if you’re thinking of working with us, we’ll be happy to let you have a look at a contract template so you know what you’ll be getting into. Our typical contract template doesn’t always satisfy a particular client’s requirements. If you see something in our contract that doesn’t fit in with your project management program, we’d be happy to discuss it with you and come up with an alternate contractual arrangement.
Here are a few things to consider regarding contracts
Two Different Kinds of Contracts
Timber Frame Contracts — Our Commitment to You
Timber Frame Contracts – Your Commitment to Us
Architectural Design Contracts
Two Different Kinds of Contracts
Broadly speaking, we have two different kinds of contracts: one for the timber frame design, fabrication and erection; and one for architectural or construction document design services. When we write a timber frame contract, we’ve done a careful analysis of the elements that comprise the timber frame project as a whole, so we have a pretty good idea what all the project costs are going to be, and that we’re going to be able to make — and not lose — money.
A construction document or architectural design contract is a little different. We do try to give you a reasonably accurate estimate of the amount of time necessary to complete the drawings, but there are a number of variables not entirely within our control that ultimately determine how much time we’ll have to put into the drawings. For this reason, our design contracts are written specifying a dollar amount to be charged per hour of design work, and a retainer to be paid at contract inception.
Timber Frame Contracts — Our Commitment to You
We like our contracts to be all-inclusive. You probably do, too. No hidden additional charges, just one clear number for you to plug into your budget. Here is a list of the things that are usually included in our scope of services and spelled out in our contracts:
Timber frame design (not architectural design) and engineering evaluation, shop drawings sealed by a profession engineer licensed in your state
Handcrafting — no CNC machines “carving” your frame
All materials needed for the fabrication and erection of the frame
Material specifications: species, grade, condition (planed or rough-sawn, etc.)
Finish: oiled, stained, sanded, brushed, interior vs. exterior finish
Edge conditions, chamfered or not chamfered
Erection on your prepared site
Whether the pegs are cut off proud of or flush with the timber face
Steel and other custom hardware
Equipment and crane rental allowances (We make a good faith effort to estimate as exactly as possible the amount of money that we will have to pay to the crane company. If we go over that amount, we submit a bill for the overage to the client or GC (contracting party); if we’re under that amount, we refund the unused balance to the contracting party.)
Shipping of the timber frame components to the job-site
Our travel and per diem expenses
Consultations prior to and after the erection
We also always include in our contract papers at least one drawing — often more — of the timber frame design that we are contracting to erect. Anything that doesn’t show up on the drawing isn’t part of the contracted scope of the drawing. Sometimes we’ll show walls or other features of the structure like stairs — just for context. We try to make as clear as possible what’s included and what’s not.
Timber Frame Contracts–Your Commitment to Us
Your side of the deal isn’t just about the money, and when to pay it. When we give you a price quote to build a timber frame, we’re assuming that there are couple of things that you will do for us to make the process as efficient as possible:
Architectural Design Contracts
Once you’ve signed a contract for a timber frame, the design usually doesn’t change much. Not so with the architectural design. Homes usually get designed in an evolutionary manner. They rarely spring out of one’s mind fully formed. Even if the original concept doesn’t change, finalizing the design almost always involves a seemingly endless trail of small compromises that require constant adjustment and re-adjustment of dimensions, material choices, construction methodologies, and so on.
That’s why we have a separate contract for our architectural design services. We just can’t know for absolutely certain how much time will be needed to get from the bubble diagram to the full construction document set. There is a litany of things that influences the speed and cost of the design process:
Every one of our timber frames is hand-crafted with care and attention to detail and full confidence in the frame design. Wood is a living material, though, and occasionally a condition will arise that calls for some attention, either just to put a homeowner’s mind at ease, or to find a remedy for a condition that might be cause for concern.
If you ever have a concern about your frame, please don’t hesitate to call us. As long as you are living in your home, we are committed to that frame, and will repair any structural issues at no charge to you. This is, of course, provided that the frame has not been altered, neglected or subjected to loads that exceed the original design criteria.