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Amish Artistry


Several Amish building companies from Pennsylvania have quietly brought their barn-raising skills to Maryland, where homeowners are discovering the charm that timber-frame additions can bring to a house.

The Amish builders' post-and-beam construction techniques, finely tuned through generations of building barns, offer an alternative for homeowners who want something different from the studs, nails and drywall of traditional framing.

"It's part of a very old tradition of building," says Chuck Dougherty, a building designer in Leola, Pa., who specializes in timber-frame structures and who has worked with Amish builders.

The appeal of a timber-frame house or addition lies in the rustic, heavy wooden posts that rise from the floor and the beams that span out overhead. Instead of being hidden behind the interior walls and ceilings, this supporting structure of oak, pine, cherry, hemlock or fir is exposed and becomes a part of the interior's aesthetics. The timbers are joined with a mortise and tenon and secured with a wooden peg, or "tree nail," instead of standard steel nails.

"People like the uniqueness of the space," says Mr. Dougherty, who owns Chuck Dougherty Design. "It's warm, it's comfortable and it's kind of reassuring. And they like the quality of the construction and the energy efficiency."

Also, timber frame offers the "ambience of exposed beams without being overwhelming," he says. The look is flexible and blends with a range of home styles from traditional to contemporary.

Modern methods of home building replaced timber-frame construction in most communities many years ago, but remained a tradition among many Amish builders of barns. Then in the 1970s, renewed interest in timber-frame construction began to develop. As the look became more fashionable, builders who were not Amish also began offering this type of construction.

Glenn James of the Craftwright timber-frame building firm of Westminster estimates there are four Maryland companies and about a dozen skilled craftsmen doing timber-framing here full -- time. In addition, he estimates there are three Amish companies from Pennsylvania that take on work here.

When he works with Amish building firms, Mr. Dougherty says, they construct the shell, measuring, cutting and numbering the timbers in advance and fitting them together at the site. The homeowner (or a subcontractor) typically adds the finishing details that personalize the house -- windows, doors, wainscoting, flooring, light fixtures, fireplace brick and cabinetwork.

The Amish builders do not advertise and shun publicity, Mr. Dougherty says. An owner of Riehl's Construction of Leola, Pa. -- one of the Amish firms that has worked with Mr. Dougherty and has built several additions in Harford County -- declined to be interviewed for this story. He said the company relies strictly on word-of-mouth to generate new business.

That's exactly how Daniel Mari located the company. Mr. Mari learned about Riehl's Construction in 1986 from a Mennonite friend. He and his wife, Mary Clare, wanted to add a sun room to their 3,000-square-foot traditional New England saltbox home.

"Timber frame lends itself to the type of house we have," says Mr. Mari. "It's warm and natural and it fits into our country setting."

French doors lead into the 18-by-18-foot sun room at the rear of their house in the My Lady's Manor area of Baltimore County. It is enclosed on three sides with 16 windows that crank open to let in summer breezes. Its posts and beams are oak and there are cedar boards on the walls.

"You're taking a very old-fashioned way of construction and contemporizing it," says Mrs. Mari. "It's rustic but it's been pampered by windows, wicker furniture and different-colored slate on the floor. You can make lots of genteel touches."

Brigitte and Calvin Lane, who live in Harford County, met the Maris through a mutual friend. After seeing the Maris' sun room, they hired Riehl's Construction to build a similar addition for their house.

"I liked the exposed wood and I thought it looked neat and rustic," says Mrs. Lane. "I wanted a nice, bright room."

"I like the idea that there's not a nail in it anywhere," says Mr. Lane. "It's . . . built in the tradition of old barns and that adds to the uniqueness of it."

Their sun room, which is 15 by 25 feet, can be closed off from the house with French doors. Inside, it's decorated with vacation souvenirs, including underwater photos taken by Mr. Lane. White walls reflect the sun streaming through 6-foot windows.

Allan and Sharon Iannacone realized about five years ago that their 1,800-square-foot contemporary saltbox was becoming too crowded for a family with two children. But they liked living in rural Norrisville in Harford County. So they decided to add on to the house rather than move.

"Allan's dream was a cabin in the woods but our house was very contemporary," says Mrs. Iannacone. "Then he saw our friends', the Maris', sun room and he just loved the feel of post-and-beam."

The couple wanted the design to blend with their house so they chose a 1,500-square-foot rectangular addition with a peaked roof.

The two-story structure, built by Riehl's Construction, has a master bedroom, study, bath, laundry room and utility closet. A spacious living room is brightened by a 12-foot window opening.

"It was truly a pleasure having them here," Mrs. Iannacone says of the builders. "They came in singing and whistling, they had a wonderful sense of humor and they prayed when they sat down together for lunch. We never had to worry about foul language. And they really cared about their . . . craftsmanship."

"They appreciated the concerns that we had and they wanted us to be happy," adds Mr. Iannacone. "They had honesty and pride in their work."

Down the road from the Iannacones is a historic center hall Colonial home that dates to about 1790. It belongs to their neighbors, Joseph and Karen Barbacane.

In 1991, the Barbacanes hired Riehl's Construction to add a 700-square-foot family room to their L-shaped farmhouse. The addition has a cathedral ceiling, skylights, ceiling fans, slate flooring, carpet and bow windows. Beneath it is a recreation room for their children.

"We had exposed beams in the kitchen already and we wanted to have [the addition] in keeping with the rest of the structure as opposed to new and modern," says Mr. Barbacane. "We liked the idea and the look and the way their work turns out. It's nice to have it done the old-fashioned way, the way things used to be done."

The Barbacanes also had a new barn built on the foundation of one that had collapsed. The barn has a three-car garage and a horse stall at one end. Upstairs is an exercise room with hot tub and shower and an open storage room where they've held a crab feast.

"It's an exquisite structure," Mr. Barbacane says. "When we first talked to the Amish about doing it they said they had driven by and they figured that barn really needed them."

For more information about timber-frame construction, please call:

Chuck Dougherty Design in Leola, Pa.

(717) 656-2108

Craftwright, in Westminster

(410) 876-0999

Timber Framers Guild of North America, in Keene, N.H.

(603) 357-1706

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