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.