Embedded Energy: Timber Frames as a Sustainable Choice

Photo by  Jachan DeVol  on  Unsplash
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We’ve often explained to prospective customers that building a timber frame as opposed to a stick frame structure can be considered the “greener” option because the overall volume of wood needed can be lower, depending on the design. Single larger-dimensioned timbers, regardless of species, are capable of supporting far more weight than a group of 2x4s or 2x6s. Go a step further and cut those timbers from oak rather than pine, overseen by an experienced sawyer who can read a log as it peels open on a sawmill, finding the optimal timber within it, placing the very heart of the tree at the heart of the beam, and that strength increases even more.

Recently we’ve learned an architectural term that makes the case for the sustainability of timber frames even stronger. Embedded energy is “energy built into materials” through the manner in which they are produced, transported, and worked up until they become  finished components of a structure, as well as their durability, maintainability, and reusability beyond the life of the structure. Architects seeking LEED certification or simply desiring to design with a sense of responsibility toward people and the planet often consider embedded energy when selecting materials, since it factors into the overall impact that a building’s existence has had and will have upon the environment over its lifespan.

In general, materials that (1) derive from renewable resources, (2) require lower amounts of processing to be created, (3) require little to no transportation to their destination, (4) are able to last over a great duration, and (5) are able to be reused or repurposed when a building is dismantled are considered low-embedded energy and highly-sustainable. Timber frames are the very definition. 

Timbers are cut in a few precise passes on a sawmill, shaped by the hands of skilled artisans using economical strokes (sometimes on-site using trees felled on-site) and quickly assembled into structures that have been known to stand for many hundreds of years, even millennia. On the rare occasions when those structures are dismantled, the timbers can then begin a second life, perhaps “reclaimed” as interior panelling, flooring, cabinetry, fireplace mantles, or furniture. Perhaps even reassembled elsewhere in their original formation.

We’re so thrilled to have found this term, “embedded energy,” to be able to put a name to what we see as the sustainability value of timber frames. With it, the reasons to build one just keep piling up, their beauty, authenticity, longevity, and yes, sustainability.

Leah OgonekComment