Roundwood Timber Framing
Building Naturally using Local Resources
In the opening to Ben Law’s new book he describes the journey he has made in self-built dwellings: from bender- the simplest, almost stone-age dwelling made by pushing both ends of long hazel poles into the ground, making a domed space which is covered in a tarpaulin; evolving next into a yurt, a more sophisticated structure using a hazel or willow lattice as walls, with straight roof-poles slotting into holes around the crown or “wheel” at the top of the roof; to finally a roundwood timber framed house made famous in the Grand Designs program, and in his earlier book, “The Woodland House”.
This is a journey I have followed in a similar fashion myself, although my roundwood timber reciprocal frame hut is barely a hovel compared to Ben’s woodland palace, it was in fact partly inspired by him: I met him briefly some 20 years ago at the then young Sustainability Centre in Hampshire, where he was building a reciprocal frame, the first time I had come across the concept.
Since then Ben has resurrected the place of the small-scale coppice worker in Britain and developed out of the woods a a method of timber frame construction using roundwood poles that he feels fulfills the natural builders’ need for creativity and organic shapes in building with the regulators stringent requirements:
Hand selecting trees with form and character that have their own intrinsic beauty and follow their own lines, rather than those that have been forced upon them by saw and right-angle, allows freedom of movement in a building whilst keeping within the parameters of the drawings on the table. The building itself has life, curves and natural form, the frames often looking like they are trees growing out of the floorboards. Each new building improves on the last and each joint is developed and refined. I feel roundwood timber framing has reached its evolution where the joints are advanced, the timbers tried and tested and a range of buildings including sheds, barns, dwellings, educational spaces and industrial buildings have been constructed and passed the vigorous analysis of the construction engineers and building inspectors.
Using roundwood poles has several practical advantages: they do not require milling and planing the way sawn dimensioned timber does, and thus have a lower embodied energy; and they are structurally stronger than sawn timber of the same dimensions because the natural flow of the fibres in the tree remain intact.
The method of building lends something to Scandanavian and North American log-cabin style construction, but requires far less poles and is best combined with infills of natural materials such as straw-bale or cob.
Roundwood construction requires a close relationship with the different tree species, as well as an understanding of coppice management, which are both covered in the book. The third chapter gives details of 10 tree species suitable for roundwood framing; Ben lives in a sweet chestnut coppice, and rates this species very highly as a coppice tree and for this purpose; for those less fortunate to have access to such a resource- sweet chestnut is rare in Ireland for example- soft-wood poles such as larch or Douglas Fir will probably be more readily available. Of particular interest to start growing is Black Locust Robinia pseudoacacia which is a very durable tree that coppices well, currently uncommon in the British Isles.
There follows chapters on Tools for Roundwood Timber Framing; Construction, which describes in detail all the joints used; beyond the Frame- looking at shingles for the roofs, and wall and floor options; and finally a chapter with case studies of Ben’s roundwood timber builds, including the recent Lodsworth Larder, community owned village shop.
Roundwood timber framing requires a degree of specialist tools and skills, and while the process is described well in the book, only an experienced builder with good practical skills already would be able to go out and start building with these methods just from the book. Ben does also give courses and offers apprenticeships. There is also an accompanying DVD.
The star of this book is the photos. They are absolutely stunning: of trees, woods and coppice, tools and buildings. All mouth-watering, and worth buying the book for those alone. You might not be in a position to go out and start roundwood timber framing yourself immediately, but you will certainly be inspired to dream and who knows one day those dreams could become a reality.
Roundwood Timber Framing will find an essential place in the Green Builders’ library, and provides a wonderful way of linking together trees, woods, humans and their dwellings.