Ornamental Separator

Frame of Mind

Colonial Williamsburg carpenters cut a timber frame for a tiny house that recalls traditional ways of living

Between late 2021 and early 2022, Colonial Williamsburg’s carpenters used historical methods to build a frame for a small house that represents big ideas. Though the structure is their 49th building since 1979, it is unlike any of their previous projects.

Measuring just 14 feet by 14 feet, the tiny house is not located in the Historic Area or anywhere associated with Colonial Williamsburg, though it likely would have fit into an 18th-century landscape. Instead, the house, which was a collaboration between Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Trades and Skills and the nonprofit Innermost House Foundation, stands in nearby Surry County as a tangible example of a simpler way of living.

Uncluttering Their Lives

Michael Lorence and his wife, Diana, began their own experiment in simpler living 25 years ago in a small home off Duke of Gloucester Street. For two years they embraced their surroundings. They even weaned themselves from electricity, Lorence said, “in order to gain access to an older and, to us, deeper way of experiencing, thinking, seeing and listening.”

That experience set them on a path to recalibrate their relationship to the world, Lorence said, and embrace simple living in small spaces. It sparked another experiment, one that allowed them to follow in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, who famously found refuge in a small cabin on Walden Pond in 19th-century Massachusetts.

When people embark on these journeys, Lorence said, “[they] deliberately reach back to their roots to renew their sources of life.”

The Lorences found renewal in the remote woods of northern California, where they built a one-room, 12-by-12-foot cabin that reflected their principles. It was a shelter built around a fireplace accommodating basic needs. The home had no electricity. The Lorences lit candles and cooked their meals in the fireplace.

They focused on a life of quietude, reflection and what they call “plain living and high thinking.” Their experience in California gave birth to the Innermost House Foundation, which promotes renewal through “ideals of freedom and equality, reason and faith, self-reliance and environmental stewardship,” according to the foundation’s website.

The Lorences eventually returned to Williamsburg and decided to build a new one-room house to demonstrate the Innermost House Foundation’s values in the architectural language of Virginia’s past.

Finding a Model

For help turning that vision into reality, Michael Lorence approached Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Trades and Skills. Master Carpenter Garland Wood welcomed the opportunity to work on another timber frame, but the structure needed to be historical in nature.

“If it were a modern-looking timber frame, it really didn’t have a place in our carpenter’s yard,” he said. “We would have to focus on traditional house styles.”

For a model building, Wood suggested Pear Valley, a historic house located in Eastville on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Pear Valley is a fine example of what architectural historians call the Virginia house tradition, which emerged in the 17th century in the Chesapeake region. Constructed with a timber frame and posts that went directly into the ground, the Virginia house also featured a clapboard roof and siding.

“Those aren’t the most permanent of building features,” said Jennifer Wilkoski, Colonial Williamsburg’s Shirley and Richard Roberts Architectural Historian. “A lot of these buildings eventually rotted and decayed or were torn down.”

Pear Valley is one of the few to survive. Built around 1740 and measuring 16 feet by 20 feet, it features one room, a steep roof and clapboard walls. But Pear Valley deviates from a typical Virginia house because it has a brick foundation instead of posts in ground. “That’s part of the reason it survives,” Wilkoski explained.

The Innermost House Foundation project is not a replica of Pear Valley, and Lorence never intended it to be. Instead, he recruited Jeffrey E. Klee, Colonial Williamsburg’s former director of architecture and archaeological research, to design the structure.

“The task for me was to try to render it in a way that emerged out of this Virginia house tradition, as exemplified by Pear Valley,” Klee said. He designed it with some elements of Pear Valley, including a steep roof and a chimney, but also made adaptations, like adding interior partitions.

He also had to design a structure that was smaller than Pear Valley. Consistent with Lorence’s vision of a shelter built around a fireplace, the house is only 14 feet by 14 feet.

The Innermost House Foundation building would not be out of place in the 18th century when most houses were tiny. Klee noted that the 1798 federal direct tax returns — which calculated property value based on features like house dimensions — reveal that the average house size that year was roughly 16 feet by 20 feet, the size of Pear Valley. And, as Wilkoski pointed out, “Whole families lived in these tiny houses.”

In the manner authentic to the 18th century, Garland Wood and his team assembled the frame in sections in the carpenter’s yard in the Historic Area, labeled each piece and then took it apart so it could be reassembled in Surry. Carpenters in 18th-century cities, including Williamsburg, worked in carpenter’s yards — like the one in the Historic Area — because urban lots tended to be small, so there was not enough space for carpenters to do their work alongside bricklayers and other tradesmen who needed access to the building site.

In Surry, the house will become “a virtual classroom,” according to Lorence. “Our teachings, and most especially the house, will be shared the only way you can reach millions of people in many different nations, and that is virtually.”

In this way, a tiny house born in the Historic Area will open its door to the world. 

Colonial Williamsburg’s carpenters assemble a frame inspired by a Virginia traditional house.

A solid foundation

Garland Wood’s 40-year career of problem-solving

Master Carpenter Garland Wood liked to say that carpentry “is all about solving a series of problems. That’s the trade. Your first problem: When it rains, you get wet.”

After spending 40 years solving problems in the Historic Area, Wood retired from Colonial Williamsburg in January 2022. And during that time, Wood solved that first problem dozens of times: “What we’re going to do is build a place that gets you out of the rain. So I’m going to make a roof.”

Ted Boscana, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of Historic Trades and Skills, noted, “Garland never met a challenge that he considered insurmountable.”

The Innermost House Foundation frame was one of Wood’s final projects for Colonial Williamsburg — and also one of his most complicated: “The inside is furnished in a way that the frame serves as decoration,” Wood said. Consequently, it required him to call on his skills selecting and working wood.

Wood’s talents contributed to more than 40 buildings, including the reconstruction from 2011 to 2013 of the Public Armoury, which he cites as one of his favorite projects. “Really, nobody but Colonial Williamsburg could have pulled that one off,” he said. He relished the chance to work alongside colleagues from so many different corners of the Foundation to research and erect the many structures that comprise the site.

“Garland brought people together to work toward common goals from across the Foundation,” Boscana said.

Indeed, Wood has empowered and equipped his crew to solve challenges that may arise. “I feel good that I can leave my crew ready to tackle whatever projects are coming down the road.”

With his hammer, hacksaw, warm humor and expertise, Wood helped build the Historic Area, one rainproof roof at a time.

Read Garland Wood’s blog post on the project here.

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