Why we need more timber frame houses in the UK

As the world focuses on sustainable living and environmentally friendly practices, the construction industry is embracing a notable shift towards timber frame houses in the UK. This change is not only a nod to eco-conscious living but also a strategic move to align with the government’s ambitious net-zero targets.

In this article, we’ll delve into the numerous benefits of timber frame construction, the importance of increasing the supply of timber, and the necessary evolution of the building industry to meet the growing demand for sustainable, energy efficient housing.

Timber frame construction involves the roof structure, trussed rafters and the external wall envelope.

Timber: An eco-friendly, energy efficient material

Timber frame houses are gaining popularity for a multitude of reasons, led by environmental sustainability. Unlike traditional construction materials such as concrete or steel, timber is a renewable resource. Trees, when responsibly harvested, can be replanted, creating a continuous cycle of sustainability. Additionally, timber acts as a carbon sink, locking in carbon dioxide and contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gases.

In a world grappling with climate change, timber frame construction emerges as a hugely positive concept. While timber has long been favoured by the self build sector, the choice of timber over traditional materials means that homeowners can significantly reduce their carbon footprint, in many cases reducing their energy bills and making buildings cost effective. Timber frame house building can convincingly foster a healthier planet for future generations.

Timber frame construction can help meet net-zero targets

The government has set ambitious net-zero targets to combat climate change, with a keen focus on reducing emissions from buildings. As a major contributor to carbon emissions, the construction industry plays a pivotal role in achieving these targets. Timber frame construction can be a key player in this mission, offering a more sustainable alternative that aligns with the government’s vision for a greener, more energy efficient future.

In December 2023, the Government published its Timber in Construction Roadmap which states that increasing the use of timber can help mitigate the built environment’s contribution to carbon emissions. It aims to engage industry and explore ways of measuring and reducing embodied carbon in new buildings by 2025: using timber in construction is one of the best ways to reduce emissions from buildings, which account for around 25% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, the figures are challenging: in 2019, 9% of homes in England were timber framed, compared to 92% in Scotland.

The Roadmap aims to promote the sustainable use and supply of timber in new home building to make it the right choice for the construction industry while establishing how to increase skills and capacity across the supply chain. It’s part of a wider Government strategy that has seen it commit to the Net-Zero Strategy, the England Trees Action Plan, and the 2023 Environmental Improvement Plan.

Sitka spruce trees. According to Forestry England, most of the timber used in the UK comes from Sitka spruce trees which suit our growing conditions.

Increasing the supply of timber

Rising demand for timber frame houses underlines the need for a robust and sustainable supply chain: the UK is the third highest importer of wood in the world, according to the Roadmap, and the increasing demand for homegrown timber should drive domestic tree planting. New ways of increasing timber production must be explored: sustainable forestry practices and afforestation initiatives are essential components of this strategy.

Encouraging landowners to plant trees and foster partnerships with forestry organisations can help create a steady and reliable supply of timber. Government incentives and policies that promote sustainable forestry practices will further bolster the availability of this renewable resource.

Increased levels of tree planting are crucial if the UK is to achieve its target of building more timber frame houses.

Evolution of the whole building industry

As the demand for timber frame houses grows, the building industry must gear up for a transformative shift. This evolution involves improving the timber construction process and enhancing skills across the supply chain. Architects, builders, and craftsmen need to adapt their practices to leverage the full potential of wood as a construction material and realise the potential of timber frame houses.

One of the main advantages of timber is that it has low u values: the lower the u values, the lower the amount of heat loss, and solid wood allows little heat to escape through it. In recent years the timber frame industry has moved from conventional framing – a 90mm timber frame stud external wall – to a 140mm stud wall to achieve better u values. Improvements have also been made to closed panel and open panel timber frames, along with advances in the additional insulation materials used.

Modern timber construction methods, such as off site advanced prefabrication and modular construction, streamline the building process, reducing construction time and waste. Embracing innovative technologies and techniques will be pivotal in ensuring that timber frame construction becomes a mainstream and cost effective choice for new homes.

Collaborative whole building approach

Technical and sustainability director of the Home Builders Federation, Rhodri Williams said:

The Government’s push to increase the use of timber in construction is welcome and the house-building industry is already well progressed. However, the rate of future progress will be dependent upon the Government taking a strategic and collaborative approach. Low-rise residential housing is perfectly placed to respond to the Timber in Construction Roadmap and developers are already embracing this in readiness for the Part L Future Homes Standard which comes into effect in 2025.

There are some significant benefits to off site manufacturing and components being made in indoor environments in terms of quality control and it provides for a cleaner, dryer, and quicker process for building houses. Larger house builders have acted early, and many have already set up timber frame factories, but clearly, that is not a solution for all. It is very expensive to set up a timber frame company and the necessary logistics and supply chain. This is not an option for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), and so we have to ensure there is a broader supply chain in place.

Timber frame buildings offer an environmental opportunity

The government says it wants to create a new ‘home industry in timber’ and we need to see action to help deliver that ambition. We also need to focus on recruitment and training, as the skills required for timber home construction are different and need to be nurtured. Similarly in tree planning. We have a good supply for existing demand, but we currently import a lot of timber and to get the necessary volume of the right grade of timber will take time. Doing so will require a strategic approach by the Government, the Forestry Commission, and landowners (who will require incentives and grants) to deliver it. The industry is supportive of the proposals and already leading the way.

If the Government can deliver the strategic plan and pull all stakeholders together, it is eminently possible to increase the proportion of timber homes across the UK to the level in Scotland where it has traditionally been much higher. It is a great opportunity for industry, UKplc, and the environment and one we should grasp.

Wood stacked for use in timber frame buildings.

Increasing skills across the supply chain

To fully harness the benefits of timber frame construction, increasing skills across the construction supply chain is vital. Training programs, apprenticeships, and educational initiatives should be promoted to equip workers with the knowledge and expertise needed for timber frame construction projects.

Architects and engineers must also be educated on the unique characteristics of timber and how to integrate them into their designs effectively. By fostering a skilled workforce, the industry can overcome any challenges associated with the transition to timber frame construction.

Final thoughts on timber framed buildings

The drive for more timber frame houses in the UK is not just a trend; it’s a crucial step towards a sustainable and eco-friendly future. With the government’s net-zero targets looming on the horizon, the construction industry must embrace this change wholeheartedly.

By increasing the supply of timber, evolving the build process and systems, and enhancing skills across the supply chain, we can build homes that not only stand the test of time but also contribute to a healthier planet for generations to come. Timber frame construction is not just about building houses; it’s about constructing a better, greener, more sustainable future for the UK.

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