DE­SIGN­ING a tim­ber frame home

Find out what you need to know to com­mis­sion a suc­cess­ful scheme for your tim­ber frame self build


Pan­elised fram­ing sys­tems are right up there with ma­sonry as a lead­ing, cost-ef­fec­tive struc­tural op­tion – of­fer­ing a host of ben­e­fits in terms of build speeds, price cer­tainty and easy de­tail­ing for en­ergy per­for­mance. Here’s how to go about get­ting a be­spoke de­sign that will suit your re­quire­ments.

Who de­signs tim­ber homes?

Any ar­chi­tect or house de­signer worth their salt should be fa­mil­iar with this con­struc­tion method and ca­pa­ble of com­ing up with an ap­peal­ing scheme that looks to take ad­van­tage of its in­nate qual­i­ties. In­deed, many im­pres­sive self build projects are re­alised in this way. That said, your tim­ber frame sup­plier will want to be in­volved as early as pos­si­ble to en­sure the out­line plans can be trans­lated into a build­able, value-en­gi­neered re­al­ity – and they’ll aim to work along­side your ar­chi­tect to en­sure the prac­tice un­der­stands the in­tri­ca­cies of the ex­act sys­tem they use.

Many com­pa­nies now of­fer an in-house de­sign and build ser­vice for your en­tire pro­ject, from plot ap­praisal and plan­ning through to shell erec­tion and – in some cases – right up to com­ple­tion. In fact, some pre­fer to work this way. “It can be re­fresh­ing to part­ner up with an ex­ter­nal ar­chi­tect, but we’ll usu­ally have to re­draw the planned scheme to check its vi­a­bil­ity and what the cost will be,” says Oliver Rehm from Baufritz. “For that rea­son, we nor­mally do the full de­sign ser­vice our­selves. Our ar­chi­tects are trained on our sys­tem, so they know what’s pos­si­ble and what things cost. We find it makes for a smoother process.”

What kind of house can I have?

The sky’s the limit – this is a truly flex­i­ble method, al­low­ing you to cre­ate a home in pretty much any style that’s to­tally tai­lored to your needs, de­sign tastes, bud­get and the de­mands of your plot (or the whims of the plan­ners).

Ex­ter­nally, light­weight cladding sys­tems such as tim­ber, fi­bre-ce­ment, ren­der or brick slips make sense to sup­port tim­ber frame’s quick build speeds. But you can hap­pily switch to a full brick or stone outer leaf should you wish. See­ber-frame for more on the op­tions for fin­ish­ing this type of home.

In­ter­nally, wow-fac­tor ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures such as open plans and vaulted ceil­ings are easy to achieve. “We can ba­si­cally pro­duce any­thing,” says Oliver. “Rec­tan­gu­lar struc­tures are of course straight­for­ward and cost-ef­fec­tive

to man­u­fac­ture, but com­plex ge­om­e­try is get­ting more pop­u­lar. Many self builders are look­ing for some­thing that’s or­ganic and avant-garde – and we can do curves, eaves over­hangs, tri­an­gu­lar forms and more.”

You can even com­bine the pan­els with other struc­tural ma­te­ri­als, such as glu­lam (an en­gi­neered, lam­i­nated tim­ber beam) or steel­work, to de­liver fea­tures that can’t be cost­ef­fec­tively achieved with stan­dard fram­ing alone. “If we want to shape some­thing or cre­ate wide spans, we pre­fer glu­lam for sus­tain­abil­ity rea­sons – but some­times you just need to use a piece of steel,” says Oliver.

Where can I find in­spi­ra­tion for my tim­ber house build?

Most frame sup­pli­ers main­tain a book of past projects, which can be a good place to start when it comes to com­ing up with ini­tial ideas. You may even find a scheme that can form a tem­plate for what you’d like, with some tweaks to bet­ter suit your needs. It’s well worth log­ging on to the reader projects sec­tion of the Build It web­site, too, at

But the best way to get a feel for the qual­ity you can ex­pect from a par­tic­u­lar sup­plier – and to ex­pe­ri­ence lay­outs, room sizes, prod­ucts etc – is un­doubt­edly to visit com­pleted houses. Pot­ton’s self build show cen­tre in St Neots of­fers five homes to ex­plore, for in­stance, with a range of ar­chi­tec­tural styles and per­for­mance lev­els.

“We al­ways want peo­ple to come to our show­room to get an idea of the prod­uct we of­fer and a sense of what’s pos­si­ble,” says Oliver from Baufritz. “We also in­vite peo­ple to visit our cus­tomer’s houses – whether at build­ing stage our fin­ished – so they can see dif­fer­ent styles and bud­gets.”

Does the type of frame spec­i­fied af­fect the fin­ished de­sign?

In terms of the look and feel of the house you’ll end up with, there’s very lit­tle dif­fer­ence be­tween the two main types of tim­ber sys­tem. What might change is how much of the de­sign work is done by a sin­gle com­pany, and how you pro­cure the en­gi­neer­ing and sup­ply of fol­low-on com­po­nents (see the next sec­tion for more on this).

Open panel frames are man­u­fac­tured with the in­ter­nal side of the walling el­e­ments left un­sheathed – so this route can give a feel­ing of greater choice and con­trol dur­ing the build. In some cases you can even spec­ify and fit your own in­su­la­tion, should you wish. Much more pop­u­lar these days, how­ever, is closed panel fram­ing, where the wall sec­tions are sup­plied to site as com­plete prod­ucts, with the in­su­la­tion (and some­times more) pre-in­stalled. This level of fac­tory con­trol is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to be a more straight­for­ward route to good en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, and will de­liver a faster build on site.

What do sup­pli­ers typ­i­cally in­clude in their tim­ber frame pack­ages?

This will de­pend on what level of ser­vice you’re go­ing for. A struc­tural de­sign and shell erec­tion pack­age will com­prise the load-bear­ing wall pan­els, in­ter­nal par­ti­tions, roof trusses, en­gi­neered floor struc­tures, and all the other com­po­nents (such as breather mem­branes, seal­ing tapes and, usu­ally, the in­su­la­tion) re­quired to build the main struc­ture. It will also in­clude the labour to raise the frame.

Some firms are able to pre-fit the likes of win­dows, doors, ser­vice channels, in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal fin­ishes to your spec­i­fi­ca­tion as part of the sup­ply of a closed-panel house shell. This will dra­mat­i­cally in­crease the speed of con­struc­tion but does re­quire you to bring for­ward a lot of the de­tailed spec­i­fi­ca­tion phase. So you’ll need to nail down the ex­act lo­ca­tion of sock­ets, switches, sinks, WCS and the like to en­able man­u­fac­ture of the frame.

A num­ber of tim­ber home sup­pli­ers of­fer a pro­ject man­aged ser­vice, giv­ing you ac­cess to ex­pe­ri­enced as­sis­tance deeper into the build. The likes of Baufritz and Sylva can pro­vide what’s known as turnkey de­liv­ery of your house. So once you’ve spec­i­fied the de­sign and fi­nalised the plans with them, they take care of pretty much all the work on site – although the ground­works and foun­da­tions stage is typ­i­cally down to you to ar­range. You’ll usu­ally be left to choose your own kitchen, too, given this side of the in­dus­try op­er­ates on a sup­ply and in­stall ba­sis.

Can I change the de­sign on site?

While it’s pos­si­ble to al­ter your plans as the build pro­gresses – pro­vided they still ac­cord with the plan­ning con­sent – this is gen­er­ally best avoided, what­ever con­struc­tion sys­tem you’re us­ing. Ma­jor changes will in­evitably add de­lay and ex­tra cost to your scheme – es­pe­cially if mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the house shell re­quire struc­tural cal­cu­la­tions.

Your goal, there­fore, should be to nail down the de­sign as far as pos­si­ble be­fore you break ground, so that any on site al­ter­ations are kept to a min­i­mum. To do this ef­fec­tively, you need to be able to vi­su­alise what you’re get­ting, so it’s worth ask­ing your de­signer to pro­duce in­ter­ac­tive 3D walk­throughs (which are pretty easy to pro­duce these days thanks to the likes of Sketchup and Build It’s 3D De­sign Soft­ware). This will help you un­der­stand how you’ll in­ter­act with the liv­ing space and give you the op­por­tu­nity to make tweaks be­fore you green-light the struc­tural plans for man­u­fac­ture.

The be­spoke de­sign for this 200m2 con­tem­po­rary pro­ject was drawn up by Pot­ton in-house ar­chi­tect Vicky Cor­bett Above: Chris and Sheila Mar­wood chose home build­ing spe­cial­ist Hanse Haus to de­liver the struc­tural de­sign and most of the build­ing works for their ar­chi­tect­planned scheme in Corn­wall. The shell erec­tion and main fit-out was com­pleted in just 12 weeks

Above: The de­sign for this self build pro­ject in Es­sex was a close col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween owner and re­tired char­tered sur­veyor Pe­ter Granger, who cre­ated the ini­tial sketches him­self, and the team at Scan­di­ahus. The frame was sup­plied as a shell build pack­age

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