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the giving trees

A local minister trades pulpit for mallet to build a timber-framed house from scratch.

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What makes Bremer's pursuit distinct has as much to do with his choice of construction as it has with the fact that he's done it mostly alone.

Bremer is a craftsman in the type of architecture and carpentry called timber framing.

Timber framing is a type of post-and-beam construction in which a frame is created from solid wood timbers that are then connected by wooden joints, in Bremer's case, mortise and tenon. The joints are secured with hardwood pegs instead of nails.

Mortises and tenons are used to join two perpendicular timbers. Sawing away excess wood along the sides of the timber forms the protruding tenon. The mortise is hollowed out with a chisel. The tenon fits into the mortise and is locked in place by inserting wooden pegs. Bremer has plugged 270 of these into his house.

The frame of the structure is then covered with any one of a number of materials like drywall and what are known as stress skin panels. Normally timbers remain exposed to the interior of the building.

In England the majority of buildings were timber framed until the 17th century when tools and materials became available to make stone construction feasible. By then, early colonists had brought timber framing to America. And because the method proved so sturdy it became the choice construction for many 18th- and 19th-century barns. Some remain, scattered across the country.

Bremer knows this firsthand. He stems from a family of farmers long rooted in the Corn Belt of Northwestern Ohio. The summer after he graduated from high school Bremer helped his father, an "excellent carpenter," rebuild two timber-framed barns. The enduring work seems to have planted a seed of inspiration that Bremer harvests today.

Bremer's solitary 1,850-square-foot manse rests squarely on a 50-acre plot of provincial land in Goochland County. The haven is an hour's drive from Richmond, a stretch from his home in Midlothian. Bremer and his wife, Sherry, purchased the site in 1998 with plans to build a timber-framed retreat where they could retire some day. Five months later, in May, a tractor- trailer-load of 600-pound, white oak timbers from a lumberyard in Charlotte County, Va., was delivered.

It appears Bremer is the only carpenter in decades or longer to build a timber-framed residence in this part of the county, though it is becoming increasingly popular in certain pockets of the Northeast and Southeast. "It was the first timber-frame [application] Goochland had seen," Bremer recalls about when he applied for his building permit. "They had some questions about the stresses."

Bremer, who is senior minister at St. Giles' Presbyterian Church in Richmond, has questioned some stresses himself.

The first summer was spent planing beams that would be fitted together to form what's called a bent. "When I was working the beams that first summer I thought: Am I crazy?" Bremer recalls. Planing those initial beams took hours. In time his pace quickened. Still, Bremer says, "It's slow, patient work."

Bremer had to construct four of the bents. Each one weighs 3,500 pounds. Just as Bremer had helped his father, Bremer's own son Nathan, who was 17 at the time, chipped in.

And amid painstaking work, Bremer learned to dwell in a kind of private sanctuary.

"I think I'm doing my best contemplation working with wood," he says. It appears Bremer has spent much time listening to trees, looking out over his land and living a bit of history.

So much so that providence seems to have planted him in the wild wood.

One day an unexpected visitor stopped by. A man in a red pickup truck saw Bremer working. He pulled in to the property. Bremer says the man shouted at him: "What are you doing?" Bremer told the man he was building a house.

By the looks of things, the man judged it was not just any house. "No," Bremer recalls the man saying: "You're cutting mortises with a chisel!"

The man, Lewis Smith, is a fellow timber framer from a nearby county. The two have since become friends.

Bremer had ordered a solar kiln designed by the Virginia Tech forestry department. All the wood Bremer uses in his house must be dried in the greenhouselike shed before it's milled or fitted. Wooden planks are stacked tightly inside the kiln. Wooden planks and timbers are neatly stacked outside, too.

On Oct. 30, 1998, on what Bremer remembers as "a glorious fall day," the four bents were ready to be hoisted up to form the skeleton of house. Forty members of Bremer's congregation from St. Giles turned out to help. "I didn't sleep for a couple of nights" before, Bremer says, because he worried the shell might not fit snugly together. It did. "We had a barn raising," he says, beaming. It took eight hours.

Before and after that day, Bremer has largely toiled alone. He has spent four years' worth of weekends and holidays building the house. He has done the electrical and plumbing work. He has hired subcontractors only for masonry and heating and cooling jobs he couldn't tackle himself.

The result is a quaint otherwise nondescript-looking house that sits propped on a countryside hill. But what's inside is breathtaking.

The front door opens into a small kitchen that seems to have been rubbed in white oak and walnut. Bremer made the cabinets from walnut trees he salvaged "that had blown down in a pasture."

Beyond the kitchen is a great room. At once sunlight and the sky seem to burst in. Windows hold in the room. Honey-colored beams shoot upward and kiss rafters that cradle the roof. Except for the sparse living-room furniture and the floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, the room looks strikingly like the inside of a church. It seems easy to conceive that one could connect to God here.

To hear him tell it, Bremer balances a sense of pride in his craftsmanship with a greater sense of humility.

"The floor represents almost a year's work," Bremer says pointing to the caramel-colored wood underfoot. It's hand-milled walnut. "I feel like I have a personal relationship with each piece of wood in this house."

The great room swallows a space that's 24 by 36 feet. Apart from it, the house is "pretty much a loft with a bathroom and kitchen," Bremer says almost bashfully.

A bedroom loft is tucked above the kitchen. Bremer is still working on the steps that lead up to it. "The floor in the loft is one tree," he explains, "a red oak."

There is still much work to be done, like building some walnut doors. Eventually he'd like to build a library. Three cherry trees outside have suffered from drought and disease. They may make it to the next phase of the house. "I would like the library to be made of cherry and I think those three trees will contribute to that." And the kitchen is temporary. "This is not big enough to keep my wife happy," he says amusedly.

It's bright and silent outside except for the sound of rustling trees. Bremer steps over to the crest of the hill and points out. On clear days you can see 60 miles to Mount Wintergreen, he says. Closer, just over across a hedge of trees, is Elk Island, land that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Like timber framing, appreciating the history in a thing enables a person to consider his place in it. "True spirituality is connected to embodiment," Bremer says. "I have a strong need to see the results of my labor. At the end of the day I can look and see the visible results of that." HS







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