Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Use of Timber in UK House Construction - A short history

Timber has proved itself to be an adaptable and flexible material throughout history, and with the ability to replenish the timber that we use, there is nothing to suggest that its popularity will reduce. 

Source: http://www.gallica.co.uk/
Timber is a lightweight, adaptable and recyclable material that has been used in construction in the UK for many thousands of years.  The use of timber for construction can be traced back over 3000 years to the Celts who constructed quite simple, but nevertheless effective 'round houses', which provided shelter and security albeit at a rather basic level. The picture on the right shows a roundhouse under construction. As the years moved on the use of timber became more widespread with the Romans, the Anglo Saxons and the Vikings using and adapting timber to create larger and more expansive buildings.

Let us take the Romans for example - most would associate Roman buildings as large masonry constructed villas, with painted plastered walls, mosaic floors and running water etc., because when a film or documentary about the Romans is broadcast, this is what is usually portrayed. It is difficult not to admire the skills and ingenuity of the Romans based upon the many wonderful examples of Roman buildings still in existence in the UK and around the world, however these larger masonry structures were inhabited primarily by the rich and powerful, and the reality was that most Romans lived in timber constructed buildings similar to the Celts who preceded them.
Source: Google Images

The Anglo Saxons (c. 420AD to 700AD) and the Vikings (c. 700AD to 1000AD) who followed the Romans, made further use of the vast amount of available timber in the UK and began moving away from the familiar round houses and started to construct square and oblong shaped houses, with larger dwellings incorporating a small number of rooms.  The Vikings started to increase the length of their houses to incorporate larger internal areas and these became know as 'longhouses'. Many Viking houses were also constructed partly below ground level and although this would require a high level of hand digging, it made the house much more comfortable when completed as it protected the internal environment from draft and cold, particularly in the often harsh weather conditions in the depths of winter.

The Medieval Period followed the Viking occupation of the UK, this period in history famously started following the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (Norman King Harold, arrow in the eye and the bayeux tapestry and all that!) and lasted to c.1500 AD.  In the early part of the Medieval Period, timber was used to construct houses, but more closely followed the square oblong shape of the Anglo Saxons, rather than the Viking longhouses.  As the Medieval period developed timber frame construction evolved, with the main structure of the building being completed and then the walls would be infilled around the frame with a technique know as 'wattle and daub'.  This was a method of weaving small branches between parts of the timber frame and then 'plastering' onto the weaved branches a mixture of clay, horse hair and sometimes horse dung!, with water,  This could be smoothed when wet and when it dried out it provided an effective wall finish that would be reasonably weather tight. The short video below gives an example of wattle and daub construction.

There are many wonderful examples of medieval buildings in the UK, where the timber frame construction can be seen.  Large timber members fixed together with a combination of timber joints and timber pegs allowed construction to be much larger and bolder.  Houses started to incorporate timber framed windows and pitched roofs that commenced mainly as thatch, but eventually incorporated a clay tiled finish.

Source: Google Images

Timber continued to be used in construction, although masonry started to become much more extensively used during the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian era for the main structure of a dwelling.  In the 'modern era', timber construction has made somewhat of a comeback with timber frame construction fast becoming the preferred method for many developers.

In conclusion, timber has proved itself to be an adaptable and flexible material throughout history, and with the ability to replenish the wood that we use, there is nothing to suggest that its popularity will wane.  On the flip side, timber is also vulnerable in certain conditions to decay and this needs to be carefully considered when using timber in construction and when a building is in use and this is a topic I will cover in further detail in future postings.

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1 comment:

  1. Very informative post. I think people forget just how crucial this material has been over the ages.