Timber frame plays its part in making construction even more energy efficient

by Mike Cruickshank

The UK has been shaken recently by the severity and frequency of flooding and freak weather events and, as a result, the debate on the effects of climate change has been given added urgency. A consensus is emerging that severe weather patterns will become the norm, with summer days hotter than ever and mild winters characterized by rain and dampness, though sudden cold snaps should not be ruled out.

While the building industry struggles to adapt to changing conditions, it is becoming increasingly clear that timber frame construction of houses is one of the key requirements for a changing built environment. Timber frame is not new. One of the oldest buildings in the UK is a timber panelled church dating from the 11th century.

Timber, properly treated and maintained, has a track record of coping with the most extreme natural conditions, from hot, tropical environments to the deep cold winters of the northern hemisphere. Wood is also an organic material, creating none of the carbon footprint of energy intensive brick and block manufacture. It is renewable and non-toxic and timber frame manufacturers source their raw material from sustainable forests resource – forestry interests in the developed world have taken the green message on board and, as a rough rule, three trees are planted for every one that is felled.

The key contribution of timber frame homes to the climate change challenge is the remarkable thermal efficiency they provide. And because they offer precision construction and excellent insulation qualities, they require far less fuel to heat and stay warmer longer once they are heated. This is a fundamental reason that they are so popular.

As the UK Timber Frame Association points out, a typical 100 square metre two storey detached timber frame house built to the latest building regulations contains up to six cubic metres more wood than the equivalent masonry house. This means that every timber frame home built saves about four tonnes of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of driving for 14,000 miles. Furthermore, over 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide would have been saved if every home built since 1945 had been timber framed.

Timber frame also avoids the energy intensive nature of the materials used in traditional brick and block construction, where non-renewable aggregate has to be laboriously recovered and then made into building blocks in a process so energy wasteful that it leaves environmentalists ashen-faced.

Timber frame ticks the right boxes too for speed of construction. Once the shell, or skeleton, of the house is wind and watertight, it can be roofed and the internal trades can get about their business. In fact, a timber frame home can be virtually finished inside before the external leaf is applied. This means that weather need no longer delay projects and important quality, efficiency and health and safety benefits are gained 

This confirms that timber frame competes not only on environmental but on cost grounds, and this does not take into account the effect inexorably rising fuel costs is having on brick and block production. The timber frame industry is nowhere near as dependent on fossil fuels. More than 70% of the energy used in making wood products in the UK comes from wood residues and recovered wood. Through effectively recycling its own waste, the timber industry is helping keep both manufacturing and environmental costs as low as possible.

Yet, despite all of these plus points, still too few in the building and construction industry, it seems, are aware of the great opportunities the timber framed sector affords. Timber frame accounts for just 20 per cent of homes in the UK, though in Scotland, where the building tradition is slightly different, timber frame housing accounts for over two thirds of newly built homes and well over 80 per cent in the self-build market.

The overall UK figure is still low, however, considering that 70 per cent of people in the developed world live in timber frame housing; in the USA and Canada, timber frame accounts for 90 per cent of all low-rise buildings.

Regulatory changes on construction and the environment which are scheduled to come into force will also deliver a major boost to the proportion of timber-framed homes being built here.

The plain fact is that it makes sense to cut energy emissions in the building of new homes, which account for more than a quarter of all the UK's carbon emissions and timber frame manufacturers have been quick to point to the commercial advantage of providing air energy efficiency ratings as a marketing tactic with energy conscious buyers: clearly, the higher the ratings, the lower the energy bills.

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