Q and A with a Timber Framer featuring Pete O’Brien

Leaving the world of party tents, awnings, and rough construction behind, Pete O’Brien joined our timber frame group finding the craftsmanship and finer work of traditional mortise and tenon joinery much more to his liking. In his opinion, handcrafting is second only to raising a frame.

pete for profile

We seem to be inundated with folks who love the outdoors so we were not surprised to learn that this timber framer likes hiking, kayaking, and frequents the Adirondacks. However, Pete admitted that he’s a gamer with a passion for racing and marksmanship games (cat’s out of the bag, sorry Pete!). On occasion Pete puts his kayaking skills to the test, participating in our local white water Wild Water Derby. After sitting down for this rapid fire interview, he regaled us with a few stories from the derby. Read on to learn more on this young craftsman (with author comments in brackets):

Pete's favorite way to view the ADKs!

Pete’s favorite way to view the ADKs!

What’s your favorite word or phrase?
Awesome. (Pete’s fellow timber framer and long-time member of the team, Jake, piped in saying to me, “That is for sure his favorite word.” Based on the grin he and Pete exchanged I suspected differently but didn’t press.)

Pete with chainsaw


We think this photo of Pete applying a chain saw texture is pretty awesome.

What’s your favorite time of day?
Dinner. (Big smile from Pete with this answer.)

What’s your favorite truss or joint?
A scarf joint.

Scarf joint assembly.

Scarf joint assembly.

Favorite wood species?
Oak.

What sound or noise do you love?
(A long pause here was punctuated by a good-natured verbal jab from a fellow timber who suggested the high pitched whine of the drill he was operating nearby was the sound Pete loves. Shaking his head and smiling Pete offered a different answer…) Water.

What sound or noise do you hate?
Nails on a chalkboard (He couldn’t suppress a shudder and I grimaced with empathy for his reaction.)

Let’s move on…you travel to raise frames. What’s your favorite area of the nation?
The Blue Ridge in Virginia – the views are amazing. (“Better than the Adirondacks you visit so much?” I asked.) Different. Less populated…

Not quite the Blue Ridge, but plenty of blue water for this lake home raising. (From the left: Pete, John S, and Mike G)

Not quite the Blue Ridge, but plenty of blue water for this lake home raising Pete was a key member of this Spring. (From the left: Pete, John S, and Mike G.)

What’s best about your profession?
Crafting something unusual, something not many other people do.

All focus.

Speaking of unusual, here Pete’s working some new joinery for 100+ year-old reclaimed agricultural timbers salvaged by our sister company, Pioneer Millworks.

What profession would you not like to do?
Telemarketing. (Pete looked stricken by the very thought of having to cold call people.)

What’s your dog’s name?
No dog, I have a cat. His name is Porter and he’s…awesome. (Another grin spread across his features. I have to admit appreciation for Pete’s sense of humor and overall affable nature.)

(Follow the pink arrow to Pete)

(Follow the pink arrow to Pete)

How about the Wild Water Derby?
This was my first year participating. Bruce, Jason, Matt, and a few others – we formed a team using an old wooden raft some of the… (he paused, sending a quick glance at Jake) …more seasoned guys raced a few years back. Things were going well until we started taking on water. (“Really?!” I asked and Pete laughed.) Really. The rapids were splashing up and tossing us around. We were using our hands and a bucket we had in the boat to scoop it out between bouts of rowing. It was epic. We all made it out fine and we got a wooden oar award too! I’d like to do it again next year. 

First Complete Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) Building in New York State

60 all clts installed 2.15.17We began raising the first complete Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) building in New York State on our main campus in Farmington, NY in late January 2017. A combination of mass timber, heavy timber, and CLTs, the 21,000 sq ft building will house our fine woodworking division, NEWwoodworks, and offer a bit of storage/shipping for our sister company, Pioneer Millworks. CLT construction is an economically and environmentally conscious alternative to steel and concrete construction, a material that is new to the U.S. building industry.

UPDATE: May 2017 – nearing completion:

Photo (C) Scott Hemenway

Photo (C) Scott Hemenway

Photo (C) Scott Hemenway

NEW CLT building exterior

From site prep to flying the the final CLT panel:



What are CLTs? A quick description might be ‘giant plywood’. More specifically, CLTs are large wooden panels, typically consisting of 3, 5, or 7 layers of dimensional lumber, oriented at right angles, glued together. The panels for our project averaged 8 feet tall and 38 feet long at 3 ¼ and 3 ¾ inch thickness. Using a crane and lulls, the panels were lifted into place and fitted by hand to the supporting timber frame. Each CLT panel has a shiplap edge that nests the panels together and is secured with metal fasteners.

We see CLTs as a wave of the future and we’re investing in our Western New York campus to better position the region and our industry to ride the wave. The opportunities with CLTs are abundant for businesses and housing and offer dramatic environmental benefits. Wood is a naturally occurring and renewable resource which stores carbon. It has proved time and again to preform as well, and at times better than, carbon heavy steel and concrete.

About CLTs one sheetThe CLT panels are pre-designed, highly engineered, of superior quality with precise tolerances – all specific processes and requirements that are fundamental to our timber framing craft. This fits perfectly with our traditional work and parallels the SIPs integration that we’ve spearheaded for years. The project combines the strength of mass (glulam) timbers and heavy timbers with CLT panels, utilizing a timber frame wrapped by CLT walls and topped by CLT roof panels. The panels arrived from Austria, shipped by sea (which had about half the carbon impact in comparison to shipping by land across the US or from Canada) with pre-cut openings for windows and doors. These panels were made using smaller Spruce trees from sustainably managed forests in the EU.

6 second panel CLT


Raising the frame and installing the panels (walls and roof) for this project took just under three weeks. This is our first CLT project and we now know first-hand that time on site is minimized and there is little waste with this product. While there was a learning curve, the process was amazingly smooth. Many accolades for our co-workers who are dynamic thinkers, unstoppable doers, and all around great people. Darren, Mike, Noah, Michael, Quinn, Todd, Anthony, Kevin, Marc, Mike G, and Wes to name a few who spent hours on the ground – also on ladders, in lulls, and on the roof – in chilly, wet, sunny, and snowy conditions.

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A blustery, snowy day in upstate NY.

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And a sunny, bright day. Typical to the Upstate region, weather fluctuated greatly over the 3 week raising.

A little dancing was in order as the last panel was installed (see Todd on the far left):

We’re excited to move our fine woodworking division on our main campus. In February of 2015, NEWwoodworks, located in neighboring Shortsville, NY, suffered a catastrophic event as excessive snow loads caused half of the roof collapse over their 70-year-old building (no one was injured). NEWwoodworks will be entrusted with 13,000 sq ft of the new CLT building while Pioneer Millworks will utilize 8,000 sq ft for reclaimed wood storage and shipping. We’ve expanded our Farmington office space to accommodate the NEWwoodworks design and management team, as well as give Pioneer Millworks a bit more elbow room.

office addition new energy worksWe anticipate easier communication and workflow allowing us to better serve our clients by joining NEWwoodworks with our main campus and giving Pioneer Millworks easy access to a loading dock plus covered space for inventory.

A special piece of this project is a Broad Leaf Maple tree sourced by our co-worker, Randy, from his forest in Oregon. The tree was crafted to serve as a main post in the NEWwoodworks section of our CLT building. Mike W connected with this tree from delivery in OR to raising in NY. He had a few words about this post which he affectionately named, Atlas.

Next steps: We’ll be installing a Wood Fiber Insulation on the exterior of the CLT building. Another product which is new to the US, these panels offer 3.5R per inch, are FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, and are another carbon sink – for each 1 m3 used, up to 1 tonne of CO2 is bound within the product. Exterior cladding, radiant heat, windows, and more will round out this new build as Spring 2017 progresses.

From Forest to Structure: Maple tree “Atlas” becomes a main post in our CLT project

A tree for a mass timber project? What started as an idea branched into reality as our team selected a west coast Broad Leaf Maple tree to be a central post in our Cross Laminated Timber project. Mike W, one of our timber craftsmen and an avid nature lover, applied his skills and artistic eye from unloading the big Maple in Oregon to hand-crafting the joinery and leading the raising in New York. Along the way he formed an attachment to this “post” and named it ‘Atlas’. He shares his adventure with Atlas below:

moving tree into shopThis tree had a purpose, a destiny even. The 60-year-old Acer Macrophyllum Big Leaf Maple was selected by my co-workers Randy and Noah (from Randy’s land) for its particular size, shape, and branch structure. It would become a load-bearing post and not just any post – it will support a 30,000 lb gravity load and an 84 foot glulam beam line in our new Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) building in Farmington, NY (the first complete CLT building in New York State!).

Using some experience from previous projects, the support of my colleagues, and a little book knowledge I picked up at the Timber Framers Guild conference, I got started.

tools of the trade for tree joineryFirst, I snapped out the reference lines – this would orientate the precise position of the beam pocket and base cut (where all the pressure is). Second, I set the tree onto sawhorses and played with the overall shape. This was my favorite part because it is all about balance and feel. This was where I got to imagine how the piece I was working was going to orientate when it was done. I had to get high over the tree and observe its relationship with the lines I snapped. I even laid down and looked at it from the side, imagining how it will look as the post I wanted it to be.

tree in shopOnce I was set on the position of the tree in relation to the joinery I began to mark my datum lines and started layout of the beam pocket. One thing to mention is that plans were for the beam pocket to be made up of two upright co-dominates. (Co-dominate, in this case, refers to how the main trunk splits and becomes two. This is a fun thing I learned from our newest addition in the timber frame shop, Noah Mize.  He comes from an arborist background and is very knowledgeable.) I got out the laser to guide my cuts, after all it is the 21st century.

cutting joinery on tree mcminn

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A little customization on the joinery. According to Mike, it represents “With love from the west coast to the east coast.”

The chisel work was a true joy. The chisel seemed to glide effortlessly allowing me to really push for precision, without losing sight of efficiency. That was the first upright. The second proved to be much more difficult. Long story short I had to tap out the lap joint all upside down and overhead. I had to squat on a block of wood 7″ off the ground while operating my chisel at shoulder height to make a flat which was facing the ground. Awkward, to say the least. To add to the difficulty the location of the work was right near the union, or point where the trunk splits into two. Needless to say the grain got harder and ran in all directions at once, or so it seemed.

tree joinery mcminnvilleThe time for the post bottom cut was upon us. Randy brought in his O44 chainsaw with a 42″ bar to preform this work. We made a couple test cuts and away we went. The final cut was cleaned up with a 12″ planner to flat with the layout marks re-written on the fresh surface.

tree sigs

Our McMinnville and Portland OR teams, as well as our Farmington NY teams, signed the base of Atlas prior to raising.

With the base cut done this was no longer a tree; it was a post. I could imagine myself as this post, holding my arms out wide supporting the timber [much like Atlas]. I can truly say it was my honor to pour my love and energy into tree. It was my privilege to be part of giving this tree to its new life, a post at the heart of our new fine woodworking shop.

Mike was a key part to raising Atlas earlier this week. The post is now in place and connected to the frame, supporting substantial glulam timbers. More CLT panels are going into place and will shelter Atlas for decades to come. A video and photos of the raising are below:

Raising Atlas Video

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Atlas arrived to Farmington, NY on a typically snowy January day.

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Mike readies Atlas for raising.

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Mike applied leverage and muscle to turn Atlas into the precise orientation for the frame.

_DSC0243atlas tree tomorrowland

A Lakeside Home: Transformation with Integrity

lake home remodel w timberThe challenge was set: take a well-loved 1980’s family home and transform both aesthetics and functionality. Our design and build teams embraced the challenge with gusto. Ty Allen, head of our Design/Build groups and our in-house Architect, gave us the cliff notes.

During our first site visit we captured this image of the home's roadside facade.

During the first site visit Ty and team captured this image of the home’s roadside facade.

The homeowners built their family lake home over 25 years ago. They raised their children and made countless memories. Yet, the 1980’s contemporary design was no longer meeting all of their needs and had become dated in style. We were building a new timber frame home on a neighboring lake and we’re told that project was part of the inspiration for couple to join our community and incorporate timber framing into their lives.

Ty explained, “I think 80’s contemporary homes are the best type of existing home to transform. They are often a clean slate with open volumes and simple details.” Remodeling requires balance – the changes for this home would be bold. “We wanted to respect the integrity of the existing home, using what was already existing as a springboard to modernizing how the home looks, feels, and works.”

before and after remodel lake home new energy works

The original roadside facade (above) and with updates (below).

orig car port and front of house“A good example is the porte co·chère,” continued Ty. From the road it was difficult to tell what the structure was particularly as the roof flowed down from the house as one mass over the car port. The existing porte co·chère was removed and re-imagined, presenting a gable end on the roadside facade. “Rotating the roof lines defined the porte co·chère and allowed it to have impact. It is the primary focus the facade while maintaining the original purpose of the space.”

 

lakeside home remodel tear off

Tear off of the original car port.

The naked timber frame of the new porte co·chère.

The naked timber frame of the new porte co·chère.

timber entry car port lake home remodel

Rotating the roof lines to present a gable end on the roadside facade redefined the car port as a focal point while maintaining function.

Under the new carport a custom door from NEWwoodworks welcomes guests.

Under the new carport a custom door from NEWwoodworks welcomes guests.

drawing out the garage additionA major new functional improvement: a three car garage. The home’s original single car garage was ideally situated for transformation into the transitional space (mud room) from the new garage into the home. Our team had several visits to the build-site to stake out the garage addition. While accommodating set-backs and other regulations, they worked to get the angle, the flow, of foundation for the new garagethe new structure to fit best with the existing garage, house, and driveway and be considerate of lake views. “We wanted to create a courtyard effect with easy access to the home so the setting of the garage was key. The mud room offers the first garage with roof going onglimpses of the lake as you transition through it from the garage or as visitors move down the drive in front of it.”completed garage with timber by new energy worksThe lakeside facade had a large span of roof and large windows which allowed harsh western sun into the home. “We were deliberate about the fenestration [window placement]. The placement and scale of glass needed to lower solar heat gain was carefully balanced with taking in lake views.” The new fenestration, updated Marvin windows, breaks in the roof lines, and an expansive covered porch improved efficiency and style. Covered space on the lakeside not only provides more enjoyable year-round shelter from the elements for the homeowners, their family and friends, but for the home as well.

The lake side of the home before (top) and with the remodel nearly complete (bottom).

The lake side of the home before (top) and with the remodel nearly complete (bottom).

Inside the home timber elements were added to the great room and entry. Beginning at the porte co·chère entry, the same truss style flows through the central great room and back outside to the lakeside porch. What’s next? An interior timber ‘bridge’ is on the list. It will replace the current loft-bridge to connect the bedrooms on the upper level.

interior timber truss in lake home great room remodel

 

Interested in seeing more of our projects? See our website galleries. Want more images of this lake home remodel? See the below photo collection:

everything truss car port new energy works

Updating the lakeside facade and a glimpse of the back of the new garage.

Updating the lakeside facade and a glimpse of the back of the new garage.

lakeside home remodel timber porchtimber frame lake porch seneca laketruss install in lake home

The home's boat launch also features timber framing.

The home’s boat launch also features timber framing.

Stone for the new chimney.

Stone for the new chimney.

New walls.

New walls.

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A Family Retreat on Canandaigua Lake: Working the Land

“I’ll give you the whole story if you share those with me.” I glanced at the white box with orange fish dancing across the outside. Crackers for information, the deal of the day. With a smile I handed the box over to Pete, one of our design group architects and the design leader on our current Canandaigua Lake general contracting project.lake-retreat-rendering2“So Megan,” Pete began in his usual serious-but-joking-and-easygoing manner, “You want to know about the Canandaigua Family Retreat? Well, Dan & Laurie have been looking for the right site for about three years now. They gave us a call and asked if we’d come check out the spot they’d found. They felt really good about it, but wanted our take, which I thought was pretty cool. I like being involved from the beginning, especially because I had a good idea of what they wanted their project encompass.”

getfile-7“Had their three year search reached an end?” I asked as the crackers disappeared with unnatural speed.

“It had,” he confirmed. “We knew our design plans would be influenced by stringent site constraints associated with being near the water (height restrictions, erosion/sediment concerns, set-backs, etc) and the nature of the narrow, deeply sloping land. But it was perfect for Dan & Laurie’s home.”

timber frame raising canandaigua lake new energy works

I attended the raising (more on this in another post) and I agree with Pete; it is a great spot. It is nestled into the hillside and it maintains privacy even though it is on the lake. The land slopes away allowing views of the water through pockets of mature trees. I couldn’t help thinking it was as if the land had secret views of the lake, but hey, I’m a romantic at heart.

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The steep site offers elevated views of Canandaigua Lake.

“Why Canandiagua Lake? Why timber framing?”

Pete grabbed another handful of crackers before answering, “Laurie grew up visiting a family lake home – who doesn’t love those? Canandiagua is a good ‘meeting’ spot for Dan, Laurie, their kids, parents, and extended family. A central location everyone likes.

A few years back they checked out a lake home that happened to be a timber frame we’d built in the 2000’s. They loved it and were inspired to build their own on Canandaigua.”

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Extensive excavation and landscaping work was the first step in preparing Dan and Laurie’s site for their new home.

“Were there any special design considerations for the site, for the project?”

Pete grinned quickly before responding. “The short answer is the steep site,” he paused, flashing a grin again, “but you want to know more than that, right?” Another handful of crackers later he continued, “We wanted to create a nice way to get from the detached garage to the house, from guest parking to the house, from the house down to the water. Reducing the necessity of long, continuous stairs, descent and assent around the site was key. Extensive excavation and landscaping work was the first step in the solution. Ted Collins Landscaping has been a huge help there.”

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The home is set into the land, a part of the hillside. ICFs were used for the foundation and here are filled with concrete.

“I wanted to set the house into the site rather than rest it on top of the site. This minimizes some of the challenges of living on a hill and keeps the overall height within restrictions. Setting deeper into the land also helps the structure become more a part of the land, living with the land. Another benefit to sitting the house into the site was easier connections to the garage and parking. Plus, it brings everything closer to the lake.”

A pause for more crackers. At this point I was thinking about taking them away before the entire box was demolished and I was left with nothing for future interviewees. “There were a bunch of existing retainer walls,” he continued, “that were in disrepair. The plan we have replaces those with feature boulder walls against grading. They’re functionally stable, organic, and way prettier. There will be more natural paths of stepping stones, each with intentional pauses to break up the steps between structures.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by ‘pauses’. “Like stair landings?”

“Yep. And some larger flats that will work as gathering areas along the way down to the lake.”

“Neat.” I smiled as ingratiatingly as possible. I had to move him out of my office before my crackers were entirely gone. “I’m going to ask you about this home several more times, but give me summary of the project and we’ll call it a wrap.”

img_20161031_090117275_hdr“This is a retreat home for Dan & Laurie and their family. It will be the central hub for all major gatherings and vacations. It is a single story with spaces throughout capturing views of the lake. We crafted a Douglas fir frame with a custom finish and inside it will have an in-law suite and a master suite on the main level. The walk-out lower will have a bunk room, guess suite, and rec room. Landscaping will include native plants and pleasant paths.”

“Great!” I reached slowly for the box of crackers, pulling them from his grasp. “Thanks Pete.”

Looking somewhat forlorn, he replied, “Sure thing, Megan.”

I’ll share pictures and details of the raising in a later blog. Below is a picture of current progress. Roofing and enclosure are nearly complete. Our construction team has been thankful for a fairly easy winter (so far!) in the Northeast.

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