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Alabama Family Uses Timber Framing to Build House

Mon October 15, 2012 - Southeast Edition

CHELSEA, Ala. (AP) A house built without nails.

It might seem impossible to many nowadays, but at one point, timber framing, as it is called, was standard practice. It’s seldom done anymore. But for one family in Shelby County, it seemed like the perfect way to build a lakefront guest house.

When O.G. Touchstone, — Tut, as he likes to be called — set out to build on 26 acres along the outskirts of Chelsea, he imagined a simple place: a cabin on a private lake, no electricity, a wood-burning stove.

“Then the girls got involved,” said Tut as he shook his head, his boots deeply embedded in the red mud by the building site.

The design, said Tut, took approximately one weekend to complete. The family — his wife, Kathy; their children, Jody, Green and Jesse; as well as Green’s wife, Erica, and Jody’s husband, Nathan Orrison — all pitched in with their ideas. Soon, the simple cabin grew to be around 3,000 sq. ft., said Tut.

“I got it back down to 1,100 square feet,” Tut said.

The one thing they could agree on was that they wanted it to be unique. Six out of the seven family members are designers in some respect — ranging from architects to landscape designers. Tut himself was a landscape architect before he retired.

Jody was the first to suggest post-and-beam construction, also known as timber framing. Jesse, the youngest son who will be the primary occupant of the house, suggested the dog-trot design, including a breezeway open to the roof in the middle of the home.

When searching for a builder, Tut found who he thought was the perfect man for the job in Thomas Downs, owner of Southern Timber Framer LLC. Downs spent two years in Maine learning techniques used by timber framers. After he built a small timber frame during a week-long course, he was hooked.

“This type of construction is basically unheard of in the South,” said Downs, as he lined up the next peg.

John McGee, an engineered wood and components sales manager at 84 Lumber in the Birmingham area who has been in the construction business since 1986, said that he has only known of one or two buildings erected with traditional timber framing techniques.

“That’s very rare,” McGee said when he heard about the Shelby County project. “It’s a very unusual framing technique. It’s a pretty extreme, old-school building style that you just don’t see anymore.”

Rather than traditional sheet-rock construction with studs and nails, the Touchstones’ construction plan entails using heavy pine timbers connected with mortise and tenon joints. Diagonal bracing adds extra support, while wooden dowels hold the joints in place. Tongue-and-groove details, which allow the wood floor to fit together like a puzzle, reduce the need for metal and nails.

Although he uses a computer to help with measurements, the precision needed to ensure a smooth fit means measuring more than twice. Downs cuts the pieces off site, creating a puzzle of sorts that he puts together on location.

“I’ll measure everything for about a week and a half,” said Downs, “and then we’ll spend another week cutting all the wood. All of it, though, will go up in about five days.”

Once the frame of the structure is built, Structural Insulating Panels will be used to create the walls of the cabin. Although the timbers will only be visible from the inside of the house because of the use of SIPs, the design offers a less complex construction plan and better heat insulation.

The unique construction will be mirrored inside by the personal touches requested by each of the family members:

• Tut wanted a heated floor. “Brick gets too cold in the winter,” he said.

• Erica wanted window seats. “We have to listen to Erica. She’s carrying the families’ first set of twins — my grandbabies.”

• Kathy wanted lots of windows. “If I get Kathy’s approval, everything else will be OK,” said Tut of his wife.

Tut expects the house to be livable by Thanksgiving, but said he will probably put another year of work in before it is completely finished. The plans call for a 10-ft. ceiling fan, a 12-ft. screened porch, a 9-ft. open porch and an outdoor shower.

“I wanted it,” said Tut when asked about the outdoor shower. “I like to take showers outside. Eventually, we’ll put something inside. For now, the grandkids can use a sheep and goat trough,” he said with a chuckle.

Eventually, Tut said he plans on selling the remaining land, property he and his friend, Tommy Turpin, bought sometime in the 1980s: a total of 150 acres surrounding a lake that holds 87,000 coppernose bluegill fish.

He will sell one lot a year — a total of 10 lots, ranging from four to nine acres each, eventually developing a subdivision that will feature estate-style homes. Tut said he will not be involved in the building of the homes, but will have some regulations for buyers. They won’t be allowed to remove more than 10 percent of the trees on the property, for example.

Recently, Tut sold 20 acres to the Shelby County Board of Education where they will build a new elementary school. With the funds from that sale, Tut said he was able to begin work on a paved road off of Highway 47 that will serve as the main road to the subdivision.

For now, the house will serve as a residence for Tut’s son, a place for Tut to stay while he works on the property, and a place for the family to visit, tucked away in the woods.

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