Huel Twist hails from the land where timber frame is king.

He now heads up TRADA Technology‘s frameCHECK quality assessment service, but he’s a native of western Canada and spent the past 25 years in the Canadian timber frame business.

When he’s on frameCHECK duty on a UK site – assessing timber frame quality, liaising with contractors, housing associations, erectors and building control officers – Huel says he feels ‘right back at home’. And that applies even when the site is in damp, drizzly north London, which is where TTJ caught up with him.

When you’re talking about the timber frame market as a whole, however, the transatlantic crossing represents a real sea change. The big difference is size. While it has put on a major spurt of growth in the past few years, TRADA reckons that timber frame in the UK still accounts for only 9% of new housebuilding.

‘In Canada it’s around 90% and, while other forms of modular construction have been making inroads, it’s also widely used in the commercial sector,’ said Huel. ‘In Canada they don’t really have the equivalent of frameCHECK, because timber frame is what the building inspectors see all the time, so they can pick up any problems. In the UK, building control officers’ understanding is still at a fairly low level. They’re quite relieved to see frameCHECK turn up and find our input as useful as that of our clients, the contractors or housing associations.’

Educational role

While frameCHECK is primarily a commercial quality assessment operation, Huel also sees it having an educational role, helping to build up the UK’s timber frame knowledge base. And he has extensive experience and expertise to impart. After studying operations management at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and gaining building and business qualifications, he went straight to work in the timber frame market. In the 1980s he joined Teal Industries, one of Canada’s leading semi-automated timber frame wall manufacturers and assemblers, becoming site and production supervisor and pioneering ‘innovative re-engineering techniques to increase production output’.

‘The job gave me insight into all aspects of the business. I was liaising between the client, the CAD/CAM personnel, the manufacturing facility and the erection crew.’

After a spell at the Canadian Department of National Defence, he joined another construction company, Contex. The latter helped hone his skills in CAD, scheduling and working to ‘tight project specifications’.

For a while, Huel also ran his own timber frame erection business. Then it was time for a career break – a three-year stay in a beach house in Belize where he focused on another skill – catamaran sailing!

It wasn’t all sun, sand and surf, however. He took time out to study building in Belize and had his first real encounter with heavyweight British-style construction methods.

‘In Belize traditional construction is timber frame but, recently, reinforced concrete with block infill on heavy concrete slabs has been introduced,’ he said. ‘It’s really inappropriate because they’re building hugely heavy structures on a very light soil and, in that climate, it’s a painfully slow process. It is the ideal place for timber frame.’

Huel laughs when you ask if it was the burgeoning UK timber frame market that drew him here in 1999. ‘No, it was actually a lady I met while visiting Mexico. She’s from St Albans, which is where I now live!.’

Construction market

But, he hastens to add, when he arrived he soon became interested in what was happening in the construction market.

‘Initially I was looking to study your quantity surveying system, which had always impressed me. But then I saw timber frame being mentioned in every trade magazine. Instead of taking the academic route, I decided to seek employment. I saw a TRADA advert in Building magazine, went to one of its seminars, got talking to Dr Paul Newman [TRADA’s head of timber technology] and landed the frameCHECK job.’

For TRADA, this couldn’t have been timed better. It had been running a successful, but relatively low-profile, timber frame quality assessment service and decided the time was ripe to beef up the business. Recruiting Huel and branding the operation frameCHECK were key to the process.

He and his team are now taking on a mounting workload. ‘At the outset, we assumed the housing associations would be our target market, but major builders are also using the service, as are timber frame manufacturers as part of their efforts to promote continuous improvement.’

FrameCHECK’s work has its hi-tech aspects, with inspectors clambering over timber frame sites at various stages of construction, using a range of measuring and monitoring equipment. But it’s not just an academic exercise. There’s also the personal touch. It depends on an expert eye and knowing where problems can lurk. ‘The basic questions we ask are: will the building fall or burn down, will it be warm, noisy and will the doors and windows operate?’

Seeking knowledge

Huel has found the UK timber frame sector ‘hungry for knowledge’ and generally ‘committed to doing a very good job’. ‘Of course we also get called in to advise where things have gone wrong, but that shows courage and integrity on the part of the contractor.’

He doesn’t expect timber frame here to achieve Canadian levels in his lifetime.

‘But there’s no doubt it’s going to grow rapidly. It’s been boosted by the Egan report’s recommendations on modular construction, the major housebuilders are increasingly realising the commercial advantages and the housing associations like it for a variety of reasons: the environmental aspect, speed of construction and the fact that many of the components can be sourced in the UK.’

The time timber frame saves on site and the fact that it is soon weathertight is a plus for contractors too.

If UK timber frame is going to keep up its momentum and avoid the quality and image problems that haunted it in the 1980s, Huel feels the industry must put education and training at the forefront. TRADA and frameCHECK will continue to do their bit, both in their day-to-day work and through courses. ‘But timber frame companies also have a part to play and it should form part of the curriculum for architects, on building courses and apprentice schemes,’ said Huel. ‘It’s still an embryonic business in the UK, and new companies are moving in. Without effective training, mistakes will happen.’

As for his own future in the business, Huel sees plenty more scope for developing frameCHECK. ‘The level of knowledge in the industry is increasing, but our input will still be needed.’ In fact, he added, frameCHECK is recruiting another two staff to cope with the workload.

His wanderlust is also keeping him here. ‘There are still plenty of vacation destinations in Europe I want to get to!’ he said.

At the same time, Huel clearly needs the occasional reminder of Canadian home comforts. When travelling he stays in Travel Inns – all of which are timber frame.