A damning TV documentary on timber-frame homes sent the English and Welsh market into a downward spiral. Now it’s making a comeback – but with a new twist.
In 1983, an ITV documentary made by World In Action caused the timber-frame housing market to crash. It alleged that timber-frame construction could not produce houses that would last, citing rot in the frames of nine-year-old homes on a Cornwall estate.

It also said timber framing was at the heart of a fire in a Barratt home in the Midlands.

The documentary caused such a furore that, suddenly, no one wanted to buy a timber-frame home. The bottom fell out of the market – even though the claims were widely discredited.

Now, after 16 years in the doldrums, it looks like timber frame is recovering. Both private and social housebuilders are dipping their toes into the market. National House Building Council figures for the volume of new timber-frames homes built are set to rise significantly from their current levels of 2% in England and 4% in Wales.

The situation in Scotland is likely to remain largely unchanged, with timber-frame homes continuing to account for about 40% of homes. This market held up largely because Scottish buyers did not react to the World in Action programme by boycotting timber frame.

Although timber-frame homes have been out of fashion, technology has not stood still, and cutting-edge prefabricated units are leading the timber renaissance. These are the types of homes that a consortium of housing associations called Amphion plans to buy. The associations have teamed up to achieve greater buying power, and Amphion is on the verge of appointing Beazer Partnership Homes and its subsidiary Torwood Homes to supply 1000 timber-frame home kits. It plans to build these in the South-east and Kent over the next three years.

Private housebuilders are also returning to timber. Bellway Homes is about to begin its first such development in the South-east for 10 years, with 40 traditional timber-frame homes in Hainault, Essex. Wilcon Homes is also breaking into the market, introducing traditional timber framing and pre-assembled panels on homes across the UK.

Housebuilders’ growing confidence in timber-frame construction is based on their own research into buyers’ attitudes. Studies suggest that the new generation of homebuyers is unaware of the World In Action documentary and is not anti-timber frame.

Countryside Properties chairman Alan Cherry says his firm is also “feeling its way” back into using timber frame in the private housing market, although its social arm has been using it for two or three years. Research carried out for Beazer by the University of Stirling found that even in the 35-plus age group – deemed most likely to have seen the documentary – only one in 10 remembered any publicity about timber-frame homes.

Cherry believes that the public’s attitude has “moved on”, and the company hopes to increase the percentage of housing that it builds with timber frames from 30% to 50% in the next few years.

Timber merchants and frame manufacturers are already reporting increased demand.

Barry Lane, joint managing director of £4m-turnover timber panel supplier Taylor Lane, which last year made wood panels for about 400 timber-frame homes, says orders rose 25% in the six months to June compared with last year. “For the first time, we’ve lost work because we’ve been too busy,” he says.

Why do housebuilders like wood?

One explanation for the resurgence of timber is housebuilders’ desire to cut costs and waste – in line with the Egan report – and build the environment-friendly homes that today’s consumers want. Lane says of the new demand for prefab panels: “The larger builders are looking at timber frame because of the shortage of bricklayers in particular, but also because of the Egan report, which favours pre-assembly.”

Steve Howlitt, chief executive of Swale Housing Association, a member of the Amphion consortium, agrees. He says the kind of prefab units Amphion is looking at are in line with Sir John Egan’s lean production agenda because panels and insulation are put together before being transported to site, which speeds up construction. “We believe it offers us the opportunity to provide better quality housing faster and at lower cost,” says Howlitt.

The environment-friendly tag could also help housebuilders sell timber-frame homes. Cherry says: “Our research shows that public opinion is more in favour of timber-frame housing now than at any time before.” He adds that the insulation properties of wood help make the method marketable to the public. Also, planned changes to Part L of the Building Regulations are driving some firms to investigate timber-frame because it can give higher U-values.

Lenders do not discriminate

Housebuilders may be keen to get back to timber frame, but what about mortgage lenders? The Council of Mortgage Lenders says there is no blanket policy on timer-frame properties on the part of any lender. However, a spokesperson sounded a warning note: “One of the things that would concern the lender would be if the property had something that might make it less marketable, for example its location or the way it was constructed.”

As for the major lenders, it seems that if their customers want to buy a new timber-frame house, that’s fine with them. A spokesperson for Abbey National said: “It depends on the underwriter’s attitude, but with modern timber-frame houses, there is no discrimination between this and more traditional methods.” Likewise, a Nationwide spokesperson said it did not discriminate against timber frame. “We view it as a conventional building,” he said.

The lenders’ views differ from those of National Association of New Home Owners chief executive Chris Lorentzen. He suggests that Britain’s damp climate is unsuitable for houses supported by timber frames because these are more susceptible to rot. “We are concerned about its long-term durability and the cost of repairing or replacing it,” he says. Lorentzen also believes that substandard timber may remain undetected because the frame is already enclosed by the time inspections take place, and that the protective vapour membranes, used to protect the wood from damp before the brick outer skin is complete, are easily torn.

Barry Neilson, NHBC deputy director in Scotland, rejects these criticisms. The Scottish market survived the World in Action scare partly because the thermal performance of timber-frame houses makes it the most suitable material in Scotland’s harsher climate. Neilson says consumers all over the UK can have confidence in timber frame and that the NHBC offers its 10-year Build Mark guarantee to both timber- and masonry-frame houses. “Most major damage claims we receive are structural and usually to do with foundations,” says Neilson.

Just in case there are still those who have not got over the 1983 scare, Neilson adds that timber frame has come a long way since then. Manufacturers are now required to provide a certificate from the engineer that designed the frame to guarantee that the elements will all fit together and that the frame will not be too big for the footprint of the building. Another change designed to boost consumer confidence is in the pipeline at the NHBC.

“We used to do spot checks, but at the end of this year, we’re moving to a targeted inspection system where we view each building at certain key stages,” says Neilson. The NHBC in Scotland is

also to launch a pilot scheme to offer accredited training for workers who erect timber frames.

With these safeguards in place and housebuilders’ increasing confidence that buyers are no longer avoiding timber frame, the future looks bright for wood.

But the main attraction for builders, as Cherry admits, is that they are quicker to build and offer housebuilders savings on waste and after-sale maintenance costs. No wonder he hopes the market will grow.