2x4s and Planned Obsolescence

Author Michael Pollan might be known for his bestsellers on humankind’s relationship with food (such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma or The Botany of Desire), but before he penned either of those books, he wrote about building a house. Specifically, he envisioned a Thoreauvian writing cabin that he would build with his own hands, although he was (in his words) "a radically unhandy man.” My wife found a copy of A Place of My Own in a secondhand store, and I’ve found it entertaining – especially in light of the barn we’ve been dismantling over the past week-and-a-half.

Pollan takes his reader through a brief history of building in this country, discussing both architectural styles and construction methods. His cabin was of post-and-beam design, utilizing conventional lumber and steel hardware to hold everything together, but he and his carpenter/helper did have a few mortises to chop. As a beginner engaging that process, Pollan briefly ponders the meditative and beautiful qualities of the work but concludes, “The idea of erecting an entire building by this method – hewing the timbers, chiseling hundreds of joints far more elaborate than ours, and then raising the frame all by hand – well, all this now seemed about as improbable to me as building a pyramid.”

But, of course, that is how nearly every wooden structure older than 175 years (give or take) was built – big timbers, sturdy joinery, wooden pegs. This required skill, knowledge, and time, but with practically zero cost in materials. Fast forward a bit, to the mid-19th century Midwest, where there were mills and infrastructure and nail factories and a great need for cheap, fast housing. A new kind of construction, called “balloon framing” due to its apparently lightweight and flimsy-looking structure (we call it “stick built” up here in Maine), employed dimensional lumber (2x4s) shipped in by rail and thrown up by work crews who moved fast. The city of Chicago was the first place where this style of construction was employed on a broad scale, and the town popped up seemingly ex nihilo in just a year’s time. “No one, anywhere, had seen anything quite like it before,” Pollan notes, “an entire city thrown together with the flurry and haste of a campground.” This new kind of building was quickly adopted, becoming a fitting metaphor for the developing nation. Stick frames go up quickly and are easily torn down when something new comes along. Rather than the ancient practice of building to set down roots in the land, it became the method of choice for an unsettled, shifting culture.

The barn project is an interesting amalgamation. The largest part of the structure is of 18th-century hand-hewn timbers, with an early-20th century (as best as we can tell) 2x4-framed addition tacked on. The thing about timber frames is that they’re like a kids’ building set – pop out the pins and you can disassemble the whole thing and put it up somewhere else. Stick frames can only be knocked apart or bulldozed. While there is value in the lumber (great value these days), there can be no saving the addition. 


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