An Architectural Design Scavenger Hunt

“Dad, we better buy those plane tickets soon!” I put down my book and looked at my daughter, Lucia. It was early spring and about the 4th or 5th time I had heard this reminder in the last 3 months. You see, Lucia had asked if the 2 of us could make a trip to Scandinavia. Our family spent 18 months in Scandinavia from 1999-2000. So, you can see why Lucia would have a drawing to return and revisit some of her childhood, to see familiar sights, hear the Finnish and Swedish languages, and snack on some of her favorite European foods! My 15-year old son, Nels, decided to come along as well.

About that time, I noticed an announcement in the timber framing publication I receive from the Timber Framers Guild. There was to be a timber framed bridge built in Estonia starting in the middle of August. They were requesting volunteers. “Now that could be a lot of fun!” I said to myself. The first order of business was to get Lucia’s approval. After all, this was her gig. She was fine with dad mixing a bit of a timber work with the vacation. From there, it was a simple matter to confirm the project dates and purchase airline tickets that would work for Lucia and the timber bridge project.

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The traveling began for us with the planning, anticipation, and figuring out the itinerary. It reminded me of how Lucia and Nels used to plan and talk about Christmas when they were young. The best part of the whole trip was the time the three of us had together just traveling. For me as a father, it was great to hear their comments, observe how they were maturing, and get a big dose of positive interaction. So, Lucia, Nels and I departed for Scandinavia on August 7.

Traveling Scandinavia

We spent some time in Sweden meeting up with old friends. We even made it up above the Arctic Circle, to Kiruna, an iron mining town. Then it was time for Finland. Lucia and Nels were both quite thrilled to board the cruise ferry over the Baltic Sea. They had done so numerous times as children, which had always been adventurous and fun for them.

Upon arriving in Finland, we split up. Lucia and Nels were to accompany friends traveling to a camp event. I traveled by ferry to St. Petersburg, Russia with a friend. The announcements on the boat were in Russian, English, Finnish, and Mandarin Chinese – there were a lot of Chinese tourists. We enjoyed a sauna that evening followed by a sushi meal and arrived the following morning.

After breakfast on the boat, we went on a guided tour through the old port of St. Petersburg. It is an amazing city and not to mention huge! The St. Petersburg metro area has 9 million people! It is very apparent that there is an old, rich, and deep culture influencing the layout and architecture of the city. In the old-town section of St. Petersburg, there were many low buildings and a wide river going through the city. We were able to see old cathedrals, museums, and buildings.

The most memorable was the Hermitage. A world-famous museum in a former palace. It has 2000 windows, 2000 rooms, and is bigger than a city block. We toured the inside for three solid hours and never entered the same room twice. The whole trip, I was taking notes about building styles, balance and architecture, but my camera and artistic database were particularly overloaded during the Hermitage tour! Perhaps the biggest learning nugget from the whole timber design scavenger hunt is simply the increased enthusiasm and data to produce versatile and unique designs and solutions for my clients!

Arriving back in Finland the following morning, I continued to the city of Lahti. The rest of the time in Finland was spent visiting with old friends. A real whirlwind when you try to cram a few visits into every day!

Volunteer Timber Framing Project

My son and I then took the ferry to Estonia for the timber framing volunteer project: The replacement of a 90′ long country bridge which had been washed out by a flood. It was the first engineered wooden bridge built in Estonia. We became acquainted with other volunteers on the project. There were two Americans, Will and Mark, along with three Estonians, Kaldi, Marko, and Andres. Nels and I were glad we could be there for the raising day.

The first step in the raising process was standing the truss closest to the river and brace this behemoth so it wouldn’t fall and crush us! This ended up being a bit of a challenge, because the most solid object around was the truss which we were to straighten and brace!

Working on the timber bridge project, I was reminded of the many differences and similarities I had experienced working in Finland 12 years ago. One glaring difference is the use of the metric system which is much easier to use except when taking precise measurements. Differentiating between 2mm and 3mm as well as 7mm and 8mm is a pain because they both compete for midpoint. Another big difference was the blueprints.

Differences in Philosophy

Estonians must have the same teaching philosophy as Finland, which is to say it is better to teach from the bottom up rather than from the top down. As an American, I prefer getting the big picture first and then adding the details. The bridge blueprints gave all the details but required some studying to get the whole picture. The advantage to their bottom-up approach is that the details and finer points have a better chance of being communicated.

Minor differences such as 220-volt current for all electric tools, smaller hammers, square nails, wimpy tape measures, etc. really don’t change the building process much. They range from being a small nuisance to a neat novelty. Another small difference which could be isolated to this project only was the lack of camber to the bridge trusses. The two other Americans and I wondered why the bridge trusses were perfectly straight. It seemed like they should have a small upward curve. But the sagging which will result from no camber will only affect the aesthetics and not the strength.


The similarities are much more abundant, just harder to notice. The love of building lasting structures knows no borders! It was fun working as a team to safely and efficiently address the logistics and erect the big lattice trusses. One of the nice things about working on a physical project like this timber bridge is that the scope of work and tasks are obvious. It was easy to pair up in teams to get a lot of work done with limited verbal communication. After the first truss was hoisted, Nels and I paired up with Kaldi to straighten, plumb and brace it solidly into place. He got to experience how working as a team towards a common goal builds a special bond.

The physics, engineering, construction, communication, and logistics all needed to be addressed and handled in similar ways. So, it was nice to observe their solutions and ways of getting things done. The single-lane bridge consisted of two massive lattice box trusses, one truss per side, about 90 feet long by 16 feet tall, X-bracing top and bottom, floor cross beams, heavy car decking, roof trusses, and flared skirting which would also serve as a rail.

It was the first time I had seen a lattice truss and could really appreciate the simplicity of construction. They also had a neat solution for lateral bracing which would still allow cars to drive through. It consisted of short knee braces at a sharp angle, with many connectors at both ends of the knee braces. Any sway in the middle of the bridge would be transferred back to these knee braces via X braces at the roof line.

We took lunch in shifts to minimize crane costs, and by the end of the day the pieces were all in place ready for minor adjustments and bolting. Nels and I had to leave the following day. As for the other American volunteers, Mark had to leave a day or two after us and planned to stay in Europe an additional two weeks. Will was disappointed that the concrete was so far behind schedule because he would have liked to see the bridge hoisted into place. I look forward to email updates and pictures of the completed project!

Before leaving Estonia, we toured the old town in the capital city, Tallinn. Very beautiful. The old churches and shops situated along the bent cobblestone streets have an old-time feel that is hard to convey. Evening dining is a crowded event during tourist season. All the old town is packed with diners, experiencing what life could have been like in Estonia 300+ years ago. Estonia is a unique country that only gained independence 20 years ago. Since then, it has applied sound economic principles and has a fresh, common-sense feel to the culture.

Then, it was back on the ferry to Helsinki where we joined Lucia and stayed with an old friend. After a couple of days, we again boarded the cruise ferry to travel to Stockholm, where we would spend the last weekend and then fly home. I can’t neglect to mention the spectacular feeling coming home. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder! And now, after working like crazy for four weeks to catch up, when I reflect on the benefits of our travels, I have to say it was worth every penny. Not only did we get to see friends and document many architectural styles, but I was able to make up for lost time as a father! For that opportunity I am very thankful.

And a special thanks to you, a fellow timber enthusiast, for enriching my life with so many shared experiences, projects and opportunities.

Put your happiness on display with timber living!

– Bert Sarkkinen


A Gallery and Structural Lessons from 500-Year Old German Timber Frame Construction

A recent trip to Germany brought great interest to our founder, Bert Sarkkinen. See photos and learn about the structural elements of historical German construction, some of which have stood for over 500 years!

“Overall, I was incredibly impressed with what I witnessed on my short tour of old timber framing in Germany.”

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historic timber framing and stone
Initiating the Vision
Depicting the Vision
Constructing the Vision