Monday, November 24, 2008

THE BIG QUESTION: WHICH CAME FIRST?


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.

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