Should I Build a Timber Frame Home in California?

Because much of California is prone to wildfires, homeowners often consider building a timber frame house in the Golden State unwise. However, timber frame houses are actually preferred by builders and homeowners across California for a number of reasons. In fact – despite growing concerns from some environmentalists – timber framing remains widespread across the United States. In her July 2021 article "Wildfires Are Getting Worse, So Why Is the U.S. Still Building Homes With Wood?" for Time, Alana Semuels explains. Semuels writes that "the U.S. remains stubbornly attached to timber." The United States is actually "one of the few places in the world where wood is the dominant material used in new-home construction."

In 2019, 90% of all new homes "were wood-framed, according to the National Association of Home Builders." Though wood is a renewable resource, it is not rapidly renewable in the way that grasses like bamboo and hemp are. Because of the resources required to process timber and replace felled trees, some environmentalists argue that US builders should turn to other, more sustainable materials. The growing intensity and frequency of natural disasters fueled by climate change have also pushed some to call for the use of more durable materials – like steel and concrete – in home buildings. Below, we answer the question, "Can I build a timber frame home in California?" We consider everything from legal restrictions and disaster resilience to the availability of timber and environmental impact. Follow below to learn all about building a timber frame house in California.

What Exactly Is a Timber Frame House?

Today's timber frame houses are a far cry from the wattle and daub homes built by early American settlers. Anna Briseno explains how modern timber frame houses are designed and constructed in her article "Timber Frame Homes" for the National Association of Home Builders. Briseno writes that "timber frame homes are built from large wood posts and beams that form the home's structural support and require no interior load-bearing walls." Depending on the source, the timber used in home construction can be prepared by machine or hand. Hand-hewn wood is typically much more expensive but is preferred by homeowners who enjoy a more organic, artisanal look.

Timbers vaulted to create this structural support are joined together by "connecting a mortise (hole) on the end of one timber with a corresponding tenon (tongue) that fits precisely and tightly." Historically, these joints would be secured with wooden pegs. However, today's builders typically use "metal fasteners and nails." Insulation is later added, and siding is applied to the exterior. Briseno notes that wall panels in timber frame homes "can be finished with any type of exterior material, including logs, siding, stone, and brick." In the interior, homeowners might opt to leave the raw wood of the timber framing visible.

Which Type of Wood Is Used in Timber Frame Houses?

Writing for the National Association of Home Builders, Briseno notes that "the most common species of wood used for timber frame homes are white pine, red and white oak, and Douglas fir, cypress, and cedar." Some builders use engineered lumber like CLT (cross-laminated timber), Glulam, plywood, and OSB. Made from layers or scraps of wood glued together with synthetic adhesives, engineered woods are much less expensive than natural timber.

There are risks involved when building homes with engineered wood, however. In their article "Lumber Choices for Wood Frame Construction – Choosing Timber for Framing & Building Homes" for EcoHome, Mélodie Kohler and Céline Lecomte explain. Lecomte and Kohler write that "one thing to bear in mind with all engineered wood products in homes is that it's at greater risk of moisture damage than solid timber used for framing and structural elements."

Thankfully, there is an abundance of hardwood species in California. In his resource bulletin "The Hardwoods of California's Timberlands, Woodlands, and Savannas" for the US Forest Service, Charles L. Bolsinger elaborates. Bolsinger writes that "hardwoods grow on several million acres of forest in California." These include protected species like redwood as well as species regularly felled by the lumber industry. According to Bolsinger, California is rich with "Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine, and other conifer timber types, and in mixed- and single-species hardwood stands."

Three Reasons Why We Still Build Timber Frame Houses in California

1. Timber Frame Houses Are a Good Fit For California’s Mediterranean Climate

State experiences relatively pleasant weather all year round. In his chapter "Climate and Topography" for the Atlas of the Biodiversity of California, Erik Kauffman elaborates. Kauffman writes that California's Mediterranean climate has "three variations." Each is fairly mild – except certain desert and high mountain regions. In the article "Why Does San Francisco Have So Few Houses Made Of Brick?" for Forbes, Charlotte Lang explains why California's climate is a good fit for timber frame homes rather than brick or concrete.

Lang writes that "California's weather is pretty temperate-we don't get subzero temperatures like back East or in the Midwest, so we don't need the extra insulation." Furthermore, Lang notes that desert regions of California "can get very hot, and brick holds heat in" – making them a poor choice for homeowners in this state. Lang argues that "wood structures are far better [as they offer] the perfect balance for the insulation required for the very hot times and the not so cold times."

2. Timber Frame Homes Are Relatively Earthquake-Safe

Though this might come as a surprise, wood-frame buildings have been known to withstand extreme weather conditions and natural disasters. Writing for Forbes, Charlotte Lang notes that “California’s structural codes and earthquake requirements are the toughest in the nation.” Even with incredibly stringent building codes, wood framing remains “the predominant construction method for residential dwellings,” according to Ehsan Kianirad, CCM, Ph.D. and Andrew O’Donnell, CCM of Verisk. In their article “U.S. Earthquake Model Update Enhances View of Wood Frame Vulnerability,” Verisk, O’Donnell, and Dr. Kianirad consider how earthquake-safe timber frame houses really are. O’Donnell and Kianirad write that “in general, wood-frame buildings perform well during earthquake events, and the level of damage per building is low.”

Those who perform poorly during earthquakes are usually older buildings constructed before the 1940s and/or between the 1960s and the beginning of the 21st century. Timber frame homes built after WWII tend to be more vulnerable because they are larger yet have “fewer solid exterior and interior partition walls, resulting in a reduction in the lateral load-carrying capacity of these homes.” Of course – because wood is a natural material that degrades over time – timber frame homes could become more vulnerable as they age.

How Are Timber Frame Homes Earthquake-Resistant?

Kianirad and O’Donnell credit better performance of new timber frame homes to “improved standards and building codes (requiring plan review and more frequent inspection by building officials).” Changes to California’s building code have “resulted in better design, higher-quality construction materials, more sophisticated hold-down systems to resist overturning, specially manufactured hardware to enable more robust load paths [and] better workmanship.”

Today, smaller single-story timber frame homes remain the most stable and earthquake-resistant because they have better lateral support. In her article “Wood vs. Brick Homes: What You Need to Know” for, Deana Becker writes that wood is naturally “better in earthquake prone areas [because it is] a lightweight and flexible material.” Becker notes that “the reason for this is because the force of an earthquake is proportional to a structure’s mass.” According to Becker, this “high strength-to-weight ratio of wood allows the material to survive seismic activity much better than brick.”

3. Timber Frame Houses Can Be Eco-Friendly

With proper sourcing and a design-build team focused on sustainability, timber frame houses can be eco-friendly. In their article "'We don't build them like we used to' — Why new houses aren't made of brick" for PBS and NPR partner WHYY, Jake Blumgart and Steph Yin elaborate. Blumgart and Yin write that "manufacturing and transporting masonry, and other heavy materials, contributes greatly to climate change." They explain that "bricks have to be burned — and these days that means using fossil fuels."

Manufacturing and transporting concrete can be "even worse…[as it] is responsible for a stunning proportion of global carbon emissions." On the other hand, Wood is lighter than concrete, steel, and brick. It is also "abundant and accessible" – especially in California, heavily populated by hardwood trees. Better yet, trees "absorb carbon from the atmosphere." Both the Wood itself and the soil beneath the trees continue "to hold carbon after trees are felled, only releasing it when [trees] burn or rot."

Building Eco-Friendly Timber Frame Houses in California

Building timber frame structures makes particular sense in California because lumber is readily available. Yin and Blumgart note that builders “seeking points towards LEED certification…must use materials from within 500 miles of the construction site.” For many builders around the United States, this is a tall order. In California, however, locally sourced lumber is often available.

Timber frame construction is probably the most eco-friendly and sustainable in Northern California. Kate C. Marcille, Todd A. Morgan, Chelsea P. McIver, and Glenn A. Christensen explain in their 2016 paper “California’s Forest Products Industry and Timber Harvest” for the USDA. Marcille et al. write that “nearly 86 percent of California’s total timber harvest came from the North Coast, Northern Interior, and Sacramento regions in 2016.” Of course, the shortages and sky-high prices that began in 2020 due to natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic have also impacted builders in the Golden State. Keep this in mind when building your California timber frame home.

Designing Your Custom Home in California with Element

Whether you are looking for a timber frame home or one made with insulated concrete forms, the design-build team at Element can help you design the perfect space for your family. With local Southern and Northern California teams, Element understands the unique challenges of building in the Golden State. Protect your home from earthquakes, wildfires, and high winds. California has been known for a while, creating a stunning property that stands the test of time. Reach out to our team to schedule a consultation.

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