Friday, September 21, 2012

Houses and Fires

Of all the various things that architects of timber frame or any other houses worry about when designing especially in the mountains and wooded areas, FIRE is the highest priority. Since fire, in and around a house, has life threatening implications, not to mention devastating property consequences, it is given careful consideration and attention in both the building codes for structures, and local Fire Marshall requirements dealing with defensible space, accessible roads, and water cisterns for the use of fire fighters.
This year in Colorado, where I live, we had wildfires all over the state. Our fires burned up about seven hundred or so houses on the front range this summer, most of which used to sit very close to the foothill/plains interface.....similar to where I live. Watching houses burn is a humbling experience. Whole neighborhoods went up instantly due to proximity, the hot weather, low humidity, high winds and draught conditions.

What to do about wildfire? Plan for it!  A house can be built up to and above all fire standards and take all site precautions and still explode from the intense pre-heat of a major fire....any house....even those that are built "fire-proof". You must do all you can to protect the house, and still have a good evacuation plan. 

And you should plan on building a concrete underground storage vault, typically called a safe room.  I recommend to all my clients that they build a safe room. If you have a basement or a walkout basement, a corner can be found to enclose a space with two additional concrete walls, and a concrete lid. Entered through a secure steel, fire-rated door, it should be large enough to hold: important papers, jewelry, valuables, firearms, and collections that should be kept in a secure anyway. It may also be large enough to put heirlooms and art in the event of an evacuation. Most things in a house can be protected by insurance, but some things should survive a fire.

If you don't plan for the certainty of a fire, you will not be prepared for the off-chance of one.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Choosing A Timber Frame Company

The nature of my architecture business is that I do not work directly for any timber frame company.  I only work for client/owners. In my early years, I represented a very good national timber frame company, designed the projects that I landed, and finally raised the timber frame and panel package, employing my office full of young architect types who adapted well to on-site timber construction. They were great years and I learned every aspect of the business.

I took that knowledge and applied it to my  timber frame architecture practice.  I deliberately stay contractually independent of all timber frame suppliers. The reason I remain independent is that I expect the companies to answer to me as the owner’s representative rather than me answering to a timber frame company.

Every timber framer is not suitable for every project. I recommend companies solely based on their ability to do the things that are required to complete that particular job properly in the area where the project is located. Often that means that I need a company that will travel far. Sometimes I need a company that will do or take responsibility for the timber package and the panel package. Sometimes, I am looking for a particular joinery style or great expertise with particular woods.

Each job in my past has been different, requiring great thought about how to accomplish the fabrication and assembly of the multiple pre-cut systems that make up a timber frame house.  I can sometimes recommend several companies that have shown that they are capable of timber framing a particular project in a particular place.  Sometimes I recommend only a single company, based on my prior experience with that business.

When appropriate companies are chosen for consideration, they are asked to bid the work based on the architect’s drawings. I always design the frames in my houses, so companies can bid apples to apples, rather than having to first design a frame to fit the house and then price it. The bidding companies are encouraged to make a good impression and pay a lot of attention to the client, since the client makes the decisions. We typically see the timber framers best price, since he knows that he is competing for the work, and there is less guesswork as a result of the frame having been previously worked out.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

People and their Houses, Timber Frame or Not

Arzt Timber Frame House in Homer

We just returned from a trip to Alaska where we visited good friends of many persuasions. My doctor friend (it’s good to know a doctor if you fish like I do),  a ship pilot,  a contractor, a (newly trimmed) bearded timber framer, a soon-to-be-on-TV real estate agent, an artist/guide and others. Besides the fine Alaska fishing, of which we all share a love, and the fine wine my friends collect in order to encourage gentility in the Great State, they have in common an attraction to the built form and specialty construction methods in general. I believe the younger, single artist/guide is likely interested in a different type of built form…… but I digress.

Two families are previous clients, now living in their (exceptionally extraordinarily terrific) timber frame houses who graciously invite my wife and daughters to visit yearly. Sometimes they let me come along too.

Judd and wife Lynn at house above

I have found that people who live in their own space see themselves as staying there forever. By own space I mean a house that not just feels good, but reflects their own leanings, proportions, and especially how they see themselves now and in the future. Mountain homes have ski things and outdoor personalities. Alaska homes typically have all from native art to many fish and wildlife references. Why, you ask? Because those types of people live there…..for a reason. When people for some reason must consider moving, they often believe that they will never get their space again.

This year a talented general contractor friend  who built one of my timber frames in Soldotna, completed his own house (not timberframed) in Sterling, overlooking the Kenai River, valley and mountain range you might see in paintings if you were so lucky. Even though it is not one of my designs… ehem…. it is a beautiful, well designed, detailed, and dramatically perched piece of modern architecture created by my friend and a talented local designer with whom he regularly works. He planned it out for six years, and built it in a year to a polished and unique finished product (besides that big chunk of exposed concrete downstairs that he loves so much). With a combination of heavy timbers and steel structure the large glass windows and complex shape expose a view to die for. When you see him and his family in the house with big smiles and easy grace you know it’s their own.
Bad types on the Kenai River

When designing for people and families you try to interpret their movements, interactions, as well as their tastes and needs, in a way that allows you to foresee how they will be friends with their house once it is built. If the architect  gets invited back, he gets to actually see for himself whether the house fits the owner (success).

Every house done is a huge learning experience both for the architect and the owners.

Hint of the day: I’m really liking wine cellars.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Trim and Finish Work in a Timber Frame House

The building of the foundation, floor systems, timber frame, wall system, roof system with roofing, window and door installation and roughed in utilities are typically what is referred to as “dried-in”. By and large, these are the biggest items of the project and are roughly equivalent to being what I call the “first half of the house”, and can typically be used to gage the costs of the “second half of the house”. 

Sommer House Kitchen
The second half is items such as flooring, wall and ceiling finishes, kitchens, bathrooms, electrical and plumbing fixtures, built-ins, stairs, fireplace, and trim.    
Since much of this work is done in wood, many questions arise as to the species, finish, and design of those items. The issue becomes “how many types of wood can I have in my house before it gets ridiculous?”  The answer may surprise you.

The typical architectural axiom is to use no more than three finish materials in the house. We all have seen spaces in gaudy houses and hotel lobbies that use various stone types, woods, metals, glass and as many different materials as they can pack in. It typically looks bad, and often reflects poorly on the owners. A more reasonable approach is to use fewer materials better. 

When it comes to wood, though, I have found that your frame, ceiling, flooring, cabinets, trim, and doors can be of multiple species without harming the quality of the space. If you like to match woods, match the cabinets, trim and doors. I like light ceilings, and often use aspen for the ceiling tongue and groove.  I like somewhat light floors since they show their grain, and reflect light throughout the space. Also, I generally avoid stains, since natural wood grain is pretty good by itself, and it much easier to repair if unstained.

You can also bravely change the standard (flat) wall, window and door trim found in almost all houses. Trim can be thick and narrow, still appearing large and holding it’s own against the very large timbers. Also, the corner treatment on trim can match that on timbers. Sometimes, moving away from the norm brings the most intriguing results. The Sommer House, below and above, used custom trim shapes, a douglas fir frame, cherry knee braces, aspen ceiling, cherry cabinets and trim, and knotty cherry doors. The floor is maple.

Sommer Great Room
All trim is used to cover areas that would otherwise be unsightly. It has evolved to be it’s own beautiful system and should be seen as a device to bring continuity and interest to spaces. Good, creative finish carpenters love working in timber frame houses, especially if you listen to their ideas. They will do their best work for you if you let them.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Timber Framed House and Eternity

Krull Kitchen

The timber framed house is an icon of permanence and strength in a world of disposable everything.  With proper design, construction, and basic care the house will last generations, centuries and eons.

When designing a timber framed house for an individual, couple, or family, there is a certainty that the house represents a life changing event for the owners.  Sometimes the owners are retiring, and this will be their home……. for eternity. Other times the house represents a serious commitment to family, staying put, and raising kids…….for eternity. And every so often the house will be a second house retreat where the owners, their family and friends will go to recreate and strengthen bonds………for eternity. 

You may have noticed a theme. In my years of practice, only two of my houses have been for sale. One, in Colorado, was recently sold because of a job related move.  One other is for sale presently in remote Alaska because of family commitments. Both couples are sad to re-define the bond they have with their homes.

Krull House
For clients, home design is a very personal and scary adventure. Of course, they want to get it right the first time. It is prudent for the architect to get the client involved in the research of everything from windows and doors to electrical and plumbing fixtures. Ultimately, architects can show things and suggest things, but clients choose things, and they choose things that match their personalities. Each item, from the smallest fixture… the house… the site itself, is a reflection of the owners.  

The scary part is the unknown, especially if this is your first time. Those are typically costs, schedules, procedures, and the biggest fear of all—making bad choices that haunt you forever.

The keys to making good decisions boils down to three things: take the time to research properly, get good advice, and step outside yourself.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Timber Frame Design and the Haines Brewing Company
The process of designing a house for extreme environments like Alaska begins by understanding the site’s environment, and developing a strategy that protects the structure against nature and physics. All else is secondary. If the house doesn’t stand up, it matters little what the floor plan is. 

As stated in the previous entry, the life of a traveling timber frame architect can sometimes be downright fun and enjoyable. It can also be eye opening. One of those moments occurred in Haines by virtue of having the great pleasure of stopping by the Haines Brewing Company, located in what was built as the set for the movie ” White Fang”. Now, it’s not a fancy joint. No tables, no chairs, no food, just you, the brewmaster, your glass, and whoever is leaning near you with a glass in hand. As long as we were standing there, I felt compelled to try a variety of brews from light to dark, all very good….glad I had a rail to lean on. The company got interesting. While I was chatting with the brewer about his brews and other small operations here and there, a pair of the local guys came in, friends of my client and of course the brewer.  They stood and drank beers with us too and talked about their expeditions up these gnarly peaks, extreme skiing and snow machining….you know, just normal daily stuff to these guys—athletic, adventurous, local types, when I noticed that one of them sported a titanium leg……

In Haines, copious quantities of snow plus coastal storms and frequent rain mean that ice, water, and salt weigh heavily into the initial house formula. Tsunamis have shown that they are not to be forgotten. The best views are where the most brutal weather comes from. Designing a house for this area means buttoning up real tight, and providing a place for the snow to slide harmlessly off the roof away from the house and people. Big overhangs and raised decks protect a house and keep useful space up out of the snow. A house becomes the shape of what it is trying to accomplish.

Also, of primary concern is access to the house. Even though there can be extra work involved, safe driveways, parking, and walking areas are essential, especially where there is ice and a lot of darkness, as in the far north. A mother with young kids in tow and groceries can’t always watch her step carefully, and distractions abound. Good access is also especially convenient in the case of fire or other emergencies.

In the wilderness, and elsewhere, animals can become problematic. Some thought should be given concerning everything from large animals rubbing their antlers on the corners of houses to bears gaining access to the house when you are away. Not to mention insects, birds, and squirrels, who like to make their home in your siding. Here in Colorado, we have mountain lions close. Here kitty kitty.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why I love my job: Designing a Timber Frame House in Haines, Alaska

One of the great joys of my chosen profession is the opportunity to work in new places with new people.  Each project is an adventure with a story that goes beyond the technicalities of the job.  I meet some very interesting people.

I recently got a call from a young family in Haines, Alaska, who called to talk to me about designing a house for their family on a rugged coastal site there in Haines, Alaska.  I love Alaska, and have designed houses in Homer, Soldotna, Kenai, Chicaloon, Palmer, Fairbanks and Kodiak. But I had not been to Haines, or any part of Southeast Alaska.  So when they asked whether I was willing to come all the way up there for a site visit, I was already packing.

This was March, with three feet of snow on the ground, so I threw together my pac boots, jacket, hat and gloves, and flew off to Haines, population small enough that everyone knows each other, sometimes too well.

Sensing adventure, I was on a plane from Denver to Seattle……and then Juneau…..and then to Haines in a little propellor plane, surrounded by extreme skiers, who go there to ski extremely from helicopters. Since discovering Google Earth as a great tool for remote jobs, I had already seen the property from space, so it was easy for me to identify the rocky beachfront site from the small plane as we cruised down the inland passage at low enough altitude to see lounging seals on craggy rocks, glaciers out the windows, and my clients as they drove up the road paralleling the plane to pick me up at the small air strip. 

As is typical with my remote house projects, the moment I get there, they make me work. Frank and Kristin tossed me and my bags in the truck and off we headed to the rugged property I had just flown over.  We pulled over and parked, donned boots, jackets, hats and gloves, and headed by foot down the new snow covered road to the building site.  Steep, forested, rocky and snow covered, the site is spectacular, as you look across the bay to the 7,000 foot mountains on the other side, riddled with glaciers and imposing snow covered peaks. The sun was out and the sky was blue.

And that’s just the prelude to the work.  Next blog: the Haines Brewery

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Crystal Lantern House displays the creative process of Timber Frame Architecture in a format that is unique, colorful, and informative.

As an experienced Timber Frame Architect I have presented, in book form, many of the considerable issues that my clients and I address in early meetings and throughout the process of decision making. Displaying portfolio photographs by Roger Wade, I describe several projects and explain the practical and philosophical reasoning behind decisions.

My firm, Mountain Timber Design, designs Timber Frame Homes throughout North America in some very interesting environments.