Dozens of traditional timber frame craftsmen, some from as far away as the US, recently descended on an Oxfordshire field to construct a unique timber building.

Their brief was to build new offices for the Northmoor Trust out of predominantly locally-sourced materials in just 12 days. The project represents part of the trust’s lottery-funded £1.9m redevelopment plans for a new visitor centre at Hill Farm.

The scene looked more like a barn-raising project in rural America than anything you might see in the English countryside.

More than 80 timber framers from across Britain and Europe camped on site throughout the construction, with the mess tent having arrived fresh from the Glastonbury Festival. Encouragingly, about a third of the participants were trainees.

One of those involved was freelance timber framer Henry Russell. He recently appeared on BBC television’s What the Romans did for us, in which he and his brother made a water wheel out of oak and larch and a wine press of elm.

Mr Russell laid his tools aside for a few minutes to speak to TTJ one windswept afternoon during the work.

The American square rule system

He said between 10-14 Americans from the US-based Timber Framers Guild were leading the operation because the construction method being used was a square rule system, which is predominantly used in North America.

The method differs from the European scribe rule timber frame system, where joints are not necessarily square and the frame is assembled on the ground.

“It really has a different look compared to a European timber framed building. It looks more industrial and I personally think there is more work involved.

“You can do one piece at a time. You do not need to have a big yard to lay out all your timbers.”

The building design is basically two expanded pagodas with an oak walkway. In total 140m3 (sawn down to 72m3) of locally-sourced Douglas fir was used for the frame. It was sawn at a local sawmill and on a Wood-Mizer bandsaw. Framers worked on 1,006 pieces of wood – the longest of which was 7m by 250mm square.

Structurally insulated panels are being used in the roof area, while western red cedar features in walkway posts and cladding. Cumbrian wool was chosen for insulation.

Traditional tools such as drills and chisels were employed but modern technology, such as hand-held circular saws and chain mortisers, was needed to speed things up.

Ian Rowland-Hill, chief executive of the Northmoor Trust, described the building as a practical demonstration of green construction – involving locally-sourced materials, environmentally-friendly design features and the use of enthusiastic and talented labour.

He also said the project reflects the ethos of what the trust is aiming to demonstrate on its 300ha estate.

“The construction of new offices underpins the practical conservation, forest research and inspirational education that defines the work of our charity.

“Sitting alongside the sympathetic restoration and conversion of local farm buildings featuring new education and visitor facilities, this project seeks to underline the need for more sustainable construction and improved building standards across the industry.”

Renewal of interest

Mr Russell said a revival of interest in traditional timber frame techniques has taken place in recent years.

He said: “There has been quite a deal of interest. I think it’s down to people leaving established timber frame companies and starting up their own operations. There is this interest in craft-based building.”

Mr Russell, who started timber frame building in 1989, said the whole social side of constructing a timber frame building was a big attraction.

And he and his colleagues were keen to spread the message of timber construction when the Northmoor Trust held an open day for the public during the work.

People were given the chance to get close to the wood, see the craftmanship and try some of the traditional framing tools. Woodcraft demonstrations, ranging from hewing to chainsaw skills, were held, while the architect and designer of the innovative new building was on hand with CAD images of the structure to answer questions.