The History of Timber Frame Houses

Timber has been used as a construction material in buildings in the UK since the Neolithic period. Some of the oldest timber houses in Europe are found in England and Scotland, and the earliest timber framed buildings existing in the UK today date back to the 13th century. This goes to show just how durable this construction method is.

Despite going out of fashion in recent centuries, timber has seen something of a revival in modern times despite advances in other forms of building techniques, demonstrating the enduring popularity of timber frame houses.

Early Timber Building Techniques

When timber framed houses were first constructed in the UK back in the 12th and 13th centuries, lap jointing was the most common technique, but this was soon followed by the far stronger mortise-and-tenon joint which created a solid and durable frame.

As the centuries went on, other timber construction methods became common, including box frame construction and cruck construction, with box frame construction more common in the UK.

Another technique which became very popular was jettying, where the floor space on upper floors was extended beyond the external walls. Sometimes more than one floor was added using jettying, leading to houses where the top floors reached right over into the street. A good place to see this is in The Shambles in York.

The Waning Popularity of Timber

During the 16th century timber became harder to find in the UK as it was used increasingly for ships and fuel. Up until the 18th century, most buildings remained timber framed, but it became less fashionable over the following centuries, and often the timber was covered up with plaster.

The Modern Timber Revival

Timber framed houses saw something of a revival in the 1970s in the UK as well as in the USA and Canada where more affordable mass-produced techniques became common. However, in the UK at least, the techniques were initially lacking in quality.

The timber was usually a poor quality softwood with minimal structural integrity, the frame was erected quickly with an external brick skin and overall the final product was poor and had a low quality feel to it. This differed from some other countries where timber framed buildings were still popular, one of which was Sweden.

Swedish Superiority

Timber framed buildings remained popular in Sweden over the centuries, and over the past 50 years Swedish craftsmen honed their skills in constructing timber houses. One of the reasons for the higher quality was down to the significant differences between how the Swedes and Scandinavians delivered timber buildings compared to the British process.

First and foremost, they used a high-quality lumber. In Sweden, the timber used was slow grown for over 50 years compared to the UK where timber was fast grown over 25 years. This had a considerable impact upon the structural integrity of the base product.

In Sweden craftsmen also tended to build wall panels, starting with the window and building a frame around it, as opposed to walls with openings for windows. This meant that each panel had full thermal integrity with a factory finish.

In contrast, in the UK it was more common to find lightweight frames with openings for windows which were then erected on site and the windows were fitted retrospectively. This made the junction between the windows and the frame a weak part of the overall building.

Improvements in UK Timber Buildings

Whilst the 70s trend towards timber framed structures in the UK caused considerable damage to its reputation, we are now seeing something of a renaissance in the market place. Timber framing is now regularly used for the construction of care homes, hotels and other buildings. In some cases it is also used in housing and generally provides a better level of environmental performance because it is an eco-friendly technique which is known for its energy efficiency.

Several UK companies have now chosen to adopt many of the skills of the Scandinavians and are developing timber houses with exceptional environmental performance and sustainability. These buildings can last for over 50 years provided they are well maintained during their lifetime. As long as the right techniques are used, timber is likely to remain a popular and highly-effective building material in the UK for many years to come.