Industry Ed with Richard: Incorporating Wood Beams in Design

Wood beams are very popular at the moment. HGTV shows have boosted the popularity of the “rustic farmhouse” look, and wood beams are necessary to achieve that look. I’ve had a lot of experience in designing with beams – I’ve been a woodworker for thirty years myself, and I own a mill. I know personally how difficult they can be to install. Still, clients love them, and the effect they can have on a design, and the finished space, is great. These are a couple of things to keep in mind, should your client ask for wood beams.

Structure

Any wood beams that you add to a design should appear to be structural. Not only is this in keeping with the rustic look, it’s also a more aesthetically pleasing look.

The beams need to be spaced about 4 – 6 feet apart, in order to reproduce the structural look. 

I don’t like beams along the wall; I think the look is inauthentic. However, half beams can be made to look like they’re sitting on the wall and extending over the post. If a client insists on flanking beams, I would steer them towards that option.

Ceiling height

You want to ensure that the beams are proportional to the space. As a general rule-of-thumb, you want them to be taller than they are wide. However, if the space has a low ceiling, or if there simply isn’t room for the beam system your client wants, there is a compromise.

  • ·         8′ ceilings – 6” wide x 4” tall  
  • ·         9′ ceilings – 6” wide x 8” tall  
  • ·         10′ ceilings – 8” wide x 10” tall
  • ·         11-12′ ceilings – 10” wide x 12” tall

If the house has a Cathedral peak, I would personally go with a 10” wide by 14” tall beam. Be careful not to overwhelm the space with too large of a beam. 

Materials

Adding beams, either during the build or after it is finished, makes this style more accessible.
You have two options when it comes to wood beams – solid or engineered.

Of the two options, solid beams require the most work. They need to be worked into the design from the beginning of the build, and there isn’t much opportunity to change the design once the framing has commenced. Special equipment – lifts, braces, etc. – is needed to install them.

It’s difficult to get a permit for reclaimed wood beams in a structure. Most solid beams added today are cut from new wood, which is prone to warping and settling. It is also difficult to match solid beams. Years of aging cause changes in color and warping. However the authentic patina, as well as the unique history behind each beam, makes solid beams unique.

The other option- engineered beams- is much less of a headache. Engineered beams are lighter and easier to install. 

Process

Another consideration with designing wood beams is when in the process the beams will be added. Structural beam and post systems will need to be installed by the framing carpenter at the same time as framing materials.

The benefit of engineered beams, like the ones we make at The Olde Mill, is that they can be added later, either after the home is built or at any stage in the renovation process. This gives you flexibility when it comes to planning your job’s timeline.  

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