Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Local Timberframing

This is an article I wrote last November for the local paper (there is an english language section for international students and proffessionals in the area).

"Cultural spotlight: Traditional farmhouse architecture in Twente

From the unique style of the Amsterdam School to the modernism of Rem Koolhaas, Dutch architecture is world famous. But you don’t have to go far to find some very interesting examples of historic vernacular architecture here in the Twente area.

Some excellent examples of interesting structures that speak directly to the local culture and history of the area can be found in many surviving timber framed farm buildings, some dating back to the 12th century. The oldest can be found between Enschede and Hengelo in the Twekelo area. Het Mensink, het Baardink, and het Kotman were all established sometime in the 12th century. Some of these ancient buildings are still in use as farms and living spaces today.

The open air museum in Ootmarsum ( is also a great place to see examples of this construction as well as an interesting view into life on a farm reaching back to the Middle Ages. Another example, from the 18th century, is the ‘Groot Bavel’ los hoes which stands behind the Rijksmuseum in Enschede. Los hoes translates roughly as ‘open house’ and denotes a type of farm building/barn that was divided into sections for people and animals. Today this farmhouse contains a museum exhibit dedicated to the victims of the firework explosion of 2000 in the neighbourhood bordering the museum. The timber frame construction, along with the fact that these buildings have stood the test of time and are made of renewable resources, has become a popular subject for specialty homebuilders today in America and England. The simple but elegant joinery and construction techniques in these old (sometimes ancient) farm buildings is proving to be a valuable cultural resource as well as the inspiration for new sustainable building practices.

One distinctive hallmark of Twente farm buildings can still be seen in many forms today on the gable ends of houses as well as hanging next to front doors. Called a gevelteken or stiepelteken, these ancient signs marked a building for its owner, showed the faith of the family, and were meant for good luck and protection. The oldest surviving in Enschede can be seen as a fragment placed in the entrance gallery of the Groot Bavel. It shows one of the oldest and most popular motifs, the zandloper or hourglass figure. Simplified to two triangles, this motif can also be seen in the ubiquitous red and white window shutters on many buildings in Twente. These older signs were simply carved into the face of a vertical beam in some prominent location. A more elaborate form eventually evolved, carved from a tall flat piece of wood into a group of symbols standing on each other- something like a totem pole. These can be seen at the peak of the main gable of the barn or farmhouse, or sometimes next to the front door of more contemporary homes. Each stylised part of the carving represented something about the family; properly informed, one could read a lot about the inhabitants. Some are easily discernible- a heart for love, a cross for Christianity; while others are more abstract-an anchor (symbol of hope), a blooming tulip, the Catholic host, stylised wheat stalks or the moon symbolising fertility, a circle pierced seven times representing the sun and seven days of the week, and the status symbol of local farmers- the double horse head or ‘Twentse ros’."

This is the back (sunny) side of the Los Hoes building. Its been moved- I wonder how it was originally oriented?:

The 'hourglass' stiepelteken by the front entrance:

Joinery inside:

And from outside:

Detail of roofing, thatch covered with tiles:

Los Hoes from the frontside:

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Permeable roads

I'll just say that one resolution for this year is to post here more frequently. I promise to finish going through the ideas and examples in 'How Buildings Learn', but I'll have to wait until I have a bit more free time. For the moment there are a couple of things I've been thinking about over the last months; differences in building conventions between Europe and the States.
As you ride your bike around the Netherlands (itself another great sustainable
habit that is reinforced by the necessary infrastructure,) you immediately notice the unique quality of the roads. Though the main roadways and highways are paved, most residential streets and certainly the town centres are all paved in brick, cobblestone or 'pavers'. Cobblestone is actually pretty rare except for really old sections where there is mostly foot traffic. The whole art of laying brick streets is a respected tradition here- there are even competitions for speed and artistry held regularly. The greenest part of these roads is that you have an integral drainage system (the whole design is aggragate, a layer of compacted sand, and bricks or pavers) that avoids the runoff problems of conventionally paved surfaces. There are still sewers but you rarely have the accumulation that you can get with paved surfaces, even after the (frequent) heavy rains. It is also much simpler to make repairs or access buried services; the pieces covering the area are just removed and replaced without a huge amount of effort or resources. The streets do need occassional maintenance as things settle and move over the years. They recently came and pulled up our entire street brick by brick and re-graded it for drainage and then relaid each brick.

One of the funniest things was the way they worked around this guy's car one day- everyone else had moved their car off the street by then but I guess he didn't need to go anywhere. They eventually moved it and redid the street in that spot.

Months later, my neighbor's water line from the street broke and after he called the utility company, they quickly came, located the valve in the street and pulled enough bricks out to shut it off.