This book was first written in 1980, though the philosophies presented between its covers are appropriate in these recent years of speculative energy prices and wobbling economic foundations. Timber frame house construction was "green" before that word was media-masticated and spit into popular culture.
The book is well illustrated and instructive, and it is also well written. The authors have both experience and passion for this topic. The hand-drawn illustrations are well labeled with a drafting font that makes it interesting and captivating to read.
The book begins with a historical review of this art, and slowly drills down to detailed diagrams of the many joining techniques. It is amazing that this old style of construction intuitively solved problems in structural mechanics without the need for finite element modeling, or even nails for that matter. The strength of this method of construction comes not from the size of the timbers (though they are substantial), but from the joints crafted from wood with axes, augers, and hammers. Timber framing is like cabinet building, but bigger.
There are many detailed drawings of joining techniques, and the reader quickly realizes that the craftsmanship and careful execution of these joints is the secret to this respected building trade. Flipping through these pages also immediately reveals the compromises that are made in modern home construction. Those who have ever wondered where the term "stick built" comes from will find the answer in this book. Dimensional lumber are sticks in comparison to timbers. Though metal connectors used in today's framing have done wonders for total structural stability, this book shows you that timber framing negates the need for stamped steel reinforcement.
Timber framed structures are built for permanence, preserving the strength of the frame by encasing it completely within the outer sheathing and exploiting the timbers as an aesthetic interior design element. It is amazing that so many barns and houses were built only by hand, because a single timber required two or more men to lift and transport. In this age, a crane is more appropriate. One should keep this in mind if considering this project on his or her own.
The captions in the book are terse and straight forward. "Wood never lies to you." "You don't just hack away obliviously." As said before, the writing is eloquent, and one can feel the earnestness of the writer with every paragraph. This excerpt sounds like it was written this year, rather than 1980:
"To insulate as well as we can and to make houses as tight as we can present new challenges to the building industry. Houses will no longer naturally ventilate because of our inability to get them tight. We can lock them up like thermos bottles if we like. To bring new air into the house, we'll have to design ventilation systems into the plans. With heat loss cut to the bones, we'll have to design natural and mechanical recirculation to keep the temperature even and the air fresh. In this kind of environment, the heat from appliances, lights, and even body heat will contribute significant proportions to the small heating requirements. In houses built this way, energy from the sun, wind, or water could easily replace fuel-fired power sources."
"Energy conservation is the hope of the future. In conscience, we must mark the end of the era of substandard housing that is cheap to build but expensive and wasteful to maintain. In conscience, we should begin a time when houses contain energy-autonomous environments that consume no fossil fuels and are build to last centuries."
Those words are nearly three decades old. They are describing what is sometimes called a "passivhaus" or "passive house", which is also an established building technique but is only recently seeing revival as a "green" building technique. Insulation, rather than expensive heating and cooling systems, is the key to energy efficiency. What the authors are showing is that with a timber frame, the outer skin can be insulated panels that are tightly sealed, making a water tight and nearly air tight structure that is stronger, more permanent, and more energy efficient than any home constructed from dimensional lumber.
And if there is any gripe of the book, it is that there should be more detail on the outer sheathing and insulating techniques, as well as wiring methods. There are a few cross sections (fairly detailed) but they are not as comprehensive as other sections of the book. Perhaps in 1980 the insulated panel industry was not large enough to devote more than a few pages to it. But now, there are composite, structurally insulated panels of many varying types that can be used in conjunction with a timber frame to build a very efficient, very strong, and architecturally pleasing home. And this is yet another example of how things come full circle; one of the oldest building techniques proves itself to be superior to its modern replacement in multiple ways.
On a personal note my building experience comes from the construction of a stick built garage which, at the time, seemed incredibly stout to me. I used 2x6 lumber for the walls rather than 2x4s, and sheathed the walls and roof with 5/8" oriented strand board. I used metal connectors in liberal amounts, reinforced the joints and ceiling joists, and insulated the entire structure so that I could work during the cold months. The garage is a solid, well insulated structure that maintains a comfortable climate by insulation and thermal mass alone. I was striving for a better way of building, and after reading this book I see that my desire was for timber frame construction. I wish I would have known more about it when I undertook the garage project, but now if I ever build my own home, I know how I will build it.
Lastly, the appendix has diagrams for beam loads that is nearly more comprehensive than some textbooks on the topic of strength of materials. Even if you do not intend to build a home this way, this book may still be of value to you if you have any interest in building, construction, or architecture.
For more information on finishing a timber frame home with different structural insulated panel technologies, see Benson's newer book: The Timber-Frame Home: Design Construction Finishing. It has more color photos and addresses the special considerations for foundations, plumbing, wiring, and insulating timber frame homes.