Gillis & Company Timber Frames, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, is owned by Mark Gillis. They handcraft traditional wood structures that have been updated for today’s living challenges. They pay careful attention to everyone’s needs, and work with the clients and the other building professionals to design and build a structure that is energy efficient, economical and unique, and looks like it belongs on the building site.
They experiment with every project – trying something new on each frame, just to see if there is a better way of doing things. They take their work very seriously, always striving to build the best buildings they can. That said, they don’t take themselves very seriously at all… they truly enjoy handcrafting heavy timber, and they’re not afraid to show it.
Mark had quite a journey on the way to forming his company. His father was a civil engineer, and as a result, he spent his childhood “looking at holes in the ground, inspecting new and old buildings and thumbing my way through construction drawings and details”. Mark’s father inherited the family farm, and while he worked hard to keep it maintained, Mark and his brother spent their summers playing in and exploring the barn and outbuildings that his ancestors had built by hand. So from an early age he learned to appreciate handcrafted buildings and the old ways of doing things.
Watching PBS shows like “This Old House” and “The Woodwright’s Shop” helped him see the time and commitment that was needed to create unique and wonderful structures by hand. They helped him believe that one could earn a living working with wood.
After graduation with a degree in Physics, Mark realized he needed a career and went to college for four more years to earn a Bachelor Degree in Civil Engineering. He feels he was lucky that there wasn’t any local work for engineers. So he sent resumes out to thirty log and timber frame fabricators, all over North America. As it happened, his resume landed on the desk of Scott Murray at Thistlewood Timber Frame Homes in Markdale, Ontario, the day that the lead designer had tendered his two-week notice. Two weeks later, he was the new timber frame designer.
Upon arrival at his new job, he realized that hardly anything he had learned in engineering school could be directly applied to his new position. He had to learn what shop drawings were, when to use what connections, how to communicate with clients, timber framers, builders, architects, building officials and other engineers.
Fortunately, his coworkers were eager to help him learn the ropes. He began by re-reading Tedd Benson’s “The Timber Frame Home” and Jack Sobon’s two books, then quickly plowed through all of the timber frame books and magazines that his boss had on file.
He began his new job asking the project manager and timber framers what they wanted to do and what they needed from him. Then, realizing the existing system was flawed and creating errors, he soon determined that the shop drawings were the key to resolving this. So he spent the next six months re-defining the role of frame designer and what was included in the shop drawings.
He began learning the reasoning behind construction details, and started exploring the ways that other shops and craftspeople did things. Later he began to experiment and explore different ideas for frame design, joinery and how the whole building acted as one, complete system.
After three years at Thistlewood , he began work as Design Engineer and General Manager of Legacy Timber Frames of Habitat, Nova Scotia. He learned about the day-to-day management of a small business, from payroll and taxes to contract writing and project management; all while establishing new business connections in his home area.
At Gillis & Company Timber Frames, gable dormers offer the most challenging joinery to cut, because of the complex angles involved. It is a source of pride when they come together well, thanks to a skilled crew.
According to Mark, “To further illustrate this point, three years ago, we fabricated a timber frame roof system for a fly-in fishing lodge in Central Labrador – helicopters were required to fly all 25,000 lbs of timber to the job site! We raised all eleven of the 24′ and 27′ wide trusses by hand, and each of the 20′ long valley rafters perfectly slid into their housings – you couldn’t get a hair in between the timbers! Everyone on the jobsite (the project manager, other carpenters, the cook and the lodge handyman) had a huge smile on their faces when we put the last piece in place. This was truly a team-effort. It was such an amazing feeling to fly over the site on our way home, and see what we all were able to accomplish with our hands. I am so lucky to be involved in such unique and challenging projects, and to work with such talented and inspiring individuals.”
In Nova Scotia, the residential market slowed considerably after the 2008 economic melt-down, and never really recovered. Gillis and Company actively set out to establish themselves as the local experts in heavy timber, and thereby began pursuing commercial work. They spent three years doing lunch and learn sessions for architects, engineers, building officials and general contractors, teaching them the fundamentals of heavy timber construction and how they could incorporate it into their projects. This was a significant investment in time and effort, but it has more than paid for itself, and as a result, commercial work accounts for more than two-thirds of their annual work. Because of this shift, they have been able to grow in a time where many others have scaled back or closed up shop. Mark is sure their ability to adapt and grow is the key to their success.
If it is well designed and detailed, Mark believes that building with timber framing is not any more complex or onerous than any other type of construction. The real issue in building with timber framing is that most contractors do not have very much, if any, experience with it. Spending a little time helping them understand how the design works will reduce the chance of an error and thereby reduce the cost and time required to complete the job that the clients are paying for.
At Gillis and Company, they communicate with each and every sub-trade on every project. This small investment of time ensures that they have designed the building so that it simplifies all of the systems and services. Sometimes they need alter the design or details to suit the needs of the other building professionals. As long as the communication lines are open and everyone is considerate of each other, building with timber framing should not be difficult for anyone involved.
According to Mark, what makes Gillis and Company Timber Frames unique is that “We honestly love doing what we do, and we believe that our work reflects this. We are lucky to work with creative, unique individuals, and we all love creating one-of-a-kind projects for one-of-a-kind clients.
Every project we take on receives the highest attention to detail – we need to establish what is important to the clients, and ensure that this message is delivered to everyone involved. It’s the client’s hard-earned money that we’re working with – we need to ensure that they get the most out of it. That’s what sets us apart.”
We advertise internationally in Timber Home Living magazine – see our ad in the “floor plan” section. Please also check out our website www.gillistimberframes.com – our blog shows the latest goings-on in the shop and at the jobsite, and it also gives a good sense of how and why we do the things we do. Our website has tons of sample designs – these are ideas that we’ve used in the past that can be used as-is or as the seed for a new, unique design that is tailored to work for the new client.
After you have checked us out online, please call us toll-free at 1-800-317-8419. We always take time to listen to what is important to you, the client,and hearing it directly from you is by far the best way. We need to hear what you’re passionate about and why, so that we can deliver that dream. Please let us know how we can help.”