Timber Frame Construction: A sustainable solution for low carbon design

Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) is accelerating much-needed, transformational change in the UK housing market, helping to tackle the shortage crisis and deliver more affordable and sustainable homes.

Timber frame systems are becoming increasingly popular and can significantly contribute to reducing a building’s overall carbon footprint. Here, Kevin Paddock, Associate Director for Architecture and Affordable Housing, discuss the role they play in the construction of energy-efficient homes.

What is a timber frame system?

Timber frames are a system of standardised, panelised structures for floors, walls, ceilings and roofs designed in a controlled factory setting. The panels are transported to the construction site and assembled on-site as part of the overall building structure.

Open and closed panels are the two most extensively used frames in construction. The key difference is that closed panels are ready insulated compared to open panels, which aren’t pre-insulated and have exposed internal studwork.

Compared to the panelling system, volumetric modular construction involves producing components or modules of a building in an off-site factory and then transporting them on-site. This construction method is suited to repeating layout structures assembled to form a complete building, allowing scalability and flexibility.

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Timber frame systems and low carbon design

Timber is a renewable, durable, versatile and carbon-neutral building material that is readily available and economically viable. Replacing energy-intensive and carbon-intensive materials such as concrete or steel with timber can help lower embodied carbon.

Timber frame construction promotes taking a fabric first approach and provides the building with a superior thermal envelope for insulation, which reduces reliance on mechanical heating and cooling systems while requiring minimal maintenance. This helps to achieve energy efficiency targets and lower carbon emissions, while developing a thermally efficient and airtight design that supports the move towards zero carbon homes and meeting Future Homes Standards.

As a highly renewable resource when sourced sustainably, timber plays a significant role in the carbon cycle. Trees sequester carbon dioxide, acting as a carbon sink. Carbon remains stored within the building structure when timber is used in construction, promoting the absorption of emissions, and delivering environmental benefits.

This construction approach minimises waste due to precise cutting and efficient material utilisation in a controlled factory setting. According to the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), 81% of UK construction timber is recycled or reused into new or lower-grade products, reducing landfilling. [1] Timber can also be used as biomass for energy generation to substitute fossil fuels, promoting a circular economy approach and extending the lifespan of timber resources.

Pros and cons of the timber frame system

Pros

  • Controlled factory setting – ensures high quality and efficiency to support project delivery as well as preventing delays and risks of cost over-runs.
  • Speed and consistency of construction – reduces build time due to the ease of installation and efficient assembling of the standardised panelling system.
  • Design – the panelised system is flexible and adaptable to various housing styles.
  • Less transport movement and site disruption – on-site construction is quicker, resulting in less disruptions to residents and reduced emissions from less transportation for construction activities.

Cons

  • Impacts of external factors – delays such as road developments may impact the project timeline. While the construction approach saves time, an earlier design may be unnecessary, resulting in storage costs rising.
  • Public perception – negative association regarding the quality of design as the approach is faster and cheaper.
  • Suitability for high-structures – steel or concrete may be better suited to high structures for efficiency. Timber may be a better option for small or medium scale housing.

Key considerations for timber frame construction

  • Fire safety: Addressing fire safety concerns by implementing appropriate fire protection measures is critical. This may involve using fire-resistant materials, designing adequate fire separation distances, and installing fire-rated barriers or coatings where needed. It's necessary to consider fire protection during construction and upon completion in accordance with Part B4 of the Building Regulations.
  • Moisture management: Proper moisture management is essential to prevent moisture-related issues, such as mould or rot, in timber frame construction. Implementing effective moisture barriers, ventilation strategies, and appropriate detailing are crucial to minimising the risk of moisture accumulation.
  • Acoustic performance: The acoustic performance requirements of the project and the implementation of appropriate measures to achieve the desired sound insulation levels should be considered. This may involve using acoustic insulation materials and designing for effective sound control between rooms and units.
  • Durability and longevity: Ensuring the chosen timber frame MMC system and components have the necessary durability and longevity to meet the project's lifespan expectations is vital. Assessing factors such as timber treatment, protective finishes, and maintenance requirements can help enhance the system's longevity.

Future-proofing homes to meet changes in regulations and standards

With the built environment accounting for around 40% of the UK's overall carbon footprint, changes must be made to ensure the construction industry reduces its contribution. [2]

Legislation such as Building Regulations and the Future Homes Standards 2025 are set to lower carbon emissions from construction by at least 75% [3]. This should result in the delivery of new and greener homes with improved energy performance by employing renewable energy and decarbonisation methods to strengthen environmental protection and address the fundamental issue of climate change.

With evolving legislation, it's important to familiarise yourself and stay up-to-date on any changes with Building Regulations and compliance requirements specific to timber frame MMC construction. By ensuring compliance, you can avoid potential delays or issues during inspections and approvals.

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Supporting the move towards zero-carbon homes

Adopting practices like the timber panelised system can help to accelerate project delivery and drive sustainable and low carbon design, while addressing the challenges faced in the housing market.

The timber frame system supports the delivery of high quality and affordable housing, achieving excellent thermal performance to promote a fit-and-forget approach that boosts long-term efficiency.

It also supports the drive to meet Future Homes Standards and considers environmental sustainability, carbon reduction and climate change, all of which are fundamental to effective management of the built environment.

Although the timber frame system promotes thermal performance and energy efficiency, it's necessary to design appropriate insulation, airtightness, and ventilation strategies to achieve optimal energy efficiency.

Kevin has over 35 years’ experience in the social housing sector, specialising in technical design. Previously, he headed up the in-house architectural department at GreenSquareAccord, leading project delivery across the entire design process.

He was instrumental in setting up Local Homes, a timber frame MMC factory and has extensive experience adopting Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) across a range of projects.

Kevin delivered various award-winning projects including affordable housing schemes Woden Road and Portabello in Wolverhampton, from inception through to successful completion.

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10 tips for timber frame construction

Choosing a timber frame system requires careful consideration and assessment.

From inception to post-project completion, it is critical to embrace early collaboration and ensure safety while prioritising sustainability and responsible construction practices, and more.

Here, Kevin Paddock, Associate Director, shares his top tips for success.

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