More timber-frame buildings exist in Essex and Suffolk than in many other parts of the country. The reason for this is an absence of local building stone in these counties. Wood (which had been used for building from very early times), continued to be used in these counties when buildings were made out of local stone in other places. Wood was the only option until manufactured bricks became available (around 1600).
Many timber-framed buildings in Essex and Suffolk are are 500 years old. How many of today’s buildings will be standing in 500 years? At Flatford, Valley Farm, Bridge Cottage and Willy Lott’s House are all timber frame in their construction. Some timber frame buildings were intended to show off the wealth of the owner! These grand buildings were usually in towns or large villages and date from the time of the Cloth Trade. Lavenham Guildhall (above) is a good example of a building constructed to impress others. Note its unnecessarily wide studs and elaborate carvings.
There are two main types of timber building the cruck and the box frame. In East Anglia the most common style of building uses the box frame so we will concentrate on that one.
Creating a box frame
The timber used to make box frames was oak, used soon after it was felled when it was still relatively soft and easy to work. Oak timbers were jointed together to form a strong box about the size of a room. This box structure was called a ‘bay’. The base of the bay was formed by four wooden ‘ground sills’ that were laid on a low plinth and simply jointed together. Bays could then be joined together to form, for example, a three-bay house.
- All the frame posts were joined by a wooden joint which was locked in position with a circular oak dowel.
- At the four corners vertical ‘wall posts’ were inserted and these were joined at the top on the shorter sides by ‘tie beams’ to stop the walls moving out because of the weight of the roof.
- On the longer sides the top of the wall posts were joined by ‘wall plates’ to take the base of the rafters.
- In between the wall posts smaller vertical ‘studs’ were inserted which then were joined at the bottom into sole plates (also known as cill plates) at the base of the frame.
- Instead of foundations as we know them today, the sole plates stood on a plinth (made of stones or other hard dry material) that raised the whole frame above the damp ground.
- No nails were used, partly because the metal was expensive but also because the acid in the oak corroded the metal. As some posts had to be connected to multiple other posts very ingenious joints were devised!
- Cladding – when the box and vertical posts were in place, a lattice of wattle was inserted before being clad in daub – see below.
Flatford’s Valley Farm (see structural diagram above) has two storeys and so the wall posts are long and wide. The wall posts are joined half-way-up with ‘Bressumers’ which act as a base for the top story floor as well as adding stability. The diagram also shows ‘Wind Braces’ which increase the lateral stability of the building.
Countries where there are many earthquakes still build timber framed structures because they are flexible and better able to survive earthquakes.
Wattle, Daub and Plaster
Wattle was created by cutting vertical v-shaped grooves in the studs and inserting pliable sticks (hazel or ash) horizontally. These horizontal sticks were then woven together with vertical sticks, fixed in holes at the top and bottom to create wattle. Wattle was sometimes made in loose panels to form infill panels or made in situ to form the whole of a wall.
Daub was produced by mixing clay, horse or cow hair and chopped straw and cow dung which was thrown at the wattle from both sides of the wooden frame to fill all the gaps. This was repeated until the depth was correct.
Plaster and limewash – a thin layer of plaster was applied to the wooden box (now covered in wattle and daub) both inside and outside. The outside was painted with limewash which sinks into the plaster – makes it water repellent and allows the building to breath.The outside of the frame was often painted with limewash to help keep out rain.
In early Tudor times the quality of plaster had improved which coincided with the Tudors wanting to eliminate draughts. The best method was to plaster over the entire outside of the house to form cladding. By late Tudor times plastering had become almost universal for all but some of the high status houses like Lavenham Guildhall (see above).
Fashion – It was a late Victorian and Edwardian fashion to remove the cladding to expose the timbers . Valley Farm lost its cladding some time after 1910. However, most timber framed houses in Essex and Suffolk avoided this fashion. Bridge Cottage and Willy Lott’s House are examples of timber framed houses which still have their cladding.
Windows were a problem because until about 1600 glass was very expensive and only available as small pieces. As a result the windows were just holes, often covered with oiled cloth on a wooden frame and with shutters. Vertical struts as seen in the photograph of Valley Farm in Flatford were fitted to prevent people or animals breaking in.
Note: in the photographs of Valley Farm and Lavenham Guildhall on this page neither has its external cladding. We know when the cladding was removed from Valley Farm in the 1920s. The intention was to replace it but there was no money to do so. Exposure to the weather has caused the timbers to deteriorate and in some places they have had to be replaced. The National Trust now protects the timbers with regular applications of lime-wash which allows the wood to breathe but keeps out the rain.
Cruck frame buildings
A cruck frame is one where the structure of the building depends on two or more ‘A-frames’ which go from the top of the building down to the ground.
In Tudor times most straight oak timber was reserved for building ships. This left only curved or crucked oak for the building of properties such as houses and barns. This led to the development of the cruck house. They are most common in the west of the UK but not in Essex and Suffolk where box structures were favoured.
These frames are usually constructed of curved timbers (the cruck blades) using the natural shape of a tree.
In many cases the tree is sliced long-ways down the middle so that whatever the shape of the curve on the two sides are symmetrical. The two beams are joined together at the top by a ‘collar’ or tie-beam.