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In Backwoods Washington, Timber Frame Craft Passed On

by Ellen G. Lahr
from Berkshire Eagle, October 17, 1999

Washington -- Tom Owens, a builder from Boone, N.C., was bent over a table at Heartwood School on Monday, calculator and pencil in hand, working out a complex design for a multiangled roof on a traditional timber frame home.

George Jewell came from New Hampshire and Tom Rispoli came from Owego, N.Y., to learn similar techniques to help them finish the homes they are building for their families.

Complex roof geometry involves hips and valleys, jack rafters, purlins and a good eye. Learning the craft also involves pearls of wisdom from Will Beemer and his wife, Michele, who have devoted their professional lives to the preservation and promotion of traditional home construction techniques.

Now Will Beemer has taken his love of the trade a step further, since becoming the Executive Director of the Timber Framers Guild of North America, an international nonprofit organization that promotes the craft of timber framing.

Beemer said he no longer does much building of his own, but devotes most of his time to training other builders and running the Timber Framers Guild, which has members around the world. The group will hold an annual conference in Vermont later this month.

"The craft is undergoing a renaissance," Beemer said yesterday, as he supervised his class on the first day of its roof construction workshop. "But it's a high-end product now, for people who can afford to pay for the extra labor involved."

But extra labor and cost at the outset -- about 10 percent to 25 percent higher than conventional construction -- will pay off in the long run, said Beemer and his students.

Jewell is building his home on land he owns in Meredith, N.H. He expects to spend about $75,000, which does not reflect the free labor he and his son will put into the job.

In timber frame construction, the house frame is on the inside of the walls rather than the outside; the frame is enclosed with insulated boards.

A timber frame house or barn can be disassembled, moved and reconstructed on a new site. And because the Berkshires' forest are so mature, the wood for such houses can be obtained from local sawmills, said Beemer. Timber frame construction can last hundreds of years, said Owens. He is a furniture builder who also builds about two timber frame houses each year in North Carolina.

"It's a wise use of resources; it's responsible," he said. "And it's meant to last."

The homes he builds -- mostly for a second-home market in Boone, N.C. -- cost from $100 to $175 per square foot. But the cost is typically higher because people who can afford to build a timber frame home also tend to buy more costly fixtures, such as kitchen cabinetry, and other amenities.

Owens, Rispoli and Jewell are among about 3,000 professional builders and amateurs who have converged on the Heartwood School on Johnson Hill Road since 1978 to gain expertise from Beemer and his staff of instructors.

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