Paul Freeman and S.P. Brooks founder Phil Brooks found each other in the simultaneous pursuit of technological improvements for the work they loved: building beautiful, practical timber frame structures.
Paul and Ed Levin,* then of Hanover, N.H., together wrote TimberCAD, a computer-aided design program that allowed designers to build detailed three-dimensional timber frame models using AutoCAD’s customization features. The software was primarily for their own use but it filled a void not yet tackled by professional software developers. For a few years the software was available commercially, until they had to choose between timber framing and software. Needless to say, timber framing won out.
Phil, a lifelong tinkerer and engineer, heard about the software while he was looking for a way to make his own cutting machine more efficient. He contacted Paul.
Ultimately, Paul wrote a program combining TimberCAD with code specifically targeted for Phil’s machine. The result was a unique software program that takes TimberCAD a step further by isolating each timber and dimensioning and detailing each joint. Before printing out views of each timber, it creates a file that includes the code required to run Phil’s beam cutting machine. When it is time to cut the frame, these files are downloaded to the computer that runs the machine, saving thousands of hours creating shop drawings and joinery layout.
Paul had to teach himself the language he’d need to customize the software, and it took some time. “I built this software like Phil built the machine,” he recalls. “I didn’t know enough not to try it.”
In the meantime, Phil wanted to start freeing up more of his time and eventually to retire. He didn’t want to sell the business and risk putting the guys who had spent so many years with him out of work, and he had worked hard to build up a very successful business. S.P. Brooks & Co. was his legacy, and he hoped to gradually pass it over in a slow transition that would preserve the company philosophy and take care of clients and devoted employees. His children weren’t interested in taking over the company – they wanted to pursue other careers.
Phil and Paul talked, and, with Paul’s background in architectural design, timber framing, CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing), customer support and construction – “it was just a natural fit,” Paul says.
“I had always admired the way Phil put employees and customers before profit and growth,” he says. “My previous employers were only focused on growth in the form of quantities, but Phil believed in growth by quality.”
The product, an S.P. Brooks timber frame, had been getting better and better for years as Phil learned little tricks to improve the frame quality and fit. But he also had been improving on efficiencies and turning business profits into employee health care, pension plans, profit sharing, bonuses, and, because the company was free of debt, he never once had to lay anyone off in the slow times.
As a kid, Paul’s favorite toys were Legos and Lincoln logs. He loved to build forts.
As an older “kid,” he studied engineering, environmental studies and architecture at the University of Vermont and Vermont Technical College.
He worked for Timberpeg out of school, and within a year was the company’s first CAD user. He quickly learned to customize AutoCAD, the first widely accepted personal computer-based design program. Before he left Timberpeg to work for a regional AutoCAD dealer, he developed Timberpeg’s standardized drawing practices, built an extensive library of parts, and trained other users. He also incorporated the use of an energy analysis program to estimate each client’s energy use needs for their home design.
While working as an AutoCAD dealer, he worked with dozens of architects, engineers and manufacturers all over New England, which gave him insight into the economics of small business and manufacturing. During this time, he also developed custom AutoCAD applications linking design with production for small businesses in machine tool manufacturing, furniture making and manufacture of stress skin panels popular with timber frame buildings.
It was at this very exciting time in the rise of personal computer-based design and manufacturing that he organized and hosted one of the first AutoCAD user groups in New England, and that’s how Paul and Ed Levin met. Shortly thereafter, they collaborated to customize software each had been developing for his own timber framing needs.
The result was the first CAD software ever developed for the timber framing industry.
During this time, Paul kept his hand in home and timber frame design on a part-time basis. That was how he was paying the bills when he met Phil.
Over the years, as Paul and Phil worked on more projects together, the possibility of Paul taking over the business seemed more likely. Paul’s only child, Sarah, was a senior in high school. There was no better time to start a new life, so after Sarah graduated, Paul sold the house in the state he had lived in for 35 years and moved to the hilltop home and office of S.P. Brooks & Co. in Lyndeborough, N.H.
Not long after he had settled in Lyndeborough, Becky Hudson in nearby Greenfield shared with a friend that she could never date a man who drove a mini-van. When Paul showed up for a date with her that evening in his mini-van, she gasped and rolled her eyes. Over dinner, as she shared the horrors of raising three girls, Paul was equally dismayed. They’ve been together ever since, and recently bought a 2-1/2 centuries-old colonial farm property, where they live alone (finally) with their two Bernese Mountain dogs and a 15-1/2 hand quarterhorse paint. The four girls are all grown up now, and Paul and Becky can’t get enough of their two grandchildren.
For Paul, timber frame architecture blends interests in creativity, math, science, environmental sustainability and working with people. That last factor, he said, is the most meaningful.
“It’s a pretty intimate process to design someone’s home,” Paul said, since a well-designed home needs to take into account a person or family’s lifestyle, relationships and habits.
“There’s a huge element of trust that you develop with someone because you get to know them really well,” he said. “Their idiosyncrasies, couple dynamics, how they live. They become like family.”
In his spare time, Paul enjoys downhill skiing and he sings tenor as a soloist and in ensembles including the Monadnock Chorus and the Peterborough Chamber Choir.
* Ed Levin, a much-loved and legendary member of the timber framing community, died unexpectedly in Philadelphia in 2013.