The Art of Timber Framing
Chester County’s Hugh Lofting revives a centuries-old craft.
More than 40 years ago Hugh Lofting walked into a timber-framed house in New Hampshire and discovered his life’s work. “My mouth dropped open. It was like a huge piece of furniture. I said I’ve just got to do this,” recalls Lofting, a life-long Chester County resident.
The centuries-old craft of building houses with an exposed frame of hand-cut beams was in the midst of a renaissance in New England. Lofting, who had been doing carpentry, was taken with the idea of reviving this building style back home.
In 1974 he founded Hugh Lofting Timber Framing Inc. Since then he has created a legacy of distinctive timber framed barns, houses, and structures that dot the landscape from the East Coast all the way to California.
“All the barns in Chester County are timber framed. The Amish didn’t lose the art but it was always a utility building, not a home,” says Lofting, an affable man in his late 60s. Today people have embraced timber framing for houses because it lends itself to contemporary open plan homes. The lack of interior supporting walls allows for light-filled rooms with high ceilings and a flexible use of living space.
Clients can opt for all timber frame or a hybrid where just a great room or entry hall makes a strong architectural statement. Beyond the striking looks, timber framed houses can be highly energy-efficient. Lofting recommends encasing the timber frame with high-tech insulated stress-skin panels that create a weather-tight seal.
Lofting has put his stamp on everything from a bonsai studio to the Philadelphia Zoo’s Big Cat Falls pavilion. The Inn at Montchanin in Delaware, the Baltimore Museum of Industry, the Dansko showroom and the National Lands Trust ChesLen Preserve are just a few of his commercial projects.
Lofting’s workshop also builds outdoor timber frame elements such as pergolas, pavilions, pool houses and trellises which create visual interest in the landscape. One memorable project that took over four months to build was a whimsical treehouse connecting three trees.
These highly original designs are created in rather simple surroundings. The fragrance of fresh cut wood pervades Lofting’s Kennett Township workshop, a former mushroom house. “There’s not a lot of specialized equipment,” says Lofting, pointing out just three machines in a very large workspace. “Everything else is chisels and hand tools.”
His 10-employee business tackles each project as a collaborative effort. In-house designers create precision shop drawings and ensure the timber frame will work structurally.
A crew of five in the shop then measures, cuts and finishes each timber by hand. They work mostly with red and white oak, Douglas fir, hemlock and pine. The same team then raises the frame on the building site. No nails are used in joining beams together—a hallmark of traditional timber framing.
“When our forefathers came to this country, they were using green wood,” Lofting says. “They knew the heavy timbers were going to carry on and twist a bit. Nails would just pull apart.”
Instead these pioneer builders joined beams using interlocking cuts called mortise and tenon, which are held together with wooden pegs—a joinery technique with surprising strength. Mortise and tenon buildings more than a thousand years old still stand in Asia and Europe. With this kind of longevity, Lofting can confidently maintain on his website: “Craftsmanship that will last for centuries.”
Carrying on a tradition steeped in history means a lot to Lofting. He and his wife live in West Grove on his maternal grandfather’s farm where he can be a “hobby farmer” raising vegetables and grass-fed chickens. His father spent most of his life out west working as a cowboy and a free-lance writer. After moving to Chester County in the 1940s, he helped establish the King Ranch in Unionville. Lofting’s English-born grandfather, also named Hugh Lofting, was the author of the classic Dr. Dolittle children’s books.
But Lofting isn’t only about the past. He has long embraced the idea of sustainability and several years ago founded a separate company to build high performance houses. He is one of only nine certified “passive house” builders in Pennsylvania.
Last fall his team completed its first certified “passive” house on a site near West Chester. “It looks like a regular house but it’s super insulated,” Lofting says. These houses are so air tight that an energy recovery system is built in to continually bring in fresh air and exhaust stale air.
Although the upfront costs are higher, energy bills for these high-tech houses are nearly eighty percent less. Walls have an R factor of 50, versus 19 for a regular house. That savings has caught the attention of a lot of people and Lofting thinks this is the way of the future. “It’s really taken off around here,” Lofting says.
He also urges clients to build smaller as is the norm in Europe and other parts of the world. “OK, Americans,” he urges, “let’s build a smaller house that’s super efficient with twelve-inch walls full of cellulose.” But he admits that talking people here into something smaller is a hard sell.
Just as Lofting revived the art of timber framing, he is helping shape the house of the future by building energy-efficient homes that are easy to operate and live in—one house at a time.