Timber around the world – England v Scotland


Across the globe, there are many examples of countries that have embraced the use of structural timber, yet the situation in the UK is rather more complicated. The uptake of timber varies enormously between the home nations – with Scotland storming ahead while England sadly lags behind. As part of our Timber Around the World series, Andrew Carpenter, Chief Executive of the Structural Timber Association, asks why this is the case, discussing the contrasting approaches to building with timber between England and its closest neighbour.

In a report conducted by the Forestry Commission, it was found that across the UK, only 25% of all new housing uses timber frame construction. Yet, another study concluded that in Scotland alone, timber frame construction accounts for 75% of new housing, with some sources quoting this figure as high as 85%. These drastically different figures clearly demonstrate that developers in Scotland are far more willing to use structural timber products within construction. The question is then, why do England and Scotland differ so much?

Historically, structures would be built using materials that were immediately available – locally abundant and easily sourced. This notion is important as for Scotland, timber was a much more accessible resource than in England, where instead stone, sandstone and clay were the more easily obtainable materials. This is a major contributing reason as to why Scotland is more inclined to build with timber, as it has been the main material used for generations. It is also worth mentioning that in Scotland, Building Standards recognise the prolific use of timber frame in the residential sector, for both single family and multiple occupancy homes. By acknowledging this demand, efforts are made to make regulatory compliance easier for the housebuilder. In contrast, no such recognition exists in England, inadvertently favouring traditional construction methods.

Despite the many benefits that timber offers, and due to the reasons raised above, it would seem that housebuilders in England are choosing to stick with materials and methods that they are familiar with. Any hope of changing this mindset is not a process that can be completed overnight.

In recent years though, this trend has seen a definite shift, with housebuilders in England gradually increasing their use of timber frame – including many of the market leaders. For example, in 2018 Countryside acquired the Westframe timber frame manufacturing facility, with Barratt Homes buying Oregon Timber Frame the following year. Persimmon Homes also has its own timber frame manufacturing arm, Space4.This change has been partially driven by skills and labour shortages, an issue that continues to grow. A report, compiled by the Federation of Master Builders, found that in Q1 of this year, 38% of builders struggled to hire bricklayers, an increase from 22% in Q4 2020.

Construction companies in England are being forced to turn to alternative methods because of this, with Steven Boyes, Chief Operating Officer at Barratt Developments PLC saying: “Barratt is committed to increasing the number of homes we build using offsite construction as part of our overall volume growth aspirations and to mitigate the current skills challenges facing the industry.” As alluded to in this statement, many businesses are looking towards offsite timber construction as a means to overcome the current skills shortages and have found that it offers other benefits.

Offsite construction provides a faster, cheaper, more reliable and sustainable method of housebuilding compared to traditional techniques. With new Government targets, including Net Zero by 2050 and affordable housing schemes, English companies are slowly beginning to realise that using modern methods of construction (MMC), such as offsite construction, is the only viable way in which to achieve these targets. The push for English housing associations to adopt the use of MMC was realised last year when the National Housing Federation began their ‘Building Better’ scheme.

The scheme, which involves 15 England-based members of the National Housing Federation, aims to reduce CO₂ emissions, improve building efficiency and decrease long-term costs through the use of MMC. The housing associations taking part in the scheme have all agreed to adopt MMC’s as part of their building strategies for delivering new homes. ‘Building Better’ could mark the start of England catching up with Scotland, and other nations, regarding its use of structural timber.

Despite being so close geographically, England and Scotland couldn’t differ more in their use of structural timber. Generations of English builders favouring the use of stone has led to little use of timber in modern construction. However, skills shortages and Government targets have left many companies having to rethink their approach and maybe moving forward, we will see a more prevalent use of structural timber in England.

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