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Timber Frame: The Fast, Flexible & Energy Efficient Build System

Timber frame Cotswold stone home in Wiltshire
(Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

Timber frame is one of the most popular build options with self-builders with around two thirds opting for some form of timber construction. The popularity is driven by the systems speed, flexibility and energy efficiency.

From what timber frame is to how it's constructed, from costs to the pros and cons, this helpful beginner's guide sets out all you need to know before taking on a timber frame build. 

(MORE: Get a quote for your timber frame project)

What is Timber Frame?

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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 Build Cost?

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. 

What I can say is that 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]

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Timber Frame Manufacturing

Timber frame traditional style self build in the Lake District

Mike and Gill Tate chose a timber frame construction for their traditional-style self build in the Lake District (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

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 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: Be inspired with our Timber Frame design ideas]

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.

(MORE: Step-by-step guide to building a timber frame post and beam home)

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.

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 package build 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’.

SIPs 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.

Contemporary timber frame self build

Timber frame was used to build this contemporary family home overlooking the Firth of Forth (Image credit: David Barbour)

What Are the Benefits of Timber Frame?

  • Assured system performance providing reassurance systems deliver what they promise
  • Engineered to the highest level of accuracy offering consistent levels of quality
  • Whole house engineering uses hybrid technologies to unlock architectural freedom
  • Exceptionally thermally efficient - lowering running costs
  • Sustainable building solution - considerably less impact on the environment
  • Greater integration and control to the construction process with fast reliable build schedules, less labour and onsite supervision needed and improved onsite safety.

When is Timber Frame Not Suitable?

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. 

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)

How Do I Find 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)

Tips for Finding the Right Supplier

  • 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.

5 Ways to Build a Better Timber Frame Home

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 soliel, 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 an MVHR system is a good idea.