As a new recruit to the Oakwrights design department I was given the task of arranging the annual ‘Design day out’. The purpose of which would be to visit houses that we had built in the local area to learn about how oak frames settle, and the various ways that buildings can be finished.
There was a hidden incentive set the previous month, if we could achieve an output target of 7000 ft3 designed oak frame in July then we could add some ‘team building’ exercises into the day out. It was a tremendous group effort of early mornings and late evenings that saw the department pushing out an incredible 9000ft3 of oak frames, almost double a normal month. This push has helped us to meet our customer’s requirements for site dates and given a great boost to production.
I began my planning by searching through previous projects to find contrasting examples of timber frames and applied finishes. With some advice from our senior designers I was able to narrow down my choices to four quite different clients.
The day started early at St Marys School in Lugwardine, Hereford. This was an interesting building designed by Julian Pilkington when he was a trainee designer so I was immediately intrigued by it. The building was a chapel in the School grounds, designed by John Williams, an architectural designer who works closely with Oakwrights. The modern building did not feel out of place in the grounds. On entering the chapel I instantly noticed the warmth inside. The two glazed gable ends let a tremendous amount of light into the building giving the space a wonderful feeling.
This was only the second finished Oakwrights building I had visited, so most of my time was spent looking at how joints between timbers react as the oak dries out. Julian gave a brief talk about the key characteristics of the design process that he had undertaken, highlighting where issues had arisen and what subsequent action had affected the frame design. As always with designing an oak frame it is a case of balancing the clients and architects needs with the feasibility of production.
The second house on the itinerary was akin to an American ‘Post and Beam’ Construction. Mr Gloster’s house is situated in the countryside on the outskirts of Worcester. The house stands out in its setting. The building is clad in softwood vertical weatherboarding giving it quite a contemporary look, and there is a large two storey porch to the front of the building. This was the oldest Oakwrights building in the day trip so we would see how the frame really settles down here.
We were met at the front door by Mr and Mrs Gloster who welcomed all sixteen of us into their house. They proceeded to give us a tour of the house explaining how their Oakwrights designer, Rob Gay, had met their needs. We wandered freely about their house discussing the design features and our opinions. The house was based on an ‘upside down’ principal. Down stairs were two guest bedrooms, the kitchen and dining room. Upstairs was the master bedroom, office, and living room.
This design made the most of the wonderful views of the Malvern Hills where the couple enjoyed walking. To the rear of the house was the sun room, constructed from two separate frames independent of the main house. This area was ‘fully-glazed’ with a fantastic view of the garden as well as warming the house in the summer.
We were making good time on the itinerary so we decided to make an impromptu visit to some clients Jane and Jeremy who owned a wedding barn near Bromsgrove. Thankfully there was no wedding under way when we arrived. The barn was picturesque, with the Rolls Royce parked next to the original cider press at the front of the building. The barn was a mix of old and new. The chapel had been converted from the original barn on the farm. There were reclaimed timbers from the site that had been used in the construction of the new buildings. Following through the reception area we were led into the Oakwrights barn. Based on a simple ‘L’ shape the building was light and open with a fantastic ‘Crown-post’ roof structure. The couple had fitted the barn with a Bose sound system, video projector, and to everyone’s delight, a colour changing dance floor! I found it interesting to see how the clients were making use of the traditional qualities of a timber frame to enhance their market position.
Lunch was now approaching us and we were back in the mini bus heading over to the historic village of Weobley. I had booked us into the 16th Century former cider house, turned into a pub, ‘Live and Let Live’. This was an appropriate place to stop and grab a bite to eat as it was the only timber-framed, thatched pub in Herefordshire. The restaurant on the first floor was like stepping into a medieval hall. There were exposed rafters, wattle and daub panels, eye browed windows, enormous floor boards, and every door lintel had ‘duck or grouse’ written on it as a reminder not to hit your head as you passed under it.
In preparation for our day out I visited the Ley House in Weobley to ask the owners for their permission for the Oakwrights design department to come and look at their 16th Century Manor house. Mrs Carr was extremely kind and welcoming and invited us into the house and grounds, and gave us a guided tour and some history to the building. It was fascinating to see such a grand building still standing hundreds of years after being built.
To think that this house was built nearly 450 years ago still amazes me, there would have been none of the tools of modern construction that we so heavily rely upon. With no band saws, no power tools, and no cranes, the Architects and Carpenters would have had a much greater task in accomplishing this feat than we do today. I find great buildings like this a huge inspiration and motivation to really push the boundaries and excel into the future of timber framed buildings. After all with the wealth of knowledge and tools at our disposal it is possible.
Just down the road from the Ley building in Weobley was another client’s project. Derek and Sue’s was the most recent frame erected by Oakwrights on the trip so it was in a ‘guts out’ state. As principal oak frame designers we don’t often see the final construction details of the buildings, we deal solely in erecting the oak frames. However, the attention to the detail when finishing the building will strongly dictate the overall appearance.
The house was based on a cross plan, with a separate glazed frame (similar to the Gloster’s) next to, but not attached to the main frame. The house was unusual because it was built on quite a steep site. You could access the basement though a ground floor door, yet you could also see straight out across the field from a first floor bedroom. This was the only house in the outing that had been built with a basement. I find it unusual that more timber frame houses don’t have basements because when you build vaulted ceilings you lose loft storage space. In the basement Derek had a service room which housed a ground-source heat-pump that had been built into the design of their house. While this is a costly implementation, over time should save the client money.
Many of the dormer windows in the house had been designed to have a lower sill level. This was partially a construction implementation because of incorporating the ‘Wright wall’ panelling system in the house but in turn this let more light into the rooms and made them feel bright and spacious.
The educational part of the day finished at the Head of Design’s attic in Weobley. He gave us a quick history of his ‘black and white’ house and showed us his 500 year old trusses!
We arrived for ‘team building’ at the Herefordshire Raceway at around 3:30pm. After our safety briefing we fitted into our race suits, pulled on our helmets, headed out onto the pit lane and into our karts. We were about to begin the ‘Design department Go Karting Grand Prix’. After the warm up laps the heats had begun, and it was only a few minutes until the black and white warning flag had been raised. As we progressed into the race people’s attitudes started to heat up and the fun had begun!
By the end of the Grand Prix we were all battered and bruised from being thrown about and crashed into. Alex was the overall winner, followed closely by Julian, with Tim Crump in third place. I was content with my position of 8th, in the middle of the group.
I found this day was an invaluable source of information to a new designer. Even though we are not involved in the finishing aspect of the build, it is vital to understand how it can be applied. The insight into how a building looks at every stage of production provides a valuable learning experience. It’s also important for our department to get out of the office, pull ourselves away from the computer, and talk about things other than work. The banter from the Karting can still be heard around the office today, but I don’t think anyone’s ego was bruised too badly! All in all a great day out.