Back in November, the Scandinavian Homes team were at the Homebuilding and Renovating Show in Harrogate, when an older gentleman came to chat with us. He wasn’t in the market for a self-build house, but he was interested in our timber frame homes, as he had lived in a timber frame house as a child in the South of England. He wondered if the company who built it were still in business, and when we looked them up on the Internet for him, it turned out that they are! This made us think a bit about how long timber frame housing has been built in this country, since the company in question have been going longer than any of us have been alive (and we’re not exactly spring chickens). So, research commenced, and the results were certainly interesting.
First of all, though they probably didn’t build any on our little island, the Romans were already using a form of timber frame construction by AD50. The House of Opus Craticum at Herculaneum is a reconstruction of the original timber building which was found during archaeological excavations at the site which was buried under volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79. In the UK, the earliest surviving timber frame houses are at Boxted in Kent and Upton Magna near Shrewsbury, and date from the 13th century. There is also St Andrews Church at Greensted in Essex, some of the timber parts of which date back to 1060!
Houses in this country were originally built by means of simple posts pushed into the ground, to which other wooden cross members were then added, until some nameless genius came up with the breakthrough idea of putting stones in a line to form a plinth and then laying a wooden beam onto them. Upright sections were then fixed to this by mortise and tenon joints held together with wooden pins. These houses were normally constructed from oak. Commonest types of construction were box frame construction, consisting of a rectangular frame with studding (vertical members); and cruck construction, which was a curved frame, where pairs of timbers formed an A-frame. Amazingly, over 2000 of this latter type of houses are still standing!
The practice of jettying, where upper floors extend up to 4 feet further out than the floor below (typical of medieval towns and villages) was introduced to allow the building of larger houses without encroaching on the streets below (because people were taxed on floor space at ground level). In some extreme cases, the residents could lean out and shake hands from upper windows on opposite sides of the street – e.g. in The Shambles in York
Originally the oak timbers used to be left their natural colour, sort of greyish, but they would blacken with age and soot. Proper brick fireplaces didn’t appear till the mid 16th century; prior to that there was either nothing, or just a hole in the roof, or at best a smoke bay, for the smoke to escape from the fire which was both heating source and cooking fire for the building.The fashion for painting the timbers black in the way that we are now used to seeing them, actually only started in about 1822, and was designed to make newer buildings mimic the colour of the really old timbers.
Glazing windows wasn’t common until the end of the 17th century, so they used wooden shutters instead. When glass did become available, at first the windows were small-paned leaded types, and it wasn’t till about the middle of the 19th century when it was possible to make bigger panes.
Timber framing fell somewhat out of favour in Elizabethan times, apparently because the English fleet needed the timber for ship-building, and we moved to the more common brick type housing that we see so much of today.
Jumping enthusiastically forward to the modern era, timber frame continued to be built, but has been a somewhat neglected construction method in England for many years now. Scotland has continued to build more timber homes than England, however, and market share there is currently at about 70% of new builds, while the figure for England and Wales hovers at around 15-20%. Today’s timber frame houses, especially the Scandinavian style where the panels are factory-constructed with windows and doors fitted, and insulation built in, are much sturdier, more energy efficient, and more environmentally friendly than the houses of yore, and certainly more stylish, but you can see how the modern version has built on the solid foundations [groan] of centuries of timber construction experience. In the last 12 months, several respected agencies have brought timber frame construction back onto the agenda by suggesting that this quick and efficient method of off-site manufacture could help to solve the UK’s housing crisis by enabling houses to be built much faster than by ‘traditional’ brick and block methods.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our gallop through time! If you’d like to know more about what options you have with timber frame, please browse our website or get in touch with us.