All About Half-Timbered Construction

The Look of Medieval Timber Framing

Half-timbered 16th century house in England with large brown wooden beams poking through the white siding
Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire, England. Martin Leigh/Getty Images

Half-timbering is a way of constructing wood frame structures with the structural timbers exposed. This medieval method of construction is called timber framing. A half-timbered building wears its wood frame on its sleeve, so to speak. The wooden wall framing — studs, cross beams, and braces — are exposed to the outside, and the spaces between the wooden timbers are filled with plaster, brick, or stone.

Originally a common type of building method in the 16th century, half-timbering has become decorative and non-structural in designs for today's homes.

A good example of a true half-timbered structure from the 16th century is the Tudor-era manor house known as Little Moreton Hall (c. 1550) in Cheshire, United Kingdom.  In the United States, a Tudor-style home is really a Tudor Revival, which simply takes the "look" of half-timbering instead of exposing the structural wooden beams on the exterior facade or the interior walls. A well-known example of this effect is the Nathan G. Moore house in Oak Park, Illinois. It is the house Frank Lloyd Wright hated, although the young architect himself designed this traditional Tudor-influenced American manor home in 1895. Why did Wright hate it? Although Tudor Revival was popular, the house that Wright really wanted to work on was his own original design, an experimental modern home that became known as the Prairie Style.

His client, however, wanted a traditionally dignified design of the elite. Tudor Revival styles were extremely popular to a certain upper-middle-class sector of the American population from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Definition of Half-Timbered

The familiar half-timbered was used informally to mean timber framed construction in the Middle Ages.

For economy, cylindrical logs were cut in half, so one log could be used for two (or more) posts. The shaved side was traditionally on the exterior and everyone knew it to be half the timber.

The Dictionary of Architecture and Construction defines "half-timbered" this way:

"Descriptive of buildings of the 16th and 17th cent. which were built with strong timber foundations, supports, knees, and studs, and whose walls were filled in with plaster or masonry materials such as brick."

A Construction Method Becomes a House Design

After 1400 A.D., many European houses were masonry on the first floor and half-timbered on the upper floors. This design was originally pragmatic — not only was the first floor seemingly more protected from bands of marauders, but like today's foundations a masonry base could well support a tall wooden structures. It's a design model that continues with today's revival styles.

In the United States, colonists brought these European building methods with them, but the harsh winters made half-timbered construction impractical. The wood expanded and contracted dramatically, and the plaster and masonry filling between the timbers could not keep out cold drafts. Colonial builders began to cover exterior walls with wood clapboards or masonry.

The Half-Timbered Look

Half-timbering was a popular European construction method toward the end of the Middle Ages and into the reign of the Tudors. What we think of as Tudor architecture often has the half-timbered look. Some authors have chosen the word "Elizabethan" to describe half-timbered structures.

Nevertheless, during the late 1800s, it became fashionable to imitate Medieval building techniques. A Tudor Revival house expressed American success, wealth, and dignity. Timbers were applied to exterior wall surfaces as decoration. False half-timbering became a popular type of ornamentation in many nineteenth and twentieth century house styles, including Queen Anne, Victorian Stick, Swiss Chalet, Medieval Revival (Tudor Revival), and, occasionally, on modern-day Neotraditional houses and commercial buildings.

Examples of Half-Timbered Structures

Until the fairly recent invention of rapid transportation, such as the freight train, buildings were constructed with local materials. In areas of the world that are naturally forested, homes made of wood dominated the landscape. Our word timber comes from Germanic words meaning "wood" and "wood structure."

Think of yourself in the middle of a land filled with trees — today's Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain, Switzerland, the mountainous region of Eastern France — and then think about how you can use those trees to build a house for your family. When you cut down each tree, you may yell "Timber!" to warn people of its impending fall. When you put them together to make a house, you can stack them up horizontally like a log cabin or you can stack them vertically, like a stockade fence. The third way of using wood to construct a house is build a primitive hut — use the wood to build a frame and then put insulating materials in between the frame. How much and what kinds of material you use will depend on how harsh the weather is where you are building.

Throughout Europe, tourists flock to cities and towns that prospered during the Middle Ages. Within the "Old Town" areas, original half-timbered architecture has been restored and maintained. In France, for example, towns like Strasbourg near the German border and Troyes, about 100 miles southeast of Paris, have wonderful examples of this medieval design. In Germany, Old Town Quedlinburg and the historic town of Goslar are both UNESCO Heritage Site.

Remarkably, Goslar is cited not for its medieval architecture but for its mining and water management practices that date back to the Middle Ages.

Perhaps most notable to the American tourist are the English towns of Chester and York, two cities in northern England. Despite their Roman origins, York and Chester have a reputation for being quintessentially British because of the many half-timbered dwellings. Likewise, Shakespeare's birthplace and Anne Hathaway's Cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon are well-known half-timbered houses in the United Kingdom. The writer William Shakespeare lived from 1564 until 1616, so many of the buildings associated with the famous playwright are half-timbered styles from the Tudor era.

Sources

  • Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw-Hill, 1975, p. 241
  • Architecture through the Ages by Professor Talbot Hamlin, FAIA, Putnam, Revised 1953
  • American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 100