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Timber Homes: Putting the housing crisis in the frame

Timber accounts for just 15% of residential developments in the UK but its use as a building material is on the rise and with benefits including fast build times it could have a significant role to play in solving the housing crisis. By Michelle Gordon

 

TIMBER accounts for just a small proportion of the new homes built in the UK but as the construction sector seeks to build greener, quicker and leaner, the number of timber frame homes is on the up and the use of timber in residential developments is predicted to continue growing.

Last November the Structural Timber Association (STA) launched its Timber Trends Report, revealing that over 48,000 housing starts in 2015 were constructed with timber frame, increasing its market share to 27.6% and making it the second best performing year for timber frame since data started to be collected in 2002.

The STA predicts that the sector has the potential to reach a 32.4% market share by 2018, as housing starts continue to increase and further research has revealed that 74% of the UK’s contractors, developers, architects and registered providers plan to increase specifications of structural timber.

“The Timber Trends Report forecasts continued growth within the sector towards 2018 and beyond, as companies are taking advantage of market opportunities such as advances in offsite construction supported by modern manufacturing systems and computerised technology,” said Andrew Carpenter, chief executive of the STA.

“In my opinion the time is right for the construction industry to embrace innovative timber technology and offsite techniques to develop better buildings at a rapid rate to meet government targets, to overcome the shortfall in housing stock and produce energy efficient buildings – particularly important for the social housing and private rental sectors, together with home owners and occupiers.”

Prefabricated homes have come a long way in recent years from the simple supply of timber frame kits and panellised solutions, he said: “Innovation in the structural timber product range has broadened the appeal. It is driven by intelligent and integrated construction solutions, such as closed panel timber frame, structural insulated panel systems and volumetric modular options.

“Manufacture in well managed factory conditions, with stringent controls in place, minimises waste and optimises both quality and productivity to help meet the demand for housing across the UK.”

There has been an increased focus on offsite construction from Government driven by Mark Farmer’s Modernise or Die report into the construction skills shortage. It recommended a focus on offsite manufacturing and the industrialisation of construction and while prefabrication systems other than timber can be used, timber frame is the only solution that can scale fast enough to meet demand said Christiane Lellig, campaign director, at Wood for Good, the timber industry’s campaign to promote the use of wood in design and construction.

“The target is to build an additional 100,000 homes each year through to 2020. Using traditional methods of construction, this is not deliverable. The Government has therefore set a target for 50% of all new homes to be built using modern methods of construction (MMC). The only way this target will be met is through the expansion of timber frame systems,” she added. “Traditional forms of construction cannot scale or be delivered fast enough to meet the target.”

Stewart Milne Timber Systems (SMTS) designs and manufactures a range of timber build systems. Its group managing director Alex Goodfellow said: “From an offsite construction perspective, timber frame is the largest sector. With the UK Government’s stated focus on delivering new homes and driving industrialisation within construction, we expect to see market share continue to grow as offsite and timber frame construction offer cost effective and time efficient solutions to industry.”

As with all forms of structural timber, timber frame is quick and easy to construct compared to other construction materials and it generates less waste on site. Timber is one of the most technologically advanced and sustainable forms of construction available in the 21st century, said Goodfellow. “It’s a modern method of construction that offers savings in both budget and time. It ensures a high-quality product, reduces overall build costs and shortens the duration of build programmes.”

A typical four-bedroom home built using a timber frame can be completed from slab within eight to nine weeks compared to 12 to 16 for masonry, with considerably shorter call off periods than traditional build methods.

“Using timber systems and offsite construction, the speed at which the main structures of a building can be erected significantly increases. Manufacturing offsite means 10 blocks of terraced houses can be erected five weeks earlier than if building with masonry or other on-site methods. Once on site, a typical four-bedroom detached home can be erected, wind-protected and made watertight in as little as five days,” said Goodfellow. The speed with which timber buildings can be made watertight gives them an advantage over those built with other materials, where work can be delayed by weather conditions and timber buildings don’t need drying out before follow on trades can start work.

“With this speed comes early deployment of follow on trades, savings on prelims and ultimately an improved cash cycle with quicker return on capital outlay,” said Goodfellow. “It is not about the cost of the building material, it’s about the contribution to savings across the project. The shorter build time, the light foundations required, reductions in labour requirement and lower waste on site, all contribute to a more cost effective build project.”

Shortening the cycle from outlay to sales means that the volume of homes built can be increased without having to employ the same capital as other construction methods said Carpenter.

“Offsite manufactured structural timber systems have advanced greatly in recent years and can offer house builders cost, programme and performance assurances,” he said. “Structural timber solutions outweigh other sectors in regards to volume of materials – the sector is quick to respond and can add capacity at a relatively rapid rate to meet demand.”

Speed of build is not the only advantage of constructing homes with timber frame, the fact that the properties are precision engineered in an automated factory, reduces the margin for error and allows homes to be built to consistently high standards.

“Building with offsite construction and timber frame will be crucial in meeting the targets for new homes across the UK,” said Goodfellow. “As a material, timber frame is readily available in very large quantities with a robust supply chain and no restrictions.”

The need for the industry to adopt alternative build methods was brought into sharp focus with the publication of the Farmer Review he said and the greater adoption of offsite construction is vital to the future of the industry.

“Timber systems and offsite construction can allow homes to be built faster, at a lower cost and to a high standard – all of which are crucial if the need for new housing is going to be met across the UK,” Goodfellow added.

 

This article first appeared in the February/March 2017 print edition of Housing magazine

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