A timber-frame house, like the name suggests, hangs from a skeleton of thick planks, much like a suit on a hanger. Posts and beams form a formidable structure of joints that mortise together without nails.
An old concept that remains popular, the timber-frame’s rugged strength and wooden architecture relies upon a handsome proportion of massive beams and light. That’s why, in 1998, when Eric and Linza Douglas cleared land for a new home in the mountains, a timber-frame fit their choice for a rustic retreat.
Since Eric is a computer software designer who works at home and Linza is a psychotherapist, their mountain home would be both office and haven. After spending years reading design books, talking to friends and meeting with architects, they settled on a modified timber-frame house that adapted design characteristics from the Craftsman style so popular in the first part of the 20th century. Both choices pay homage to wood. And a Craftsman home honors the hearth as a central element, which Eric and Linza love.
But a Craftsman style is usually a low-ceiling bungalow with a dark wood interior. A timber-frame is constructed for large, expansive windows, cathedral ceilings and cavernous space. Eric balked at that idea. “I’ve noticed in those homes with giant windows that people often feel so exposed. Usually you discover that the seating is set away from the window. I wanted something on more of a human scale,” he says, and set about to find a way.
Eric scoured books devoted to the Arts & Crafts style that dominated the end of the 19th century. Originally a British reaction against the machine-made products of the Industrial Revolution, the Arts & Crafts style became synonymous with Craftsman and bungalow homes in America. Their sophisticated rusticity delighted in the carpenter’s influence on wood interiors, simply designed well-crafted furniture, hand woven rugs, hammered metal and stained glass. That was the interior design that appealed to both Linza and Eric.
With the help of their builder, they pulled together a light-filled home with a soaring ceiling and touches of Craftsman influence throughout. Here’s how they did it.
In a house that rises from three floors, if you count an unfinished basement, the Douglas house is cozy with 2,000 square feet of useable space. They deliberately planned a home with few interior walls. At the same time, they created two distinctive levels. The height of the house has been layered into a first and second story with the addition of a tiny loft. The first floor is an all-inclusive space. The second, with bedrooms and bathrooms, is private. Finally, the tiny loft is accessible only by ladder.
In the major living space there are no walls to separate a kitchen, dining room and living area. A timber-frame allows for openness because the structure lies entirely in the beams. A brick fireplace serves as a barrier between the dining and living rooms. Since it opens from either side, it’s a barrier in design only. That’s possible in a timber-frame house, which needs no interior walls for support. With a bread oven above the hearth, Linza stokes a roaring fire in preparation for pizza parties.
Upstairs, two bedrooms and bathroom are set apart as guest rooms, but the master bedroom is open to the sounds and aromas from below. “You can smell the brewing of coffee in the kitchen from up here,” Linza says. The home, Eric says, was planned for a couple rather than a family, but he knows that with only a few minor walls, the upstairs could be renovated to create the privacy a family might require. For him, the beauty of a timber frame encourages an open interior. The post and beam construction invites the eyes of the inhabitants to look upward.
That’s why Eric and Linza designed a small loft at the top. Originally a sleeping loft, it’s now a meditation and yoga center for Linza. Much like a bird’s nest in a tree, the intimate space with window looking out to the surrounding mountains provides a quiet interlude in the middle of her busy day. Designing intimate spaces within a wide-open architecture has created the better of two opposing architectural worlds for them—the coziness of a small sanctuary within open spaces all around.
Like anyone who designs and builds a dream house, what begins as a grand undertaking is filled with compromise. As delighted as they now are with their home, a timberframe was not a first choice. Linza thought she wanted a round house. Eric believed he wanted a solar-heated home. The ideas seemed right at the time.
But Linza discovered that as innovative as a round dwelling looked on the outside, the inside often was divided into spaces not unlike a conventional rectangular building. “It’s not always an efficient use of space,” she says, “and inside, the roundness wasn’t so visible so you didn’t get the effect of a round dwelling.”
Eric found out that his side of the mountain wasn’t conducive to optimum sunlight for solar heating. Eventually their original enthusiasm took a different path—a timber-frame house for the open space they had hoped for in a round house. A radiant heat fireplace saves heat for the entire home and remains warms hours after the fire has been put to bed.
Built in Canada, the firebox is filled with blocks that absorb and radiate heat. “With a woodstove, you heat it all at once. With firebrick, it radiates the heat slowly,” Eric says, which allows heat to dissipate all night long. They wrapped the exterior in used brick, which fits the rustic Craftsman look they wanted. And then they tackled the biggest challenge in a timber-frame house.
A timberframe lacks empty walls, which in a conventional home would hide plumbing and wiring. Fortunately, the Craftsman look includes wood built-ins, with its attention to a handcrafted interior. The Douglas home takes advantage of built-in bookcases and cabinets that house pipes and wires. “This is something you have to think about in a timber frame house,” Eric says. It’s not impossible, but it requires shifting around rooms to fit plumbing pipes.
In the master bath, their “inner sanctum” as Linza says, the bathtub is raised to accommodate pipes. The height simply becomes one step up to get into the tub, a natural design element that doesn’t look forced or contrived. A cabinet in the hall hides electrical wiring. Once that problem was solved, they decided to look at all the ways they could increase the amount of light that would flood into the home.
Instead of a dark Craftsman interior, the ceiling in the living area is bleached wood. Eric loved wood trim and wood-lined bays as well as 12-by-8 feet beams. “But I didn’t want it to be dark,” he says. Skylights and windows on every wall bring in light even if the mountainside is bathed in shadow. “You can’t make the ceiling too low in a house like this or you’ll get a mineshaft look,” he says.
Like many who build a house, Linza and Eric kept a photo diary of the process. Eric cleared the land himself, scraping and bulldozing an area that could accommodate the foundations. Log after log was lifted and stored. The builder’s antics, like hanging from a crane, swinging from a sling toward the camera, mugging freely, is caught on film. Each stage is documented: digging the foundation, the first walls. And as is so often the case, the photos toward the end are less attentive to the process, one after another photo cataloguing a weariness to complete the project. By the last photo, they’re eager to get to the finish, because many of their ideas have been discarded during the building process.
“I wanted a greenhouse space,” Linza says, only to find out that the most suitable wall was not quite the right exposure. Instead, she has plants lined up along a smaller window with southern exposure. “We thought about skylights that you could walk out onto,” Eric says, “and a metal roof. But the expense was too great.”
Disagreements surfaced, which both expected. “We knew one couple who got a divorce when they built a house together,” Eric says. “It brings up your differences,” Linza says, and those must be resolved. Linza says that she got what was most important: “a bay window and a big bathtub.” And in the duration of spending money and making design decisions, each discovered they had similar tastes when they looked at lighting, furniture, windows and hardware. Because a timber-frame house is sympathetic to a rustic interior, the Arts & Crafts style, with its attention to well crafted handwork, fits seamlessly.
And they learned to economize as building costs spiraled higher. “We said ‘no’ to the cabinets,” Linza says about their first choice. And they faced disappointments when they had set aside tile months before installation only to be told it had been mistakenly sold.
“Now these things just don’t matter,” Linza says. Each of their compromises has worked well. Some of their original choices, like a tile floor in the kitchen, have been less successful. “Tile is very tiring on the back,” Linza says, and the grout they chose for the kitchen stains easily. They have since realized that many of their secondary choices have proved more successful in the long run.
Their disappointment, which loomed so large at the time, has mellowed. What was accomplished is enough, they say, to have created a house tailored perfectly to their lives. That little balcony, for example, just off the master suite bedroom serves a practical purpose. “That’s where I can take my telescope,” Linza says, “during a meteor shower and look at the stars.”
- Timberframe structure: Vermont Frames, P.O. Box 100, Hinesburg, Vermont, 05461, 802-453-3727 or 800-545-6290,www.vermontframes.com
- Windows in the Douglas house: Hurd Millwork Co., 575 South Whelen Avenue, Medford, Wisconsin, 54451, 800-223-4873,www.hurdwindows.com
- Fireplace box: Temp-Cast Enviroheat, 3324 Yonge St. P.O. Box 94059, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M4N3R1, 800-561-8594, www.tempcast.com
- Used brick for fireplace: Mendoza Used Brick, 701 West 64thAvenue, Denver, 80205, 303-427-1201
- L.&J.G. Stickley Inc., One Stickley Drive, P.O. Box 480, Manlius, New York, 13104-0480, 315-682-5500, furniture was popular at the early part of the 29thcentury and part of the Arts & Crafts movement in America: www.stickley.com
- Prairie Winds Furniture at 9975 Wadsworth Pkwy #J2, Westminster, 80021, 303-456-6005, furniture by Prairie Winds can be found in the Boettcher Mansion, a historic building from the Arts & Crafts era in Golden.
- “Timberframe” by Todd Benson, Taunton Publishers
- “Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Oxford University Press