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Boulder Business


Home’s two-story wooden entry built without using nails, screws

Builder used joinery, centuries-old technique
Doug McPherson

Boulder- As soon as guests enter Johanna and Bernie Back’s home in Pine Brook Hills tucked in the foothills northwest of downtown Boulder, they stop in their tracks – struck by the spectacular three-sided panoramic views beyond wooden beams and huge plates of glass of the towerlike entrance.

But on closer inspection of this two-story entry, they don’t see a single nail or screw in the architecture. That’s because there are none.

That might sound a little scary, especially given the blustery winds that sweep over the Boulder foothills. But not to the Bachs.

“When we learned that they weren’t using nails, it didn’t really send up any red flags,” says Bernie Back. “I knew it would be structurally sound.Turns out the Bachs were right not to be concerned. The no-nails approach has a rich history. In fact, carpenters have been using the technique – called joinery – for centuries.

I know it was used as early as 200 A.D.,” says Ed Shure, owner of Timmerhus, the Boulder-based log and timber construction company that build Bach’s entry.

Experts say the technique used to join pieces of wood together evolved significantly between the 12th and 15th centuries in response to both the technical problem of making strong joints that would resist wood movement and customer demands. Now Shure is seeing a rebirth of interest in joinery in the Boulder Valley. “It disappeared when the sawmill came but saw a revival in New England in the 1970’s and in the last five or ten years it’s become more popular in Boulder,” Shure says, “It really provides a palpable difference from the other less-crafted work.”

The Bach’s home design, including its lofty and distinguished entry, came from the mind of Gettliffe Architecture’s Dominique Gettliffe, an architect in Boulder who is from France and studied architecture there. But it was Japan and its wood joinery craftsmanship that inflamed Gettliffe to create the Bach’s home.

“I was inspired by Japanese woodworking, the geometry and the minimalism,” Gettliffe says. “And yes, the entry is very sturdy with nice crafting and detail. It’s very clean and crisp woodwork.”

Gettliffe, who started his practice in 1984, says he approaches architecture with the “master builder” approach, which has been practiced fro hundreds of years in France. It’s an integrated approach where the architect’s expertise and management skills cover all facets of building from design through construction.

And he encourages clients to build site-specific, ecologically sound structures using renewable wood sources and reclaimed salvage materials whenever possible. The wood used in the Bach’s entry is Douglas fir – remnants of a forest fire in southern Oregon.

Shure, along with two other employees at Timmerhus, spent 1,500 hours with taht wood building the Bach’s entry.

The frame design process is driven by structural as well as aesthetic and program requirements. Beam geometry is exported from the 3-D frame drawing into software that predicts resultant forces and stresses. That data is then used to refine timber layout, size members and detail connections.

The result in this case was a 10-foot-by-10-foot, 20-foot high entry – built entirely offsite and then hoisted it into place with a massive crane.

Gettliffe says having the structure lifted into place was perhaps “the most thrilling moment” of the construction process for him and those who participated.

But he also pays credit to the home’s natural surrounding; the entry was designed specifically with nature in mind. “For this project, perhaps teh most central theme is the connection to nature,” Gettliffe says. “Every level of the home opens to either a walk-out deck, patio, bridge, or stairs leading to the natural settings which surrounds the home.”

But before guests get to those decks, patios and the rest of the thouse, Johanna says they often linger in the entry tower.

In our old house, people would come, take off their coat, then walk farther into the house and then start commenting what they saw,” she says. “Now they don’t make it two steps without talking about the entry and the views. We’re very happy with it.”

Gettliffe often relies on his French background in his approach to architecture. “The French are somewhat less work-oriented than Americans; the French tend to prioritize quality of life issues,” Gettliffe says. “My clients are people who want the architectural design of the spaces in which they live and work to contribute to their daily enjoyment of life.”

Gettliffe adds that architecture can enhance people’s lives by calming and simplifying life. “It does that through the clarity and simplicity of the design,” he says. “It can also energize, promote optimism through the use of natural light and spaces and forms that lift rather than oppress.”

He says architecture can even facilitate relationships with spaces that “balance the needs for privacy and comfortable interaction with others.”

That’s something that the Bachs believe. “We like to entertain and having a home that accommodates that is important to us. Our guests seem to like the house very much.”

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