The Adjacent Possible

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For the past 7 years I’ve held the job title “designer.”  I recently heard an interesting definition of what a designer is--someone with the ability to see “the adjacent possible… the range of answers that exist to a given question, including ideas that are one step away from the ideas we’re currently working with.

Timber framing is an adjacent possible to people building homes today. It’s an option that’s not widely known, and yet it’s so perfect for many more applications than it’s currently used in, particularly modest-sized homes.

We subscribe to a number of timber frame home magazines, and the vast majority of projects we see in those pages are massive, well outside the reach of most people contemplating building a new home. (They also tend to employ decorating schemes heavy on the trophy deer heads, but that’s another post entirely.) We believe timber framing is a real and attainable option for modest homeowners, provided they lean towards quality in the quality-versus-quantity debate. It takes longer to build a timber frame, and costs a bit more, but the results are incomparable. I’ve never lived in a timber frame home myself (although I hope to one day soon), but I can’t imagine complacency and selective blindness setting in the way it does in a stick-frame home, surrounded by four white walls unbroken by any architectural interest. I challenge anyone to spend time in a timber frame structure and resist the urge to pause during mundane tasks to run a hand over a nearby post, feel the weight of its presence, connect momentarily with a greater span of time and space. Not to mention that interior walls of any kind are totally optional. As are trophy deer heads.

Ogonek Custom Hardwoods is setting out to move timber framing firmly into the set of options that people know and regularly consider. Our Modern Modular design makes a simple rectangular frame into a repeatable unit. Change the dimensions, fit them together in different ways, and create a layout that works for your needs. The predictable, simple joinery means the overall cost moves closer to that of a stick-frame. An affordable handcrafted custom home with a modern aesthetic? Now that’s what I call the adjacent possible.

Tool Appropriation, and Appreciation

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Before recently joining Ogonek Custom Hardwoods I worked for years as a user experience designer. I attended various digital design conferences where there was always at least one presenter who discussed the topic of digital tools while showing a photo of woodworking tools. In some ways I get it … what can you really show as far as a picture for digital design tools? Also, woodworking tools are immediately recognizable as tools, and depending on their state of wear, can also convey the idea of putting in the hours to acquire a level of mastery.

Still, those images of tools always amused me, and I’d often snap a photo of a PowerPoint slide to send to Dan, who actually uses those kinds of tools. It happens often enough that I wonder, is it really just a metaphor? Or do many of us, deep down, wish we were really woodworkers?

When people ask me what Dan does and I tell them, I often see a glimmer of something in their eyes that looks like envy. I empathize with that reaction; I’ve spent 17 years as a knowledge worker and don’t have anything tangible to show for it. Nothing that can shelter a family, or that you can spread a meal on, or keep the sheep fenced in with. User experience borrows the concept of “embodiment” from other fields-- psychology and anthropology--which says people store knowledge within their bodies, not just their heads. Seeing Dan and his team work, I know that this is true. It can’t be a coincidence that one of the most popular posts on our Instagram account is a video of Jake drilling a hole into the end of a beam. You can see the confident knowledge in his hands and his stance as he does it.

For this post, I asked Dan to take a photo of some tools around the shop, “just find a jumble of tools and snap a picture”, I told him. But it turned out not to be a jumble; the tools were arranged carefully and lovingly like artists tools. And that’s what I’ve come to think of Dan and his team, not as builders, and certainly not as contractors, a term many people seem eager to apply to them once I explain what they do. But as artisans; artisans with both actual and embodied knowledge of their craft. I hope I’m lucky enough someday to live in a home they’ve created.

Thoughtful - Personal - Hand-made - Lasting

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Dan and I believe in the movement of things. We don’t keep things around the house that we no longer use or like. Once something starts gathering dust, it’s off to the curb to become a lucky find for some passerby. We live on a busy street where absolutely anything that we put on the curb will find a new home within a few hours. Sometimes we get to meet the person who stops, help them load the object into their vehicle, and hear an interesting story about their lives and the circumstances that made this particular thing a welcome, serendipitous discovery.

It also offers a chance to teach our son how to let go of stuff, and not to let it become something overly valued in his life. We tell him, “Now that you are too big for this tricycle, we can give it to another baby to enjoy.” He seems to have internalized this lesson, especially after the day that we made a serendipitous find of our own. Driving home from school one day, Danny spotted a toy lawnmower conspicuously placed at the curb. “I wish I could have one of those someday,” he said wistfully. “You can have that one,” I told him. We turned around to go get it, and I could see the understanding dawning on his face as to why we put things on the curb. Because someone else who needs or will enjoy it is free to take it. That lawnmower is now one of his favorite toys.

But there is one, and only one, piece of furniture in our home that I can’t imagine ever kicking to the curb.

Many years ago, a dusty aluminum wine rack with a fake wood top caught Dan’s eye in a second-hand store. He brought it home, spray-painted it black to look like iron, and replaced the top with a natural edge slab of walnut. He presented it to me on my birthday, which is in November, and vowed to fill it with wine as a Christmas present.

These days it is rarely filled with wine, and even rarely has a single wine bottle at all (we tend to drink wine as soon as be buy it). But even so, to me, it’s a thing of exceptional beauty. Maybe it’s the contrast between the cold, matte “iron” and the warm, glowy walnut. Maybe it’s the entertainment value of watching the cat try to climb through the empty wine-holder rings like a jungle gym. Maybe it’s the way the few pretty treasures I display on top are often joined by Danny’s small toys in an eclectic still-life.

Probably it’s because it was the very best kind of gift … thoughtful, personal, hand-made, lasting.

Dan and I tell each other that if we ever move from this 100-year-old American four-square to a timber frame home of our own, that wine rack may be the only piece of furniture we’ll take with us.

Frames of Heart

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“It seems the happiest humans sprinkled throughout mankind’s history were those who found balance between head and heart, between intellect and emotion .… Yes, pay attention to frames of mind .… But pay equal attention to frames of heart ….”
(The First Year of Homeschooling Your Child, by Linda Dobson)

Standing inside a timber frame structure is like standing in a forest. Light plays off the broad surfaces of wood. There is a fresh, warm smell. A dignified silence. A regal span of vertical space. And a sense that the trees are still alive and growing, sheltering, protecting.

I first experienced this about 14 years ago, when Dan worked on his first timber frame; a residence built within the lovely Cuyahoga River Valley here in Northeastern Ohio. He served as sawyer for that project, custom-cutting beams onsite using the customers’ own trees. The house also included many “green” elements, including what at the time was the largest residential solar panel array in the state. We were both captivated by what we saw and learned.

More so than other building techniques, timber frames have the potential to reflect the individuality and values of their occupants. The owners of the Cuyahoga River Valley house love nature; they admire artisan-level craftsmanship; they invest deeply in their personal relationships; and they possess a sense of responsibility to future generations. All of this is reflected in their choice of timber framing as a construction method for their home.

Artisan skill is needed to mill beams for optimal strength and beauty, and to handcraft joints that come together with stunning precision.  Respect for natural resources and a sense of duty to the future is inherent in the choice to responsibly harvest trees and to build using a method that takes a little longer, but pays dividends of endurance.

A proportionate balance of head and heart.

The goal of this blog is to address both within an exploration of the craft of timber framing. We want timber framing to be more widely known, loved, and utilized, as we believe it deserves. Join us on this journey!