Beauty in Simplicity

I was fortunate enough to visit a childhood friend’s 1898 family summer home in New York state over the weekend, a place where I had often gone as a child. Now as an adult, when I look around the garden and the house, I see things through the lens of a structural engineer. I decided to put the pandemic news out of my mind for my visit, and to focus on admiring nature and the beauty of the all parts of this wonderful retreat.

The tea house was always a favorite play spot when my friend and I were children. Of course, our amusement had nothing to do with engineering; we played there serving imaginary tea to each other. Over the weekend, I was struck by the elegant simplicity of the tea house’s roof structure, built using only materials that were readily available to the workers who created the Japanese garden. The window and entry lintels, and lower roof beams, were taken from the river thirty yards away, hence the driftwood appearance. The longitudinal lower beam splits into two as it spans to the far wall, allowing a transverse beam to pass through, meshing like pieces of a puzzle. The only sawn timber is the ridge beam, supported by two round branch posts (there are tree trunk posts in the cellar of the main house). The tea house rafters and hips are straight tree branches.

All the framing is let into a sill plate at the exterior walls, with all four wall bearing roof load. It’s a beautiful structure to look at in its simplicity, and if one were so inclined, it could easily be analyzed, the roof loads transferred to the stucco and wood framed walls could be calculated, and the stress is in the various elements determined (snow load governs as this is in the mountains). However, on this occasion, I preferred to just gaze at it and think of nothing but the beauty of the simple structure in such a serene environment.

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