Natural, beautiful, strong and durable, oak has been used to build homes in the UK for centuries and still remains popular today, especially amongst those designing and building a home for themselves.
Until the 17th century, oak framing was the principal building system in England and Wales, and each region developed its own framing traditions based on the availability of oak and other materials. This gave rise to some of the most charming and characterful houses to be found anywhere in the world.
Anyone looking to create an ‘authentic’ vernacular-style oak frame home should research these local traditions and work with a designer and builder who can replicate the frame, materials and detail convincingly.
Yet, design has not stood still, and a growing number of oak frame homes built today are contemporary in style, combining traditional framing techniques with modern forms, large areas of glazing, and modern cladding and roofing systems, including metal and sedum-planted roofs.
The essential principles of oak frame construction have changed very little over the centuries — with mortise and tenon joints used to form frames from green oak, secured with seasoned oak pegs. One feature that has evolved considerably, however, is the way oak homes are insulated.
Whilst it is still possible to build a traditional half-timbered home with the skeletal oak frame visible both inside and out – with the voids infilled with high-performance insulation and gasket seals – it is becoming more complicated to do so, especially across an entire house. (Often it is necessary to use trade-offs against additional insulation elsewhere in the building.)
To improve energy efficiency, some frames are insulated between and around the frame, allowing the creation of a continuous and airtight building envelope that has no studs running inside to out, forming a cold bridge. Building this way, the insulation panels and airtightness are far less affected by the natural movement of the frame as it dries out and shrinks in the first few years.
With an externally insulated frame, the structural elements remain visible from the inside only. If you want the oak frame to be visible externally, strips of oak can be fixed to the outside of the building envelope.
External Walling and Cladding
As the oak frame carries the load of the building, the external walls work primarily as an insulated weather screen. The majority of new oak frame homes have an external building envelope of timber frame or structural insulated panels (SIPs). Some systems are a hybrid combining a simple post and beam oak frame structure with a structural timber frame or SIPs walls — reducing the amount of oak required and therefore the cost.
Oak frames have also been combined with insulated blockwork walls, insulated concrete formwork (ICF), and various organic walling materials such as straw bales, rammed earth, cob or hemp/lime.
The external cladding will depend on the walling system used. In all instances the masonry plinth will be visible, in stone or brick, and above this the walls may be clad in a single material, or different materials used for the ground and first floor — or possibly for different sections of the building, giving the impression that it has evolved over time.
Options include horizontal timber boarding, either in painted softwood, or in oak or a hardwood, left to weather naturally. Render applied over insulation is a popular choice. Where external feature timbers are applied to the exterior, these are usually infilled using render.
In areas where clay was abundant, and therefore bricks were cheap, oak frame homes sometimes had panels infilled with brickwork, often laid in decorative patterns such as herringbone bond. In stone areas, infill panels may be of local limestone, sandstone, chalkblock or flint.