Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Only Three Twelve Sided Barns in Canada

In Canada there are only 3-twelve sided barns. (There are many more in the USA). One is in the province of Quebec in the little historic village of Mystic. That barn, which is on the front cover of my latest book, "Barn Building," has many extraordinary features. Not only has it twelve sides but it has twelve distinct roofs as well. You can see and read more about that one in my book.
The other two are located in the north, near Iron Bridge, Ontario, which is haflway between Sudbury and Sault Ste marie. Now what are two complicated barns doing up north where Lake Huron's warming affects give farmers a short growing season and the Canadian Shield, starting just north of the lake, prevents anymore farming altogether.
The three barn's construction are related, so the story goes which is gathered from a few different sources. While the Mystic barn was built in 1882, one of the workers there moved all the way to the Iron Bridge area and built this 62-foot diameter barn pictured here in 1919. One of his workers who helped, then built the 3rd 12-sided barn about 1 mile away in 1928. Amazing how these things work out and are related.
The period beginning in 1900 was a boom time for towns and farmers in this area as the last of the great pine forests growing there were being cut down to build the cities of North America. Farmers had huge demands not only for produce and meat, but hay and grain to feed the hundreds of horses needed to log the bushes in the surrounding areas. By the 1920's it was all over, most of the good pockets of pine were logged out and then the Great Depression came, wiping out demand.
Luckily both barns are still standing and I was fortunate to have been invited on the annual barn tour up there by farmer and organizer Will Samis. "Barns are our biggest antiques," Will says. He is so right. And there is an effort to save this barn and move it down the road about 10 miles to the hamlet of Sowerby as a meeting place, dance hall, art display, antique impliment display-- a kind of museum with a social flair. The owners of the barn don't farm and don't really want it and have given to the local Heritage Farm Building tour buffs. They recieved a grant from the Ministry of Culture to take the barn down, preserve all the working timber frame pieces, and put it back up.
And, I have been asked to supervise and organize this event. Oh boy, what a fantastic challenge. And here is another coincidence. My Amish neighbour, who made the windows for my house 10 years ago and has tons of building expeience, moved up to Iron Bridge last year. I got to visit with him and his family when I was there. So... I've asked him and his brothers to help with the barn, and even though they are very busy carving a new life out of this northern frontier, he wrote me a letter recently saying he would help. It's going to be a great challenge, but fun for all as well. We'll see this summer.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Timber frame construction is not only a North American phenomenon. Where it originated from we may never know, but in my next project I am going to try and find some of the oldest buildings constructed in the post and beam style.
Of course Europe comes to mind when we think of old timber frames, which is where our structures came from although we adapted them to meet our needs. There are incredible timber frame barn buildings in England, Holland, France and Germany that were built over 600 to 800 years ago and are still standing. Timber framing was not only restricted to barn building, but was also used extensively in house and factory construction. Just look at my local area here in Grey County, Ontario, Canada. Most of the century old factories are made from massive timbers, with a fa├žade of bricks or stones while some houses show nice small timbers holding up the roof and even the plaster and lathing inside.
What we perhaps don’t think about much is the fact that timber frames were just as common in Asia, and in particular, Southeast Asia. Why? Well, the biggest reason for building any of these large timber structures is the abundance of big trees. Burma, Thailand, Laos and south western China, all had a large supply of trees at one time and some like Burma still do.
This brings me to my next project. Last winter in February ’08 I travelled to the north part of Thailand to a city called Chiang Mai. Located at the foothills of the Himalaya Mountain range there was an abundance of tall straight trees, mostly teak, up until only 40 years ago. For centuries people in this region built their temples, houses and agricultural buildings, as post and beam structures. Beautiful, incredible large and small, some of these buildings, especially Buddhist temples have stood the test of time and are still standing.
There are as well, more recently built houses, within the last 100 years that used timber frame notching techniques much like our own. These houses used for living in, are mostly built from teak. That includes the boards for the outside walls, stairs, and of course the structures themselves. Just amazing.
It’s the temples I saw, some over 600 years old, that used large timbers, some round, some intricately carved, that are most abundant. But even in the agricultural areas, there were still some buildings there that are obviously timber frames.
Today, since most of the trees are gone, concrete is the building mode there, for residential and commercial. Locals told me the bugs don’t eat the wood, it doesn’t rot and is super strong.
This winter I’m going back to Thailand and plan on travelling in the northern part, to take photos and interview people who know about the structures I find. Perhaps another book in the near future.
The big question is: who thought of timber frames first-- the Europeans or the Asians. I hope to find out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Raising a Timber Frame

Raising a timber frame
This past summer I worked on a recycled timber frame that had been built in the 1980’s as an addition to an old farmhouse. In 2005 the house had extensive fire damage and the timber frame addition, for the most part sustained smoke damage. I bought the frame after some stud framers, who didn’t know what they were doing, took it down, damaging many parts of it.
But still, it was a nice frame, being about 30 feet by 30 feet with three bents and some nice heavy principle raters and purlins.
I sold the frame to the Weyman family near Eugenia, Ontario. They wanted it as a studio, but really it’s a second home to their week-end farm get-away place.
The frame needed some work, a couple of girts that were damaged by the fire, two bents needed a king post instead of the Queen posts that were there but inadequate (according to the engineer) and a lot of sanding. My oldest son, Skyler, did most of the sanding as a summer job, while he was here last June and July. The smoke from the fire had darkened all the timbers, but really in the end, sanding couldn’t take it away, but it sure gave the pine frame a beautiful patina.
My friend Milan helped me notch some of the new timbers in August and we were finally ready for the raising in September. Milan and I readied the frame by first putting the 3 bents together on the first floor deck. They were massive bents, some of the timbers, such as the principle rafters, were 10 inch by 12 inch by 26 feet long. Just to move them on the deck required more then two of us, and we often asked for help from the other crew that was there, who I had hired to put the stress skin panels together.
After 2 weeks of hot sunny weather the day I had scheduled to raise the bents … was raining! And so was the next day and the next, and in fact the whole week was a write off. Each day I had to call the 5 crew members, the crane operator and the owners. Finally on an overcast but not raining Monday, we raised the frame and it all fit! I had, up to that point not ever seen the frame up and really had not known if I had all the pieces there( being over 100 pieces of timber and braces)! All in all a good raising, and for timber framers, the most satisfying time, seeing it all fit together after weeks of work.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

My first blog

hey this is so cool. So much change happens every day and this way i'll be able to write about it.