Piece en Piece Construction

by B. Allan Mackie
Canadian Log House #2, Spring 1975

Piece-en-piece was the style of log construction commonly used in the early days of French Canada. It is a good system of building and, in modern concepts, allows for an almost infinite flexibility in design. It will regain much of its traditional popularity in the next few decades.Photo courtesy of B. Allan Mackie - The Canadian Log House Magazine

In its historic form this type of log construction which predates European history had its origin in the medieval "bulhuse" construction of Denmark.  From Denmark it appears to have spread to the other Scandinavian countries to western Europe and to France.  And from France it came to Canada with the earliest settlers.

Seldom was any other log building method employed during the first 200 years of Canadian history, for the British also worked in this tradition. Both English and French resisted the horizontal log methods brought to America by the Swedes. Both English and French held firmly to the well-founded belief that the load is best carried by the vertical timbers so that the stress is with the grain of the wood.

Basically, piece-en-piece construction consisted of a frame of squared logs arranged by tenoning slotted uprights (as shown above/right) into a sell log at the bottom and a plate log at the top. The sills and plates were lapped at corners. Uprights were pegged at tenons.

Because the French were responsible for the introduction of this style of construction into Canada and because many of the people in the fur trade, particularly the North West Company, were French, it follows that piece-en-piece was the favoured construction in the fur trade.

Several good examples of these very impressive buildings are standing today, firm and solid. Shown below is Fort St. James fur warehouse, built in 1888. Fort Langley, Lower Fort Garry and a main building of Norway House still stand in good repair. Others have labouriously been reconstructed: Fort Edmonton and Fort Carleton for examples. Still others were lost through fire (Fort Pitt) or dismantling (Old Fort Garry).

Indeed, the inventory of solid timber buildings of that era is surprisingly lengthy Fort St. John, Fort McLeod, Fort Ellice, Fort Fraser, Fort Victoria, Fort Calgary, Fort Pelly and more . . .

A careful examination of the piece-en-piece building shown below will aid in understanding why this construction method recommended itself, especially to the outposts of trade. These reasons were:

    strong, solid buildings, long lasting and requiring little maintenance

    the thick walls were relatively bullet proof; residents within the
    forts did not normally fear attack but wanted to be safe from stray
    missiles occasioned by the too-liberal consumption of trade goods

    large buildings could be constructed out of short lengths of log as
    opposed to the moving of long members which, in the 19th century, was a
    real problem

Photo courtesy of B. Allan Mackie - The Canadian Log House Magazine

The same reasons were valid in the construction of the Fortress of Louisbourg (1720 to 1745) and with the possible exceptions of the bullet proof aspects, the same reasons still hold true for today.

In older buildings, the material was always square hewn or "dressed" logs. But for the present day builder who may not have the prerequisites for this scale of undertaking (i.e. the broad axe, energy, time and practiced eye), round logs may be substituted if the designer uses imagination and good taste. I would like to hope that no sawn or manufactured material would be used because it always detracts from a log building.

NT Ltd. Fraser residence
A fine example of a modern adaptation of piece-en-piece construction. compliments of Northern Timberhouse Ltd., Minden, ON Canada

T. Ritchie, "Plankwall Framing, a Modern Wall Construction with an Ancient History", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, xxxii, March 1971, pp 68-69.

Reprinted with permission of B. Allan Mackie.



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