Shelter is one of man’s most basic needs. Whether you are in a blazing hot country and need shade from the relentless heat or you are in northern climes where the wind howls and you need protection from the rain and snow, man has always been seeking shelter.
We have come a long way since the cavemen, but one of the oldest most sustainable ways of building a house is by using timber using simple wooden pegs to keep the joists and beams together.
Dating back from Neolithic times, timber frame techniques have been found all around the world, as far as ancient Japan. With its roots in northern Europe, namely Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France, Denmark and England, we can see many of the great wooden timber framed houses and buildings dating back as far as the 12th century still standing today .
These ancient feats of engineering have stood the test of time and will probably last another few hundred years yet.
The greatest number of these constructions can probably be found on the aptly named German Timber Frame Road which passes through Lower Saxony, Hesse and Bavaria regions of Germany. Many small towns that didn’t come under fire during the wars, and also escaped the threat of modernisation, entirely consist of half timbered houses.
The German’s call the massively varied types of carpentry techniques fachwerk and these are hugely regionalised, and can be recognised in an instant by experts in the field.
Fachwerk and the colonies
When the first British settlers started out to the “new found land” of the Americas in the early 17th century, they took this type of building construction with them. Massachusetts, Jamestown and Plymouth, the original English colonial settlements, all had timber framed buildings.
It certainly wasn’t all log cabins, which is what we think of when we imagine the American Frontier, perpetrated by books and Western films about that period of history.
The remaining half-timbered houses that still exist in places such as Missouri and Texas are likely to have been built by German settlers. The Amish of the Missouri region almost certainly descended from the Germans.
Soon these settlers were marching northward, sniffing with the their noses in the air, following the scent of sweet forests, where they found huge swathes full of lovely trees, but also bears, moose and men in lumberjack shirts – that’s right, they hit Canada!
The French got there first
Canada had already been infiltrated by the French, with their own take on half timbered buildings. The style was called colombage pierrote (as found in Quebec) which had the same construction, but was filled in with stone and rubble. Similar buildings can still be found in the Normandy region of France. Again, they learned to use clapboards to protect the building but as this was costly to repair and maintain, this practice was abandoned in the 18th century.
A new style which used wood for the frame with an infill called poteaux sur sole suited the climate better in that part of Canada and of course suited them as they had plenty of wood available.
The tradition of the log cabin has firmly entrenched itself in the culture of north America and Canada, as the timber frame construction method enjoyed a huge revival in the 1970’s. This has revived the learning and use of ancient skills, the same that were probably used in northern Europe in Neolithic times.
Modern industrial tools like the CNC machine has made the process more affordable and also made the time to build these structures a lot shorter, but essentially wooden houses will always have a part to play in human need for shelter. What other sustainable housing methods have been used for as long as wood?
Sarah O’Neill loves architecture, old buildings and visiting new countries. She writes article for Great Furniture Trading Company who provide fabulous oak furniture, and living room furniture for the home.