2006 will be "the year of timber frame", predicts the UK Timber Frame Association (UKTFA).
While the cost of bricks and blocks used in most new home construction will continue to rise disproportionately due to skyrocketing gas prices, the introduction of tough new building regulations expected in April will also encourage more housebuilders and housing associations to try timber frame construction – and the tangible business benefits of this way of building will keep the construction industry coming back for more, says the trade body.
Phil Key, chairman of the UKTFA, particularly points to the dramatic conclusions of a National Audit Office (NAO) report into modern methods of construction (MMC) published late last year which proves timber frame construction delivers a tangible financial boost to public and private sector developers in England and Wales of up to £35 per square metre. The report confirms that timber frame is already cost comparable to traditional brick and block construction methods, even without the latest price hikes affecting the masonry sector or the significant efficiencies being achieved in timber frame construction in more established markets such as Scotland.
Phil Key says: "Timber frame is extraordinarily well placed to benefit from the economic and legislative developments that will affect UK housebuilding in 2006. "Spiralling materials costs are already hitting the construction industry hard, and gas-guzzling plants are closing as energy prices continue to rise. In contrast, timber frame manufacturers are extending their production capacity around the country.
“We are nowhere near as dependent upon expensive fossil fuels. In fact, 77% of the energy used in the production of wood products in the UK comes from wood residues and recovered wood. Through recycling our own waste we help to keep our manufacturing costs and environmental impact as low as possible.
"We also start the New Year with the official verdict of the National Audit Office that timber frame is cost competitive. Housebuilders have the capacity to build one additional house per week with exactly the same cost and resources if they swap to a modern method of construction such as timber frame.
“What’s more, we know from the experience of a more mature timber frame market in Scotland that developers' productivity and profitability could be even better than that, through the faster and more efficient sequencing of the building process that is common north of the border.
"These economic advantages come at the same time as regulatory changes that will hit masonry construction hard, but that are negligible to us. New energy efficiency regulations for the construction of new homes being introduced from 1 April 2006 can be achieved with a simple, highly insulated timber frame solution that is already standard across our industry. This means more timber frame homes that use less energy to run, which is a benefit to home buyers that will continue to increase in importance as domestic fuel bills rise.
"It's clear to me that this is going to be a bumper year, but it's not just the timber frame manufacturers that will benefit - the health of the whole UK housebuilding industry in 2006 could benefit significantly from changing to timber frame."
In addition to highlighting cost benefits to private sector housebuilders, the NAO report confirms that registered social landlords and housing associations using timber frame construction and similar modern methods of construction benefit from earlier rental income streams and can draw down Social Housing Grant earlier, which reduces interest payments on capital to fund developments. Snagging costs are reduced because of the tighter quality control of factory-produced components, and the need for on-site inspection decreases as the amount of off-site work increases.
Other key findings from the NAO report include:
- Open panel timber frame construction in England and Wales currently costs £798 per square metre, compared to £799 per square metre for traditional brick and block construction;
- Timber frame construction (both open and closed panel systems) requires 20% fewer on-site labour days than masonry construction, and ensures a significantly faster construction period overall;
- Timber frame homes are weathertight in almost half the time, leading to important quality, efficiency and health and safety benefits;
- The cost of snagging timber frame homes is a third less than for brick and block homes;
- There are no high risks associated with open panel timber frame, compared to traditional construction which is perceived to be at high risk of price fluctuations, delays due to bad weather, lack of key trade skills, service installation faults, health and safety hazards, construction errors and other defects at handover;
- Multi-storey buildings favour modern methods of construction like timber frame because the costs of complying with stringent building regulations for high-rise buildings increase faster for brick and block construction than for off-site manufactured elements;
- Timber frame systems are also particularly suited to brownfield sites with poor soil conditions (sites that favour lighter buildings), and sites with restricted access.
Phil Key welcomes the NAO report as an authoritative verdict on modern methods of construction:
"Timber frame is the original MMC. It's as mainstream and low risk as you can get if you’re a developer or housing association interested in embracing MMC, but it embodies all the benefits. “For a long time there has been a view that timber frame construction is more expensive than brick and block, and anti-timber lobby groups have questioned its durability, building performance and whole life costs. These myths should now be laid to rest once and for all.
“It’s official – modern methods of construction like timber frame can deliver at least as good quality as masonry techniques. The durability and whole life costs are exactly the same, there are no maintenance issues, and it meets all requirements of building regulations and other scheme development standards.”
The UKTFA has also strongly welcomed the NAO’s reminder of the critical need to involve the timber frame manufacturer from an early stage in the development process.
Phil Key says: “The UK construction industry must address the risks that come from poor process discipline, lack of coordination or weak communication across the supply chain. The greatest benefits come to those house builders who talk to manufacturers at planning stage, so that we can work closely with the design team, architect and client throughout the process. That is what we are geared up to do – and that is the secret of successful housebuilding in 2006.”