A Primer on Timber Home Design, Definitions and Styles

Deluxe kitchen with timber accents throughout. Courtesy of Hearthstone.

Deluxe kitchen with timber accents throughout. Courtesy of Hearthstone.

Today’s timber homes rarely come from the same mold. Designs run the gamut from traditional and classic to rustic or contemporary—and sometimes a mix of styles.

It’s this plethora of design options that can leave many newcomers to the industry bewildered, wandering through a forest of references to timbers, logs, posts and beams. Here’s how to talk timber and describe what you want in your dream home.

  • How They Differ: Traditional “stick-built” construction uses a skeleton of 2-by-4 or 2-by-6 studs hidden beneath drywall to frame the home. In engineering terms, this is a “distributed load” structure. In contrast, timber homes are “point load” structures, where a few brawny horizontal and vertical beams carry all the weight of the roof and walls.
  • Timber Frame: This age old construction style evolved before the use of nails or screws, where skilled craftsmen join timbers by mortise (wooden hole) and tenon (wooden peg). The configuration allows open floor plans and cathedral ceilings.
  • Post & Beam: Same kind of open floor plans here, but this construction system uses metal fasteners between timbers, which can include plates, screws and through-bolts.
  • Logs: Used for wall systems, posts or beams, these come in two varieties—handcrafted and milled—and dozens of profiles (square, round, D-shaped, etc.), corner styles and tree species. This option also includes half log siding, which also offers the appearance of full log on corner sections.
  • Look Up To Trusses: Either post and beam or timber frame use timber trusses as the focal point of the home’s design–drawing our attention upward when we enter. The truss carries the weight of a second floor or roof system to the walls without any support from below (unless it’s for decorative purposes only). Trusses and their individual components go by dozens of names and configurations (see sidebar for details).

Hybrid Designs
More and more of today’s timber home buyers are a combination of conventional construction with a timber frame and log accents. Often called a hybrid design, homeowners typically opt to use timbers in the public area (great room, foyer, kitchen dining area) and conventionally frame the remaining areas (bedrooms, bathrooms, mudrooms, garage, etc.). Logs are used on porches, decks and sometimes for exterior walls.

This is because the cost of the timbers ultimately competes with other upgrades, such as flooring, cabinetry and countertops.  Often it comes down practical trade offs, guided by budget realities. Hybrid designs offer good mix of the reality of budget and the beauty of a timber frame.

Another growing design trend is mix and match different wood species and profiles of timbers. Members of the Log and Timber Homes Council are seeing a blending of round logs and square posts to create a unique home. Then too, members of the council say home buyers opting for different wood species, using an oak frame with cherry and walnut braces, for example. Many buyers like the idea of using different colors and textures of wood.

This willingness of buyers to embrace eclectic designs is causing many member of the Log and Timber Homes Council to expand their product offering to include timber frames, handcrafted and milled logs. Precision Craft Log Structures in Meridian, Idaho, for example, now offers all three with a team of architects on staff to help buyers sort out the right rustic style for their needs. In this way it all flows from their design, which is how it should be.

Many producers encourage buyers to use structural insulated panels (also called stress-skin panels) to enclose the frame, as well as the rest of the home, to reduce energy costs by 50 percent or more. It’s a great way to maintain thermal efficiency and enclose the home quickly. It’s also smart considering heating and cooling costs are on the rise.

What About Costs?
While it’s nigh impossible to generalize costs nationwide, timber frame or post and beam homes are comparable in cost to other forms of custom construction. Put another way, custom construction is 15 to 20 percent more expensive than your local production or tract homebuilder that offers few upgrades and no changes to a design.

Are you a stickler for square footage costs? Members of the Log and Timber Homes Council say finished homes can cost as low as $130 a square foot for modest amenities to $600 or more per square foot for more luxurious appointments.

Hybrid designs can save buyers roughly $10 to $15 a square foot or five to 10 percent over a home that uses a full timber frame or post and beam throughout. Rarely is the choice between going full frame or hybrid based solely on aesthetic or design considerations, explains Ron White, project manager with Hearthstone in Dandridge, Tennessee. “It usually comes down to cost. That’s why we sell a lot of hybrid designs.”

Sorting Through Timber Terminology

  • Vertical Posts: Serving as the legs of the timber frame, their names include principal posts (used at the corners) or king, queen and crown posts—to name just a few. Each has a specific role to support other beams or trusses. For example, a samson post, supports the intersection of four horizontal upper story beams. A joweled post (also called a gunstock post) is fashioned from a whole tree turned upside down to utilize the natural flare of the trunk.
  • Horizontal Beams: These include timber sills (the perimeter of floor sections upon which posts stand), girts (which span between posts also where the term “girder” comes from), joists (uses to support floors), purlins (used between exterior posts or tie roof sections together) and ridgepole (the horizontal apex of the roof system).
  • Truss Talk: A triangle is the simplest form of truss (often used in small buildings). Adding a king post in the center of this triangle allows for a wider span. Queen post trusses, in contrast, look like a rectangle within the triangle. The hammer beam is the most dramatic in appearance, used to span large interior spaces—think cathedrals and churches.
  • Gentle Bent: When trusses are combined with the vertical posts and horizontal beams they are called bents, which form the basic cross-section of a timber frame. Bents give the frame the strength it needs to carry structural weight.