There is a long-running debate as to which construction method is better – timber frame or masonry. There are understandable quite marked differences between the two methods, especially when you consider that timber frame is usually made in a factory and delivered to site on a lorry, while masonry is laid on site with all the required materials available locally.

Both construction methods have their pros and cons, and it’s not so much about which is better, as which is better for you.

Cost Difference Between Masonry and Timber

For many years, timber frame used to be thought of as a little more expensive, but advocates claimed that you could claw back any extra expense by shortening the length of the job overall, thus reducing overhead and finance costs.

However, more recently the picture has become confused. Blocklayers became very expensive, eroding the cost differential; while timber frame factories became very busy, lengthening the time taken to process the orders, and thus losing much of the speed advantage.

The fact is that there really isn’t that much cost difference. As a rule, masonry sits better (and cheaper) behind a brick or stone skin, whilst timber frame comes into its own behind a lightweight external skin such as timber.

Speed of Construction

Factory-produced homes are usually erected on site in a matter of days. Once up, the internal finishes can be started right away, which can produce further time savings. However, there may be lengthy delays involved in getting the frame built. Also bear in mind that thin-joint masonry promises many of the speed advantages of timber frame. The NHBC estimates up to a three-month time saving by choosing timber.

(MORE: The Evolution of Timber Frame)

(MORE: A Guide to Blockwork)

Accuracy

Timber frame construction tends to be a much more engineered product. The walls are therefore usually plumb and the rooms are extremely square, unlike many site-built masonry homes. This can have advantages when it comes to fitting items like stairs and kitchen units. However, engineered houses require incredibly accurate foundations.

Buildability

One of the main advantages of masonry is that all the items required are available at the local builders’ merchant. Not so with almost all other systems. You can also be sure that all building workers will be familiar with masonry techniques. The only area in the UK where timber frame is prevalent is Scotland.

Insurance and Selling On

Patrick Sawdon, former Head of Professional Services at the Halifax Valuation and Surveying Services said this about mortgages: “Halifax takes the view that properly constructed timber frame housing with a suitable external cladding is equally as good as housing which is built in brick or block, and we make no differentiation in the lending terms offered on either form of construction.”

Timber frame construction is recognised by the NHBC and Zurich Municipal for guarantee purposes and Steve Birt of the Association of British Insurers says, “Insurance companies generally draw no distinction between modern timber frame and brick and block construction.”

In terms of sale price, research by SmartLIFE, confirmed this summary of public attitudes:

  • There is a sentimentality for brick among some homebuyers (which may also explain why so many housebuilders choose to put a brick exterior on frame-built homes)
  • Most people have no idea what form of construction has been used for their homes
  • And unsurprisingly most people don’t really care — if you offer someone a spacious, energy-efficient home at an affordable price close to local services, it doesn’t matter how that home is built

Cash Flow

Timber frame homes require a contract to be placed with a manufacturer some months before delivery. This also requires a hefty deposit to be paid, putting a very different complexion on the cash flow which may have to be accounted for in the way the mortgage is set up. Make sure you know what the different payment terms are, and how much deposit is required.

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is about specification of insulation, good design, on-site building practices, airtightness and a whole range of other things — much more so that simply arguing the toss between the relative merits of timber or concrete.

The differences between wall performance are now so small that the argument has rather moved on and it’s down to individual bespoke specifications much more than choosing one system over the other.

Noise

Heavyweight building techniques have a clear advantage here. But in detached housing, the chief area of concern is noise between floors and most masonry homes actually have timber intermediate floors, so in this respect there is little difference.

Building Regulations

One of the oldest clichés about timber frames is that they pose a fire risk, but modern building regulations and the strict fireproofing of timber and dry lining mean that fire is simply not an issue to consider for today’s self builder.

According to the Government: “People should not worry that timber frame presents significantly more danger from this type of fire than buildings of other construction types.”

Rot and infestation is also not a problem for timber frame homes provided wood that gets wet is allowed to dry out properly and timber is treated with the proper stains and paints. Rot-producing fungi will only attack wood that has a moisture content consistently over 20%. It’s also worth noting that some of the world’s oldest surviving structures are timber frame.

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