In this blog we highlight ten amazing architectural truss designs as examples of the flexibility and lasting appeal of oak. Some are triumphs of design, some are marvels of engineering, all are impressive achievements. Oak trusses have a long history as an architectural feature, with the oldest examples dating back to the Bronze Age. Originally the ready availability of oak and its natural strength and load bearing abilities led to widespread use in construction. As the centuries passed, availability diminished and it became a prized commodity in the sizes needed for trusses. As a result, only the grandest structures justified the use of oak in large quantities. However, this also led to impressive flourishes of design and decoration to complement these buildings. Due to the longevity of oak as a material, many of these still exist and here are ten of our favourite examples:
1. Hampton Court
From the early 16th century, Hampton Court Palace was home to Henry VIII and all six of his wives. In 1533, carpentry work began on the Great Hall at the centre of the palace. As a nostalgic touch, Henry chose the hammerbeam truss style beloved of his Medieval ancestors to convey a sense of grandeur. To celebrate his marriage to his second wife Anne Boleyn, the carpenter incorporated the initials A and H into the design. The initials A R (for Anne Regina) were also included, along with the falcon from Anne’s coat of arms. The intricate carvings are testament to the craftsmen involved, who worked day and night for five years to complete the hall. A fun touch are the carved, painted heads decorating the roof, known as the ‘Eavesdroppers’.
2. Notre Dame Cathedral
Before its destruction in the terrible fire of 2019, the original roof structure of Notre Dame was a marvel. It represented the pinnacle of 13th century design and engineering and comprised a quarter of the total buildings volume. Using timber from 1,300 oak trees, each beam was sourced from a different individual tree. The sheer volume of wood used and its intricate design earned it the nickname ‘the forest’. While a final decision on the course of restoration is to be made, the use of oak could be likely. Its slow burn rate and strength still place it ahead of modern materials in the event of another fire. Over 100 British estates have offered oak from their own forests should this be the case.
3. St. Mary – St. Catherine of Siena Church
Despite the Romanesque building design and ornate hammerbeam trusses, this New England church only began construction in 1887. Designed by architect Patrick C Keely, the lack of supporting columns allows an unobstructed view of the altar and stained glass. The design incorporates a wealth of carving and fine detail more suited to a Medieval European church. Keely carved the twelve angels on the trusses himself and the result is considered a masterpiece of American church design.
4. St. Mary’s Collegiate Church
Located in Youghal, County Cork, St. Mary’s has stood on this site for 800 years. Constructed in 1220, the Great Nave with its Gothic scissor truss design is the oldest church roof in Ireland. Timbers from the roof have been carbon dated to 1170 and the church has been declared a National Monument of Ireland. Its design is echoed in the similarly impressive scissor truss roof of the Chancery. Notable visitors to the church include Sir Walter Raleigh (once mayor of Youghal), Oliver Cromwell and the Duke of Wellington.
5. Westminster Hall
The oldest parliament building in Britain, Westminster hall has occupied a place at the centre of politics for 900 years. Its hammerbeam roof with arches spanning 18 metres is the largest Medieval timber roof in Northern Europe. The 660 ton structure was funded by banished nobles purchasing licences to return to Britain. Its decorations include 26 shield bearing angels, all carved from a single oak beam. Commissioned by Richard II in 1393, the roof has survived two world wars and an 1834 fire that destroyed most of the palace
6. Harmondsworth Barn
Originally built in 1426 – 1427, the Great Barn is a Grade 1 listed building for reasons of architectural and historic interest. The structure consists of 13 trusses built from huge aisle posts supported by stone blocks. These are connected at the top by tie beams propped with curved braces and possess unbraced crown struts on top. These support a collar near the roof apex and aisle ties link the posts to the walls. Curved braces support these and purlins, aisle plates and wall plates link the trusses along the barn length. Internally, this creates a long nave and 12 stalls on either side of the barn. The age and rarity of the structure make it an almost unique example of its kind.
7. Castle Weibenstein
This Mansard roof, built in Bavaria in 1715 incorporates several innovative features for its time. For the large hanging beams, the designer engineered beams by linking two halves with a stepped joint. Similarly the three sill beams are formed from two pieces connected by a series of interlocking teeth. They are supported at the ends of the 36 foot span by outer walls and in the middle by a supporting wall. At the quarter and three quarter points where the sections connect the teeth change direction to anticipate changing slip direction. This allows the construction of a large roof from smaller sections of oak with no loss of strength.
8. Wills Memorial Great Hall
Designed in 1915 and opened in 1925 by George V and Queen Mary, this Gothic styled building is part of Bristol University. Its crowning glory is the Great Hall with its imposing hammerbeam roof and oak half dome. The six trusses with ornate arches and hanging inverted gothic spires are the equal of any historic design. The hall hosted the EU referendum debate in 2016 and recently doubled for the house of commons in a BBC drama.
9. St. George’s Hall
After the fire of 1992, several of the state apartments at Windsor Castle were completely destroyed. The architect Giles Downe was tasked with rebuilding several of these, including St. George’s Hall. The new hammerbeam roof was designed in his style known as ‘Downesian Gothic’, an organic, flowing reinterpretation of the style. This is the largest green oak structure built since the middle ages, brightly decorated with coloured shield emblems. These display the heraldry of the Order of the Garter and the gothic woodwork is designed to create an illusion of additional height. The adjoining Lantern lobby also incorporates a decorative vaulted ceiling in imitation of an Aurum Lily.
10. Leigh Court Barn
This historic structure in Worcestershire is the largest surviving cruck framed building in England. It was originally built in the 14th century to serve Pershore Abbey and is a Scheduled Historic Monument. The barn itself is 140 feet long with 33 foot high trusses spanning 34 feet at their base. Each cruck blade is carved from a single piece of oak and the nine trusses separate the barn into ten bays. The trusses have two blades, each cut from one piece of oak, with an arch collar and a yoke joint. The support the roof ridge with two tiers of wind braces on either side. The sheer size of the trusses lend the barn a cathedral – like quality and it is one of the most impressive examples of its type.
If these examples have inspired you to attempt your own project contact us. As suppliers of wholesale timber and bespoke oak frames we are sure to be able to help. Our friendly staff will be pleased to speak to you and offer any assistance you need.
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