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Learn the language of trusses in design

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 (Houzz/GTM Architects)

Exposed trusses are exceptional architectural elements, at once structural -- they hold up the roof -- while modulating a space to give it scale and rhythm. But with the many truss types out there, how do you decide which to use? Even a seasoned architect can get lost in the language of trusses, especially because there are as many variants in truss design as there are homes.

If you've ever wondered what a king post truss is and how it differs from, say, a queen post truss or a hammerhead truss, here are a few answers.

Before I describe the principle types of trusses, let's define what exactly a truss does.

First, a truss withstands gravity and holds up the roof. That may sound obvious, but it's the single most important criterion. The diagonal rafters of the truss do most of this gravity-defying work. But as gravity pushes down on the roof, the walls supporting the rafters will want to fall outward.

The horizontal tie beam is what keeps the whole thing rigid. Over time this tie beam will have a tendency to weaken and sag. That's where the post comes in, lifting and supporting to prevent the aging effects of gravity.

The King Post Truss

King post trusses are just about the most common truss type. They're so named because there's one post, the king, in the center that keeps the bottom horizontal tie beam from sagging.

Elements of a king post truss:

  • Rafters: diagonal members that lie against and are parallel to the roof
  • Tie beam: at the bottom of the truss, spanning from wall to wall (or rafter to rafter)
  • King post: connects the tie beam to the point where the two rafters meet
  • Struts: diagonals that connect the tie beam to the rafters

How to use it: A king post truss is often used in vaulted spaces where the designer wants to simultaneously achieve the spaciousness of the vault and, by establishing a lower horizontal line of tie beams, the intimacy of a lower ceiling.

The Queen Post Truss

The queen post truss has the same anatomy as the king post truss except there are two posts off to the sides in lieu of a center post. These two queen posts do exactly the same job the king post does: keeping the tie beam from sagging.

How to use it: Architecturally, a queen post truss is suited more for a vaulted ceiling that doesn't rise to a point but to a flat area. The two queen posts can help to define that flat point, giving order to the space. A queen post truss is also ideal for where the roof rises up to a clerestory or light monitor. Again, the two vertical posts will establish a rhythm that helps to define a space.

The Scissor Truss

A scissor truss eliminates vertical and horizontal elements. It creates a more spacious feeling, because there's no horizontal element defining a lower "virtual" ceiling line.

How to use it: A scissor truss is appropriate when the ceiling pitch, or slope, isn't very steep. A shallow pitch, like in this example, can still be quite spacious when a scissor truss is used to support the roof.

The Hammerbeam Truss

A hammerbeam truss is traditionally used to span greater distances. While there isn't much call for this type in residential architecture, it has some distinctive architectural qualities.

Because of its open center section, a hammerbeam truss has a stepped quality. While this example is more of a hybrid of a queen post and king post truss, the metal tie rod visually disappears, giving the truss a hammerbeam appearance.

How to use it: Hammerbeam trusses really come into play in large spaces, where their scale and quality resonates. A hammerbeam truss is appropriate for baronial-style halls and barns, or some combination of the two.

The Arched Brace Truss

The arched brace truss is, like the hammerbeam truss, an open arch. This type will provide a more spacious and open feel than the king post or queen post truss, which are both considered closed. The defining element is the arched braces that a horizontal collar tie rests on.

A king post isn't a structurally necessary component of this type of truss. Still, you might find that a king post is visually important as a way to emphasize the high point of the vault.

How to use it: Because an arched brace truss introduces a curve into the design, it's ideal for situations where you want to create an arch to frame the view. It's also the ideal type when you want to create the feel of a barrel-vaulted ceiling.

Mixing It Up

An important point to consider in truss design is that just about anything goes once you understand what each truss component's job is. A king post doesn't have to be made of wood, for example. Sure, that's the traditional material, but a metal rod will work just as well. In fact, a metal rod serving as a king post is visually more appropriate when the truss components are visually articulated, as in this example.

Whether the truss starts as a king post, queen post, scissor or hammerbeam, it can end up being some kind of hybrid. In fact, these days it's rare to see a truss design that's simply just one basic type.

Again, the trick is understand what each truss component does and design accordingly. Metal rods, which are better at withstanding tension, are more appropriate than wood for tie beams and king or queen posts. And why not pull the tie beam, or in this case the tie rod, higher to open up the space, not unlike the struts in a scissor truss?

As mentioned at the outset, the principle function of trusses is to hold up the roof by withstanding gravity. But by being a device that establishes a rhythm and scale in a space, trusses also have an important visual job to do. In fact, there are many instances when the trusses are used solely for their visual impact, with something else doing all of the structural work.

Once freed of its structural function, the truss can take on just about any configuration. But in the end, the most successful trusses will stay true to the language of a truss, using posts, ties, struts, rafters and braces, as has been done for thousands of years.

Related:

Houzz is the leading online platform for home remodeling and design, providing people with everything they need to improve their homes from start to finish -- online or from a mobile device. From decorating a room to building a custom home, Houzz connects millions of homeowners, home design enthusiasts and home improvement professionals around the world. Bud Dietrich, AIA, is a contributor to Houzz.

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