To build a timber-frame house, you need to engage both a timber-frame firm and a general contractor. The timber framer will supply both the timber frames and the structural insulated panels (SIPs) to enclose the timber frames and the rest of the house. The general contractor will prepare the site, build the foundations and oversee all other aspects of the job. However, some timber-frame firms build the entire house, and some supply only the timber frames.

To come up with a plan, you can work with an architect or go directly to a timber framer. Most will help you design your house and produce drawings with sufficient detail to get a building permit and hire a contractor. Some timber framers will also help you find a contractor who is familiar with timber-frame construction.

Before you spend much time planning a timber-frame house, though, make sure you can afford it. Golden, Colo., architect Judd Dickey, who specializes in timber-frame design, said that when he meets with prospective clients, the first thing he discusses is the cost. "A timber-frame house is expensive. That's the big gorilla on the block," Dickey said.

Compared with a conventionally framed custom-built house (all the walls, including the exterior ones, are built with wood studs), said Dickey, whose practice is nationwide, a hybrid house with a timber-frame great room encased with SIPs and SIPs panels for the rest of the exterior costs about 20 to 25 percent more. Three timber framers who build all over the country said that in their experience, a hybrid timber-frame house, on average, adds about 10 to 20 percent to the cost of the project.

Shelburne, Vt., architect Steve Moore, who also specializes in timber-frame designs, urges his clients to see a lot of timber-frame houses before they get locked into a plan, especially if they want a two-story great room.

"In the magazines," he said, "they always show the huge spaces because the big volumes photograph more spectacularly. But sometimes they are not so intimate."

Though you might imagine a timber frame as more suited to an isolated spot overlooking the rugged Maine coast or hugging a mountainside in Colorado, Moore said you can build one just about anywhere. He's currently designing one that's 20 feet from a neighboring house and overlooking a golf course in Louisiana.

-- Katherine Salant