chrispy thoughts

-the world as I see it

Almost-forgotten historical timber homes

Timber construction is one of the most ancient forms of construction that has been known to mankind. Primitive shelters were built with twigs and branches that were intertwined to form a framework.

I spent a lot of my time last week looking up the history of timber houses for a presentation that I had to make as part of my thesis plan defense.  Even though only one of my slides was supposed to depict historical timber structures, with the number of hours that I spent researching this theme, I might as well have made an entire presentation out of it.  Anyway, what really caught my fancy was the types of timber houses that I had never learnt about before. Well, some of them I had heard of in passing, but they were nothing more than names or vague images to me. In the four years of my undergraduate program in civil engineering in India, I only learnt about concrete, steel and more concrete with a chapter or two devoted to masonry. Apart from one of the prescribed textbooks (which had just half a chapter on timber), none of the others even mentioned the word ‘timber.’

In this post, I have chosen to introduce three kinds of timber houses whose popularity has diminished with time.

The earliest form of timber frame construction and possibly the first sort of permanent dwelling is probably the longhouse. These kind of structures were built between 4500-3000 B.C. Longhouses were extensively found in the Nordic region, where these structures would rest on stone footings. They are also found in parts of Asia and North America. The width of these structures  ranges between 5 to 7 metres but the length can be between 20 to 45 metres. Longhouses are almost never constructed in the modern day. Only certain ethnic groups in pockets of the world live in these kind of houses.

Mini replicas of the Viking Longhouses at mini-Europe, Brussels

Mini replicas of the Viking Longhouses at mini-Europe, Brussels

Another prominent housing type that evolved with time was the log house. The areas where these structures were built had two things in common:

  • They were densely forested and had an abundant supply of trees
  • The climate was cold

Log houses were constructed by stacking logs horizontally with notches provided at corner intersections. The connections between the logs had to be air-tight to prevent the ingress of insects, air and water into the house. They used wedges and other materials to ensure the tight fit between adjacent logs. The log house construction technique followed in Western Europe was more refined than that in Central and Easter Europe as the logs were trimmed and the corner intersections had dovetail notches.

(a) notching technique in Central and Eastern Europe (b) Dovetail notches of Western Europe [Kuklik,2008]

(a) notching technique in Central and Eastern Europe      (b) Dovetail notches of Western Europe [Kuklik,2008]

Log constructions are still constructed in parts of North America and Scandinavia. However, with the introduction of the timber frame system of construction, these structures are on the decline. The construction of log homes is now limited to saunas and summer houses.

The log house structure

The log house structure

As the centuries progressed, half-timbered houses became the preferred style of construction across the globe. Half-timbered houses are houses where the load-bearing framework consists of timber elements. the space between the timber elements is filled with bricks, wattle and daub, stone or a clay based mixture. It is said that the oldest half-timbered structure type was the Opus Craticum – a Roman construction where the wooden frame was filled with stones or clay and covered with plaster as finishing.

A typical wall in the Opus craticium style of construction

A typical wall in the Opus craticium style of construction

This kind of construction was known by different names in different countries and each of them had their own characteristic connections and infill materials. In the picture below, you can see some of the representative half-timbered houses from parts of Asia and Europe.

What they are called in different countries?

What they are called in different countries?

Half-timbered constructions have been found to perform very well in earthquakes compared to most other vernacular houses.  That is why they have come to be known as an anti-seismic type of construction. Researchers are now focusing their efforts on reviving these structures, designing strengthening systems and modernizing them. I hope to come up with a more detailed post on half-timbered houses sometime soon.


2 comments on “Almost-forgotten historical timber homes

  1. Pingback: Poland’s churches of Peace | chrispy thoughts

  2. Pingback: Timber Tectonics | chrispy thoughts

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This entry was posted on October 2, 2013 by in Architecture, Civil Engineering and tagged , , , , , , , .

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