Times are good for the timber frame industry and with a sea change going on in the registered social landlord (RSL) market, things look set to get even better.

Only a few years ago we had to deal with an almost anonymous employer (ie housing associations), adversarial contractors and contracts were secured on the cheapest price. That has now been turned on its head.

For example, Pace was recently selected by an RSL to act as its supply chain partner for its future development programme of affordable housing, and to our surprise we were advised that we would form part of the selection panel to appoint the main contractors for the work. It was music to our ears, but what’s going on?

Timber frame’s market share has been increasing for some years, due not least to the following milestones: the publication in the early 90s of the Building Research Establishment‘s 10-year study of timber frame construction which gave it a clean bill of health; Latham’s “Constructing the Team” and finally Egan’s “Rethinking Construction” which recommends the use of off-site manufacture and, in particular, the use of timber. Since Egan we haven’t looked back, and the government has decided to take advantage of off-site manufacturing methods even further for its new housing programme.

Modern methods of construction

Modern methods of construction (MMC), the new official term that avoids the use of the word “prefabrication”, which might be seen as pejorative, is probably going to create the most significant quantum leap our industry has ever seen.

John Prescott’s “sustainable communities”, a step change in housing supply announced last year, aims to deliver 200,000 extra new homes over the next 12 years. By 2008 the government will have more than doubled spending on new affordable housing since 1997. This equates to 10,000 extra homes a year and a 50% increase compared with today. It also intends to deliver 40,000 new homes for essential public sector workers.

In order to deliver these impressive outputs, quickly and efficiently the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has stated that one-third of the houses built through the Housing Corporation’s Challenge Fund will be built using MMC. The National Investment Policy for 2004/06 states that MMC is a “key government priority” and that a minimum of 25% of newbuild schemes must be built using modern methods. English Partnerships has gone further and is specifying 50% of newbuild will be MMC.

MMC is a broad category that embraces a variety of build approaches but certainly encompasses timber frame.

Timber frame is also recognised as the most sustainable method of construction. The government’s own definition of sustainable development is “ensuring a better quality of life for everyone now and for generations to come”. This national strategy sets out four key objectives that must be achieved simultaneously:

  • Social progress that meets the needs of everyone;

  • effective protection of the environment;

  • prudent use of natural resources;

  • maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment.
  • Timber frame clearly fits the bill.

    There have been concerns in many sectors of the industry that we do not have the capac-ity in the timber frame industry to cope with this level of growth. We have the capacity at Pace and I know our competitors do too, a fact borne out in a recent Department of Trade and Industry survey on the subject.

    The UK Timber Frame Association‘s quality and training initiatives also ensure that this growth will be sustained.

    So this is a real opportunity for the timber frame industry. How we trade in this sector now is of paramount importance as RSLs want and need to deal directly with the timber frame manufacturers, not only to develop their MMC outputs but also to ‘negotiate’ their visions for the future.

    But there is a catch: ‘traditional’ timber frame is fast becoming unacceptable as an MMC as it is not innovative enough – we are already seeing this in specifying documents.

    Need for innovation

    Therefore we must be receptive to the RSLs. We must be innovative and flexible and push the boundaries forward; otherwise we will see an increase in imports and other non-timber systems flourishing in the UK.

    We have recently launched our Optima Homes brand, which we believe will have a significant impact and influence on the future shape of the MMC market.

    Our experience is that RSLs genuinely believe it is now time to build in more innovative and efficient methods. Their standards of build are very high and their performance specifications are demanding, so this is not a cheap quick fix but a long-term opportunity for the timber frame industry to promote itself as cutting edge and to provide the RSL market with what it needs.