The UK Timber Frame Association has set up meetings with a number of major English housebuilders as it aims to try to capture 30 per cent of the mass English housebuilding market.
Timber products are traditionally used more in Scotland than in England for reasons including adverse weather and the need for speedy building, but currently only make up around 10 per cent of English production.
The UKTFA is hoping to turn the material into a “standard product” in England and is currently “attacking every area” of the English market to increase the use of timber, according to chairman Lawrence Young.
Major housebuilders including Crest Nicholson and Barratt have also been contacted by the association for their input on timber products, and Mr Young told CN the housebuilders’ responses had been “excellent”.
“We’re starting to look at [more of a] partnering approach so that we can work with [major housebuilders] to make sure timber frame is considered early in their process,” he said.
“The timber industry has a lot of spare capacity; the energy savings would be colossal”
Lawrence Young, UKTFA
He added that social housebuilders and housing associations were taking longer-term approaches by “future-proofing” their houses, which he insisted makes the timber approach “more attractive”.
“The timber industry has a lot of spare capacity; the energy savings would be colossal,” he said.
“Get the envelope right and it does 90 per cent of the work – we don’t blame the housebuilders, to some extent they’re just running businesses, but they’re totally driven by the costs of the day.”
A report released last year by market research firm MTW Research predicted that the value of the UK timber-frame market would rise from £426m in 2012 to £762.6m in 2016. Though the sector was hit hard by the recession, declines elsewhere have seen its market share increase.
Cala Group chief executive Alan Brown told CN there was “a possibility” the 30 per cent target could be met.
“At the end of the day we all have much more stringent insulation standards and there’s no doubt timber frame does that,” he said.
Cala’s large Scottish operation uses predominantly timber, while on its English sites it tends to use more traditional building materials.
“At the moment our preference is to continue with more traditional materials in England, but that doesn’t mean we don’t continually look to improve our energy efficiency,” he said.
However, campaign group Wood for Good’s head of external affairs David Hopkins said that not all private housebuilders would be tempted by timber frame.
“Traditionally, the private sector hasn’t had the same pressure to build quickly [as social housebuilders],” he said. “There are some larger housebuilders who will disagree [with UKTFA’s 30 per cent target] I’m sure.”
However, he insisted that the sector could take off, provided standards such as the Code for Sustainable Homes are not watered down.
“You can never park an issue – but it really has taken timber from being a problem to being a solution”
Lawrence Young, UKTFA
Mr Young said it was doing work with the government, architects and associations including the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.
The UKTFA is setting out a “blow-by-blow analysis” of the English market covering the whole process of housebuilding, from wastage on site to standardised components, and involving the whole supply chain.
It is also considering lobbying the government to seek further incentives for housebuyers, following calls from bodies such as RICS for the energy performance of houses to be linked to mortgage rates.
“It’s a question of educating at every stage in the process – [the government] is quite receptive, they’re talking the right language”, Mr Young said.
Several housing industry sources told CN they believe the government had slowed down moves to incentivise energy-efficient fabrics for fear of imposing new standards and costs the housebuilding industry could ill afford.
And other materials bodies have hit out in the past at moves to afford preferential status to timber, including trade body the Concrete Centre, which accused Hackney Council of “cherry-picking” following its decision to afford preferential status to timber as a building material in 2012.
High-profile timber projects to have hit the market recently include ISG’s fast-track £61m contract to build accommodation for Center Parcs in Bedfordshire using offsite manufactured timber frames and structural insulated timber wall panel in November.
The past two years have seen UKTFA working with the Health and Safety Executive and the Chief Fire Officers Association to try to dispel the perception of timber frame as fire-prone, carrying out fire testing and developing the safety of its products.
A London Assembly investigation into timber-framed buildings was launched in 2009 after several major fires in London and there were sustained calls for a review of safety regulations on timber.
This process has led to a UKTFA-wide online registry of all significant timber-frame sites, so that the fire services have “complete visibility” over production.
Mr Young said the point had now been reached where, with the right specifications and the right design process, timber frame is no more of a risk than traditional materials.
“We’ve taken the issue and dealt with it,” he said. “You can never park an issue – but it really has taken timber from being a problem to being a solution.”
Mr Hopkins added: “I think the safety fears were put to bed a long time ago. It’s an easy thing to point at but it’s not borne out by the figures.”