Timber frame and post and beam homes are wonderful spaces. But is timber framing sustainable?
Buildings that are loved get maintained, and well-maintained buildings last far longer. Timber framing may be one of the best ways to conserve our resources because post and beam homes are special places that people love, and because they are loved, they are maintained over the years, and because of that care, post and beam homes last for centuries rather than decades.
Wood is one of our only renewable resources. Think about this sometimes overlooked and obvious fact.
Timber is a natural product. It is recyclable, biodegradable, and renewable. It does not off-gas toxins because there are none.
Timber, unlike 2×4 and 2×6 lumber, upon the end of the useful life of the timber frame or post and beam home, will be carefully dismantled and reused. Used 2x4s may one day be reused, but today are going into landfills, rotting, and releasing their stored carbon into the atmosphere.
Wood is a carbon sink. If kept dry, wood lasts indefinitely. If you leave a tree in the forest to die a natural death, it will rot and release its stored carbon. If you cut down a tree at the end of its natural life, it has spent years storing carbon and producing oxygen. If you then fabricate it into a timber frame, and keep it dry for centuries, the post and beam home is acting as a long-term carbon storage unit.
The figure we’ve heard is around 30% less. There are some caveats here, and it may seem counter-intuitive at first, but take a look at the photo (at left) from Stewart Elliot of Riverbend Timber framing.
Timber frame homes use big timbers which come from big trees. Here’s another counter-intuitive one. Big timbers come from big trees–sometimes old-growth trees. Big trees have spent many, many years storing carbon and producing oxygen. Today’s 2x4s are manufactured from young, small trees–trees that have not lived long enough to store much carbon, or to have produced much oxygen. What we’re doing to make 2x4s cheaply is to grow genetically-engineered super fast growing trees, cutting them down in 10 years, and then replanting. By the way, when we replant these crop trees, we’re not doing it by hand. We’re burning diesel fuel. Is is a cheaper way to produce a 2×4? Undoubtedly. Is it greener wood? We’re not so sure.
Timber frames or post and beam homes are the best use of old trees. Related to (7) above: In our view, it is far greener to cut down a majestic old-growth Douglas Fir tree at the end of its life, and fabricate it into a functional and gorgeous timber frame that will be treasured and maintained for centuries, than to cut it down and saw it into 2x4s that will eventually go into a landfill and rot, or produce window sashes which will rot, or to make paper. Better to revere these fantastic trees by turning them into an architectural solution to a structural problem that is so stunning and useful that generations of people will benefit from, and take care of the building.
Some post and beam homes are built without cutting down a single tree by using reclaimed wood and beams from old buildings and factories.
Nearby is a photograph of one of our timber homes which utilized reclaimed wood. We love putting old wood back to work, and the timber in this project is structural and is holding up the roof.
Timber framing is a darker shade of green. Having spent a week in a photovoltaic solar class, we’d note that no building material or technology is without consequences to the environment–not even solar panels. We contend that timber frame and post and beam homes, while not an environmentally perfect building solution, are demonstrably and quantifiably greener than most other conventional building methods.
Is there progress to be made? Sure! Yet even so, timber framing, teamed with structural insulated panels and solar photovoltaic panels, is the most beautiful, green, and energy-efficient method of building we know of.
Want to know where Carolina Timberworks is heading? Carolina Timberworks 2.0