House Bones

Half-timbered houses, or fachwerk. So charming, so old-fashioned, so European.

That’s exactly— Brick? Huh? [Stade, near Hamburg]

That’s more like it. From Hämeln (or Hamelin, of the Pied Piper).

Stade is in the brick region of Germany, Hämeln is south, in the area where timber was cheaper. Half-timbering is the common link. If you go back a while, before tourism became so important, and before both modern finishes and modern fire-fighting techniques, you would rarely have seen the timbers. Even in the middle ages and later, large, straight timbers cost a great deal of money and labor and transportation costs, even in places like the Black Forest and Harz, so they were protected. And without modern fire-fighting tools and techniques, fire-protection was critical. This the tile roofs in urban areas and thatch in places where one building catching fire wouldn’t threaten the entire town.

We see the outside of half-timbered buildings, or the faux-timbered neo-Tudor style in the US, but it’s a little rarer to see the bones of the house.

A little repair work, Hämeln.

One hotel I stayed in, in Lübeck, had a core that dated to the late 1200s, additions in the 1400s, upgrades in the 1800s, and major repairs and restoration in the 1990s. The floor in my room sloped four directions. The stairs dated to the 1400s and, um, let’s just say that they did not quite reach modern code for width, steepness, curvature, and did not have hand-rails on both sides. It was a wonderful hotel, and (for those who wonder) Tycho Gaalnar’s wares-house is based on it in part. Because it had been a merchant’s home, back in the day. OK, where was I? Right. Structure.

For sale or rent: handyman’s dream home, needs some minor wood work repair.

At this point all my carpenters, wood-workers, and structural engineers are cringing and making warding-off signs. But you can see how you have the main support for the first [above ground] floor, which yes, has a sistered beam there on the left. There’s been some re-fitting of bits and pieces over the years. Yes, the roof needs better support, and you can see some very modern cross-bracing on the right. But look at the verticals.

Adze marks, probably from 1400s.

You can see how the beams were cut back in the 1400s. The house dates to the late 1300s, per the little sign, but most of what was visible came from the 1400s and later. The pale stuff is probably white-wash, but Sunday is probably not a good time to be trying to clamber over a safety fence to find a ladder to climb up into a construction site to find out. If there is ever a good time. The round log is part of the modern temporary supports while they are re-wiring and plumbing before they put the floors back in. You can see the underside of the second floor in the back of the shot.

I’d love to compare the brick half-timber versus other forms, and see how much bigger the structural supports are, or if there is a difference in the weight and loads. I’m sure there’s a difference between the wattle and plaster or plaster and lathe, but I just don’t know that much about pre-modern and early-modern bricks and their weight versus the current version.

What we think of as half-timbered. But a bit fancier.

Because dragons are cool.


9 thoughts on “House Bones

  1. “But look at the verticals.”

    I’m pretty sure nothing in that house is vertical.

  2. ” The floor in my room sloped four directions.”

    I once stayed in a “hotel” that had rental cabins across the street from the hotel. We rented one of the cabins for three or four weeks while staying out of town for work. Our work was surveying and the slope was so bad inside the cabin that we actually brought the instrument in one night and set it up in the living room to shoot grade. You could set a glass of water on the coffee table and see the slope by the way the water was closer to one edge than the other, as the guy I worked with stated, “you could drop a half flat basketball on the floor and it would roll to the same corner every time.”

    We knew it was bad, but after setting the instrument up and shooting the grade from one side of the living room to the other, we reshot it again to make sure we did it right the first time. Yup, there was .8 feet of drop across a 12 foot living room. Thats the same slope I like to have on a concrete dog kennel! And many people claim that is too much slope for a kennel!!

    • Either the building settled pretty badly, or someone had to work pretty hard to build that and still get the ceiling to match.

      • Post and pier, well actually just post*. If there would have been a concrete pier under the post it would have been fine, but a ninety year old post sunk in the ground in a rainforest tends to detiorate and compress, even if it is old growth cedar.

        *No skirting, so the curious didn’t even need a flashlight to see the foundation, or lack thereof.

    • I’ve seen doors in the US from 1930 (give or take) where the door and the frame was fit to match the wall – in the case of a house I used to own, one door was cut with one side over an inch higher than the other side. The trim was flat on top but cut to match the door on the bottom, so it got thinner from one side to the other.

      • I’ve DONE that! Helped build a pantry with three deep hinged shelves in a 1930s house. Open the door and there is a floor to ceiling row of shelves, grab them and pull they swing the opposite way as the door, another row of shelves behind them, grab them and they are also hinged and behind them is still another row of shelves. When these all have to fit into the existing (very unsquare) closet/cubbyhole it makes for some interesting designing. There is a reason that remodeling is considered three times as difficult as building new.

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