May 28, 2017 Last Updated 9:00 AM, May 26, 2017

The inherent cost benefits that structural timber frame offers

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Here, Andrew Carpenter, Chief Executive of the Structural Timber Association, highlights the inherent cost benefits that structural timber frame offers house-builders, developers and contractors.

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The findings from The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model have highlighted the urgent need for the UK construction industry to change and adopt a new work culture, ethos and method of manufacture.

The ominous subtitle of The Farmer Review, Modernise or Die, indicates with clarity the severity of the challenge facing the construction industry at present, shining a light on many prevalent issues within the sector.

The report found that the construction industry’s aversion to innovation and collaboration, as well as the lack of investment in research and development, was severely affecting its productivity, pool of skilled workers and, ultimately, its ability to deliver much-needed housing.

The solution, as put forward by the report, lies in embracing modern methods of construction, specifically off-site prefabrication, also known as pre-manufacture. Farmer advocates using “the residential development sector as a pilot programme to drive the use of pre-manufactured construction, for example, through off-site built or modular housing”.

Adding further credence to this argument is the updated RIBA Plan of Work 2013: Designing for Manufacture and Assembly, which reiterated the importance of pre-manufacture construction for the future of the construction industry benefits it can offer.

Harnessing digital processes, the report outlines how designing for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) allows for the mass-customisation of solutions, often used by other industries such as automotive, to become commonplace for the built environment. Creating new design processes, the RIBA Plan of Work champions the capacity of pre-manufacture to enable the industry to meet the UK Government’s Construction 2025 strategy of 50% faster delivery, 50% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 50% improvements in exports and 33% lower costs.

In providing counsel and advice for those approaching pre-manufacture, the report highlights the clear benefits of prefabrication, such as 20-60% reduction in build time, 20-40% reduction in construction costs along with more than a 70% reduction in on-site labour costs.

As such, structural timber frame – a build material that already harnesses pre-manufacture methods – can offer house-builders unrivalled commercial benefits.

For example, off-site construction helps ensure that initial plans are strictly adhered to, presenting the truest likeness to the original design. This means that there are fewer modifications to designs and unexpected financial costs are not incurred.

Meet industry demands

Furthermore, timber is a readily available material that can easily meet industry demands. Brick and block supply have consistently and persistently suffered supply shortages and when a material is in short supply, a premium is placed on its price. Also, supply costs and project delays will not be incurred by the shortage of skilled labour within the timber industry unlike other sectors such as the brick industry.

In fact, the structural timber frame sector has significant growth potential; with the capacity to double its output if, and when required, due to a consistent strive for best practice. Witnessing progressive and steady growth in market share, up 10% since 2004, structural timber frame can be a key element in the industry’s drive to provide more housing in a modern, productive and effective manner.

Additionally, in a factory setting, health and safety costs can be reduced as a factory-based environment ensures safer working conditions and decreased height risks when compared to on-site construction. An added benefit of pre-manufacture is also the elimination of weather as an unpredictable variable in the construction of a property. This can be a substantial cost given the uncertainty of the UK’s weather patterns; pre-manufacture therefore provides protection from the elements enabling stricter deadlines to be adhered to.

These benefits consequently mean that the product is delivered to site in a timely manner, with the truest representative of the architects’ designs without the need for substantial on-site trade and labour costs.

Structural timber frame build time is therefore typically 30% quicker than ‘traditional’ methods of construction. Consequently, when considering cash flow and the rate of return of a project, structural timber frame allows for properties to be built and sold quicker, enabling the initial investment payback milestone to be met in a shorter time period.

Even further savings can be extrapolated by closely examining the project timeline. For example, timber’s lightweight structure when compared to block and brick means that foundations do not need to be dug as deep. Also, pre-manufacture construction enables structural features, such as windows and doorframes, to be factory fitted. Finally, in the last stages of the project timeline, using structural timber frame means there will be less waste material onsite to dispose of. All these elements reduce time on site, thus labour and material related expenses and, ultimately, final project costs.

Increased uptake

With all this in mind, it is little surprise that more and more contractors and developers are beginning to recognise the cost effectiveness of structural timber frame. Housebuilder, Barratt, has chosen to increase its use of structural timber frame to one in 10 properties. Increasing its residential building capacity, Willmott Dixon is also using structural timber frame for its off-site manufacturing capabilities.

It is readily evident from multiple independent reports; the on-going housing crisis and skilled labour shortages that the construction industry is in dire need of wholesale change. The weight of history, technology and expertise is behind the widespread implementation of pre-manufacture – and specifically, structural timber frame. Consequently, the quicker that house-builders, developers and contractors start to embrace the innovation of pre-manufacture, the quicker they can start to reap its multiple commercial benefits.

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