Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters

Many people enjoy the laid-back feel of a cozy cottage or rustic log cabin in the woods. Folks love vacationing in areas enveloped in nature, not only outside but inside buildings as well, carefully furnished with stylish décor. Being surrounded by beautiful wooden walls and high ceilings with exposed beams invokes the need to slow down – to relax – and to enjoy the stunning scenery that invariably awaits on the other side of a wall of picture windows. Everything about this scene epitomizes vacation – a home away from home. But as many people in the Finger Lakes Region and beyond have discovered, they don’t have to be on vacation to enjoy it.

The art of timber framing dates back to some of the earliest structures of man. Manors and castles as well as homes and inns made entirely of timber can be found throughout Europe. They are hundreds of years old, but remain relatively untouched by time. Asia has timbered temples that have stood for ages. The only thing that has changed since their creation is the progression of architecture and techniques of construction for timber frame structures.

Timber framing is a structural system that employs wooden posts and beams, not unlike the constructors of the Parthenon did with stone. It’s the method of creating framed structures of heavy timbers joined with pegged mortise and tenon joints, as opposed to metal brackets and nails. A mortise is a hole and a tenon is a projecting piece of wood that is inserted into the mortise and is secured by one or more wooden pegs.

Technical understanding aside, for Jennifer Young who works with New Energy Works, a timber frame company in Farmington, a structure made of timbers is a work of art. “It is the celebration of home, of craft, and of wood,” she said. “A timber frame is sort of this honesty of structure. You see the strength supporting your home. You feel safe. It is an expression of art.”

The method reached the United States with the Pilgrims, and was the predominant method of construction until the 19th century. With the Industrial Revolution came the proliferation of sawmills and the mass production of nails, as well as the need to build homes in large quantities quickly to house an ever-growing population. The ability to mass-produce nails and cut small timbers rapidly and inexpensively opened doors for a more economical form of construction, characterized by light frames, structural studs, and braces connected with nails.

Finger Lakes Region is a popular place to build
Despite timber framing being relatively uncommon compared to a few centuries ago, the Finger Lakes Region has managed to keep it alive, providing those who inhabit the structures with not only a sense of historical significance, but of beauty and art. Roughly 95 percent of the public, according to some marketing studies, buy conventional houses because that’s what they know. Therefore, five percent look at the alternatives, and timber frames are a percentage of that clientele, said Al Milanette of Timber Frames Inc. in Bristol. In the Finger Lakes, maybe one out of 20 or 30 houses has some element of timber framing, he estimates.

Young said she feels timber frames and the Finger Lakes go hand in hand. “Timber frames pick up a sense of tradition and history, but at the same time, they can be very contemporary, and open spaces are popular now,” she said. “People don’t want low ceilings and small, cut-up rooms. They want that open, expansive feel because it plays so well to lake views and other Finger Lakes vistas.”

Timberpeg® is a national company with headquarters in New Hampshire. Regional Manager Roy Conant has a U.S. map on his wall filled with pegs representing structures the company has built. Despite servicing not only the nation, but areas abroad, the two predominant clusters on his map show that the Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes are the prime areas of construction for timber frames.

“We wanted to do something unique because [the site for the timber frame] was on the water and I wanted a lot of glass and views,” said Peter Spinelli, who worked with Timber Frames Inc. to build his home. Spinelli lives in his 1,800-square-foot home on Cayuga Lake on weekends and during July and August. “The beauty of the wood and the openness of the space make it unique and totally different from our primary residence, which is a new home up in Pittsford,” he said. “We have a 26-foot ceiling and it’s glass all the way up, so from both floors you can look through beautiful wooden beams out to the lake.”

So many things to consider
People must explore many options before the frame starts to go up on their property. Questions like, “What do I want it to look like, and who should design it?” and “How much do I want to spend?” become important topics of discussion. Another question comes into play as well: “Do I want an entire home made of timber, or do I want an element of it within my existing home?”

“Hybrids,” which comprise the majority of company business, are homes with some timber framing in them, but are still stick-frame constructed. “In an average year, we do about 15 to 20 projects,” said Milanette. “The projects can go from as little as a front entrance on a restaurant or commercial building to homes.” Timber Frames Inc. builds about seven complete homes per year. “The rest of those projects are mixes of additions, or maybe a family room for some people, with construction generally lasting between four and six months,” he said. “There are lots of different things you can build, and you can build just about anything with timber.”

A national company with headquarters in the Finger Lakes, New Energy Works builds four to six homes a year locally, but Young estimated it does between 60 and 90 projects. The company has many departments to help clients build their dream home, making it a one-stop shop. “We have an architectural design department, we have our timber frame department, and we also have a fine woodworking department.” The company works with clients throughout the country, but only builds entire homes close by. “The Finger Lakes is our backyard,” said Young. “We will design, build, and do the interiors for a homeowner in this area because it’s easy for us to get there.”

Elsewhere in the U.S., New Energy Works will take care of all a client’s needs with the exception of general contracting, as it makes more sense to use regional people for that, Young said.

In existence since 1972, Timberpeg has built more than 5,000 houses nationwide, Conant estimated. “We have two Independent Representatives right in the Finger Lakes region, Berkshire Builders in Naples and KJM Contracting in Cortland. Both are excellent builders who have not only built timber frame homes for others but live in Timberpeg homes themselves.”

Cost can depend on customer
“It’s like asking how much does a new car cost?” said Young. “There are so many variables that come into play such as size, quality, material, and which part of our services you would like.” Timber frames generally cost about 10 to 15 percent more than conventional construction, Milanette added. “You can buy the inexpensive car or you can buy the Cadillac,” he said.

When planning to build a house, people generally talk in terms of price per square foot, Conant said. According to the Timber Frame Business Council, owners can expect to pay between $150 and $350 per square foot. “If you hire a general contractor, you ought to plan on a total investment of at least $200 per square foot,” Conant said, “but I’ve heard of people spending $350.”

The cost of the components needed for the structure itself is fairly predictable, said Conant, but it’s what goes inside that structure that counts. “It all depends on what you choose for interior finishes,” Conant said. Everything (and the kitchen sink) must be taken into account “I’ve heard of folks that go out to Lowes and can buy a kitchen faucet for $129,” he said. “And then I’ve heard of folks going out and buying one for $2,000. It’s amazing.”

Just as price is geared by what goes in the house, the length of construction is also dependent upon the interiors. The structural frame of the house can be erected in a matter of days, but the custom work can take months. “It’s sort of like saying, ‘How long does dinner take?’” said Young. “It depends. Are you making macaroni and cheese or something really amazing?”

Going green pays off
Although the upfront cost may be an initial deterrent for some, once the life expenses for the house are taken into account, the owner soon realizes they’ve just gotten a deal. “The fact is that the life cost of a timber frame ends up being lower than the stick-built cost,” said Conant. “After folks have lived in their timber frames for a while, they report back that they’re really tickled that their heating and cooling bills run about half of what their neighbors are paying in similarly sized, conventionally built homes.”

Because of green elements infused in the timber frame method of building, homeowners end up spending less out-of-pocket than those who own traditional homes. “They are completely enclosed and have insulated panels,” said Young. New Energy Works uses products that are low on water consumption, such as dual-flush toilets, and occasionally incorporates geothermal heating so that the houses don’t get too hot or lose too much heat in the winter.

In 2008, the Rochester Business Journal awarded New Energy Works the environmental leadership award for green building.

Both Timberpeg and Timber Frames Inc. also incorporate environmentally friendly elements into their construction, whether it be in the positioning of windows to maximize solar benefits or in the selection of timbers. “A lot of timbers are Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC-certified which means they’re harvested with environmentally-sensitive rules and regulations,” said Conant.

Timber Frames Inc. buys wood from a fourth-generation pine farming family, so most of the wood is produced in New York State, meaning it doesn’t have to travel far and is therefore greener than most, Milanette said. “We use just about every part of the tree,” he said. Since timbers used for the structure itself are squared off, the parts that remain are used for interior finishes such as flooring and doors, he added.

New Energy Works’ sister company, Pioneer Millworks, is stationed in Oregon and reclaims wood for timber frame homes. “We always offer our customers a choice in the timber we use,” said Young. “We reclaim wood from old industrial buildings that have run their course, We say we rescue it from landfills or from fire because a lot of people don’t see value in this old wood. We do.”
When building in the Finger Lakes Region, Young said her company tries to incorporate a bit of local history whenever possible. “Some of the wood we use for built-ins, tables, cabinets, things like that, comes from old wine vats that we reclaimed in the area,” she said. “When it comes time to do a wine cellar or kitchen, people love that.”

Timber as a canvas for life
“If you’re not inspired or motivated by craft, by art, and you don’t see your home as sort of a living, breathing part of your life, then a timber frame may not be for you,” said Young.

Timber frames provide a way to enhance not only the outside beauty that surrounds the structure, but also make the indoor living environment visually pleasing. “It’s both a strength factor and aesthetically appealing to have large pieces of wood in your home as opposed to the conventional home which is essentially covered in drywall and then painted,” said Milanette.

The rustic feel so many people seek out for vacation destinations doesn’t have to be something that lasts for only a few precious days in the summer.

“Our best clients understand that memories happen and life unfolds in our timber frames,” said Young. “People are really inspired by the quality of our craftsmanship.”

Contact these timber frame companies for more information.
New Energy Works

Timber Frames Inc.


by Kimberly Price

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