Trees Get A Second Life at Dreaming Creek Timber Frame Homes
By Clare Adrian
Powhatan, Va.–Until Dreaming Creek Timber Frame Homes, Inc., which is based here, rose to the task of timber framing, the majority of area wood was used for newsprint pulp and pallets. Company owner, Bob Shortridge, who stepped upon the road to starting the company over 30 years ago, is glad to have given the trees in the forest of White Pines growing to the north, Yellow Pines, Cedar, and Cypress to the south, as well as oak, hickory, walnut, and cherry in the central hardwood belt of the East Coast, a degree of continued dignity. “If it takes 80 to 100 years to grow, then 80 to 100 more years in use creates a sustainable bond and anything less is not defined as sustainable,” Shortridge said.
Shortridge began young in running a business, first in home improvements, a steppingstone to construction and on to timber framing, utilizing wood obtained through removal of trees growing dangerously close to Richmond-area homes.
FSC certification intact, Dreaming Creek was perhaps the first North American timber framer to be certified. Yet to Shortridge, it’s a formality that represents the company’s underlying mission. The basic reason for getting into timber framing, said Shortridge, was seeing an opportunity to pursue his woodworking passion, and in a fashion, extend the life of trees. Inspired by the resilience of structures such as bridges, barns and 800-year-old castles, timber framing satisfied his need to reach beyond the usual meaning of sustainability. “It’s a new model of what can happen to extend the resource,” he concluded.
Company owner Bobby Shortridge Jr. addresses guests at the grand opening of the Dreaming Creek production facility in Floyd, Va.
To extend the benefits of transforming elegant trees into timber frames, the whole framing system that eventually supports each structure is strong and robust, processed through at Dreaming Creek to withstand seismic activity and heavy winds.
The company now does business in 38 states, much along the eastern seaboard, and frequently into Wyoming and Utah ski resort areas.
Often, Shortridge hears of a Dreaming Creek structure put to the test as was the case in Biloxi, Miss., in the aftermath of Katrina. “Ours was the only residence left standing square and level in over a 100 mile radius.”
Awareness of what’s at stake during a catastrophe establishes priorities for the 22 Dreaming Creek employees. “We take as paramount in our jobs the health, safety, and welfare of inhabitants. We weren’t blemish-free in Katrina – took damage – but weren’t crushed,” said Shortridge. To attain an unparalleled quality of strength, Shortridge added, the longer the lengths of timbers cut the better, which entail less joinery and pieces to handle. Commodity mills typically don’t cut longer than 16-foot logs. For that reason, Dreaming Creek has its own sawmill to cut logs typically up to 45 feet long, though the longest to date measured 12” X 18” X 52’. Finding completely straight 45-foot trees in a forest is unlikely. When a stand of trees is up for bid, foresters familiar with the 33-year-old company through longstanding relationships, are on the lookout for timbers best suited to the frame length requirements.
Some of the area forests grow within King Charles II land grant properties divided amongst British loyalists in the 1600s. Lineage in ownership yet today, not interested in wholesale cutting, at times allows Dreaming Creek loggers to go in and cut as needed as when a tract of Cypress timbers was demolished in a storm. The family chose to have them salvaged rather than let the trees, some up to 4 feet in diameter, rot and degrade.
Ricky Wright and Bobby Shortridge Jr. collaborate to determine yield. Dreaming Creek was among the first North American timber framers to be FSC certified.
The company produces 400,000 board feet of Softwood lumber per year, primarily Pine, and another 600,000 board feet per year of heavy timbers, primarily white oak – both the mainstay in species inventoried. Timbers used are air dried/green or kiln-dried, Grade No. 1 or Better, and available in S4S, rough sawn, hand hewn, distressed, or adzed. The middle of the log is used for square timbers, and periphery cuts are channeled into flooring, stair parts, cabinet materials, and decking.
The Woodmizer sawmill operates within the 23,000 square foot, state-of- the-art beamery adjacent to the 4,200 square foot office and design studio. Equipment initially bought at an auction, refurbished to factory specs and retrofitted, has met Shortridge’s expectations through each upgrade over a 20-year period in low waste production, safety, accuracy, and company service.
The major component is the saw head where the head rig blade slices entering logs into pieces before proceeding on to the edger, resaw, and end-trimmer.
On the preproduction side, an initial design is created in Autocad, then challenged with overlays of other engineering programs. When the design is perceived as sound enough to withstand strong weather elements, that same program creates the joinery. Upon completion, the design is directed to the Hundegger K2 CNC machine, which pulls the timbers in, dresses all four sides, and fits each piece of wood to the timber needs list. All pieces are conveyed into the shop, where they’re hand-tooled. Ends of timbers are jointed and edges are chiseled by hand for a custom fit. After a thorough once-over, packages are numbered and shipped to the site sequentially so that when unwrapped, the pieces fit together in order like a puzzle.
The crew raises approximately 5,000 square feet of house a week. That speed has earned the company a sizable amount of business in Sundance, Utah, where the window of opportunity lasts only from early June to late September before the advent of snow and ice. “We have to work fast,” said Shortridge. “Everything revolves around accuracy, quality, and speed.
Volume of production is not paramount rather vertical integration, controlling the process without introducing problems. Following the premise to ‘take the quality high road and let everyone else chase you,’ never failed us.”
The company does business in at least 38 states and purchases White and Yellow Pines, Cedar and Cypress for its production facility.
The next step, said Shortridge, in attaining a self-contained operation status is adding a kiln, the missing link. “No one else has the schedule and agenda in mind like you get inhouse and waste product from the kiln can be used to heat the plant.”
The company is completely different from the former pulp wood industry mainstay of the area. “We are contract builders with a sawmill. We do the homework, understand the job and have never issued a change order without a scope change.”
Today, son Bobby Jr. has joined his dad as general manager and sales, and youngest son, Caeb, will fill the outsourced engineer position after finishing his schooling at VMI. The number of employees is down from a few years ago when Shortridge saw the economic writing on the wall. Those that have been with the company a long while include shop foreman, Ron Shaffer, with the company 15 years, and Mike Gaudreau, resident equipment engineer “inspector gadget.”
Of his crew of employees, Shortridge said, “They tend to be fearless running through fire as opposed to away from it, taking on any challenge thrown our way.” It’s a dream fulfilled, any way you look at each Dreaming Creek structural project: a dream team of engineers, designers, and framers, reflecting the homeowner’s wishes, respective of the life of trees that frame them.