Timber Frame Houses in California: Should You Build One?

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Faisal Nadeem

Building a timber frame house in California might seem unwise due to the risk of wildfires, but many homeowners and builders prefer it for several reasons. An article by Alana Semuels in July 2021 titled “Wildfires Are Getting Worse, So Why Is the U.S. Still Building Homes With Wood?” for Time explains that the U.S. is still “stubbornly attached” to timber.

The United States is one of the few places in the world where wood is the dominant material for new-home construction. In 2019, 90% of all new homes were wood-framed, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Despite environmentalists arguing for more sustainable materials like bamboo and hemp, timber remains a renewable resource.

When planning home renovations or a whole home remodel and considering where to start, timber offers a most efficient house design. Moreover, timber frame houses can be designed as earthquake resistant, which is essential in California, and can even accommodate 2 houses on one property.

Considering legal restrictions, disaster resilience, and the availability of timber, building a timber frame house in California can be both practical and aesthetically pleasing.

What is a Timber Frame House

Building a timber frame house in California is a great idea if you appreciate modern, artisanal designs. Today’s timber frame houses are different from the old wattle and daub homes built by early American settlers.

As Anna Briseno explains in her article “Timber Frame Homes” for the National Association of Home Builders, timber frame homes are built using large wood posts and beams for structural support, without needing interior load-bearing walls.

Depending on the source, the timber for home construction can be prepared by machine or hand. Hand-hewn wood is more expensive but offers an organic, unique look that many homeowners prefer. The timbers are vaulted and joined by connecting a mortise (hole) with a tenon (tongue) to fit precisely and tightly.

While historically these joints were secured with wooden pegs, today’s builders often use metal fasteners and nails. Insulation and siding are added to the exterior, and wall panels can be finished with materials like logs, stone, or brick. Inside, you might leave the raw wood of the timber framing visible for a rustic charm.

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Most efficient house design

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earthquake resistant home design

Which type of Wood is used in Timber Frame House?

When considering whether to build a timber frame house in California, it’s essential to think about the type of wood you’ll use. Builders often employ different kinds of timbers based on their quality and availability. For the interior of your homestead, White oak is a popular choice because of its beautiful finish and strength. For the exterior, Baldcypress is commonly used due to its resistance to moisture and pests.

Choosing locally harvested trees can minimize transportation costs and ensure that the wood is adapted to the local environment. Mélodie Kohler and Céline Lecomte from EcoHome explain that using local woods also supports the local economy and provides clients with wood of known provenance. Charles L. Bolsinger from the US Forest Service notes that California has an abundance of hardwoods and timberlands, making it a rich resource for building materials.

Common species of wood used in timber frames include pine, redwood, Douglas fir, cypress, and cedar. These woods are typically chosen for their durability and availability. In some cases, builders may use engineered lumber like CLT (cross-laminated timber) or Glulam (glued laminated timber), which are made from layers of wood scraps bonded with synthetic adhesives. These materials are much less expensive than natural timber but do come with their own risks such as higher susceptibility to moisture damage.

Reasons why we still built Timber Frame Houses in California

Timber Frame Homes are a good fit for California’s Mediterranean Climate

California’s weather is ideal for timber frame homes due to its Mediterranean climate. With three variations ranging from mild coastal areas to high mountain regions and desert zones, the state’s diverse temperatures require adaptable building materials. Erik Kauffman notes in the Atlas of Biodiversity that California enjoys mostly temperate conditions all year round.

In San Francisco, Charlotte Lang of Forbes points out that brick and concrete houses are less common. Wood structures provide a perfect balance of insulation for both hot times and cold times. Unlike brick, which retains heat, timber is better suited for the very hot desert regions and the more moderate regions alike. This flexibility makes timber frame homes a practical choice for California’s varied climate needs.

Timber Frame Homes are relatively Earth-Quack-Safe

Wood-frame buildings can withstand extreme weather conditions and natural disasters better than expected. Charlotte Lang notes that California’s structural codes and earthquake requirements are the toughest in the nation.

U.S. Earthquake Model Update Enhances View of Wood Frame Vulnerability,”
These incredibly stringent building codes make wood framing the predominant construction method for residential dwellings. Experts like Ehsan Kianirad, CCM, Ph.D., and Andrew O’Donnell from Verisk confirm that the U.S. Earthquake Model Update Enhances the View of Wood Frame Vulnerability. In general, wood-frame buildings perform well during earthquake events, showing a low level of damage.

Poorly performing older buildings were typically constructed before the 1940s and between the 1960s and the early 21st century. Post-WWII homes are more vulnerable due to being larger and having fewer solid exterior and interior partition walls, which results in a reduction in the lateral load-carrying capacity. Over time, natural material like wood can degrade, making timber frame homes potentially more vulnerable as they age.

How are Timber Frame Homes Earth-Quake-Resistant?

Building a timber frame house in California could be a smart choice due to the better performance of new timber frame homes. Kianirad and O’Donnell highlight that improved standards and building codes in California have resulted in better design and the use of higher-quality construction materials.

Frequent inspections by building officials and more rigorous plan reviews ensure that today’s timber frame homes are constructed to withstand seismic forces.

One of the key advantages of timber frame homes is their earthquake-resistant nature. Deana Becker in her article for Neighborhoods.com explains that wood is naturally better in earthquake-prone areas because it is lightweight and flexible. Becker notes that the force of an earthquake is proportional to a structure’s mass, meaning the high strength-to-weight ratio of wood allows it to survive seismic activity better than brick.

Sophisticated hold-down systems and specially manufactured hardware contribute to more robust load paths and better workmanship, making smaller single-story timber frame homes particularly stable. With these changes to California’s building code, timber frame homes now offer better lateral support and remain among the most earthquake-resistant options available.

Timber Frame Houses can be Eco-Friendly

Building a timber frame house in California is an excellent choice for those prioritizing sustainability. With careful sourcing and a design-build team, these homes can be incredibly eco-friendly. Experts like Jake Blumgart and Steph Yin from PBS, NPR, and WHYY emphasize that traditional masonry materials like bricks and concrete are less sustainable. Their manufacturing and transporting processes involve burned fossil fuels, contributing significantly to climate change and high carbon emissions.

Wood, being lighter than steel and brick, is more abundant and accessible in California, which is rich in hardwood trees. These trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil even after they are felled. This stored carbon is only releasing when the wood is burned or rots. Therefore, choosing timber frame construction helps in maintaining an eco-friendly balance, making it a great option for sustainable building in California.

Building Eco-Friendly Timber Frame Houses in California

Building a timber frame home in California makes particular sense due to the readily available lumber. As Yin and Blumgart note, builders seeking points towards LEED certification must use materials from within 500 miles of the construction site. While this is a tall order in other parts of the United States, in California, locally sourced lumber is often available.

Timber frame construction is probably the most eco-friendly and sustainable option in Northern California. Kate C. Marcille, Todd A. Morgan, Chelsea P. McIver, and Glenn A. Christensen explain in their paper for the USDA that nearly 86 percent of California’s total timber harvest in 2016 came from the North Coast, Northern Interior, and Sacramento regions.

However, the shortages and sky-high prices that began in 2020 due to natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted builders in the Golden State. Keep in mind these challenges when planning your California timber frame home.

Timber Frame Barns

A timber frame barn is a structure that is constructed using traditional framing techniques. This method of crafting involves a framework made from heavy, squared-off timbers that are carefully fitted and joined. 

The joints are secured with large, wooden pegs. These barns have been used historically to house animals and store hay. Utilizing a variety of uses, timber frame barns are also popular as homes, party venues, wedding venues, and more. The ideas for their use are endless.

Building a timber frame house in California offers a blend of art and tradition, providing both utility and timeless appeal. The strength and versatility of timber make it a desirable choice for many applications. This worthwhile investment is not just functional but also a unique structure that you will appreciate for its qualities.

Timber Frame Pergolas

When considering a timber frame house in California, the allure of timber framing is undeniable. With its timeless beauty and superior craftsmanship, a timber frame home is a stunning choice that showcases the finest quality materials and design. The United States offers numerous opportunities to build such a home that perfectly complements your lifestyle and enhances your indoor and outdoor living space.

In California, you can create an inviting outdoor living space with a custom timber frame pergola. Imagine having a cozy spot to relax with a book or a shaded area for outdoor dining in your garden. The focal point of any American backyard, a timber frame pergola is the perfect addition to your home.

With our expertise and dedication to quality, we are thrilled to help you design and build a pergola that showcases the timeless beauty and craftsmanship of timber framing. Whether you’re looking to enhance your outdoor enjoyment or add a stunning feature to your backyard, a timber frame pergola will undoubtedly transform your space.

Timber Frame Pavilion Structures

Building a timber frame house in California is an excellent choice due to its versatile, beautiful design and eco-friendly benefits. At Homestead Timber Frames, we offer custom services for both residential and commercial projects.

Our experienced team of contractors guides you through every step of the process, from the initial design to the final installation. Timber frame structures provide beautiful, versatile living spaces suitable for any setting.

Considering an outdoor pavilion or gazebo? Our team can help you design a unique structure to enhance your property. These structures not only add beauty but also serve practical purposes. For a detailed quote and to learn more about our installation process, check out our YouTube video which showcases a project from start to finish. If you’re curious about the possibilities, contact us today to discuss your project.

Timber Frame Cabins

Building a Timber-frame house in California offers a unique place to recharge your batteries from the demands of daily life. Whether near the ocean, in the mountains, by a lake, or in the high desert, a quiet retreat can provide much-needed inspiration and energy to tackle life’s challenges.

With timber-frame construction, you get a new way to build with a traditional mentality. This old school method teaches people how buildings were constructed before the Industrial Revolution.

At Homestead Timber Frames, we educate our clients on these traditional techniques, offering structures at various stages of completion. We can provide plans, timbers cut to length, complete kits, and ready-to-go cabin structures assembled on site. If you decide you want a cabin that blends modern convenience with historical charm, consider a timber-frame cabin built the old way. Just call us for everything you need.

Curb Appeal and Timber Frame Porches

A timber frame house in California can dramatically enhance your home’s curb appeal. The influence of a timber framed entry on how people perceive your home inside is profound. A warm, welcome porch creates an inviting space for guests and family to enter your humble abode.

This outdoor structure, attached to the building and constructed using timber framing techniques, involves heavy timbers joined with traditional carpentry methods like mortise-and-tenon joints.

Timber Frame Airplane Hangars

When considering building a timber frame house in California, it’s worth noting the unique benefits of timber frame construction. Drawing from the experience of timber frame airplane hangars, the functionality and beauty they offer can be quite compelling. These hangars, often used for airplanes, showcase the environmental responsibility of using natural wood and renewable resources.

The aesthetic appeal and visual allure of exposed beamwork make them stand out. Furthermore, the durability and longevity of such structures, engineered for strength, ensure your investment will last a long time with proper maintenance and high-quality materials.

Commercial Timber Frame Structures

When considering building a timber frame house in California, you might be inspired by Homestead Timber Frames, known for their work on commercial projects ranging from heavy timber frame commercial buildings to massive outdoor timber frame pavilions and even airplane hangers.

Their projects include timber frame barns with and without attached residential units, as well as vacation rental properties. With a focus on heavy timber frame projects, they work closely with clients to transform dream concepts into reality, ensuring the process delivers final results that exceed expectations.

Timber frame construction is renowned for its structural integrity, strength, durability, and energy efficiency, making it ideally suited for commercial projects. These structures are designed to withstand the wear and tear of increased foot traffic compared to an average residential timber frame build.

The opening of a timber frame commercial structure is always a satisfying moment, drawing a crowd eager for the grand opening. Seeing the awe and wonder on their faces as they enter the building for the first time makes the effort truly meaningful and rewarding.

FAQs

What are the downsides of timber frames?

One major drawback of using timber is that it requires a lot of maintenance. Over a length of time, if not treated properly, timber can suffer and rot can set in. Timber frames will rot if they are not built properly or if they are exposed to moisture on a regular basis.

Should I build a timber frame house?

Timber frame houses are energy-efficient and use modern construction methods. These houses can easily achieve the minimum level of stringent building regulations available today. Modern timber frame houses are a great choice in California.

What are the cons of wood frame construction?

Wood frame construction in California has drawbacks like fire, wind-resistance, and durability issues. The low thermal mass affects energy efficiency, while shrinkage impacts the structure. Additionally, compromised acoustics and indoor air quality (IAQ) reduce comfort.

Why are California homes built with wood?

Building a timber frame house in California is affordable and much easier compared to using concrete or other construction material. Wooden homes are not only simple to construct, but they also allow you to relocate with ease. Plus, taxes on wooden homes in California are lower than those on concrete homes.