They’re the quintessential symbol of old European charm. One look at their wonky, out of square frames, colorful stucco, and overflowing flower boxes and it’s immediately obvious that you’re in another place, another time. They’re called half-timbered houses, and given the number of these lovely 500 year-old beauties scattered across Northern Europe it’s obvious why this medieval construction technique was so popular: it stood the test of time.
And why half-timber? Basically, this term refers to the primary building method of cutting a whole log in half to form the ribs of the sturdy frame … half a timber.
According to archdaily.com “Half Timbering was a vernacular construction technique that evolved in Germanic Saxony. It came to Britain with the Saxons in the 5th Century.”
All medieval structures, from the lowliest hut to the grandest palace had one thing in common: building material had to be close at hand. In a rocky area the buildings were stone; and in heavily forested places they used wood for construction. So Europe’s half-timbered houses are concentrated where the thick forests were, at least in the 16th Century. France, Germany, the UK, and Eastern Europe have the largest collections of these lovely tourist magnets.
Standard construction rules didn’t exist at the time, so the building process varied from place to place. But each house needed hardwood trees of a similar size, split down the middle and cut into ribs which would be joined with wooden pegs. And if you guessed that each and every step was grueling, backbreaking work, you’d be right.
After the split-log frame was built, the spaces between the structural members were filled with bricks, plaster, or wattle and daub, which is a clever concoction of woven twigs and branches that were smeared with clay or mud.
The finished product was a house turned inside out with the skeleton on the outside. In some cases the entire structure was covered with a mixture of plaster and lime, and in others only the panels between the ribs were covered. But tourist villages today want all the medieval charm possible, so they leave the ribs visible and paint the stucco panels a kaleidoscope of colors.
Another common characteristic of half-timbered houses are upper floors which slightly extend out over the lower ones. Opinions differ on the exact function of these cantilevered overhangs. Two obvious advantages are the addition of floor space upstairs, and protection of the lower floor and foundation from the weather. Architects say: “The main advantage, however, is structural: the cantilevers at the ends of the beams partially counterbalance the load carried by their spanning portions.” … Huh?
Or as you might expect, even in 16th Century Europe most people wanted to keep the jackals at the tax office at bay. Apparently some cities taxed houses on the width of the street frontage so a narrow house saved the owner money, which could be spent on grog and firewood.
I’ve lived in a few historic houses so I know first hand what ancient plumbing, uneven floors, and hard-to-open doors are like to live with. So I can appreciate the effort that living in a centuries-old house must take. But there’s nothing like strolling a narrow cobblestone street lined with meticulously restored half-timber houses to get a romantic glimpse of the past from another place, another time.
James & Terri
Photo Credits: 6, 7, 8. Mike Peel