Several comprehensive research programmes were initiated recently in North America and Japan to improve our understanding of the seismic performance of timber buildings. A large database of experimental results and innovative modelling approaches were developed in these programmes. This paper is Part 1 of a two‐part series. It provides brief summaries of the performance of timber structures in the Northridge and Kobe earthquakes, and reports highlights from the state‐of‐art North American and Japanese experimental research activities. Part 2 of the paper will focus on the modelling aspect of this interesting and important problem.