Lafayette, Colorado

Co-owner and CFO Justin Wessels’ company uses modern technology to construct large timber-frame structures.

According to Wessels, there isn’t much essential difference between the designs of 900-year-old buildings still standing in Europe and the large-scale timber structures of today — which include “high-end residential mountain homes, commercial structures such as hotels, shopping centers” — that Rocky Mountain Joinery Center (RMJC) supplies.

“People have been using the same wood-on-wood connections for hundreds of years,” says Wessels. “The only difference is [historically] they were all cut by hand — and this is an incredibly long process and involves a lot of manpower. And, in today’s market, there are simply not enough skilled craftsmen to be able to hand-cut heavy-timber frames to supply the market. So, what we use is CNC machinery.”

Aided by 3D modeling software, the company’s CNC machinery cuts the timber into any shape that’s needed. Wessels says of the German-made technology, “There is a four-axis mill, there’s a five-axis mill, there’s chainsaws, there’s slot cutters, there’s drills, and the machine does all of this complex joinery on the timbers, which eliminates about 80 to 90 percent of the handwork that used to be required. So, what that means is that we can do a very large volume of these timber frames — and the CNC machine allows us to do it at a price that is very competitive in the market.” Competitive, perhaps, but still “a niche product in a niche market” and “definitely not the cheapest way of building” compared to some other methods and materials.

Sales are global. “We’ve shipped frames anywhere from Washington to Maine to Canada, all the way down to St. Lucia in the Caribbean,” says Wessels. “And we’re looking at opportunities in Namibia and South Africa currently. And we’re also starting a sustainable development in Costa Rica, which is going to be awesome, made out of exclusively timber products. So, there’s a lot of opportunity as people start looking at timber [once again] as the primary building material.”

The company is based out of its 42,000 square feet of space in Lafayette. Workers need only step outside to its six-acre lumberyard to obtain the Douglas fir timber needed for a project. “We stock most standard sizes that any timber frame would be made of,” says Wessels. “That allows us to deliver frames in a matter of weeks, as opposed to waiting two to three months for timber to arrive.”

Acting strictly as a wholesaler, the company counts about 50 different clients for which it has provided the frames for their structures. What RMJC doesn’t do, however, are any of “the walls, the floors, the windows, the roofs–we focus solely on the actual timber frame.” Wessels calls one of RMJC’s largest clients, Colorado Timberframe, a “sister company,” since both businesses are co-owned by his business partner Keenan Tompkins.

The company’s biggest project to date hasn’t been a house or a lodge—it was an ark. That is, RMJC provided the structure for the Ark Encounter, a biblical-themed destination in Williamstown, Kentucky. The project required “over a million board feet of timber,” and it took 182 truckloads to deliver all of that wood to Kentucky. (In case you’re wondering, this ark won’t float, given how it’s “anchored to the ground.”)

But Wessels says an even grander set of structures is on the horizon, which will eventually be a campus for an undisclosed company. “It ranges from giant timber buildings, to arched timber domes, to tree houses, to a whole lot of different structures,” says Wessels. “It is going to be, by far, the most complex, detailed and impressive all-timber structure that I think has ever been put up in North America.”

Wessels foresees additional projects on the horizon utilizing cross-laminated timber (CLT), a material made by gluing boards together. “We just recently completed a three-story CLT building in Fort Collins for Colorado State University,” says Wessels, who points out how skyscrapers and office buildings are possible using CLT.

Additionally, Wessels speaks to the environmental sustainability inherent in timber as a construction material. He says, “Timber serves as a carbon sink: it stores carbon — whereas, concrete and steel take a lot of energy to produce.” Wessels adds, “Timber is probably one of the most sustainable materials, because it grows on trees. Sorry about the pun — a weak joke. But it’s a renewable resource that does not take a lot of energy to grow. And it does not take a lot of energy to fabricate. And it also creates a very clean, neat, and silent job site.”

Clearly, Wessels has a warm spot for timber. “The timber aesthetic [provides] a very nice environment to be in — if you’re surrounded by timber — as opposed to the coldness of concrete and steel,” he says.

Challenges: “Currently, the biggest challenge for our business is finding the right people with the right skills,” says Wessels.

Opportunities: “I think our biggest opportunity is going into the commercial world, as opposed to the residential world,” says Wessels. “So, doing larger structures such as multi-story hotels, ski lodges.”

Needs: American workers who can be trained in the craft–or importing that help from Europe. Wessels says, “In America, there isn’t a timber-framing degree. You cannot go to university and get a masters in timber framing. You can only do that in Europe. Germany, specifically.”

And that’s precisely the degree held by RMJC co-owner Henning Mund. “He’s from Germany originally,” says Wessels. “He has his masters in timber-framing technology from a German university. It’s a very, very comprehensive degree.”

Photos courtesy Rocky Mountain Joinery Center