Timber frame or brick-built?

There are two main methods of house building in use in the UK – and at Larkfleet we use both of them. The two methods are ‘timber frame’ and ‘brick and block’.

Houses built by Larkfleet Homes are timber frame buildings. And those built by our sister company Allison Homes are brick and block buildings.

So, what is the difference?


Timber frame housing
Much of a timber frame house is not built on the building site but in a factory. The frame of the house is shipped to the place where the house is to be erected as a kit of beams and panels that simply bolt together.

Once the frame has been erected it can be clad in a wide variety of materials. Usually in the UK a brick ‘skin’ is erected around the frame. So, you cannot tell from either outside or inside the building that it is timber-framed.

It probably does not make much difference to most house buyers but a timber frame house can usually be built much more swiftly than a brick and block one. That may mean you get your house earlier if you are buying ‘off plan’.

Brick and block
Homes built using more traditional brick and block construction are erected on site. Once the foundations are completed, bricklayers build the walls one layer (or ‘course’) of bricks at a time, leaving spaces for windows and doors.

Usually, the main inner walls are constructed of concrete blocks and the outer walls of clay bricks. Some of the partition walls between rooms within the house may be built of timber and plasterboard.

Busting the myths
There are several ‘myths’ about the difference between timber frame and brick and block construction. Some of the more common ones are listed below – with our view of the real facts.

Brick and block offers better protection against fire:
It is sometimes stated that brick and block buildings offer superior fire resistance. That seems quite logical, as timber is combustible and bricks and concrete are not. In fact, there is little difference in practice.

The level of destruction caused by house fires and the likelihood of death or injury are mainly determined by factors such as whether there are smoke alarms fitted, your habits and behaviour (for example whether you smoke), the flammability of the contents of the house (such as your furniture) and the speed of response of the emergency services.

However. if a timber frame is not built correctly it may be more difficult to extinguish the fire than in a brick and block building and more damage to the structure can occur.

Although it is not of concern to you as a house owner, there is some evidence that timber frame houses are more vulnerable to fire damage during construction – but that is a (fairly minor) problem for the builder!

As far as the risks to you and your family are concerned once you’ve moved in, the crucial factor in survival is how quickly you can escape.

It is only if anyone is trapped that the length of time the construction of the house will protect them from flames and smoke until they can be rescued becomes important. Bear in mind, in this regard, that much of the internal structure of a brick and block house is actually built in timber – particularly the floors and ceilings. Happily, the beams that make up these structures are not as vulnerable as you might think. After the outer parts of a beam have been burnt, they turn into charcoal, which does not burn and actually protects the centre of the beam. Because of this effect it will be a long time before the beam actually collapses.

Overall, your risks from fire in a typical timber frame house do not seem to be any different from those in a brick and block equivalent.
Brick and block is more durable.
Give us a couple of centuries or so and we may have a definite answer to this one! But, over the lifetimes of buildings constructed during the 20th and 21st centuries so far, there is no evidence that brick and block is more durable than timber frame (or vice versa).

Modern timbers are treated against rot and damp so in a well-maintained building they are no more prone to ‘decay’ than bricks. Some of the oldest buildings still standing in the UK are basically timber-framed homes – think of picturesque timber-framed Tudor cottages, for example.

Timber frame buildings are cheaper to build. 
Well, maybe. But in practice the total cost of a timber frame house is pretty much the same as a brick and block house because so much of the cost (the land itself, the associated infrastructure such as roads and sewers, the interior decorating, fixtures and fittings, etc) are identical whatever system of building is used.

Brick and block offers better sound insulation:
The best ‘defence’ against external noise such as traffic – or internal noise from adjacent rooms within the house – is to put something solid and heavy between you and the noise. Dense, heavy materials such as bricks and blocks have a natural ability to reduce noise transmission.

Of course, if you have your windows open you will notice little difference in external noise disturbance whether you have a brick and block home or a timber frame one. And internal walls in brick and block homes are increasingly built in lightweight materials (rather than in brick) and noise travels easily through inter-connecting doors.

So, how much truth there is in this myth will depend upon your lifestyle and the sources of noise that you are trying to screen against.
Timber frame (or brick and block) offers lower heating costs:
The high ‘thermal mass’ of bricks and blocks absorbs heat from the sun on hot summer days, helping to keep the house cool and then radiating the heat back out again in evenings and overnight. In winter, the walls absorb the heat from the heating system, then radiate it back over the evening and night, helping to even out fluctuations in temperature.

However, because of this, you have to turn on your central heating well before you get up on a winter morning to ensure a warm start to the day - the masonry must be heated first before the temperature of the air in the rooms can reach an acceptable level. Timber does not soak up heat in this way.

Whether high thermal mass is a good thing or not may therefore depend on your lifestyle and whether the house has to be heated continuously or only in the evenings and weekends. And the overall impact of the house structure on your heating bills probably is not going to be high -  given that both types of home must be built to meet government-imposed Building Standards for thermal insulation.
You get more condensation in a timber frame (or brick and block) home:
Condensation is caused by warm moist air produced by your heating system and activities such as washing.

The moist air moves to where the air is drier, usually from the inside to the outside. As it passes through the walls the temperature of the air drops, its capacity to hold vapour reduces and eventually water begins to condense. In winter this may occur either on the surface of the walls, windows or other internal surfaces, or inside the construction, in which case there can be a risk of long-term damage.

Brick and block cavity walls can suffer from condensation at the point where the warm, inside air has passed through most of the insulation. It can do limited harm here, because modern insulation cannot rot. The outer brick wall allows moisture to gradually pass through it and the inner face of the wall is designed to allow water to run down it and drain away.

Preventing condensation in timber frame-walls is more difficult because they cannot drain in the same way as a brick and block cavity. However, builders easily solve the problem by putting a vapour barrier such as polythene sheet (which will not allow any vapour to pass through it) between the lining of the inside wall and the insulation.

So, the reality is – there’s not much difference between the two types of structure. The presence of condensation will have much more to do with your lifestyle and use of appliances than with the type of house.
Mortgages and/or insurance are cheaper on a brick and block houses:
This is simply not the case. Lenders and insurers make no distinction between the two types of structure provided they have been constructed to the relevant Building Standards (which they certainly will have been if you use a reputable builder such as Larkfleet). Full ten-year warranties are given on both types of home.

Timber is more environmentally friendly:
The level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air is increasing significantly as a result of our lifestyle and industrial activities. This is a major cause of the greenhouse effect which in turn leads to global warming.

Timber helps to remove CO2 from the environment because trees felled for the timbers absorb carbon while they are growing. This carbon is then ‘locked up’ in the structure of a timber frame house.

Most builders use timber from sustainable sources – we certainly do at Larkfleet – which means that trees which are felled for use in house building are replaced by new planting which absorbs even more carbon. And there is very little energy used in the process of creating timber frames from trees.

However, as we have seen, there is little difference in energy use day-to-day in the two types of home.

On balance, timber frame probably does ‘have the edge’ in terms of environmental benefit. So, we reckon this one is not a myth – it’s true!