Old-style timber framing is a solid energy-saving hit

The Topel home in Kennett Square was built with timber framing. Post-and-beam construction (as opposed to conventional 2-by-4s) is ancient, sturdy, beautiful.
The Topel home in Kennett Square was built with timber framing. Post-and-beam construction (as opposed to conventional 2-by-4s) is ancient, sturdy, beautiful. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 17, 2011

When health problems forced Ave Topel, a hotelier and developer, to retire early, he and his wife, Vicki, decided to build a single-level house that would be easy to maintain and inexpensive to heat and cool. They also wanted a home that included timber framing and featured plenty of light and exposure to the outdoors.

Their affection for timber framing - a system of construction that uses hefty posts and beams (as opposed to the 2-by-4s of conventional "stick-built" dwellings) - stemmed from a carriage house they once commissioned. So pleased were they with the result that they contacted the builder, Hugh Lofting, of Hugh Lofting Timber Framing in Kennett Square, to help design and build their dream house.

That 2007 collaboration, with a team of other contractors and consultants steeped in green and sustainable building, produced a simple yet spectacular structure that captures the rustic flavor of Chester County in striking contemporary fashion.

"The whole experience changed us," says Ave Topel, 60. "We went from not knowing about green building to becoming advocates."

The couple even wrote a book about their adventure, Green Beginnings: The Story of How We Built Our Green & Sustainable Home, that celebrates what they call TGA - The Green Aesthetic - their joyous resolve to display the environmentally responsible features of their distinctive home.

In many ways, the Topel house, which earned a coveted LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver certification, exemplifies the latest trends in timber-framing, an ancient form of construction as beautiful as it is sturdy. Revived during the energy crisis of the 1970s, timber framing, sometimes referred to as post-and-beam construction, has proven remarkably adaptable to modern needs.

"Timber framing is about melding the ancient and modern, the past and future," says Tedd Benson, founding owner of Bensonwood Homes, a timber-frame construction company in Walpole, N.H. Benson has written books about timber-framing and is regarded as an industry sage and visionary.

Early timber-frame structures, such as 12th-century cruck houses and 14th-century manor houses, tended to be enclosed and dark. The hallmarks of 21st-century timber-frame houses are light, glass, openness, and energy efficiency, Benson says.

Those are the characteristics of the Topel house, which is two structures linked by a glass connector or foyer. The public space or lodge contains a kitchen and dining area separated from the family room by a massive stone fireplace. The skeleton for this part of the house is a timber frame of Douglas fir, harvested from a sustainable forest approved by the Forest Stewardship Council.

"The timber frame is not so much for structure as to give a sense of scale, a sense of history, and a sense of craft that you wouldn't find in a Sheetrock space," says the Topels' architect, Matthew Moger, who describes their residence as "the new vernacular farmhouse." The appeal of a timber frame, often hand cut and hewn, with pegged mortise-and-tenon joinery, is "visceral" and universal.

"It resonates with people," says Joel McCarty, executive director of the Timber Framers Guild. "The movie Witness cemented a series of images in people's minds. It makes us look like we think we are - builders of durable structures that can be used and loved for generations."

Or as Lofting bluntly puts it: "With a timber frame, you can see the whole structure, so there's no hiding a bunch of shoddy workmanship."

The long spans of the beams create large spaces and flexible possibilities for interior design and configuration. That comes in handy when homeowners want to integrate the latest technology, and some companies have amplified the versatility.

Bensonwood pioneered "open building," a system of construction that untangles the elements of a house, based on the premise that its parts (frame, roof, sheathing, etc.) have different life spans. Plumbing and electrical wires are routed through chases - a baseboard conduit, for example, or the space between the ceiling of the first floor and floor of the second. The idea is to make the guts of the house more accessible so utilities can be readily revised and updated, and walls and fixtures can be easily moved.

The practicality, as well as the charm and longevity, of timber frames have contributed to their popularity in recent decades, even though they can cost 10 to 15 percent more, depending on design and materials, than conventional structures. Timber framing is often employed in luxury second homes and vacation homes.

"We learned a lesson from some of the tract homes that have been going up: You get what you pay for," says Pam Hinton, the Timber Frame Business Council's executive director. According to the council, based in Gettysburg, there are 290 companies in North America engaged in full-time timber framing. "With a timber frame, you don't have as much repair work because things are so solid. If you look at pictures of Haiti after the earthquake, the structures still standing are timber frames built hundreds of years ago, while commercial buildings next door are piles of sticks."

The Topel house, adorned with recycled barn boards, bricks, and floors, is loaded with clever features and devices that reduce its energy needs. Foremost among them are the structural insulated panels, or SIPs, that wrap the house as tightly as the skin of an orange. The panels are sandwiches of dense foam between sheets of board made of compressed strips and flakes of wood. With this system, heating and cooling costs are typically reduced by half, Lofting says. The Topels discovered that sunlight alone made the south-facing side of the house toasty in winter.

A house that Bensonwood Homes built in Vermont using SIP technology requires no furnace. Says Benson: "The energy efficiency is so high you're basically using body heat."

Typically the SIPs are precut in the shop, as are the components of the timber frame. Prefab may carry a stigma, but in the timber-frame industry, "off-site fabrication" has become standard practice.

This enhances precision and reduces waste, says Lofting, 65, who might have become a Montana rancher had he not been awed by the first timber frame he saw in the '70s. ("It was gorgeous," he recalls, "like a huge piece of furniture.")

Still, the housing recession battered the timber-framing industry, driving some small operations out of business and forcing large companies to lay off employees. Many timber-frame firms have adapted by moving into hybrid construction - conventionally built houses that incorporate timber-frame elements. The goal: affordability.

"As our projects have become smaller, simpler, and more focused on energy efficiency," Benson says, "it's essential to become more mainstream and build houses for the common man."

The Topel residence is anything but common. "People still think going green means a mud hut with a fire hole in the middle," Ave Topel says. "We did it right. We overdid a lot of things intentionally, but it really turned out to be a magnificent, fun place to live."

But with their two children grown and out of college, the Topels are beginning a new chapter in their lives. They are planning to move to their summer home in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and are selling their Chester County timber-frame showcase.

"It was a labor of love," says Vicki, 55. "You come in here and you just instantly feel calm. I love the outdoors and feel like we brought the outdoors indoors. We're one with nature."

To hear more about the Topel house and post-and-beam construction, go to Philly.com/post.

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or acarey@phillynews.com.

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