Timber-framed vs traditional houses – which are better?

Your property queries answered

My girlfriend and I are in the process of buying our first house here in Ireland. We have been looking at some properties in the Skerries area which we really like. We found a new site under development with timber-framed semi-detached houses and we have some questions for you.

What are the weaknesses of timber-framed structures and what are the things to pay more attention to during the construction? The houses are rated A3 and come with a 10-year Homebond guarantee.

Also, are they at more risk of damp and mould? Is there a greater risk of fire due to the timber frames and the panels? Are they solid and robust? What is the expected minimum life for a house like this?

In normal circumstances, timber-framed houses are every bit as solid and robust as more traditional block-built houses. This is largely because houses have to be built to meet certain minimum standards from a building regulations perspective. This is perhaps confirmed by the fact that you can get a 10-year Homebond guarantee with a timber-framed house which is equal to the block built house.

The main weaknesses of timber-framed houses relates to how the house performs in certain circumstances including leaks/flooding and fire damage scenarios. As the principal structure is timber, they are susceptible to greater damage when exposed to water or fire, and thus it is inevitable that when the timber members are exposed to these conditions, the level of damage will be much greater. The implication of this is that it would typically be more expensive to get insurance cover for a timber-framed house when compared with a traditional block-built house.

You specifically raised the issue of flammability and damp and mould, and while the house will be more susceptible to damage in the circumstances as outlined above, in normal circumstances, the timber-framed house is no more at risk than a traditional house. From a flammability point of view, the timber members are largely concealed behind plasterboard linings and thus they are not flammable per say.

Similarly, in normal circumstances, the timber-framed house is not at any more risk of dampness and mould growth when compared with the traditional house, however as outlined above if the timber-framed members are exposed to a fire or wet conditions then the timber-framed members will clearly not perform as well as a concrete-block structure.

The advantages of a timber-framed house are that it can be built in a much shorter timeframe, as large parts of the house are “factory produced”, but this primarily benefits the developer. In general it should be possible to get a better BER rating with a timber-framed house as they do tend to be very energy efficient. The key thing to watch out for is the quality during the process of construction to ensure that the same high standards that can be obtained in the factory situation can be replicated and followed through on site.

In this respect, you should check that the house is being monitored and signed off by a qualified construction professional. If properly built, the life expectancy will be comparable with a traditional block-built house. In this respect, you can expect a design life in the order of 60 years, though practically speaking one would expect a greater life.

There are also other elements such as the boiler which might only have a 15-year life expectancy. This however applies across the board for timber-framed and traditional concrete block houses and thus on a comparable basis the life expectancy is similar.

Val O’Brien is a chartered building surveyor and member of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, scsi.ie

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