What's old is new again.

Timber framing, in which heavy lumber is squared-off and carefully fitted together at joints secured by large wooden pegs, is an antique technique. Yet, it's regaining popularity among builders drawn to the durability, cost-effectiveness and design flexibility timber frames afford as an alternative to smaller, dimensional lumber.

Madison, Wis.-based Whole Trees LLC goes one step further by incorporating full small-diameter (4 to 21 inches) tree trunks into its structural systems. This timber is usually too small to be milled and would end up as waste after being removed during routine forest thinning.

A home built using round timber from Whole Trees LLC.
A home built using round timber from Whole Trees LLC.

Founded in 2007, the inspiration for the company came when Roald Gunderson, an architect with over 20 years of experience in eco-friendly building, began managing 134 acres of family forest near the Mississippi River in Wisconsin, says Amelia Baxter, Whole Trees president and co-founder.

“The forest was somewhat scrappy hardwoods, and it needed to be thinned of small trees to grow healthier in the future and improve future millable yields. That is a microcosm of what’s happening with private and public forests nationally," she explains. "Forests need to be culled of small trees for future growth, but these small trees have little-to-no market value, so they are under-maintained."

Whole Trees purchases timber from various public and private forests, usually as part of a managed forest plan and under FSC guidance; it also still draws from its original forest for some pieces. Once the lumber is received, it is peeled, dried, and treated for insect prevention and fire resistance before being fabricated and finished for building.

From Backwoods to City Center
Using whole trees might initially evoke images of a rustic woodland retreat, but it’s not just for log cabins.

“The company is rebranding timber as something urban and sophisticated—our goal is pull it out of the ‘lodge’ association," Baxter explains. "Now we’re trying to reach markets that previously thought they had to use steel or engineered wood."

The kitchen of a Whole Trees home.
The kitchen of a Whole Trees home.

And building with round timber has many advantages. In addition to being beneficial for forest health, it’s a durable, cost-effective, and renewable resource, with life-cycle assessment results that exceed materials like steel, concrete, and milled lumber.

“Small trees are very strong—they are 50 percent stronger than milled lumber and as strong as steel. Outer fibers are what enable the tree to grow and withstand loads, so it’s a very sophisticated material, and it’s also cheap and abundant," Baxter says. "We can process this in stunning architectural solutions for less than the cost of milled lumber."

Whole Trees has participated in more than 50 building projects to date, largely in residential construction. The company is now entering the commercial sector and beginning to bid nationally, Baxter says, including outreach to retail, hospitality, and multifamily industries. To ensure they are able to keep material regionally sourced as they ship across the nation, the company also foresees expanding its timber production beyond its current bounds of the upper Midwest.

So far, round timber is a relatively small market. However, the revival of timber framing shows that there is interest in construction products that are environmentally-friendly and visually striking. Going forward, those interested in natural building materials may find branching out to round timber a worthwhile choice.

This article is part of a series Laura McNulty will be writing on unconventional home and building materials. Have suggestions for what else should be covered? Leave them in the comments or connect with her on Twitter @LMcNulty_HW.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Madison, WI.