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A young man fine tunes a cut in a piece of lumber using a hand tool that looks like a wide chisel.

José Jiménez at work in the timber-framing studio at the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo courtesy of José Jiménez

  • Bridging the Natural and Built Environments: The Work of Timber Framer José Jiménez

    José Jiménez began his journey into the world of the building arts by falling in love with places where buildings don’t exist.

    A native of Houston, Texas, Jiménez was a good student in high school and expected to take the conventional path to a four-year university. The summer before his senior year, that path shifted when he visited the Yukon Territory with the National Outdoor Leadership School. He was so struck by the expanse and the power of nature that he decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life immersed in the natural environment.

    This new direction pointed him toward Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina, where he could earn a degree in outdoor leadership. It was a decision met with skepticism from guidance counselors and family members.

    “My dad grew up as a migrant farmer, so as soon as he was seventeen or eighteen, he joined the Navy to get out of South Texas,” Jiménez says. “My mom was one of six kids, who she helped raise. I would see them really busting their butts to put food on the table and send us to the private school where they felt like we were able to get the best education. So it was a little weird to them when I was like, ‘So, I think I'm going to go and get a degree in outdoor leadership.’ My dad was the hardest to convince. He was like, ‘Why don’t you just go and become a lawyer or a doctor, you could be this, you could be that….’ I just didn’t want to do that.”

    Years later, when Jiménez had graduated and invited his father on a backpacking trip in Appalachia to celebrate, his father saw the gorgeous expanse and finally understood: “Okay. I get it. I know why you decided to take this career path, and I approve.”

    Jiménez poses besides a waterfall, surrounded by orange brush and green pine trees.
    José Jiménez worked as an outdoor instructor on an expedition in Yellowstone National Park.
    Photo by Nat Crewe, courtesy of José Jiménez

    After graduating in 2011, Jiménez traveled around the country, including stints in Alaska and Arizona, before returning to Asheville to work with a company that provided outdoor experiences to children with learning disabilities. As enjoyable as this work was, he began to feel called toward something different.

    “I felt like I wasn’t able to tap into a creative side of me that I’d been feeling,” he says. “My grandfather was a welder. He worked his way up from being a night janitor to being one of the lead welders up until his passing. I was always surrounded by the things that he had built. I remember growing up, I would look at his hands, and they were always really rough and torn and calloused. Just massive, massive hands. Workin’ hands, you know? I don’t know what it was about them, but I was kind of jealous of them.”

    In pursuit of his own pair of “workin’ hands,” Jiménez joined a framing crew for a “sustainable” construction company. While he was able to learn the basics of construction, he was dismayed to see the vast amount of waste headed for the landfill, among other practices he felt were out of line with his respect for the environment.

    “We called ourselves a green building company, and yet we were still basically doing the exact same thing that every other construction company does. We aren’t really paying attention to what kind of stuff we’re putting in the house. We’re not paying attention to the techniques. We were trying to create a super highly insulated, highly impermeable house, which sounds like what you want, but really that’s the worst thing you can do. You want a house that can breathe.”

    Jiménez knew there had to be a way to pursue a practical art in a way that was respectful of the natural world. He found an opportunity to intern with master chair builder Drew Langsner in the mountains of Marshall, North Carolina. It was an enlightening experience for him: “That was really my first experience and introduction to fine woodworking and using hand tools. I was like, ‘Wait, what? You can design and build these beautiful things with nothing but hand planes and chisels and rasps?’”

    Jiménez cuts a piece of timber with a circular saw.
    José Jiménez at work in the timber framing studio at the American College of the Building Arts.
    Photo courtesy of José Jiménez

    He gleaned not only an appreciation for the craft itself but a working knowledge of the amazing range of skills required. Despite the value Jiménez found in all he was learning about building furniture, he became fascinated with a different type of craftsmanship on Langsner’s small farm. “It was on that property that I had seen, for the first time that I can remember, an actual timber-framed barn.”

    Timber framing is a method of construction that has ancient roots. It relies on the use of large heavy timbers, as opposed to smaller and weaker lumber commonly used in today’s building industry. Structures built with timber framing are typically much more durable, and often use locally sourced wood that doesn’t require much industrial treatment. The practice fell into decline after 1900, but according to the Timber Framer’s Guild, “In the 1970s, craftsman revived the timber framing tradition in the United States and have ushered the design style into the modern era.”

    Jiménez was surprised to learn that the barn was built long before Langsner’s time. On top of that, Langsner, a master artisan, declared that whoever had built it had to have been a much more skilled craftsman than he. This interaction sent Jiménez down a “rabbit hole” of online research into timber framing. He eventually stumbled upon the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) in Charleston, South Carolina. He was fascinated with the idea that he could learn the skills required to be a timber framer and simultaneously get a four-year liberal arts education in history, science, math, culture, and literature. He was accepted as a first-year student in the fall of 2015.

    Jiménez was flush with excitement upon his arrival at ACBA. Surrounded by the traditional building trades for the first time, he was tempted to try his hand at some of the many other craft disciplines offered—blacksmithing, stone carving, plasterwork—but stuck with his conviction to study timber framing. 

    Jiménez cuts a piece of timber with a power tool as sawdust flies.
    José Jiménez at work in the timber framing studio at the American College of the Building Arts.
    Photo courtesy of José Jiménez

    “I’d already built this really intimate relationship with the forest,” he says. “There’s nothing more intimate than being able to immerse yourself in the forest and then, at the same time, be able to extract the resources that you need, to be able to build using the natural environment to build the actual built environment, and doing it in a way that does justice to both.”

    This philosophy, coupled with instruction from Bruno Sutter, the chair of woodworking at ACBA and a renowned timber framer and excellent teacher, cemented Jiménez’s desire to learn the skills and traditions of this centuries-old craft.

    “The more I learned about timber framing, the more the idea was driven home for me, ‘Yes, this is exactly what I want to be doing.’ It was a meditative trade to me. I was one of however many artisans that came before me and that gave me an immense sense of pride in the work I was doing.”

    At ACBA, Jiménez appreciated not only what he was learning, but how he was learning it.

    “For me the most exciting part of any kind of education, any curriculum, is the hands-on portion, because that’s how I learn best,” he says. “The holistic approach to the building arts is something that I really fell in love with more and more while I was at the school. I’ve always been a big history buff, and what was cool to me was that we were reenacting and learning the same things that the Romans were learning, the Greeks were learning, the different orders and how they took those orders and based them on human proportions. These were things that I never even thought about, and all of a sudden I started seeing the built environment around me in a completely different way. 

    “I’ve never really been good at math, but for the first time, math had an application. If I want to design this, I need to know the math. If I want to build this, I have to know how certain materials are going to be interacting with one another. I have to know the science, right? I have to know why I choose one wood over another kind of wood. Charleston is a great place to study all of that. It is an old, old city. You want to study blacksmithing and how it was done in the 1800s? Let’s go walk down the street real quick.”

    Video courtesy of José Jiménez

    All ACBA students are required to work on-the-job internships related to their area of specialization. Jiménez worked for a variety of companies, from historic furniture repair in Charleston to barn restoration in Ohio, to new timber-framed home construction in Oregon.  As he got deeper into his studies, Jiménez found fulfillment in helping younger students and growing their interest.

    “One of the things that actually drew me to timber framing, more so than any of the other specializations, was the idea of community. Historically, before cranes existed, if you needed a house to be built before winter, you would have everyone’s hands on board, cutting, raising, and creating this house. For me, it is community building, both figuratively and literally.”

    Jiménez felt that the education he was getting, in the classroom and on the job site, was preparing him and his classmates to be valuable assets to the building industry. He knew the outsider might think he was crazy to want to get a college degree in carpentry, but he also knew that there is a gap in communication between architects and other builders, if each side thinks they know more. According to Jiménez, ACBA graduates are “educated artisans” who understand both design and construction.

    Jiménez graduated from ACBA as class valedictorian in 2019 and opted for a job opportunity with Jeremiah Goodwin, a Charleston-based woodworker. There, he did “a little bit of everything” but especially enjoyed restoration projects.

    “It’s kind of surreal when, in 2019, you’re working on a house that was built in the 1700s.”

    Despite the joy he found working with Goodwin, surrounded by the history of Charleston, Jiménez felt drawn back home to Houston. He had been away from his family for almost fifteen years. To show his appreciation for their support, he wanted to use his newfound skills and knowledge to renovate his family’s home.

    “It really is full circle getting to see how much my family has put out in order to ensure that I was happy, that I got the degrees that I was happy with, and then being able to come back home and say, ‘Okay, those thirteen, fourteen years I was gone were for good reason. Let me show you.’ My now dad now understands that just because something can be built quickly doesn’t mean that it’s done right.”

    Wooden bench on a lawn outside a home.
    A Spanish Colonial-style bench made by José Jiménez for his grandmother’s ninetieth birthday.
    Photo by José Jiménez

    Back in Houston, Jiménez has been able to continue his own education through practice and self-examination. Carrying on this work, he’s able to share his passion for the trades with the community he grew up in: a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood built in the 1920s. “There’s a lot of history in this little neighborhood, but people don’t understand what it is we have.” Eventually, he hopes to share his skills and knowledge beyond his hometown.

    Looking back at the beginning of his own education in building, at the so-called “sustainable” construction company, he realizes now that a greener alternative to conventional construction is his favorite kind of work: historic preservation. In Jiménez’s opinion, saving old buildings is an essential part of saving the environment. If they are torn down, instead of properly repaired, “All that goes to the landfill, and you’re having to bring in a completely brand new building with who knows how much of a carbon footprint. And then whatever waste comes from that is also going to the landfill.”

    He understands there are challenges that come with new ideas, or in his case, presenting old ideas in a new way. He believes the biggest hurdle will be convincing people that traditional, time-intensive methods are better than the cheap, quick contemporary construction we've gotten used to. A shift in cultural ethos won’t happen overnight, but there are parallel trends that give Jiménez hope.

    “Now there’s a big push for wanting to understand and know where your food comes from,” Jiménez says. “I think the same should be said about where we get our building materials from and how we build with them. I know that when I build a house or when I’m renovating a house, I’m going to make sure that I know everything that’s getting put into it. I don’t want to be introducing a bunch of chemicals that are going to be harming me and my family or the environment around me.

    “I think in preservation and in the built environment, we should pay attention to it, the same way, and even more so probably, than what we put into our bodies food-wise. It’s the same thing.”

    Jiménez’s career path has not been traditional, but it is the tradition of his craft that moves him forward. Equipped with a highly specialized set of skills, and motivated by a respect for the natural world, he is well on his way to building a future that will stand the test of time.

    Digital technical drawing of an open-air pavilion structure.
    Shop drawings created by José Jiménez and Patricia Willis for a timber-framed pavilion.
    Drawing courtesy of the American College of the Building Arts
    Digital technical drawing of an open-air pavilion structure.
    Jiménez and Willis designed and built the pavilion for their senior capstone project at the American College of the Building Arts.
    Drawing courtesy of the American College of the Building Arts
    Open-air wooden pavilion structure in a park.
    The completed timber-framed pavilion designed and built by Jiménez and Willis in 2019.
    Photo courtesy of the American College of the Building Arts

    Benedict Cook was a summer intern with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s Building Arts and Traditional Architecture initiative and is now completing his final year as an undergraduate student in the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. He hopes that the building arts can be used to make the world more functional, durable, and beautiful.

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