We could hardly contain our excitement when preparing for the next, crucial stage of the build. It was autumn 2006. At long last the first floor level was going to be put in place. It was certainly not a job for amateurs.
Susie had insisted we use Oak, Only oak. Oak beams, oak flooring, oak doors, oak windows, oak skirting, oak architrave, oak everything in fact. With over 230 square metres of upper floor area that makes one hell of a lot of oak. I was not quite so sure about using all oak yes; it is a beautiful wood with even more beautiful grains and natural patterns in the timber. Susie’s reasoning was that using oak would make the house look more French and typical of its history. Apart from which it would look beautiful and the house deserved that level of quality. My own thoughts erred more on it’s not so beautiful price tag and stories I had heard about oak having a life of its own. Of how it had a tendency to shrink, twist and crack and move until eventually finding its most comfortable fit. So, if you did not mind waiting around for a hundred years plus the odd decade, then it would be perfect to hold everything up and stay in place, rock solid for ever and a day. I rather doubted we would last that long. It would be okay if you could buy oak that had spent over a hundred years growing in the ground and then another hundred years drying it out then, maybe, you would have the ideal wood to build with. The downside of that particular theory is that you would only get oak timbers like that if it has been taken out of other, older buildings and it would be at a very high cost assuming you could find it in the first place and was a usable size for your project.
It is not just England that is proud of its wonderful oak trees France also has a lot of oak and it would be almost impossible to count how many historical building have been constructed using this fantastic wood, many of them being hundreds of years old. But, part of the problem we faced was to know exactly what you are getting when you buy oak. How old was the tree when it was felled? How ‘green’ is it? It might look seasoned but how dry was it really? Apparently it takes one year to dry one inch of the oak’s thickness. A number of the beams we would have to use were 12 inches by 12 inches; we obviously could not keep it for 12 years to season properly. Unless you were talking with very knowledgeable people or companies dealing specifically in oak asking technical questions like these would be more likely to earn you yet another Gallic shrug or blank stare at your local Brico (builder’s merchants).
I did quite a bit of research on the subject and went to a number of house building exhibitions in the UK where I was able to speak with a few house construction companies using oak frame and internal oak fittings. Initially, they did not put my mind at rest. Their response was interesting but quite different from one to another. Some said they used ‘air dried’ wood, others said they preferred using ‘green’ (new) oak on all of their builds. The regularly used term of ‘green oak,’ being described as that felled from trees within the last 18 months to 2 years. All said they only used oak from sustainable sources which was encouraging. Everyone in the industry seemed passionate about using oak despite having differing opinions in what state to use it and how to build with it. Virtually all of those I spoke too dismissed its more worrying characteristics explaining it as a woodland creation of natural beauty, gaining in strength and hardness as it aged and dries out, becoming tougher, even than steel, resistant to insect infestation and all types of weather, plus it was very eco friendly, a real benefit to human kind as it naturally absorbed harmful CO2 gases right through its life.
They had some strong arguments for using oak but then, they were salesmen. The art of oak construction, they insisted on telling me, was to actually understand the nature of oak and use construction methods which benefited from its ability to change and move therefore ,making tighter joints over the course of time. Thinking about the shrinkage issue I was concerned that as we would be using large supporting beams over 6 metres long which, in the event of shrinkage could make those beams dangerously unstable. I was surprised to learn from them that whilst the beams would shrink in width they would never shrink on their length. I did not quite understand the science of that theory-something to do with core moisture levels. But, they were all consistent on that point.
I became a convert to using oak!
Following a recommendation, we managed to find a team of 3 builders and carpenters with the required knowledge to construct the beams and flooring. They were an unusual threesome, one Scot, one South African and one Englishman but they worked well as a team which gave us a lot of confidence. Between them they sourced a French sawmill owner who dealt predominately in oak. When the wood arrived it was all checked for condition, measured and marked and numbered as to where it would be used. The larger, 300mm x 300mm, wide beams up to 7 metre long were extremely heavy but with the aid of hoists and chains they made the handling of them look incredibly easy. Once cut to the exact size in length and cleaned they measured and cut the rebates in which the standard floor beams would be dovetailed into. Work was quite slow but it was done to an exacting standard and we could not fault the work ethic or progress.
To form strength the pattern of the beams had to be alternated directionally with each direction of beams providing support for the other direction. As the beam structure progressed and grew it looked like the intricate pattern it was, skilfully and carefully placed into position. For us, as amateurs, it was a masterpiece of engineering and construction.
Once the beam structure had been completed it was the turn of the flooring planks to be laid. In many respects this was a big job in itself. A different company had produced the flooring, again in solid oak. It was tongued and grooved and cleverly nailed so that no twisting or rising could occur. The laying and fixing was done in a manner to ensure no nail heads were visible and each length was a tight fit with its neighbour. With the 3 men working on it soon, large areas were covered and it was not long before the entire floor was laid and finished and the insulation could be cut to size and fitted from the ground floor. The installation of oak beams and oak flooring looked magnificent-now we had both floors with a fantastic and beautiful platform to work from.