An Interview With Hugh Lofting
If you take a drive through Chester County horse country with Hugh Lofting, you’ll likely hear more about the King Ranch, township road maintenance, and American McMansions than you will about timber framing. With self-deprecating humor and an easy laugh, Hugh is quick to point out some of the less-than-smart anecdotes of his youth (don’t take a sailboat dinghy down a hurricane-swollen river). He weaves a story of family history in Montana and Pennsylvania and the evolution of his life and work, as intricate as the timber-frame structures for which his company is known – and as richly detailed.
Hugh Lofting Timber Framing built its first structure in Hugh’s cousin’s garage in 1980. In the 40+ years that followed, Hugh built a team and a company with a reputation for beautiful craftsmanship and excellent service. “It’s kind of recognition for our whole team when someone says we have a great reputation,” he explains. “When people say, ‘I’ve seen your work and it’s gorgeous,’ that makes me happy.” He adds with a chuckle that, “I’m usually dealing with ‘how come that piece of wood cracked’ [because it’s wood and it sometimes does that].”
Connection with Nature Runs Deep
Hugh’s personal connection to nature runs deep, and has imbued his company with an environmental consciousness and strong sense of how sustainability impacts the built environment. As a Passive House Institute U.S. certified builder, and with multiple members of the team qualified as LEED Green Associates, Hugh Lofting Timber Framing wears its commitment proudly.
Hugh’s story begins in rural Pennsylvania in the 1930s, when his maternal grandparents bought historic Inverbrook Farm in West Marlborough. Hugh’s parents split time between Inverbrook and property in Montana. Today, Hugh and his wife call the farm home. There’s a hybrid of old and new at play; a modern solar array, juxtaposed with an organic vegetable garden, and free-range chickens and turkeys. Hugh grew up amidst the family farm, stories of his father’s trips to Montana, and the sprawling 10,000 acres of nearby King Ranch.
Driving through the property that was once King Ranch’s Pennsylvania territory spans five townships; Hugh knows them like an old friend. “My dad had a cowboy period in the 1940s when he worked for Mr. Kleberg,” Hugh explains. Robert Kleberg and the King Ranch family owned and leased property where the Texas-based ranch brought its Santa Gertrudis steer annually to the Buck and Doe Run Valleys. The Pennsylvania outpost of King Ranch boasted the East Coast’s “finishing school for cattle,” a spectacle of cattle exiting special trains to spend the summers grazing in Chester County. It left an impact on Hugh.
“I grew up with all of this – surrounded by the King Ranch, living on the family farm, and hearing my dad talk about Montana,” explained Hugh. “But it wasn’t until I went out to Montana when I was nine years old that I fell in love with it all. I wanted to be a cowboy.”
When he went to college at Montana State University, Hugh describes, he dabbled in rodeo, studied agriculture, and worked at a guest ranch, where owner William (Bill) Potter became a mentor in life and work. “He became my hero; he would take acres of bug-kill trees the loggers didn’t want and turn them into paper pulp or mulch,” Hugh remembers. This resourcefulness and ability to make the most of what you have wasn’t lost on Hugh, who saw the efforts as both supporting nature and self.
Perhaps apropos to this part of his story, Hugh slows down his truck to observe a fallen tree limb. “That’s oak,” he says. “I should come back and get that.”
Returning to His Roots
After a stint in the Air National Guard, Hugh returned to Pennsylvania and supplemented farming and bee-keeping with building. He’s quick to point out that his efforts at everything were trial-and-error. “Everything was a learning experience. The deer would eat anything, so I built these elevated garden boxes,” he describes. “That put the food right where they didn’t even need to lean over.” Hugh laughs: another learning experience. But his efforts paid off; he got one of the county’s first conservation plans and patented a bee-feeding device.
Hugh’s earliest building projects were house renovations in Lancaster. “Construction was something else to do with my hands,” he says. He and his wife fixed up dilapidated properties and sold them back to the city. “Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from magazines,” Hugh asserts. “I can read and practice.”
So when he first read about timber framing in the early 1970s, and how architect David Howard was importing historic English barns to New England and converting them into houses, it caught Hugh’s attention. He got in his car and toured around. “It was literally like walking into a piece of furniture,” he recalls upon seeing his first timber-framed structure. “At that time in my mind, I said I’ve got to do that.”
Building a Framework
In the 40 years since Hugh started timber framing, his business – and business in general – has changed. Technology has impacted the design process, but his framing is still constructed by hand. He holds fast to the belief of handcrafted quality. While Hugh modestly talks about keeping up with the industry, in reality, his company has remained at the forefront of design and construction, with passive house design, LEED certified projects, a portfolio of residential and commercial work, and a growing team of committed designers and builders.
“There are all kinds of methods at our disposal for modular building,” Hugh explains. “It’s kind of neat to move toward that, using floor trusses to span bigger distances, embedding steel within timber frames.”
A few years ago, the company hosted a summer intern whose parents run a glue-lam business in France. Hugh went to check it out. “In Europe, they do more of a system than we do. They think about the whole shell of the house.” This visit, in part, has influenced a move toward whole-house design, both for clients who pursue a passive house concept and those who just want to think efficiently about energy savings.
As trends in sustainable design continue to evolve, everyone at Hugh Lofting Timber Framing prioritizes continuing education. “I’m always learning and I encourage everyone else to do the same,” says Hugh. Travel and exploration are big parts of that.
Hugh loves the artisan quality of European and Japanese buildings. As an adult, he travels for business and pleasure, always with an eye toward building techniques. “My wife always wants to go to the museums, but I’d rather be looking at buildings,” he says. Whether new construction or old villages, he loves it all. “The quality is so much different than what we are used to in this country.” Hugh laments quick construction and super-size proportions of American houses that differ from smaller – and often more functional – European counterparts.
“It’s hard to put a finger on what makes some architecture work or not, but in my opinion, McMansions just don’t work. The whole American idea of ‘big’ in retrospect is really about being disorganized. If you have good organization, you don’t need so much space.”
Hugh cites Japanese houses as another example of small, well-designed buildings. He references pole houses, where a wood pole based in size on a single story is used to create a modular load-bearing framework that is quick to assemble and requires less foundation work than traditional architecture. He also describes the method of using Tatami mat dimensions (roughly six-by-three feet), to proportion rooms based on how many mats fit on a floor. Dating back to the 16th century, these simple, modular systems allowed the master builder to design the entire house – yet they still feel comfortable and appropriately sized today.
Hugh points to a new local bank branch with an elaborate gabled roof and dormer windows. He’d get rid of non-functional rooflines if given the chance. “That’s a one-story building; there’s no reason for all those peaks,” he states. “They don’t serve a function. When you get down to brass tacks, I like the sameness of form and function.”
Belief in Louis Sullivan’s famous mantra ‘form follows function’ is perhaps why Hugh has always liked barns. “I can see an old barn and tell you exactly what it looks like on the inside,” he declares.
Hugh likes the simple elegance of a structure that shows its purpose, but occasionally, a piece of architecture will surprise him.
We drive past his favorite example: John Pennock’s Primitive Hall in West Marlborough, just a few miles from Hugh’s farm. The red brick Quaker residence was built in 1738; it gained listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and today functions as an event site. When Hugh was younger, he snuck into the off-limits-to-the-public attic space and saw the complex timber framing of the roof structure. “It was very English in design and not seen much in this region,” he describes. “It was really unexpected.”
Road to Success
Hugh’s road to success has come full circle – and he’s had both figurative and literal control over the paving. A strong commitment to the community guides his time away from work.
As a township supervisor and Road Master for West Marlborough, Hugh takes the safety of the community seriously. On the day we visit the township public works buildings – perhaps not coincidentally located in the Doe Run village hub of the former King Ranch – Hugh’s son, Hugh II, is loading salt and chaining plows for an impending storm. “I’ve always liked being outside,” Hugh says, reinforcing his connection to nature.
Other members of the public works crew greet Hugh warmly and the respect he garners is evident. His involvement in the township stretches to 1984 and has helped earn five “Dirt and Gravel Road” grants and two “Growing Greener” grants, both watershed protection grants for environmentally responsible programs.
When Hugh was interviewed by USA Today for a 2005 article about West Marlborough Township converting a small stretch of road from asphalt to gravel, the author was quick to include quotes that made Hugh sound like a crazy farmer out to rid his quiet community of cars. In fact, the pilot program to turn a three-quarter-mile stretch of paved road to gravel was funded by a Pennsylvania State University sustainability grant. The transition studied prevention of stream pollution from oils on road surfaces.
“I’ve always, even without thinking about it, been drawn back to nature and sustainability,” says Hugh. “And without being crazy about it.” He’ll continue to read and practice, and likely continue to make a difference at home, at work, and in the community.