Construction Report: They Used to Use Whole Trees

Who remembers this kind of scene?

Parade o' Log Trucks

If you were a kid in the Northwest in the 1950s and ’60s, you’ll have your hand up. Trucks like this used to roll down the highways with one giant log on its way to the mill. They moved them on the rails, too, tucking a couple of little trash logs in under the big one, like in the photo below, from the Oregon History Online website.

Logs on a train car

If you needed, say, a roof beam, someone went out and looked for a piece of a tree big enough to make one for you. These days, I doubt there is a mill in the Northwest that could handle a tree like that. No one then would have imagined trucking a load of little pencils like this one:

A modern load of forest logs

And if you needed extra long boards, why, those could be found, too:

Long-leggedy logs on a truck

If you come across old dimensioned lumber from back then, you’ll find that a two-by-four measured  2″ by 4″,” which might seem normal unless you’ve been lumber shopping in the modern era. Today they are 1 1/2″ by 3 1/2.” And if you want that piece more than 24 feet in length, it will now be finger-jointed together from shorter stock.

I am not suggesting we enjoy a lesser quality of wood since then. If anything, let’s consider those memories of a time gone by to be evidence that we were pretty careless of our resources. There was so much of it! Everyone could have what they wanted from the forests!

In this 21st Century, we are beginning to learn to do better with less.  In an earlier entry I wrote about the Faswall blocks we’re using for the exterior walls of the house.

Faswall block

They make use of otherwise wasted wood remaining after the milling of conventional lumber. Other parts of the house have arrived on the site in what is called Engineered Wood.

Engineered wood is plywood, Gluelam, particle board, wafer board, Masonite… any number of products we’ve become accustomed to seeing in homes. They’re made by taking forest logs and peeling them, shredding them, blowing them apart, smashing them, or collecting up the waste bits of them, and gluing them back together into various forms and shapes. They make use of timber that would be otherwise useless as structural material and, a big plus, the various forms have properties that are predictable in ways not found in natural wood. I admit, I find “real wood” to be more desirable than glued up pieces of wafers and chunks. But we’re past the time when we can indulge the luxury of pillaging our forests for its giants. A managed timber stand of Douglas Fir is harvested at about 40 years of age. The mills are now tooled for trees of modest dimension. Those 40 year-old logs are too valuable to be used wastefully.

So, last week we saw the delivery of a load of I-joists made from engineered wood:


These joists, to hold up a conventional subfloor or roof, would have been solid two-by-twelves. These measure 2 inches across their laminated bases and are 14 inches tall.

And this arrived as well:

The roof beam

It’s the roof beam of the house. It measures 8 3/4 inches by 32 1/2 inches, by 48 feet. Look down on it and you can see the finger joints.

Finger joints in the roof beam

Look at the side, and you can see the, umm, whatever kind of joints these are. C’mon. I’m a woman. How should I know?

Some kind of lap joint or something in the roof beam

And here’s a piece cut off the end (the beam arrived a little over-long). That’s glue in there between the pieces.

Glue joints in the roof beam

This beam is so far from what these men


might have contemplated, it’s mind-boggling.

Meanwhile, the house now has gables (the better to hold up that beam)!

Gables on the ends!Suddenly it looks less like a suburban medical office and more like… maybe the ruin of some ancient house? Appearances are deceiving. It’s not ancient; it’s just right for today.

Published in: on February 15, 2009 at 6:57 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wow! This looks more like a mansion than a house for two people! Just the opposite of Walter’s tiny house! I want to hear about what rooms will be inside? And does the greenhouse open up onto a room, so to speak? I have a friend who had a greenhouse right off their dining room, so that you could look from the dining table, off into the greenhouse (no walls or glass between) and see the calamandran oranges (sp?) and other goodies growing all winter. Made it a little warm in there in summer, but…

    We have a beam in our house, on the first floor, as the bit that holds up the ceiling/floor of second floor, which is 8 x 15 x 18 feet, biggest I’d ever seen. The first one they had delivered they had measured wrong, and it was 4 inches too short, so they had to import another one…it cost more to hire a truck to come pick up the first than it was worth ($500), so they just ate the cost and left the beam there. We had the same trouble finding someone who wanted it because of transport; I think John finally sold it for $50 to someone who somehow tied it on top of his truck, which sounds crazy to me, but…

    Umm — It’s a wide-angle lens. The house looks bigger than it is. Bottom floor has master bedroom and bath, a spare room, and some good storage/closet space at the back of the house, against the earth wall. One of the closets will receive plumbing dropped down from the bathroom above so if we ever become so creaky we can’t make it upstairs to the laundry, we can hook one up down there. In the meantime, it’s called “wet utility” and will let us do serious cleaning on the downstairs level. There is a door there that goes out to the greenhouse, and it’s conceivable (ha!) that dirty feet will track messes in. From the master bath (on the far right, lower level in the picture) there is another door out to the greenhouse, but it actually leads onto a deck where Richard’s Endless Pool will reside.

    Second floor has kitchen and a greatroom, a spare bedroom, and a (very) small bathroom. Lots of good windows looking out to the greenhouse and beyond, to the woods. The area under the gables will be attic space. Some house system stuff up there, a storage tank of water, and the real laundry. The architect called all this an “upside down house.”

    The house is about 2400 sq. ft., plus the attic. Seemed foolish to waste the potential attic space, though attics seem not to be so common anymore. That may seem like a lot for 2, but we do want room for company. We want to be able to say, to those who claim it’s too far out, “That’s OK. Just bring your toothbrush.” It will be wonderful not to have to stack guests like cordwood!


  2. I’m moving in. Just letting you know. I’ll bring my yarn, my dyeing materials and my notebks and knitting stuff. All you have to do is feed me, and I’m willing to cook dinner 3 nights/week.

    All this for free. You wouldn’t charge me rent, would you?

    Not if I had yarn privileges.


  3. Betty,
    This greenhouse is the principle heat engine for the house. It is about 19 feet deep, the full length of the house and ends at the overhang above the 2nd floor (the overhang shades the entire curtain wall at the summer solstice, another important part of balancing warm and cold in a passive house). While there are no doors into the greenhouse from the second floor, some of the windows there are operable and can be opened to allow air to be drawn into the house.

    As for lodging: two dinners is enough but add weekday breakfasts to your duties. As for the dyeing and like projects, those are consigned to the studio that’s out the back door. Pictures of this steel arch building can be found on both Susan’s blog and mine (still unfinished but called “Phase 1” on Susan’s “blog roll”).


  4. Richard, I like to make breakfast. Do you have a resident cat? I’m catless and have been for a number of years, and require one.

    Replying in proxy for Richard: Cat is in place. She is called Yellowcat and is featured here and there in the blog as she goes about her supervisory role. –S.

    Also do you have chickens and a goat? In my little corner of NJ I can’t raise them. Not that I know how; I’m a city girl. But I do love the little squackers, and goats are beyond funny.

    Chickens, yes. Goat, no. This may be a deal-breaker. If sheep will do, we have those. Goats can be found at nearby farms. That’s close enough for me. — S.

    We’ll also have to make room for the Hubbo, ’cause he and I are somewhat joined at the him.

    What you do in your personal time is your, er, affair. –S.

    Oh, and we want our grandkids to visit and take over the entire house and farm.

    They will be expected to put in time as chore labor. It’s good for them. –S.

    Greedy, aren’t I?

    A little. But negotiations always require some give and take. –S.



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