Wooden homes: is it time to go back to the future?
Beautiful, green and slow to age, this material is a British mainstay
In 1577 the English clergyman and chronicler William Harrison wrote that ‘the greatest part of our building in the cities and good towns of England consists of timber.’ But by 1800, most of England was built from brick or stone. What happened? The answer has three words: wool, ships and fire.
Firstly, exports of wool from the cloudy, rainy and fertile island of Britain (good for grass and sheep) had long been an economic mainstay. It paid to cut down forests and not replace them. Secondly, ships. For 300 years Britain needed and built the world’s most powerful navy — entirely of wood until the mid-nineteenth century. We basically cut down our historic oak woods to build the Royal Navy, from Mary Rose to HMS Victory. Finally, fire. A series of disastrous urban conflagrations (the Great Fire of 1666 is best known but large parts of London also burnt down in 1087, 1135, 1299, 1428, 1444, 1619, 1676, 1691, 1698, 1725 and 1748) persuaded city authorities to ban exposed timber in townhouses.
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Expensive, even illegal, wood was yesterday’s material. By happy chance other options were available. Bricks are burnt earth and Britain’s ready supply of cheap coal meant that it was cost-efficient to bake them hard. Tap a coal-fired Victorian brick and feel how much harder it is than a wood-fired Georgian equivalent. Strata of beautiful limestone, sandstone and granite also stripe the British Isles. Prosperous Tudor farmers and their successors could afford them.
Today we mainly build in concrete and steel. Even brick homes have concrete breeze-block inner layers. Modern concrete is ugly and unpopular (we normally hide it with a skin of something else). It is also deeply energy inefficient, a legacy of the energy-incontinent twentieth century.
But is it time for wood to return? It might be. There’s certainly more of it nowadays. Britain’s woodland area has tripled during the last century and it’s still increasing. We can also do more with it. Recent innovations such as cross-laminated timber (boards glued together in alternately grained layers) are as strong as concrete and not readily flammable. Wood is also the eco-material par excellence. It is a good insulator — 400 times better than solid steel (think of all those Scandinavian cabins). Trees also ‘store carbon’ as they grow and are more efficient to prepare for construction. Wooden buildings, if created from re-planted forests, reduce CO2 emissions by up to 30% compared to normal construction.
Wood is easy to use: it is typically 25% faster and requires 90% less construction traffic. Self-builders can readily put up their own homes. In the majority of countries which, unlike Britain, have properly regulated as opposed to chaotically ‘planned’ development sectors, far more homes are chosen by the end-user than the intermediary house-builder. Companies abound that create off-pattern book, ready-to-go houses that you can order on the internet. Many use wood. It’s just so versatile and easy.
Finally, wood is beautiful, hard to age and good for us. As we learn more about how our environment affects our mental and physical health, we are realising that sterile, overly-repetitive or visually chaotic places make us stressed and unhappy. But walls with texture, timbre and which mimic or deploy the forms of nature are pleasing and settling to most of us. Well-looked after wood can last for centuries. Is that beautiful painted Kentish weather-boarding from last week or the mid-eighteenth century? Who cares? Wood is clean, green and timeless. Let’s create beautiful sustainable places which are ‘of here’ and which treat their owners with love and respect. Wood is part of the future, not just stuck in the past.
Nicholas Boys Smith is the founding director of Create Streets.
Interesting article – but the impact of shipbuilding on UK woodlands has been overstated somewhat.
English Oak (like English Yew before it for longbows) simply wasn’t good enough for much of the shipbuilding requirements. Our very changeable temperate climate means that wood doesn’t go straight and consistently enough for the best materials.
We imported a significant proportion of our wood because only relatively few trees would be sufficient within a woodland to be used for these purposes. We also would repurpose any captured French and Spanish ships as they were often of superior construction, largely due to better wood being readily available for Spain and France.
In short it had an impact on our biggest and best oaks, but not so much the overall woodlands as the trees were not suitable.
Secondly, evidence for long term woodland loss seems to come from the Domesday book and exaggerations by contemporary writers over the centuries, pining (pun intended) for a time where England and the UK was a woodland utopia.
Even the Domesday book suggests forestation was at about 15% of the land (it is now c.10-12%). However pollen records show that the level of forestation in the UK now is much like what it was in pre-Roman times.
That said, we should still work hard to maintain and protect our woodlands. Using them for construction in a responsible and sustainable manner is a great idea. These woodlands have been managed by humans for millennia – we should continue doing so.
Need to define trees used. Oak grown on Sussex rich clay is very strong, used to build roof of Westminster Hall in 1298. Slow grown wood, seasoned naturaly has high resistance to rot. Quickly grown wood, seasoned through oven drying is softer and has open pores making it more prone to rot. Check pine in 19th century welshe dresser and that bought today !
A sensible compromise is a rock base say up to 2 to 3ft above ground level, wooden frame with brick skim on ground floors and chimney with peg tile on first floor and roof . Steeply pitched roof with rooms within loft. Iron Masters houses in Sussex are built like this and some have lasted more than 500 years. Use adze to shape wood increases resitance to rot and pegs allows joints to move, so helps cope with differential movement /subsidence.
When it came to ship building corruption in government yards was major cause of bad workmanship as demonstrated by Hawkins in and Captain Lord Cochran. . Ships built for East India Company were of a high quality.
Quickly grown timber, kiln dried which becomes wet before used is likely to twist as it dries out and damage a house and then it will rot.
The author makes no mention of present day quality of construction and Building Control by Local Authorities . I suggest the author starts with which building methods are least prone to bad, construction and Building Control: we do not want a re-run of all the post WW2 house building disasters.
Tne only person to mention quality was Aneuran Bevan who said ” If we do not build enough homes we will be critcised in two years and iof not with high enough quality in 10 years time “.
I am no expert on wood for housebuilding or furniture so that’s really interesting.
And yes was aware of the corruption also being a factor as to why our ships were not as good as they should have been…if we’d put as much effort into build quality as we did our Royal Navy crews, perhaps the Napoleonic wars would have been over sooner
Thank you. Also for some reason Americans and French built better quality and slightly larger frigates.
Am I right in thinking much of our naval timber came from the Baltic, i.e. Prussia, Denmark and Sweden? I seem to recall that ships’ masts were one of Prussia’s major exports for a long time, as the prelude to that story about how they invented scientific forestry and then a few years later were the first to discover that intensive monoculture farming exhausts yields.
Don’t know about repurposing captured French and Spanish ships specifically due to superior construction though, I imagine we’d have repurposed them in any case as it’s far cheaper to capture a ship than build one!
The phrase “well looked after” almost escapes notice but there’s a lot of work and cost packed into those three words, and it never ends.
Agreed, wood requires constant maintenance otherwise it falls apart. I’d never buy a wood house for that reason
If you love something (or someone) it means you care for it. If you love a place, or a home, looking after it well is not a chore, but both a responsibility and a pleasure.
I’m not sure too many people would class sanding back and painting a house every few years would think of it as a pleasure
Tho see my comment above-painting a small one storey wooden house is not that much of a big deal….
If you use the correct timber and are satisfied with a single story smallish dwelling then wood is fine – if you really must have a huge multistorey Mcmansion then it wont do – but then maybe size is actually the issue here – and then we get into sustainability , greed, status signalling etc etc etc. I have a cedar and pine house of 1100 square feet ,1965, , 3 beds, 1 bathroom. To many in the first world this is almost a ‘tiny home’ and perhaps this the problem – that ‘entitlement’ is the real issue vs the wood/concrete debate.
The ceiling of Westminster hall was built in oak. By 1500 , the English were building large ceilings called Hammerbeam Roofs.
Hammerbeam roof – Wikipedia
It’s far from true to say that all buildings today clad externally with brick have an inner wall made of concrete block.
for many years timber frame construction has been popular in the UK. Particularly in Scotland. In recent years several house builders large and small have begun using timber frame and brick out skin as their main construction method.
That is what I do – build wood houses. I frame them, do all the carpentry, and also wire and plumb, and roof, doors and windows, siding, kitchens, baths, flooring, paint – I build with one worker, from ground up. (I am a professional builder and do a fully inspected and professionally built houses.)
Anyway, wood houses are great. Modern wood is lighter than old was, and will rot fast if not kept dry, and insects eat them up if allowed, but modern treatments make it up to anything the old wood was. BillyBob mentioned painting – I use top of the line exterior paint, and if properly applied is good for 15 years between coats with NO problems.
I built a very nice, small but 3 floors high to get a grand view, 1300 sq ft interior, 1000 sq ft of porches, cottage last year. The whole cost, materials, and rentals, and everything plus the labor of one carpenter as helper, was $130,000. (My labour, or the land, not included). It is made to take hurricanes full on – thick walls and super insulated for both sound and temp. I did a lot of extras, and could have built it cheaper.
Super strong if built for strength, and very affordable.
In NZ we have rubbish fast growth pine but if it is treated with the least toxic pressure treatment (LOSP) it will last indefinitely esp if there is appropriate exterior ventilation. Not as good as old growth cedar tho for weather boards !!
The NZ building code is at least 20 years behind other first world countries. Aluminium windows, no air tightness tests, ceiling insulation a lower grade than Europe uses in their walls, heating only in a single room. It’s an absolute shambles
The problem with the high standards of thermal insulation in some German buildings is that they become damp. Humans exhale water vapour. Buildings need to be draught free, wam , free from risiong damp, warm in winter, cool in summer, dry but breathable, well insulated not in flood plains and resistant to earthquakes. Many plastics give off toxins. also wall to wall carpeting allows mites to thrive.
Damp overcrowded homes promoted TB and modern dustry mite ridden homes may promote asthma and other illnesses.
In Britain, middle class brick houses built in about the 1850s invariably are very good quality and are light, airy, dry and damp proof. They can be well insulated; just install double glazing a good loft insulation and they will last hundreds of years.
A teacher told me that mid Victorian schools were cool in summer, warm and dry in winter whereas post war ones were cold in winter and too hot to teach ion a hot summers day.
In Britain almost all building built during the postwar period are of a poor quality, The country was broke so everything was built on the cheap. My secondary school was a prime example, all glass windows single glazed so you wore a jacket in the classroom on the coldest winter days and summer was stifling
The problem in Britain, especially the North is that it has damp climate ( why cotton and woollen mills situtaed there as threads do not break so easily plus fast flowing streams for water power ).
There has been many cases of wooden frames becoming wet during construction and the twisting when drying out in the last few decades. The lack of quality control in design and construction is the problem. Well seasoned oak grown on iron rich soil , cut and shaped with an adze is almost impervious to rot and deformation ; quick grown , kiln dried saw cut pine is not.
$130k what! – how is this possible?
I too am a master builder, but here in Marin county (North of GGB/SF) $130k will not get you 1300 sq/ft labor included – where are you located ?
Son wanted to buy a 150yr old converted stables fully timber framed house. Well maintained etc. However you can’t inspect it all without intrusion. Therefore, despite big deposit etc mortgage guys won’t take the risk. Outside chance a big timber would fail then megabucks. Got to have very expensive specialist survey.
Without knowing the full facts…. But every buyer ought to have a full survey, or access to one. So many problems would be solved sooner and more cheaply if this were done – not just structure and wood rot, but cabling, power, state of roof, etc. The problem as much as anything in that the surveying industry insists its surveys are for the use only of those who commissioned it; no other responsibility is accepted. If a major survey were done say every 40 years, with availability to all subsequent buyers and lenders, maybe with minor updates on change of owner, this would be very reassuring.
It is going to become especially important to buyers and mortgagees of timber framed brick clad houses as they age. Those frames are very lightweight and failures could be catastrophic.
Interesting history and reasons given for the declining use of building timber. Thank you. Fire is a problem, but I read earthquakes now account for over half of all damage and fatalities caused by natural disasters. A Quantity Surveyor mate turned Insurance Assessor following the Christchurch earthquake of ten years ago expressed to me his admiration for houses constructed of timber. “Timber has a memory; unlike stone and brick. Most of the write-offs I have seen are brick homes.”
Lime mortar is more giving. Roman Concrete has survived earthquakes because it has a degree of flexibility.
In S America, China and Japan earthquake resistant structures have been built for centuries. Buddhist temples have sliding joints.
The peg joints of wooden houses in Cheshire have enabled them to move and adjust to the massive ground subsidence caused by Salt Mining.
Regret not having better appreciated the creators and builders of structures. The wood used as a foundation to construct Venice is one of my more recent amazements. Thanks, Charles, for further extending the information trail.
My pleasure. A major problem in construction post WW2 is the lack of durabilitynof materials.
When an organic material is in an environment with no oxygen it does not aerobically This is why remains in peat bogs last. Lowering the water table in lets in oxygen which causes aerorobic decomposition.
True-and well made timber houses on wooden piles will move a bit in an earthquake vs fall to bits. Concrete slab floors are just quick and easy and trendy but not much use in an earthquake or flooding !!
I am currently renovating (and sitting in) a 500 year a old timber frame house. A carpenter is lovingly (and surprisingly quickly) replacing the sole plates and the lower section of the vertical struts, which have rotted, mainly due to inappropriate modern materials being used that stopped them breathing. Today the walls of a 5m x 9m new extension were erected – two guys arrived at 9, left at 2.30! It was factory made. It’s taken weeks to get foundations and a brick plinth built to receive it (mainly my fault, as a self builder relying on people working Saturdays, etc), but the walls went up in less than a day. The roof will take longer, but the whole frame erection will be less than 2 weeks. Then it’ll take me while to roof it and to fit the weatherboarding, but the beauty of this kind of construction is that it is much more amenable to self building. Large builders could probably double or treble their output if they used the technique. However, modern softwood frames won’t last the 500 years that the oak frame has, or even as long as modern brick and block building. That’s the downside of quicker and cheaper building.
At Igtham Moat NT are replacing yellow mortar which causes wood with which it is contact with to rot with lime mortar which does not. It may be worth speaking to specialists in oak contruction and use of lime building materials. Perhaps speak to restoration experts at NT.
There are so many innovative ways of alternative wooden housebuilding. Surely they could be explored more for these reasons and their common aesthetic value?
First look at the skills of the British construction industry, from bottom to top and then look at durability of the wood we have today. We do not want a wooden version of the mistakes from bad concrete construction of the late 1960s.
Mortgage lenders don’t like wooden houses, better tackle that too.
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