When people say "post-and-beam construction", what do they mean? Unfortunately, it can mean slightly different things to different people, and context does matter. Let’s try and clarify a little for you. A good place to start is with a well-accepted general definition from the Timber Framers Guild glossary:
POST AND BEAM. 1. Structural system made up primarily of vertical and horizontal members. 2. Such a system in which floor and roof loads are carried by principal timbers simply butted together and fastened with structural hardware. 3. Structural system of heavy timbers connected by woodwork joints. See TIMBER FRAME.
Sounds like a post-and-beam structure can be almost anything made out of timbers! And that is true. In general usage, “post-and-beam” is used to distinguish between structures built with heavy timbers and traditional “balloon frame” or “stick built” construction.
Early timber frame techniques were developed thousands of years ago, and allowed the construction of shelter with relatively primitive hand tools. Iron was not available as a building material, so all joinery was accomplished with woodworking joints.
Structures became more and more complex, and timber frame techniques evolved faster than other tool and material technologies. Therefore, many grand structures were created using these traditional post and beam techniques.
Eventually technology caught up, and following the industrial revolution post-and-beam construction began to fade. Small, uniform, and inexpensive lumber coupled with metal fasteners quickly allowed the much simpler balloon construction to relegate full timber frame to a specialty role in the market place.
Many times, the term ‘post-and-beam’ is used very broadly, and the term ‘timber frame’ is used to define a specific subset of structures—those that are created using traditional bent construction using exclusively, or at least primarily, woodworking joinery.
If you are looking to build any structure with large timbers, you can feel safe using the term post-and-beam. If you are looking for a structure with old world style bents using woodwork joinery, you would be more accurate calling it a timber frame structure.
Of course, there are any number of ways that traditional joinery is combined with iron and modern components--for example, a bent with trusses constructed with predominantly woodworking joinery but tensioned with a steel rod.
These combinations give our verbiage a workout, but can make possible an amazing variety of structures in terms of look, feel, size and design.
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