History may record Space Age plastics and chip-enhanced materials as building blocks of the late 20th century. But nature is holding its own in a quiet corner of the home-building world.
Thank the Beam Team.
This elite corps of master craftsmen is raising old-fashioned timbers to make modern houses, from woodsy Northern Virginia to Bill Gates's waterside post-and-beam manse near Seattle. Their time-honored craft has been enhanced by computerized design. Power tools and high-tech glue are in use. But human hands still reign supreme with mallet and chisel. How else to achieve perfection with an exposed skeleton of Sitka spruce trusses and Port Orford cedar posts, held tight with oak pegs and cherry splines, each detail stained and polished into an architectural element.
Too rare given their beauty, these dwellings capture a primal relationship with shelter: the felling of majestic trees for human survival; the cutting of precise joints by skilled hands; a gathering of the community to hoist a frame.
This is the story told in "Timberframe," new from Taunton Press (232 pages, $40). It is also the latest mission statement from author Tedd Benson, a New Hampshire timber framer who has devoted the past quarter century to reviving the craft.
"It's the passion of my life," Benson acknowledged by phone from Seattle, where he was salvaging precious old beams from the Port of Seattle that might otherwise be lost to demolition. His Alstead Center, N.H., company cleans them up and gives them new life as the natural support system for grand new houses, 23 of which are shown in the book. The Great Falls home of John and Sandy Hedlund reveals the Arts & Crafts honesty of a Douglas fir interior. In Nantucket, Mass., a soaring, curved-beam library resides in a shingled cottage. Its unnamed owner calls the space "livable sculpture."
"It's not just about shelter and roofs," Benson explained. "It's doing something for the human spirit. We are essentially a forest species. Wood touches us."
The book traces timber framing back to 500 B.C., and the first mortise-and-tenon joint. No forest culture on the planet overlooked its possibilities. Once builders figured out how to avoid sinking wood pylons into dirt, where they would rot, they assured that their constructions would outlive them. And then some. Beams can last 300 to 600 years, as buildings from Medieval Europe to Japan attest.
Once the only way to build a house, timber framing fell from favor in this country in the late 1800s. Builders shifted to stud framing, a quicker technique requiring less skill. Today, Benson counts the number of small firms like his in the dozens.
More than half the houses in the book were constructed with timbers salvaged from a single source, the Long-Bell Lumber Co. in Longview, Wash. Benson is legendary in the business for shipping train-loads of Long-Bell lumber to New Hampshire. Long-Bell also provided "a couple million board feet" for the Gates project, recalls Peter Krieger of Duluth Timberworks, which brokered the material.
The complex, once the pride of turn-of-the-century Kansas City lumber baron Robert A. Long, was the largest sawmill in the world. Built in the 1920s using old-growth Douglas fir, it consisted of 30 cavernous buildings, 60 feet high and 700 feet long. The factory whistle could be heard 45 miles away, or until the stock market crash of 1929 signaled the start of its long decline. Benson's Web site (www.bensonwood.com) continues to offer Long-Bell stock for the discerning dream-home builder.
Which brings us to the challenge he has set for the next 25 years: how to move timber framing out of the luxury market and into the mainstream. The affordable way to own a timber framed home is to build it yourself. (Krieger recounts the experience of relatives who "took eight years, but so what. They had day jobs.") Otherwise, construction begins at $120 per square foot, in the high range of custom housing. Benson is aiming for $100 through efficiences and by altering some standard notions.
"The really, really important thing is to come back full circle and [make it] more viable for many more people -- people like me," he said.
He envisions long-term savings by delinking short-term systems such as wiring, heating and plumbing from longer-lasting walls. The integrity of a house built to last 600 years should not be entwined with a computer system that may need replacing in months. By separating these elements, he believes, people could finish -- and finance -- a better-quality house in stages. "You wouldn't have to borrow all the money to complete every crack and crevice before you move in," he suggested. "That's not the way America was built."
The book offers a Confucian saying: The strength of a nation is derived from the integrity of its homes. No wonder Benson is worried.
"To truly live out the American Dream, we should be building much higher quality homes," he said. "Space is everything. Space is all we have."
Join Linda Hales live online with Tedd Benson, Thursday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.