Timeless Timber Frame
The gate to Big Sky’s Beaver Creek community opens to a spectrum of interpretations on mountain living. Driving up the snow-covered road there are luxurious homes built from log and stone, others of rustic western materials, even one that is a tribute to the East Coast’s cape-style. But John and Nettie Quackenbush’s residence is a traditional timber-frame house.
Even tucked in the pines, the artful design of the home stands apart. The pavilion, hipped porch, notched rafter tails and cathedral-arched windows are the first indications that it was built by masterful craftsmen.
“I fell in love with this style of house while studying furniture design in England,” John said. “The joinery in timber frame construction is similar to a large piece of furniture.”
After completing the prestigious Ashridge Workshop for cabinetry and furniture making in Devon, England, John was anxious to apply his experience by building his own home in Montana. After previously working as a commercial contractor in the San Francisco Bay area, the couple had long dreamed of relocating to Big Sky, where Nettie had grown up vacationing with her family over the last two decades.
John’s interest in timber-frame homes led him to Bitterroot Timber Frames, a family owned company based in Stevensville, Mont. After talking with owner Brett Mauri, one thing led to another; John eventually began to work as executive project manager for the Mauris’ other businesses, Bitterroot Design Group and Bitterroot Builders. His own house in Big Sky was a labor of love that allowed him to combine his passion for woodwork with Bitterroot Group’s expertise in design and building.
“For John, building this house was all about craftsmanship,” Nettie said. “He got to apply what had previously been a hobby by working on every detail throughout the process of building this house – that’s what makes it so special to us.”
Personal aesthetics set the parameters for the Quackenbush home. Primarily, the timber-frame style determined the use of natural materials; its exposed structure naturally led to an open floor plan. An affinity for the warmth and softness of wood defined the many built-in, custom furnishings in the kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms. Also, Nettie’s love of cooking shaped the expertly finished professional kitchen. But more than anything, the decision to use all recycled and reclaimed materials shaped the project.
The house reflects a balance of modern needs and timeless craftsmanship. Outside, the ground level of the house is constructed of native stone harvested from the property; the main floor is sided with salvaged barn wood from Minnesota; and the second floor is trimmed with shingles. The whole product is a unique culmination of both John’s interests and Bitterroot Group’s signature blending of natural stone and timbers in mountain architecture.
Just stepping through the remarkably detailed front door, a combination of rustic antiques and custom-made furniture creates the inviting atmosphere of the Quackenbush’s house. But clearly furnishings are incidental compared to the woodwork showcased throughout the house. Sending a subtle welcome message, a simple antique bench offers coat hooks and a shelf to display John’s handmade wood planes. A flight of rough-hewn stairs leading to the second floor is lined with a notched, iron railing that echoes the exterior rafter tails and duplicates the railing used on the porch.
A short, but low-ceilinged hallway leads through the kitchen into the central part of the house. Here, in the great room, uplighting on exposed beams highlights the artful joinery of the timbers. The color of wood from floor to ceiling ranges from blonde to red, its textures curl and burl throughout the sculptural display of materials that have been keenly shaped into this practical domicile. A stone fireplace in the corner is stately, but also secondary to the way the room opens onto mountain views and into the forest. Wooden window frames shaped into delicate gothic arches edge the steepled ceiling. From this vantage point, it’s almost possible to look through the house from end to end – living room, dining room, kitchen and a partial view of upstairs.
“I really like sitting on the hearth in the living room with a cup of coffee,” John said. “You can look back at the house and see the anatomy of how 180,000 pounds of timber will come together.”
It took nine months to frame out the three-level, 4,762-square-foot home, although the entire project was completed in just over a year. According to John, unlike most modern timber-frame homes, which are hybrids of modern building styles, his is a true timber frame, meaning the tall wood skeleton is designed to carry all the vertical loads of the house’s weight.
Timber framing is a craft that dates back 2,000 years or more. The vernacular architectural style reached its height of popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries in Great Britain. Throughout the centuries, the style has been adapted in most parts of the world, from France to Japan in homes and temples, because its simplicity and versatility lends itself to many different types of design.
Adding to the artful frame of the house is John’s own furniture design, another signature feature of the Bitterroot Group. All the doors (made from the old Bozeman High School bleachers), cabinets and built-in furniture were constructed on-site. What stands out most are the cabinets in the kitchen, made from an African Pernambucco wood that John purchased from a San Francisco luthier 12 years ago. The unusual henna-toned wood is smartly contrasted with honed Italian slate countertops on a central cooking island and a two level island that divides the kitchen and dining area. A sideboard along the west wall is topped with a clean-cut, unpolished steel to compliment the stainless steel Viking appliances.
Around the corner a charming breakfast nook and utilitarian office are tucked out of view from the more formal areas. The Quackenbush’s 4-year-old daughter has carved out this spot as her territory, where well-used art supplies can be neatly stowed. The couple’s two children and outdoor lifestyle dictated that the house needed to be nearly indestructible, with casual furnishings and a simply finished pine-plank floor.
Upstairs, three small but charming bedrooms anchor the living quarters. Interesting details, such as a pair of leaded-glass windows offset in an interior wall of the baby’s room or the manual dumbwaiter with exposed gears are John and Nettie’s personal additions. Along with other touches, such as the triangular window seat carved into the landing or the tiny lofts in both bedrooms, these uncommon spaces add character to the home. The couple’s daughter uses her room’s upper area as a hideout to play with dolls.
“The timber frame lends itself to interesting nooks and crannies where you can create neat spaces,” said Nettie.
An unpretentious master bedroom overlooks the stunning views of the Beaver Creek drainage. Down the hall the master bath is lined in slate, featuring a Jacuzzi tub and separate shower with two showerheads. Nettie said she enjoyed choosing distinctive plumbing fixtures and decorating the house. John’s craftsmanship shines again here, in the rough wood vanity inset with a white porcelain farm sink.
To the Quackenbushes, building their timber-frame home was a way of fulfilling a shared dream, for John to apply his craft and for Nettie to return to her family retreat in Montana. Although they have recently sold their house in Beaver Creek, they intend to build a smaller home in a meadow nearby. They leave this house with mixed feelings, but add another architectural print to the community’s medley of mountain living. The process, according to the couple, was one of valuable lessons.
“I think homes of this nature will teach you every time,” reflected John. “There will always be another curve on the dynamics and expansion of wood. If you listen very carefully you’ll respond differently to how the materials need to be worked.”
Seabring Davis is At Home’s assistant editor and a frequent contributor to several regional publications.