A Builder’s Love Letter to His Family

The Story of a Timber-Frame House
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2020 / February

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Tong Yuqian /tr. by Jonathan Barnard


Near the southern tip of Taiwan, at a five-minute drive from Pingtung’s Fangliao Station, there is a white two-story Japanese-style building. Like many family homes in Japan, this timber-frame house uses traditional carpentry joints. Yang San’er envisioned the house when he was 50, and he has done almost all the work himself, consulting just one book. The whole process—from conception and design, to selecting the materials, raising the frame, and tiling the roof—has taken 17 years, and the house still isn’t finished.


Yang’s wife of 37 years, Chen Huijuan, reveals a secret about the project and her husband: “What other people can do in three days takes him a month of grinding slowly away. The process has been dictated by his own logic—by his belief that if you want to build a house that withstands the tests of time, then you’ve got to take the long road.” Stubbornly exacting about every detail, Yang San’er insists that the house that shelters his family be as environmentally friendly as possible.

A green timber-frame building

The story of the house began in 2000 when Yang and his wife were looking for a new place to live after they retired, but the longing for a special family home had been implanted in Yang’s psyche at a much earlier date. Yang’s father, a victim of the “White Terror” during Taiwan’s authoritarian era, had been unjustly imprisoned when San’er was young. With that pillar of support missing, the remaining members of the family scattered to different places to survive. The experience instilled in Yang a longing for a real family home, one that he could design and build himself.

After graduating from elementary school, Yang found employment in a variety of fields, including electrical, civil and petroleum engineering. He went to Saudi Arabia for a stretch to operate heavy machinery, and in Taiwan he worked on building the Zhongsha Bridge, the Deji Dam, and the Houli segment of National Freeway 1. Seeing the carbon- and energy-intensiveness of re­inforced concrete as he worked on those projects, he devel­oped a visceral dislike of that building material.

In 2003 he happened on a book about timber-frame houses by Japanese architect Ikuo Matsui and others and learned that wood buildings are environmentally friendly and sustainable. That type of house became his ideal. Although he didn’t understand Japanese, the text of the book included many Chinese characters, and there were detailed explanatory illustrations, which Yang had no difficulty understanding thanks to his engineering experience. Unable to find anyone who could build or draw up plans for such a home, Yang decided to design and build one himself, despite his utter lack of carpentry skills.

Trading time for space

Once he completed his design and blueprints, he began to look for lumber. He selected Canadian Douglas fir, importing some 12,000 board feet, which were placed in a warehouse rented from Taiwan Railways next to Fangliao Station. As instructed by the Japanese book, he carefully numbered all the pieces of wood, and chose lumber from the center of the tree for the middle of the house, and wood cut closer to the bark for areas at or near the exterior. “Imagine that a wooden house is a tree,” Yang explains. “If you split it apart, it would radiate out from its core.” Every piece of wood had to be installed in its proper place. Having observed the whole process, San’er’s daughter Yang Jingshu concludes, “The hardest part about building a house like this is selecting the materials at the beginning.”

Once the wood was dry, the next step was to work on the joints. “Making the cuts for the joints was the most time-consuming part, due to its exacting nature.” The parts of a joint can’t be cut exactly to size because wood expands and contracts with the weather. For that reason, the mortises and tenons are tapered and then the tenons are pounded into the mortises with a mallet. The approach yields tightly fitted joints.

The period of preparations proved unexpectedly long. In reflecting on the entire 17 years and counting, daughter Yang Jingshu says, “The time when the wood was in the warehouse was hardest.” Her husband Tong Yuqian adds, “Back then he was going there every day to work on cutting the joints. We didn’t know what progress he was making or how far along he had come.” I ask, “Did the warehouse period last a full year?” The reply: “Eight or nine years.” But Tong reveals that Yang San’er loves to chat and socialize. “During that stage, he probably spent five years chatting with friends.” 

Having waited so long, Yang and Chen moved in without having fully finished the house and without consulting an almanac to choose an auspicious date. At first, the exterior walls weren’t up, and they had to erect a tent inside. But step by step, the house has been completed: The electricity came first, and then running water last summer. When the bathroom was finally finished at the end of the year, they no longer needed to leave home to bathe.

The structure is largely finished today, except for the lack of a railing at the side of the upstairs room, which overlooks the downstairs living room. (There are now only empty mortises there.) Yang Jingshu explains, “The Japanese way to build for a site like this would be for a team to complete the cutting and then to put the pieces together on site and set them up with a crane. But we ­neither have a crane nor a lot of workers to fit the joints from both sides. My dad is just one person. He’s had to think of methods that work for one person.” Yang Jingshu’s tone of voice reveals pride in her father’s perseverance. He has had to take care with every step of the process. No wonder the sight of him working here always earns people’s respect.

The devil’s in the details

If you want to build a house that will last, then you’ve got to get everything right. Yang is extremely exacting in his approach, an attention to detail demonstrated by the trueness of every line in the house.

Yang Jingshu gives us a tour inside. She first has us look at the floor on our hands and knees. It’s four centimeters thick and feels sturdy as we walk across it. There are no creaks. Because wood expands and contracts with the weather, it will develop cracks. Consequently, the floorboards are laid with the grain running in alternating directions, making the floor stronger and more earthquake resistant, and less likely to move out of place.

The awning windows open at an angle. Yang San’er explains, “This is mainly to improve airflow. When the window opens at a slant, the entering wind will blow in across the angled surface, moving the hot air inside in a current upward.” High under the eaves, there is also a louvered window, which vents hot air from the house. 

The walls are plastered with lime, because lime reflects heat and absorbs airborne moisture, lowering inside humidity.

Water is an enemy of wooden houses. Consequently, waterproofing and drainage need to be done well from the get-go. 

Where the pillar on the front portico connects to the foundation, Yang created a downward slant so that the water wouldn’t collect there, thus preserving the wood.

The same goes for the windows: Where the window frames meet the walls, there is an outward and downward slant, so that the water can’t seep into the ­building.

“Those are details. The main point is that you’ve got to keep water away from wood, so you must consider every crack and junction,” Yang says. “I spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle spaces and cracks. What’s more it can’t be done quickly because there are so many details to attend to. You can avoid a lot of future maintenance by getting it right from the start.”

Love letters to his family

In 2012, when Yang Jingshu leveraged the building of this house to apply for a Johnnie Walker “Keep Walking” grant from Diageo Taiwan, a lot of people started to come by out of curiosity. It has become a local attraction. To learn how to build a timber-frame house, some people have even come to work in exchange for room and board. Chen Huijuan says that at least 30 different groups and 100 people all told come each month. The Yang family has opened the house to visitors and en­thusi­astic­ally tells the house’s story time and again.

Yang San’er pulls out the old design drawings for the structure: “My generation learned engineering, and the instructors taught us to draw on graph paper.” He explains the location of each carpentry joint, and its function in the structure. These drawings are like love letters from Yang to his family—the designs for a home that is safe and sustainable and that will require little future maintenance.

The house has many mortise-and-tenon joints. “Mortises locate; tenons attach.” But once a tenon is inserted into a mortise, it becomes invisible, and it is no longer possible to see how they fit together. The joinery has parallels in the family itself: Yang San’er’s exacting approach to even the smallest of details, Chen Huijuan’s selfless tolerance of her husband’s quest, and the children’s support of their parents… such are the invisible ties that bind the family together.

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給家人的一棟「情書」

一冊大木家屋

文‧鄧慧純 圖‧一冊大木家屋童裕謙

座落在島嶼南端,離屏東枋寮車站不到五分鐘的車程,有一棟兩層半樓高的白牆日式建築。這是一棟依著日式工法施作、採全榫接的大木家屋,是楊三二50歲那年的願望。但從構想、繪圖、選料、立柱、上梁、屋頂等工序,就他一個人,靠一冊書,起一間厝,一鑿一刨,一刀一刻,施工即將迎來了第18個年頭,蓋屋的工程還在進行中。


結縭37年的妻子陳慧娟最了解枕邊人,她一語道出蓋屋18年的秘密,「別人三天可以做好,他要做一個月,慢慢磨,而且他用他的邏輯在做事,就是要一勞永逸,想得很遠很遠。」對細節近乎苛求,固執近乎到任性的楊三二,堅持親手構築一棟與環境共生、讓地球呼吸,為家人遮風避雨的永續綠建築。

全榫接的綠建築

起心動念是2000年時,楊三二想為夫妻倆退休後找一個住所,自己蓋一個家。另一個深藏在心底深處的是他對一個「家」的渴望。楊三二的父親是白色恐怖的受害者,當年父親無故被牽連入獄,家中頓失支柱,家人四散謀生,讓他對家有一個憧憬,想有一間屬於自己的房子。

楊三二小學畢業後,就投入各式的工作。從機械、土木再到石化工程,曾到過沙烏地阿拉伯擔任技術士操作重型機械,在台灣參與過中沙大橋、德基水庫還有國道一號后里路段工程。因為這些歷練,楊三二打從心底不喜歡鋼筋水泥,因為石化物料生產過程會釋放巨量二氧化碳,更消耗許多熱能。

再加上水泥建築過了使用年限後,漏水需要花大筆錢翻修,「樓仔厝,就是漏仔厝(台語)」,楊三二的女婿童裕謙說起諧音的雙關語,建材又不能重複利用,拆除重建都是一筆費用。

2003年接觸到由日本建築師松井郁夫等人編訂的《木造住宅私家版仕様書》一書,發現木造建築友善環境又環保永續,是楊三二心中的理想住宅。雖然看不懂日文,但裡面有漢字,還有圖解,書中每個細節都交代得清清楚楚。昔日工作的訓練,讓他看工程圖很在行,找不到人會畫圖、能施工,對木工完全外行的楊三二就決定照著書自己蓋,這也是「一冊大木家屋」名字的由來。

用時間換取空間

畫好設計圖,開始四處去找木料。選用加拿大的花旗松,進了一萬多材(建築構件的單位)的木料,送進枋寮車站旁跟台鐵租借的倉庫,楊三二每天跑倉庫,依著書上教的,幫每一段木料編號,日本人以伊呂波歌標註,他自創以子午卯酉標示方位。房子的中心選用接近樹心的木料,靠近外圍的部分,用的就是靠近樹皮的木材,楊三二解釋:「想像木造建築物就是一顆樹,把它分解開來,從中心輻射出去。」每一根木頭要適才適所地安置在正確的地方。長年看著父親蓋房子的大女兒楊淨淑說:「蓋這種房子最難的是一開始的選料,也是大木師傅最重要的事情。」

等待木頭乾燥後,之後就是榫頭、卯眼的加工。「花最多時間是在做榫接的地方,那個要求的精準度要夠。」楊三二說。卡榫不能做得剛剛好,要預想到天然材料會隨著氣候膨脹收縮,所以卯眼要加工成「大進小出」的梯形,這樣一來榫頭叩進去時會卡住,再靠木槌從外施力敲入,這樣才能卡得牢。

蓋房子的準備期超乎意料的久,回想這17年多的光景,楊淨淑說:「在倉庫那段時間最難熬」,童裕謙補充:「那時候就每天去(倉庫)加工,挖這些木頭的榫頭。我們都不知道他的進度到哪裡,做到什麼程度。」「在倉庫的時間有沒有一年?」「八、九年」這數字一蹦出,讓人瞠目結舌。但童裕謙開玩笑說,楊三二生性愛聊天、社交,「這過程中,遇到朋友來聊天交陪大概花了五年的時間。」

蓋一棟房花這麼久的時間,外人都不免質疑到底能不能成,但楊淨淑說:「我們不會質疑爸爸,因為我從小印象最深的就是他把金龜車從一個空殼修到可以上路,把所有零件拆光光,再一個個組起來。我不會覺得他做不到,只是不知道要花多少時間。」

曾經任職日商營造廠,楊三二說:「我知道日本營造廠的規矩,要先想清楚、計畫好,設計圖要標清楚,才開始施工。缺工沒有人,就是用一個人的時間去抵四、五人的時間。」

房子蓋太久了,夫妻倆也按捺不住,沒算好良辰吉日就先搬進去,但房子只有木架構,連牆壁都沒有,就先在屋裡搭帳棚,儼然屋中屋的概念。順著工序,才一步一步接了電,去年暑假才有了水,年底浴室才完工,不用再跑到別處洗澡。

如今內結構已大致完成,但二樓挑高處的欄杆還沒裝上,只留著榫頭。楊淨淑解釋:「日本的做法是一個工班在平地組好之後再吊上去,可是我們沒有吊車,沒有那麼多工人可以在木樁的兩頭一起打榫頭,我爸爸只有一個人,他必須要去思考只一個人工作的工法。」楊淨淑的語氣中帶著驕傲與不捨。在缺乏支援的情況下,他必須顧念著每一個工作的環節,也無怪乎楊三二工作中的背影總讓人從心底由升敬意。

細節裡的魔鬼

想要蓋一棟可以長長久久的房子就得一切照起工(台語)。楊三二想把事情做好的用心極致,體現在房子裡任何一個直線、轉角。「每個角落都是收尾的地方」,楊三二說。

一進到屋內,楊淨淑導覽木屋,就先帶我們五體投地的趴在地板上看,「每一個細節都是我爸做的,這個拉門的軌道很特別吧!不用輪子,也不會脫軌,鋁條是為了讓拖拉門滑動的時候更順暢。」她語帶驕傲地說。地板的木料有四公分厚,踩過去很紮實,不會有伊呀伊呀的聲響。天然的物料會隨著氣候膨脹收縮產生縫隙,因此地板是講究地將橫向跟縱向裁切的兩塊木料拼組在一起,加強它的強度、防震,不會錯位。

窗子做成向外斜推,楊三二解釋道:「主要跟空氣對流有關。斜推出去就有一個斜面,當風吹進來時,會依著玻璃的斜面往室內吹,把室內的高溫空氣導流向上。這種外推的窗型,你推開多少,進來的風量就有多少,跟左右開的窗子只有一半的通風量不同。」在靠近屋頂處,他也設計一個百葉窗,讓熱空氣可以隨氣孔宣洩到外頭。

牆面板用天然石灰抹壁,因為石灰不吸熱,太陽如何照射都不會升溫。又因為石灰會吸收空氣中的水份,石灰牆吸水飽和,就能把外界的溼氣擋掉,調節濕度,只差在石灰施工的過程比水泥費工而已。

木造房子最怕「水」,因此斷水、洩水、防水的工事做得好,就能夠一勞永逸。

門口的木柱與地基的連結處,一般的做法是在基石內挖一個凹洞,讓木柱直立其中,但遇到雨水,水會順著木柱流入凹槽內,長久下來,木頭浸在水中就易腐壞。楊三二自創的做法是將交接處切出斜角度,讓雨水順著斜度洩水,使水分不停留,木料自能保持完好。

窗子的施作概念亦同,重點是將窗框與牆面接觸的點做成斜面,如果只是水平的話,水反而會慢慢回滲進屋內,創造一個斜度,水就沒辦法往回流。

「這就是細節,重點就在這裡,你必須去思考木造房子的所有銜接點,會遭遇到的問題,將來會變成什麼樣子。木頭怕水,你要設想到每一塊木料的縫隙、細節要怎麼處理。」「我就是想空想縫(台語),在想這些東西。」楊三二說,「而且沒辦法快,因為有太多的細節要做,講白一點,就是把未來要維修保養的工作,現在一次做到位,將來使用就不會有這些問題。」

給家人的情書

2012年楊淨淑將一冊大木家屋的故事申請keep walking夢想支助計畫,開始吸引許多民眾好奇來訪,也意外成為枋寮的在地景點。還有人來打工換宿,體驗怎麼蓋木構家屋。陳慧娟說一個月至少有30組客人,算算每月約有100人次到訪,家屋採開放制,楊家人總會熱情把家屋的故事再說一遍。採訪當天就有一位從香港來的環島客,聊著聊著就決定晚上留下借宿,繼續交流。

楊三二難得翻出當年手繪的設計圖,「我們的年代學機械,師傅就教我們用方格紙畫。」他解釋著每一個卡榫的位置,如何作用。那一張張的設計圖就像楊三二給家人的情書,設想著蓋一個永續安全、無後顧之憂的家,但這些心情他不會對誰明說,「我的年代就沒辦法,不會講。」楊三二說。

這棟屋子裡有許多卡榫機關,「卡是定位,榫是固定,把它固定住不要鬆脫。」但隨著打入暗楔,卡榫隱了身,從外頭是看不出榫頭和卯眼是如何緊密的環扣著,就如這一家子,楊三二對細節錙銖必較的堅持,陳慧娟對丈夫無私的包容,孩子們對父母的支持,這些無形的羈絆,固守著這一家,是我們以為「一冊大木家屋」最動人之處。

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