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Timber Frame: Here's What Self Builders Need to Know

a timber frame home under construction
(Image credit: Potton)

Timber frame is a great place to start if you're unfamiliar with modern methods of construction that are often used for self build homes. Unlike a brick and block home, which has to be constructed entirely on site, a timber frame build can see large panels pre-fabricated off-site, helping to speed up the construction process and mean less time spent on-site. 

Timber as a material has a lot of benefits, and it's a construction system that's blossoming in popularity, with estimates that around a quarter of new build homes in the UK each year are timber frame builds. 

While timber frame might well be an ancient concept, today's timber frame homes are made with highly engineered systems, with a range of different types available. 

Get to know these systems better with our in-depth guide to building with timber frame, and find out what you need to know before embarking on your self build journey. 

What is a Timber Frame Home?

How is a Timber Frame Home Constructed?

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In simple terms, a timber frame building uses timber studs within the external structural wall to carry the loads imposed before transmitting them to the foundations. Timber frame buildings include the walls, floors and roofs, which are designed as a whole, coherent engineered structure. Timber frames incorporate a number of different elements as part of its overall wall system.

From outside in, these include;

  • External cladding and cavity (brick, render, composite or timber boarding etc) to provide weather resistance.
  • Breather membrane to provide weather protection during the build and ensure the frame breathes and resists moisture penetration during its life.
  • OSB (oriented strand board) or Plywood lining fitted to the frame to provide strength and rigidity.
  • Wall insulation fitted between the structural studs to enhance thermal performance and lower energy bills.
  • Vapour control layer (VCL) to prevent interstitial condensation and limit air leakage.
  • Service zone to distribute electrical and mechanical systems.

timber frame farmhouse

James and Claudia Gray’s timber frame farmhouse is a fitting addition to a site steeped in military history.  (Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

How Much Does a Timber Frame Home Cost to Build?

Is a Timber Frame Home Cheap to Build?

This is a really difficult question to answer due to the number of variables involved. The cost will be influenced by the complexity of the project involved and complicated roofscapes, vaulted ceilings, open plan layouts, feature windows all add expense, before you start to think about access, ratio of floor to wall area and the specification of the system being used. 

There are timber frame houses that have been built for a price tag upwards of £850,000 - think striking two-storey home set on a sprawling plot - as well as one-bed self builds built for a modest budget of less than £80,000.

The superstructure of your self build will be the largest area of cost and will typically consume 25% to 30% of the total build budget. In comparison with systems such as brick and block, the upfront cost of an open panel frame will be around the same but closed panel systems will be more expensive depending upon the performance and extra features they include.

(MORE: Get an estimate for your self build with our Build Cost Calculator)

What are the Pros and Cons of Timber Frame?

The pros and cons of a timber frame self build largely depend on the type of system you choose, but there are some key considerations across the board to consider. 

What are the Advantages of Timber Frame Builds?

  • Responsibly sourced timber is an eco-friendly building material and there's less material wastage with this kind of build
  • It's, on average, 30% quicker to build with timber frame than block and brick
  • Timber frames are light, often meaning simpler (and less expensive) foundations are required
  • A timber frame build can be easily erected during adverse weather, where block builds may be delayed
  • Timber frames are manufactured precisely, leaving less margins of error for on-site trades, while also ensuring that rooms are true (perfectly level and square)
  • Less requirement of wet trades, who are often in short supply, and create a lot of mess on a building site

What are the Disadvantages of Timber Frame Builds?

  • As the timber frame is precision-made, there is a low-level of tolerance for any deviations in the groundwork, potentially causing issues that are difficult to rectify
  • Some timber frame panels are heavier than others, and may require craning into place, which adds requirements for site access
  • Timber frame, by its nature, is more prone to heat fluctuations as it has less mass than a block built home. This means timber frame homes need to be well-insulated, and these elements need to be considered in the budget. Thankfully, timber frame construction lends itself well to this
  • Timber frame will cost more per sq m of build than block and brick, but take into account savings made from the quicker construction process which may bring this cost down or even make it cheaper overall
  • Timber frame companies often take large deposits (potentially even the whole amount) before construction begins, which may mean cashflow is an issue for some self builders

Types of Timber Frame Builds

Stick Built Vs Pre-Manufactured Timber Frame

timber frame home built by Frame Technologies

An environmentally conscious couple appointed Frame Technologies to develop a their sustainable dream home using timber frame construction. Thanks to timber frame’s speed of build, the 310m2 space was watertight within three weeks of delivery. (Image credit: Frame Technologies)

Stick built timber frame

A stick built timber frame is literally built a stick at a time directly on the building site. In theory, a stick built frame should include all the elements described above and therefore should perform as any other timber frame. 

The problem with stick built timber frame is that because they’re built on site, mostly just following custom and practice principles rather than engineered design, the structures are inefficient and slow to build. 

As the construction process doesn’t allow for testing, the performance of stick built frames from an energy efficiency, structural stability and fire resistance point of view also tends to be unproven. This is why most self build warranty providers and lenders frown upon this method of timber framing.

Pre-manufactured timber frame

Modern timber frame structures are built using precision engineered off-site manufactured panels which mostly include all the insulation and membranes necessary to achieve the desired level of performance. 

The wall panels are manufactured to form part of the overall building structure and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes to suit the project. Most manufacturers look to make large elevational panels which are more efficient and speed up the construction process. 

The factory based offsite manufacturing process provides optimal manufacturing conditions where quality is closely controlled. Because the panels are pre-manufactured to predetermined repeatable designs, they can be tested to make sure they provide the performance that’s promised. 

For example, reputable manufacturers carry out loadbearing fire resistance tests to provide assurance that the timber frame will remain stable and provide a safe means of escape in the event of a fire. The test results therefore prove that the wall system will meet or exceed the Building Regulation requirements.

(MORE: Fire Safety Building Regulations: Part B)

Which Timber Frame Manufacturing Method Should I Choose?

Whilst it’s possible to build a great home with either approach, in reality pre-manufactured panels, which have been subjected to testing, will only offer the certification necessary to assure Building Regulation compliance and keep your warranty provider happy.

Should I Choose an Open or Closed Panel Timber Frame System?

Open panels are manufactured ready for external joinery (doors and windows) to be placed, and are delivered to site together with flooring elements and roof trusses. Once the frame erectors have finished, work can commence both inside and outside the house.

(MORE: Roof Structures)

Closed panels are delivered to site with insulation already factory fitted. The external cladding, windows and doors may be fixed, as may electrics and plumbing. Alternatively, a service void may be added for self builders undecided on their electrical and plumbing scheme.

Closed panels are often offered by German turnkey home suppliers and can result in a very fast build. Due to the weight of the panels, a crane is essential to the assembly.

The timber frame panels may be delivered to site ‘open’ or ‘closed’.

Structural insulated panel construction is sometimes referred to as timber frame without the timber. The strength of the panels derives from bonding insulation within an inner and outer skin of board to make a very rigid, highly insulated shell.

The factory produces these panels, leaving holes where the doors and windows will be placed later, and then ships them off to site where, together with flooring elements and roof trusses, the superstructure of the house is erected in a few days.

The roof is left with a waterproof covering and, once the frame erectors have finished, work can commence both inside and outside of the house.

It’s very speedy and you can work in the wet.

timber frame self build

Jake Edgley (of Edgley Design) constructed this large timber frame house on the plot where his grandparent's house once stood. The house, which cost £900,000 to build, features high levels of airtightness and thermal efficiency — using a timber frame structure which was prefabricated off-site.  (Image credit: Richard Chivers)

What are the Design Restrictions when Building in Timber Frame?

From a self build point of view, provided you’re not trying to build with timber below ground, timber frame is almost always an appropriate build method. The unsuitability of timber frame is mostly to do with the scale of buildings. For example, building with timber over five storeys high or 18m is a big no-no. 

"If it can be drawn it can be built whether it is open plan or a very traditional layout , or fully vaulted ceilings with floor to ceiling glazing. But it is key to get us involved at the early stages so we can design in the structural elements needed to support these elements," says Simon Orrells, director of Frame Technologies.

Sometimes people say timber frame isn’t flexible or strong enough to deal with challenging architectural designs but modern timber frames are highly engineered and integrate structural steelwork where needed to deal with the most challenging engineering situations.

Timber frame accessible self build in Hampshire

Mike and Linda Bray’s timber frame accessible self build in Hampshire showcases how this build method can be used to create a stunning contemporary home. (Image credit: Martin Gardner)

Mortgages on Timber Frame Builds

Can I get a Mortgage on my new Timber Frame Home?

"Yes, as long as you work with the main stream providers who work with the main stream offsite build systems like Buildstore," advises Simon Orrells, director of Frame Technologies.

(MORE: Self Build Mortgages)

How to Choose a Timber Frame Supplier

There are a good number of companies producing timber frames for the UK self build market.

The most common way to work is for the company to design, build and erect the superstructure but there are variations on how much of the superstructure is supplied. The service provided by timber frame companies can vary from the supply only of the superstructure to the complete package. This makes for difficulties when making comparisons between companies.

Timber frame Cotswold stone home in Wiltshire

Andrew and Toni Leese have built a stunning Cotswold stone home in Wiltshire, using timber frame from Potton.  (Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

Manufacturers who work in the self-build industry have evolved their services greatly over the years and many present themselves as ‘package suppliers’. As well as satisfying yourself that they will be a capable manufacturer, you’ll also need to make sure they’ll offer the services you need and want to pay for. Read quotations carefully and pay particular attention to the small print to work out what is and isn’t included.

Here are some top tips:

  • Choose a member of the Structural Timber Association
  • Ask three or four companies to provide a quote for your project. They will need your drawings (ideally plans/sections/elevations to a scale of no less than 1:100), along with as detailed a specification as you can
  • When you are comparing manufacturers’ quotes, make sure that the two quotes have a comparable specification. Some manufacturers offer a free quote comparison service; if they do, it’s worth using it. Don’t automatically reject the most expensive quotation — the company may have quoted for a higher specification or for more elements of the build
  • Once you have narrowed your choice to two manufacturers, arrange to meet them at their factory, where you can go through their quote in detail
  • Ask if they have any suggestions for saving costs, as fairly small changes to the plans can often mean large cost savings
  • While you are at the factory, request a tour and see, touch and feel the various materials they plan to use. Ask about lead times, too. Expect a 10-12 week lead in time for the structural shell from when you place an order

What’s Included in a Timber Frame Package?

A basic package may typically consist of the following items:

  • Soleplates, damp-proof courses and clips
  • Structural external/internal wall panels and waterproof membrane
  • Floor joists and floor covers (not finishes)
  • All roof elements, usually supplied as prefabricated trusses

Barn-style package build timber frame home

Merula Frankel worked with German package company Baufritz to create her barn-style package build timber frame home in Hampshire. (Image credit: c/o Baufritz)

Items that are unlikely to be included unless the whole housebuilding contract is let to the timber frame company:

  • External claddings
  • Roofing materials: felt, batten, roof tiles, etc
  • Insulation
  • Floor screeds
  • Chimney flues
  • Glazing (though joinery is increasingly being supplied pre-glazed)
  • Heating, plumbing and electrics
  • Plaster finishes
  • Kitchen units, fitted bedroom furniture and sanitaryware
  • Decorating, wall and floor tiling and finishes
  • Garage doors

Many package companies will not manage the groundworks, drainage and landscaping.

You should look carefully at the specification offered by each company and check that you are comparing like with like.

Tips for Timber Frame Builds

Timber frame self build in Surrey

Self builders Sandy and Melvin chose timber frame for their dream home in Surrey (Image credit: Darren Chung)

With timber frame construction being a lightweight structure, there are elements to consider when agreeing the specification with your architect to make sure you are as satisfied as you can be when living in the finished property.

  • Avoid squeaky floors. Floor joists should be designed with a serviceability index (a measure of the joist’s performance) of at least 1.2. This results in a more rigid floor that bends or sags less that a floor designed to an SI of 1.0. For a squeak-free floor, glue onto the joist/noggings with a 6mm bead of D4 glue, glue the tongue and grooves, use screws (typically 2.5 times the floor boarding thickness in length), brush D4 glue onto the exposed edges of the flooring to seal it and leave a 10mm expansion gap at the floor perimeter.
  • Soundproof walls and floors. Consider both airbourne and impact noise and how you can design it out. You may wish to surpass the minimum soundproofing requirements set out in the Building Regulations.
  • Secure fixings. Timber frame stud walls are normally at 600mm centres, which can sometimes make fixing heavier items to the wall a challenge as there are limitations as to the weight the plasterboard can support. If you can, think ahead. Ask the joiner/builder to fit noggins in appropriate positions before the plasterboard is fitted to ensure a good solid fix.
  • Avoid overheating. Homeowners tend to want to include increased amounts of glazing in their homes, which can increase solar gain but lead to overheating. Timber frame will offer less in the way of thermal mass so your designer will need to consider how to prevent overheating. Installing a brise soleil, shutters or retractable awning can be useful design choices to keep your timber frame home comfortable all year round.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation. Timber frame construction, by its very nature, provides very good levels of airtightness. The expression ‘build tight and ventilate right’ is exactly what you should be looking to achieve here. Incorporating a MVHR system is a good idea.