Should you choose a Masonry or Timber Frame House?

How to decide which building material – masonry or timber frame – is best for you.

timber frame

Choosing between a masonry or timber frame house might seem like making a decision between two quite different homes. However, the main difference separating timber frame and masonry is not so much the actual materials in themselves, but rather the fact that timber frame is most often factory assembled and then delivered to the building site on a lorry. This removes a lot of the hard work of construction, and it simplifies the process of construction from the point of view of the builder.

Brick and stone have been the favoured materials for building purposes in Britain for the past 300 years, so it is no surprise that we have got into something of a tradition of building houses of these materials simply because we are used to it. Whether masonry or timber frame, both kinds of construction come with their own pros and cons. Ultimately, the decision to make is not so much about which is better, but which is better suited to you.

Masonry or Timber Frame?

Price. For a long time, timber was thought to be the more expensive of the two kinds of material, but its advocates claimed that it was possible to claw back the extra expenses it incurred by shortening the length of the overall build time. This would cut down on the overhead and finance costs. However, the picture isn’t quite so clear anymore and has become a little confused. Blocklayers have become very expensive, balancing out the cost difference. Simultaneously, timber frame factories have become quite busy and thus the time taken to process orders has risen, eroding the advantage of a speedy build. In reality, there isn’t much of a cost difference at all. As a general rule, masonry will sit better and cheaper behind a brick or stone skin wall, whilst timber frame does best behind a more lightweight external skin such as timber.

Speed. One of the main swaying points when choosing between masonry or timber frame is the build time of each material. Timber frame houses are partly constructed in a factory, which means that the house can be erected on site in a matter of days. Once up, the internal finished can be begun immediately and produce even further time savings. However, at the same time there may well be long delays in getting the frame itself put together. Also, keep in mind that thin-joint masonry offers many of the time-saving advantages of timber frame. You can generally expect a time saving of three months by choosing timber frame.

Accuracy. A timber frame construction is usually a much more engineered and precise product. The walls will usually sit plumb and the rooms will be very evenly square, unlike many site-built masonry houses. This can have obvious advantages when it comes to installing fixtures such as stairs or kitchens. On the other hand, engineered houses need much more accurate foundations.

Buildability. When deciding whether to opt for masonry or timber frame, remember that masonry is often easier to deal with as all of the relevant materials will be available from the local builders merchant. This is not the case with other systems. Builders will also be highly familiar with masonry techniques, and the only area where timber frame currently prevails in the UK is Scotland.

Insurance and Selling. At one point in time there was quite a prejudice against timber frame homes in the UK. However, such houses have been used widely and successfully across the USA and Canada, Scandinavia, and Scotland for decades and it tends to have a better warranty claims record than masonry. When choosing between masonry or timber frame, insurance and selling is of little issue today, and timber frame is just as accepted by all major lenders, insurers, and most homebuyers.

Cash Flow. When building with timber frame, the contract for the manufacturer will need to be placed some months prior to delivery. This will also mean paying quite a significant deposit, creating a very different look to the cash flow which may need to be accounted for when the mortgage is set up. Make sure that you are aware of what the different payment terms are, and how much deposit you will need to put down.

Energy Efficiency. Whether masonry or timber frame, no one system is inherently the more energy efficient. Everything is largely down to design. In practical terms, however, a great amount of energy performance is down to the build quality and for this reason factory-built homes will tend to beat off the competition. Additionally, it is easier to fit insulation into timber frame walls and to leave the cavity between the two skins empty too. However, masonry houses do better when it comes to heat retention as heat from the sun is stored in the structure overnight. This is known as thermal mass.

Noise. The heavyweight masonry building techniques really come into their own here, but when it comes to detached housing, the main concern is the noise between floors. Even in masonry houses most will have intermediate timber floors, so there is little difference in this case.

Image: Vermont Timber Works Inc.

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