Stepping into one of Germany's old fachwerk buildings is like travelling through time. These structures, which have not changed for centuries, stimulate all your senses, from the creaking of floorboards, to the smell of timber, finds Marta Heine-Geldern as she journey's through architectural history.
BY MARTA HEINE-GELDERN | TRAVEL | 12 FEBRUARY 2024
You’ll know what a fachwerk house is even if you’ve never heard the word before. Think of a fairytale village and you’ll no doubt picture black-and-white, half-timbered houses with steep, overhanging roofs and crooked angles everywhere.
Fachwerk, literally meaning ‘compartment-construction’, refers to this gorgeous, historic style of half-timbered building. Humans have been using this construction method since Roman times, from England to Japan. However, Germany probably has the most, and the best, examples worldwide, with around 2.5 million fachwerk houses from the past 1,000 years still standing in the country. So, this is where my journey to learn more about fachwerk housing (fachwerkhauser) began.
Fachwerkhauser is so important to Germans that there are local and national conservation societies. There’s even the Deutsche Fachwerkstraße, or ‘German Timber-Frame Road’, a tourist trail that takes you through towns with well-preserved half-timbered buildings – it stretches nearly 3,000km from north to south Germany. However, I wanted to stray off this well-travelled path into Rhineland-Palatinate in western Germany. I visited the pretty, secluded villages of Beilstein, Bacharach, and Monreal. Each boasts beautiful examples of fachwerk houses and businesses, as well as incredible structures with fachwerk elements, such as Eltz Castle.
Wherever you go in this part of Germany you’ll see forests. As a result, buildings have been constructed from timber for centuries. Before trucks, trains, or container ships made it possible to transport heavy materials great distances, you had to use what was to hand; German builders had trees. In countries with freezing winters, like Russia and parts of Scandinavia, entire houses were built from logs to keep warm.
However, as winters aren’t quite so harsh in Germany, you could just build the frame of your house from logs, and fill in the gaps with plaster or brick. You’d then be able to make more buildings from the same number of trees. Carpenters also found you could get two beams out of one log by splitting it. You’d leave the flat side of this timber on the exterior of the building; people could see you’d only used half a log for one beam – hence the name ‘half-timbered’ houses.
Until a few centuries ago in Germany, fachwerk was the most popular style for houses and businesses for those who could afford it. Often, owners would want their house to be decorated in a unique way. Over time, the exterior wood in half-timbered buildings darkens to the black you see in some of these photos.
However, German towns often add pops of color by painting the timber frame or the plaster between it – hence some of those lovely red beams. While they look traditional, these are recent additions – see the dates 1696-2021 at the apex. The text beneath reads ‘God bless this house and all its visitors’, followed by a proverb. It is common to see such blessings or mottoes on half-timbered buildings such as this. There’s also often advertising for the business contained inside, such as the ornate metal ‘Winzerschenke’ sign outside the hotel in Beilstein.
As these pictures show, the ground floor of a fachwerk house is usually made of stone. This provided a strong foundation for the floors above, was less likely to catch fire, and was harder to break into. Some half-timbered buildings have upper storeys that jut out into ‘jetties’, because you were only allowed a fixed plot of land on which to build your house. However, this footprint didn’t apply to the air above. Builders wanting to get the most out of their plot would use jetties so that upstairs rooms had more space, and would build tall houses with steep roofs.
Stepping into an old, fachwerk building is like travelling through time. You enter a structure that has not changed for hundreds of years. They stimulate all your senses, from the creaking of floorboards underfoot, to the smell of the timber, the feel of wood grain in the beams, and the light flooding in through tall, broad windows. They are all charmingly unique, without a right angle in sight.
You might even spot markings on the beams; carpenters would use these to indicate where to cut or drill a piece of wood, to keep track of how much timber they'd used, or to sign their handiwork with pride. You might also see decorative flourishes or more cryptic, superstitious symbols. ‘Witch marks’ were often etched into stone or timber to turn away evil spirits and protect those living or working in the building.
More striking still, is how well-protected these houses are. Even off the fachwerkhauser route, I was able to find gorgeous, storybook examples of the construction style. Moreover, most of the houses are still lived in or used as businesses. It is thanks to organisations, such as the Association of Historic Timber-Framed Towns, that these beautiful buildings continue to survive and flourish – there are even companies dedicated to repairing and restoring them using traditional methods and materials. For their charm, beauty, and history, I truly recommend planning your own tour to see the magic of these fachwerk today.
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