The Beauty of Roundwood Timber Framing

By Ben Law
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"Roundwood Timber Framing," by designer, architect and woodsman Ben Law, is filled with detailed drawings and color photographs that feature his beautiful and unique, low-impact roundwood buildings. Read how Ben has perfected the balance between environmental conservation and the use of renewable local resources through roundwood building, which utilizes materials straight from the local forest and manages woodlots for sustainable materials for future projects.
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Ben Law is a 21st century woodsman pioneering a new roundwood building style based on the timber framing methods of his British ancestors. Here he is in front of the Woodland House.
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Roundwood timber framing means working with materials sourced straight from the forest, using nature’s shapes to create the structure, employing techniques that can easily be learnt and passed on, and following a method of building that can continue without stalling in the transition to a post oil society.
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Roundwood timber framing is a low-impact, sustainable building practice that utilizes local trees rather than milled lumber. 
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Coppice (broadleaf trees cut during the dormant season, which produce continual multi-stems that are harvested for wood products) with standards (a single stemmed tree allowed to grow mature, commonly amongst coppice), freshly cut.
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Ben Law's yurt is an intricate framework of poles that were bent into extreme shapes using steam.
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Ben Law's first home at Prickly Nut Wood — a 'bender'.
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Coppice (broadleaf trees cut during the dormant season, which produce continual multi-stems that are harvested for wood products) with standards (a single stemmed tree allowed to grow mature, commonly amongst coppice). Oak standard regrowing over chestnut coppice.

Ben Law constructs sheds, barns, homes and businesses with roundwood timber framing, a low-impact, sustainable building technique that marries freeform building with modern architectural regulations. In Roundwood Timber Framing: Building Naturally Using Local Resources (Permanent Publications, 2010),Ben provides diagrams, photographs and descriptions of how a roundwood building utilizes local trees from managed woodlots to form uniquely beautiful roundwood structures that are in balance with the landscape around them. Read how Ben’s first buildings in the heart of England’s forests became an inspiration for the beginning of his sustainable style. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Roundwood in Building.”

The building industry is one of the most high energy, high waste industries in the UK. Although building regulations are helping to create better insulated buildings, many of the components are mass produced and incur high building miles, being transported vast distances to the construction site. Mass produced fixings and features often produce soulless architecture and the social atmosphere of many building sites is far from welcoming. The building industry ploughs forward in a reactionary fashion, making small changes and concessions through new regulations but not stopping to consider methods that are low impact, locally sourced and workforce friendly.

Roundwood timber framing is one such technique. Working with materials sourced straight from the forest, using nature’s shapes to create the structure, using techniques that can easily be learnt and passed on and a method of building that can continue without stalling in the transition to a post oil society.

The need to express one’s creativity through freeform building and a need to comply to plans and regulations has always been a difficult balance, but through the evolution of roundwood timber framing, I believe I am finding a style and technique which satisfies both needs. 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 the 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 a point in 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.

So it is time to pass on the fruits of this work, encourage you to search your local woodlands for timber, and create roundwood timber framed buildings in our landscape, which leave a legacy of hope to future generations. Roundwood timber framing is in its infancy, but what you will find here has its roots firmly grounded in the woodsman traditions of England (‘Woodsman’ is not a reference to gender, as men and women are equally capable of woodland activities. It comes from manus, the Latin word meaning “hand”. Thus woodsman means ‘hand of the woods’.) It is the love and knowledge of woodsmanship and its revival that has spurred us woodsmen to come out of the wood for periods during the spring and summer, to build our roundwood creations before returning to the woodland landscape to cut the coppice and continue the renaissance of the British forest dweller.

Ben Law’s Early Roundwood Building 

The first building that I constructed and lived in was a bender; bent coppiced hazel rods lashed together with string and then covered with a tarpaulin. It was a simple structure that more than sufficed as a home in the woods for a few years (See Image Gallery).

My next home was a yurt; a much more intricate framework of poles, advanced further by the use of steam to shape and bend the poles to extremes I could never have managed with the more simple bending of greenwood poles that formed my bender (See Image Gallery).

My next timber home was the “Woodland House”; a roundwood timber frame structure. I had evolved through the process of building to create a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home, without straying from the use of roundwood.

Was it just that I was so well immersed with life in the woods, surrounded by trees and their natural form, that I missed the step where humans moved on to build with sawn wood? or perhaps it is through working with roundwood, that I have found a building practice that not only benefits woodsmen and foresters, but lays down a benchmark for a new architectural vernacular in low impact sustainable building?

I believe it is the latter. I have constructed sawn timber frames from green oak to gain ideas for the traditional framing joints. I have experimented with the scribe joints of the cabin builders of Canada and the United States. Both techniques are tried and tested over many years to produce solid and long lasting buildings but both have their limitations when we look to the future, at our available resources and the need to build from what is readily available around us.

Roundwood Timber Framing

Britain has a wonderful ancestry of timber framing tradition. Early timber buildings consisted of vertical posts placed upright in a trench which was then back-filled with earth. The effort of hauling timber over long distances soon helped to evolve the buildings by spacing the vertical log poles further apart and infilling with twigs and clay, an early form of wattle and daub. Attaching the roof to such a structure was more difficult and it became necessary to attach a wall plate across the top of the posts upon which the roof rafters could then be attached. With evolution it became clear that the posts no longer needed to be earthed into a trench but could be attached to a sill place below them to keep the building stable and avoid the log posts rotting in the earthen trench.

So the timber frame was formed and over time the skill and knowledge of medieval carpenters constructed some of the most beautiful and long lasting buildings in Britain.

The woodlands of Britain were the source for these buildings and coppice woodlands, with their productive yield of underwood for fires, charcoal and craft produce, aided the management of standard trees. These were predominately oak, which were felled and converted into the structural timbers for the traditional timber frame.

Early frames were often “cruck” frames. These were formed from a naturally curved tree, split down its length with the two mirroring halves joined at the peak. Pairs of crucks were then joined together to form a primitive frame. The addition of a collar or tie beam formed the A shape which give the cruck frame its strength and stability. In Britain, there are over 3,000 examples of these frames still in use. With improved tools and jointing, carpenters were able to create frames without the need for the curved cruck and hence the box frame was formed.

The simplest box framed structures consisted of corners and intermediate posts rising from the sill plate to the wall plate with tie beams running across at each end of the frame and at chosen intervals across the intermediate posts. Bracing was often achieved with wind braces, sometimes curved to avoid the frame from racking. One advantage of box frame construction was that the internal space could be squared or regularised as there were no protruding timbers as in cruck construction. A well designed building, however, can also make good aesthetic and practical use of crucks within the building.

The box frame has formed the basis for the nost of the timber frames built up to the present day, the majority of them being built from oak. Oak needs to be grown to a good age, 70 to 80 years in the UK, before it is good enough to use for timber framing. This is because of the large amount of sap wood that the tree forms during its early years of growth. Other species have been used in the past, and in the future it will be necessary to use species grown as locally as possible to the construction site, opening up the possibilities of mixed species frames.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Roundwood Timber Framing: Building Naturally Using Local Resources, published by Permanent Publications, 2010.

Ben Law has published several books on roundwood timber framing. To learn more about his work, or to contact him, visit Ben Law, Woodsman.