Guidelines for designing and building a timber frame home…

Mao bent

These are some of the things I’ve come to feel strongly about in the design and building process. I welcome any corrections, suggestions, and additions that may make this list more useful to those in the design or building process. For more updated information on my path as a timber framer and natural builder please visit www dot pranatimberframes dot com. Peace and Blessings to all.

I will assume you live in a bioregion that has forests as one of its ecosystems. It only then follows that you should build with wood. If you do not live in such a bioregion then you need to search for your local/traditional way of building shelter. It may be with straw (bale) or with clay (in-fill), or both (cob); it may be rammed earth or something else. Don’t worry about the big bad wolf here, that’s just a fairy tale.

I will be happy to help you find your local vernacular if it means saving trees from being shipped from afar. If your bioregion once  held working forests, but they are now all but gone, then you know what life wants from you. Read ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’ (great book) and join forces and support anyone who is working to in bring  your forests back again.

Guideline #1: Find your wood first.

If you do anything from this list, do this! You will be glad you did. Find your wood first and only then begin the design process. Don’t waste time designing first and then rushing about for inferior quality timber that isn’t ready to be used. This not only provides you with inferior quality wood, but it virtually guarantees you will buy your wood from a liquidator of the forests, a scalper, a clear-cutter. This, unfortunately, is the normal process still. Fortunately, we now have alternatives and proper planning can allow you the builder to search out the most sustainable means of consumption.

If you have the money you can get your timber microwaved but it’s expensive, it lowers the quality of the wood, and involves a bunch of high-embodied energies that are problematic. Your money is better spent elsewhere.

Slow cured timber is superior. If you buy your logs first you will also win because they are not getting any cheaper. Use your time wisely! The ideal situation is to build in 3 to 5 years from the moment you decide. In the mean time you can find wood, design, and build a guest cabin or shop to live in. This process also lets you “practice” on the guest cabin or shop which will greatly improve upon the quality and design of your final resting place (not to be confused with your final final resting place) :).

Guideline #2: Support local woodlots, community forests and selection loggers.

This should be #1 but I guess the worm should come before the hook :). I hope us consumers don’t need much convincing of this anymore. If you honestly don’t know what i’m talking about then go to, watch the cartoon and get educated.

These are serious times and require responsible, mature people to act now and set an example for our children. Being a part of the solution is a double edged sword. We not only become part of the solution to our problems, we become one less contributor to the problems we face. If I buy beets, milk, lamb and honey from the local, biodynamic farmer, I give him and her money, it gets circulated locally and that’s less dollars going to Wal Mart or whatever big mega store is looming in your neighborhood. Same logic applies to your clothes and the shelters we live and work in. Our most powerful vote is with our daily dollars spent locally.

With the home you are planning on building, the bioregional solution is to find a local builder or a builder that thinks locally. This builder will know of the local forests, woodlots, and sawmills that provide local wood. It may seem hard at first, but if you can see trees in your bioregion, chances are there is still a forest. If there’s still a forest, then there can be a working forest from which to draw from.

Your home is the catalyst to set this positive change in motion. Sure a good part of your home might have to come from the local clear-cut, but at the very least, the porches, the summer beam, the mantel, the kitchen cabinets, the flooring, can come from the local community forest. For examples of community forests: British Columbia, England

If anyone knows of any other examples, please let me know.

Why is this important?

Clear cut timber is not sustainable, it’s a one time cut and that size of timber is never to be seen again at that cut block.  This type of forestry supports 2×4 and 2×6 size tree farming. It may be a new concept but so was a round earth at one time and so was organic and local food.

Consider this argument for sustainability. A timber frame or log house has a life expectancy of 1000 years if the roof and foundation are kept sound. A house made of 2×6’s has a life expectancy of less than 100 years. This means you will rebuild a stud-frame home 10 times to one big timber home. Which is a more sustainable use of resources? Infill your walls with straw bales, cob, light clay or rammed earth and your foot-print becomes even lighter.

There are many important reasons to want big timber in our forests and not just one age of trees in a tree farm that provide us with 2×4’s and 2×6’s. Not only do we benefit from big timber (beauty, strength, volume…) but our larger animals need these big trees for their habitat.

There are woodlot owners that do selection logging, don’t clear-cut and don’t high-grade their cuts. Just ask them one thing. Are their tops getting bigger or smaller? If smaller, then they’re not sustaining their cut and will eventually support only 2×4 and 2×6 markets. We should support the foresters that try to maintain this stand diversity.

The construction industry is a major shoe size in the carbon foot-print. This is our chance to make an important shift and change in that shoe size.

Guideline #3: Think Outside the “Box”

“The visual and aesthetic focus is the architecture and its link to the garden, not the contents of the space.” Len Brackett

Guideline #4: Passive Solar Gain and the Heating Matrix

Heating our homes here in southern British Columbia, Canada runs from September/October to March/April. That’s over half of the year!

Most of our homes are neither designed nor oriented to use the sun as a source of heat. This is a grave disconnect from times of never ending energy. The sun needs to be the second primary source of heat after the sweater, the hoody, the wool slippers, the cup of tea and the morning healing art (yoga, tai chi, qi gong, pilates…):)

Orient your home to the sun. In the northern hemisphere the living space is to the south, or south-west. The kitchen is to the east to welcome the morning sun. The utility rooms should be to the north to act as a buffer to the living room and kitchen. The coldest walls are to the north and east so minimize windows on these walls. Maximize windows to the south and to the west.

Get off the grid or design only a part of your home to extract a trickle from the grid. We cannot all plug into a hydro-dam, cole burning plant or nuclear reactor anymore. Think about it, take it to heart, go deep and make a big shift here.

The third primary sources of heat are the masonry heater, the rocket stove, the heated slab/floor and the like. Research these and chart your way through and beyond the troubled waters of the grid.

Guideline #5: Economical and Efficient

The cape and colonial homes are of economical design. There is much to be said for two floor houses. By building two floors you maximize floor space and minimize roof size. A roof is a big expense to build and to maintain. Some argue that old age will make stairs a problem. Maybe so, it’s an obstacle for you to decide upon. If one remains flexible in their old age (yoga, qi gong), stairs remain an obstacle and cease to become a problem.

I like the colonial for another reason. It is two rectangles under one triangle (the roof). The living rooms, kitchen and utility rooms are in the first rectangle, the bedrooms in the second rectangle, the roof of the second rectangle is insulated, leaving the triangle (roof) uninsulated but still useful for storage and hanging out in the cool and warm days. By insulating the floor of the attic it allows one to easily maintain the roof from leaks.

Guideline #6: Transition Spaces

Include a porch to wrap around at least 2 sides of the home. Houses that don’t have a transition between the outside and inside have a feeling of coldness and separation from the landscape. Porches offer this seasonal living space and transition.

The Japanese have perfected this design element known as the engawa. They even go so far as to wrap the outside of the porch/engawa with translucent screens that allow the porches to be open or closed to the outside/garden. When closed they allow a soft filtered light into the home that is calm, relaxing, and pleasing. This provides an added element of privacy and beauty that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Guideline #7: The Art of Relaxation

Don’t ever rush a decision, especially when building your home. If you feel rushed, pause, back up, slow down and contemplate (breath slowly and deeply). The answer will become clear eventually.

Guideline #8: Humility and Patience

Never build on the most beautiful location of your property. Live on the property for at least 4 seasons before breaking ground.

Guideline #9: Water and other earth energies.

Divine your water source with several diviners to cross reference. You will be amazed at their accuracy. You will also find out other lines, faults and fractures running through your property that have never proven to be harmonious, healing locations to position your home. I was unaware and skeptical of this but I have experienced too much consistent evidence to doubt it any longer.

Guideline #10: Traditional time-tested beauty.

Read ‘A Pattern Language’ by Christopher Alexander. He studied all the vernaculars of architecture and design of many cultures from around the world and distilled one common “language” that we all use to define and make our spaces beautiful. So many great ideas of how to design and build our spaces. Highly recommended before you design your space.

Read ‘The Not So Big House’ by Sarah Susanka. She has transformed the way we think about space and how much we really need. Reduce your square footage and put the money you save into better appliances (like off the grid one’s):) You can google her and see the revolution she’s a part of.

6 comments on “Guidelines for designing and building a timber frame home…
  1. Oliver Swann says:

    Nice to find your blog. I’d love to add your homes to the natural homes map. Take a look at it here:

    If you would like to include your work on the map I have a page I can send you where you can add your homes.

    Hope to hear from you…

    Regards, Oliver

  2. Summer says:


  3. Summer says:


  4. Dieter Brand says:

    Hi Michael,

    We have met on the Fukuoka list. Why did you hide your knowledge about wood from us? When you say “list” do you mean this blog? Or is there a separate mailing list where wood issues can be discussed?

    I haven’t read all the material on your site yet, but wood is something I need to learn about. Traditional houses in my region (South of Portugal) are in rammed earth, but most of our property is wooded. I can’t use the cork oaks because they are protected under the law. Well, there are sometimes bits and peaces in dead trees that can still be used. But I have a lot of madrone. Not ideal for houses, but there is furniture or small constuctions I would like to use it for.

    My question is about conservation and prevention of splitting. Are there low-tech methods I can use without buying expensive equipment?


  5. ProVillage says:

    A very good article.
    I have seen the movie “The Story of Stuff” before, (Youtube or something like that), but I want to thank you about giving the original site where there is other good stuff also. Thank you!

    Not having much to add to your article, but like to say, as you did; Do not hurry when you build!
    If you choose the wood carefully, the result will be nice. If you do not, you will see the one board that “did not fit in so well” in your toilet, for the next decades and all other people will stare at that very board for centuries. Especially if it is in the toilet, opposite the seat! ;>)

    Also; do not use wood where there are the very center of the log. It will crack when it dries. )If you can’t find “heart-free” thicker wood, balks or such, at the saw-mill, then the saw-mill does not know what they really are doing. A very usual situation here in Finland.

    Dieter had a question: “My question is about conservation and prevention of splitting.”
    Did you, Dieter, mean splitting as you dry the wood?
    If so, then there is things you can do, without any costs or very, very small costs.


  6. click says:

    surprisingly valuable stuff, on the whole I picture this is worthy of a bookmark, thank you

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