Resurgence of traditional carpentry in the UK
Interview with Stuart Voaden, Carpenter Oak Ltd
On the green hills above the Town of Totnes, Devon
In the show barn of Carpenter Oak, 31 October 2013
A self-build movement has emerged in the UK over the last 15 years, and has brought with it a resurgence of handmade traditional timber framing. Skills that go back many hundreds of years are now particularly sought after by people wanting to build their own house. Carpenter Oak Ltd was one of the first actors reviving this knowledge and these traditional skills. One of its directors, Stuart, explains how the company started and talks about the evolution of this carpentry trend and the philosophy of the company.
How long has Carpenter Oak Ltd been established?
It started about 25 years ago, in the late 1980s. Roderick James, an architect interested in natural
materials, started to convert old barns for domestic use. At that time, he was also the director of the Centre for Alternative Technology [CAT] in Wales. He was interested in craft and natural materials, and was also an entrepreneur.
He met Charlie Brentnall, a carpenter who specialised in the restoration of old buildings – barns, churches, medieval houses. Together they had the idea of designing new houses in a barn style – both to meet the growing demand for barn-style spaces and to overcome the restrictions that existed on converting old barns, such as where you can locate window openings and doors.
A timeless, classic design
So it wasn’t about renovation, but about new buildings?
Yes, new ones, but with these builds you do get the immediate feeling of an old timeless, classic design.
How are the original barns built ? They are mostly built with stones, right ?
Stone is the most common material, however it depends on the region. There is a wide range of local vernacular throughout the country, but stone and large section timbers is common.
These barns have a heavy weight and mass to them – they feel as if they are really grounded in the landscape, and they speak to people about longevity. Because of their clear spans, and vaulted open roof spaces, you can see the structure of the building – the skeleton of the building if you like – the timber frame. They’re open, light and airy. The frame is exposed, and it is sculptural.
You understand the construction and you’re intrigued by the shapes, the curves, the cracks. You’ve got the uneveness of the timber that flows – one piece of timber joins another and it flows in a very elegant way. So it’s interesting for the eye, and it’s tactile, it’s nice to touch, it’s a raw material. There’s nothing added to it, nothing taken away. It’s just as it is, so all of the senses are employed.
Did Roderick leave CAT to move to Devon ?
He first moved to Gloucestershire. It’s a part of England where there are many manor houses and stately homes, so there are lots of barns. Or there ‘were’ a lot of barns.
Today most barns have been renovated or developed – and those that have not remain as they are because often the planning departments want them to stay as ruins. I was talking to a local farmer who has an old barn that needs a new roof. The planning department don’t even want him to put a new roof on it – they prefer it to stay as a ruined feature in the countryside.
Planning can be very strict in this country! We preserve the countryside like a museum, not like a living, evolving, dynamic place. But we’ve been told the government wants to change this approach, so we’re waiting to see how the planning system develops.
Roderick wanted to build a new barn, but in the traditional way – is that how he started Carpenter Oak?
Roderick first worked on his own house, Seagull House, which was a concrete house dating from the 1950s. He covered it with timber and extended it with a conservatory, balconies and verandas, completely enhancing what had been quite an ordinary house! Then he built a studio for his wife, a timber frame building made out of Douglas Fir that he painted white. And after that, he built a modern oak barn, which was used as the show barn for Carpenter Oak.
His initiative encouraged a resurgence in the use of large section timbers, oak in particular, and the building of structural timber frames. The way the structures are built is exactly the same as they were 300 or 600 years ago. It’s an old system that has been updated.
So, for 25 years, Carpenter Oak has been using traditional peg jointed building methods?
Yes, we are ‘structural carpenters’. We build structural frames for people who want to build their own house, either directly as a hands-on self builder, or as clients who commission a project manager or an architect to build the house for them. With the help of an architect our clients choose us as their structural timber frame provider and will then meet with our frame designers to produce technical drawings.
We start with a clean sheet of paper.
Do you have some sort of catalogue of different types of timber frames to show the client, so the client can choose which design they want ?
No, we don’t have any catalogue as such, every house is custom built. We always start with a clean sheet of paper. Normally, there is an overall scheme and appearance of a building, which is presented to the planning authorities to get permission to build. Our frame designers are specialists who will then design a frame to sit within the overall scheme.
We design the frame and from that design we produce a cutting list. The cutting list goes to the sawmill, which cuts the sections – the posts and the beams – for the structure. The dimensions – thickness and width and length – are all cut, so that is how all our raw material arrives, as a pack of beam material to the carpentry yard. Then we start to join those pieces of wood together with the technology of mortise and tenon joints and with wooden pegs. We build the structure in our workshop, and then we take the frame to site. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of component pieces.
Your people, where do they get trained ?
New carpenters train on the job, working with and as part of an experienced team. The knowledge is passed on. It’s a two-year journey gaining skills, knowledge and experience. Few people leave the company after 20-25 years, and over the years we’ve been doing this, they’ve shared their experience.
It’s interesting. There are German and French trained carpenters who’ve come to England to work with us, to acquire this knowledge, because they
don’t learn these skills in their own countries. There doesn’t seem to be a demand or taste – yet – for traditional structural timber frame buildings in these countries. It seems that traditional carpentry isn’t used in France and Germany anymore, where instead they produce soft wood frames by machine that just need to be assembled and nailed together. It is faster, but the approach is different, and quite often the timber frame is hidden in the walls of the building.
It’s nice to cut like cheese.
Why oak ? Do you use other wood as well ?
Oak is used in about 80% of our buildings. It’s a very robust material. It’s nice to cut when it’s green and unseasoned – it’s nice to cut like cheese – and you can work well with it using hand tools. It’s resistant towards the weather and insect attacks. Barns, churches and houses that are hundreds of years old, made out of oak are still standing. As long as the timber is not sitting in water, it will last a long time.
You know, there’s no reason why this oak frame show barn we are standing in now shouldn’t also last for centuries! That’s the strength and durability of the oak.
Douglas Fir has similar properties. You have to be a bit more careful about how it’s stocked and stored and handled, but again, it is very durable – for a soft wood – it is a very structural timber. Sometimes we use larch, sometimes chestnut, and sometimes engineered timber glulams. But for English people, the oak tree has roots in our culture, it has to do with the history of wooden sailing boats, and Royal forest hunting – it is the king of trees.
The other beauty of oak is the adaptability of the building over time. The timber frame is the primary structure of the building. It is the skeleton. Then comes the skin of the building that becomes like a secondary structure, to wrap the building like an envelope. You can imagine that, in the future, someone would want to change the use of the building, the envelope of the building. To do so, he/she could keep the primary structure,
the skeleton, which could be adapted. You can work the timber frame, cutting more mortise and tenon joints, take timbers out and put new timbers in, adapt the structure and evolve the building, for changing needs, changing circumstances, changing family or societal needs.
Or you can also take the pegs out, take it down, and rebuild it somewhere else. This goes on and on. By that time the green timber has dried it will be like iron, it’s so strong!
I was recently in America where I met a company based in Texas called Heritage Barns. They salvage old timber frame barns and even move frames, some dating from the 1700s-1800s, from New York State or New Jersey to other parts of the US. They use them to build new houses with modern insulation, in other locations in the States. And we know of people that have done the same: taken down a barn in France and rebuilt it in England. It’s not that common, but it demonstrates the adaptability.
It’s like a puzzle. The pieces are intact, and then you can just rebuild the puzzle.
It’s a puzzle, exactly. Old buildings have holes and mortises in, which tell the story of the adaptation of that building over time. Those marks are intriguing for people. They are stories from the past.
Where does the wood come from?
We have a strong relationship with a sawmill in Northern France, a family business that has run a sawmill for generations.
There are good supplies of oak in the UK, but France has had continuous forestry planning since Louis XIV (1638-1715). There is more space, and there are more forests. In the UK, forestry planning got interrupted as we got distracted with soft wood, pine plantations and trying to compete commercially with the Baltic States.
How many people work at Carpenter Oak today?
35 people, including 22-23 carpenters.
We appeared on Grand Designs.
How has the company evolved over the last 25 years ? Have you seen different trends in the UK for timber framing? Was there a peak when suddenly everyone wanted a structural timber frame ?
It was a build system, a trade, that actually died out in the 1960s-1980s. So yes, there has been a resurgence. In the early days, it was about education – we had to tell people, ‘you could build this way’. We did many self-build exhibitions, and appeared in magazine articles and on television, on the very popular DIY show Grand Designs in 1999 and 2000. That programme was in its very early days, it was the pioneering days of self-builds. Today Grand Designs has become a highly successful TV programme that taps into people’s aspirations to build their own home.
Did the show give you lots of visibility?
Yes, we got a lot of visibility in the early years, it really did help.
Today traditional timber frame carpentry has gained a lot of popularity in the UK, specifically among people who want to build their own house. They love it ! So there’s much more competition in the market, a lot of people want to become traditional carpenters. I would say there are more carpenters looking for work than there is work available for them to do.
Here at Carpenter Oak, once the carpenters are trained, they tend to stay. It’s a nice working environment; it’s a family company that strongly values how it looks after its people and the environment. We have a social conscience, and we really care about craft.
No management, no supervision, no customers. Just hand tools and learning the carpentry.
How did you end up in this business ?
Well, I was working as a senior manager for BMW and other German car franchises for years.
But I come from a farming and forestry background. So the contact with wood has always been there, but I ended up in the car industry. One day I found myself on a relaxation retreat. I found myself in the woods, doing green woodworking. I first made a chair out of green wood and then I came across timber framing – and I decided to make a career change. Some people call it a mid-life crisis! It was a complete reinvention. I left my job as a senior manager to come here as a trainee carpenter. No management, no supervision, no people, no customers. Just hand tools and learning the carpentry. So from the top, going back to the bottom. I was 38 then. I’m 52 now. So I’ve been here for 14-15 years now. At that time, in the company, there were only 6 or 8 of us.
There were 8 people then, and today there are 35 ?
Yes, the company has grown and I have along with it. I worked here for six years as a carpenter, and then I moved back into management, as the company needed my other skills.
Also, as a carpenter I had reached a certain limit in my skills and I didn’t feel I was going to be a master carpenter… There are lots of super talented carpenters around me, much more capable than I am. When I worked in the car industry the cars were great fun, but the glory days of the motor car – you could argue the romance of the motor car – are long gone. People still make beautiful cars, engineering-wise, and there can be things with aesthetic beauty, but…
We are in danger of losing beauty.
But for houses, house building is going the same way – we are in danger of losing beauty. There is a shortage of houses in the UK, so we are seeing an increase in factory-produced formula houses. Of course we want energy-efficient buildings, nice and comfortable environments, without having to pay too much for them. But I believe a house should be much more than that…
A great book that really struck a chord with me is ‘The architecture of happiness’, written by philosopher Alain de Botton, who says a house should represent our internal, our emotional needs, or should say something that is beautiful, that says something about us. A house is our sanctuary from work and living. We shouldn’t overlook this – we are in danger of overlooking the ‘heart’ side of things. Instead, we are too much prioritising the ‘head’.
You are saying there’s an increase of demand for prefabricated houses and for energy efficient houses. Doesn’t that go with natural building ?
Well, it does ! That’s the irony – it absolutely does.
Are prefab houses more accessible for people ?
Yes I suppose there is that.
The starting point for us is that the client loves what we do, and we love what we do.
The budget depends on how much the clients are going to get involved and how much hard work they are going to put in.
We like people to engage with us, talk through their projects and trust us with their budget, and help us find a way to make their ideas possible.
You do have to have a realistic budget to start with, but when there is a passion for what we do, and a good rapport between all parts of the team, then everyone works hard to get the best value out of the clients’ budget. We design houses, so we’re actually working on research and development with architects, and starting to build more what could be termed ‘affordable houses’. Price shouldn’t exclude anyone – people with a smaller budget shouldn’t be excluded from building beautiful homes.
Roderick James for instance has a great development on the west coast of Scotland, where he has just built some lovely Douglas Fir frames, smaller 2-3 bedroom houses for £120,000. The frame enables us to make the most of a smaller space and to be clever with design. There are all sorts of ways to make smaller houses more interesting architecturally than the modern ‘box’.
You build for clients in the UK. Do you build also for clients abroad ?
Yes, we’ve built for clients abroad, in Denmark, Germany, France, the US. Recently we built a very large frame to cover a swimming pool in Russia. The frame was made here, in our workshop, and was shipped to Russia to be erected by our carpenters who flew there.
It’s a dream to build your own house !
Are you happy with how your work’s going and the people here ?
Yes, it’s a privilege – it’s still a dream to build your own house, so it’s highly emotive working with clients who are passionate about what they are building.
Personally, I meet a lot of people at exhibitions. The first time they come across what we do they see the pictures of our projects on our stand, and we engage in an initial conversation.
After that they come and have a tour of our framing yard, see our show barn, and they can also come and visit our workshops to see their frame being built. To go on site and see the finished buildings is a real privilege.
It is fun, it’s hard work, but it is enjoyable to see people build something that they’ve commissioned, whose design they’ve been directly involved in, something that they’re proud of and that is built for the long term. You can see these houses will be handed down through the generations – my grandparents built this, my great-grandparents built that. We finish our frames with a carpenters’ badge screwed onto the beam – that is a good feeling.
It makes sense?
Absolutely! And I wanna say, all these are great values – you could say they are traditional, but they are also contemporary values. ‘Good work, done well’, with care and attention, and longevity in mind. Sometimes the simplicity is so overlooked. There is an obsession with reinventing the wheel over and over. Whereas the basic technology of mortise and
tenon joining, employing no machines, building great architecture, it makes sense – it absolutely makes sense!
Sometimes we overlook the simplest things, the most simple and elegant systems and ways of working. Low technology and human skill is overlooked; people working together with the right things in mind. As you increase the complexity, you sometimes get into a real mess. Some builders – self-builders – get it, and they understand the value and the worth of what we’re doing. They enjoy the process, plus, they have the results that they will enjoy for many years to come; a beautiful living environment that will enhance their daily lives.
Interview with Stuart Voaden, Carpenter Oak Ltd, England