Structural Timber – Providing the Capacity and the Solutions

According to the Structural Timber Association (STA), there has never been more enthusiasm for offsite manufacture and it is reminding government that the structural timber sector is ready and waiting to help resolve the shortfall in the housing stock. 

The well-documented housing shortage in the UK has seen a wide range of politicians of all affiliations promise to address the issue, whether by pledging support for lending schemes or for the construction of hundreds of thousands of new homes. This is all excellent news for the timber construction sector and is being seized upon by the STA, which has lobbied successive governments long and hard over the advantages of building with timber. 

The STA now has hard evidence to back up its words and has prepared the capacity report ‘Addressing the UK Housing Shortage Using Structural Timber Solutions’ which will be launched at Timber Expo on 10 October. The report starts by setting some context, stating that in 2015 the housebuilding sector had an estimated £24 billion of economic output, of which timber frame manufacturers/housebuilders contributed £6.6 billion, or 27.4% of the total.  Structural timber contributes circa 5% of all construction GDP and is a key contributor to the 750,000 employed in the entire construction supply chain. 

“The rationale behind the capacity report is to say to government that if you want to build more homes quickly, then look no further than the structural timber industry,” says STA Chief Executive, Andrew Carpenter.  “There is no need to go to China. We have more than 400 members and if you look at a map of the UK there is one in virtually every constituency.” Perhaps referring to the late 2016 news that the China National Building Material Company was part of a joint venture to build six offsite factories around the UK. 

The capacity report was prepared for an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Timber Industries meeting and because time was relatively short, data was collected from the 11 largest STA members, who in volume terms represent 44% of the total membership. 

“What we were able to ascertain was that if we were given the commitment from the government and the guarantee of a pipeline, we could treble the number of timber frame homes we manufacture by 2020,” says Andrew Carpenter. Current capacity is typically run on a single day shift only, making increases in output by multi-shifting relatively easy to do. Assuming full year outputs the sector can deliver around 150,000 units in 2020/2021, up from around 80,000 in 2017/2018 

“I’ve never known such unified agreement that offsite construction is the solution to the UK housing crisis. There is acceptance at pretty much every government level, national, regional and local, that offsite is what is needed. If we are going to invest in new factories and more people then when the next downturn comes – as it will do at some stage and the private developers pull their horns in, we need the commitment on council houses, affordable homes and housing associations. They need to give us the confidence to invest.”

The STA’s last Timber Trends Report released earlier this year, forecast continued growth within the sector towards 2018 and beyond, as companies are taking advantage of market opportunities. Total housing starts are predicted to tip over 200,000 by 2018, with shortages in traditional skills and construction materials, encouraging the larger builders to look again at timber frame.

As with all sectors, Brexit holds some amount of uncertainty, however timber is a global and innovative industry, which will grasp the opportunities and overcome any potential hurdles.

The sector has developed advantages unsurpassed by any other – the environmental credentials of wood are ones that cannot be matched by any other building material. Structural timber solutions outweigh other sectors in regard to volume of materials – here the sector is quick to respond and can add capacity at a relatively rapid rate to meet demand. Shortages in other traditional construction materials will continue to encourage larger builders and specifiers to look to alternatives, such as timber frame, structural insulated panel (SIPS) systems or cross laminated timber (CLT). 

“There is a lot of confidence in the industry and if we are to continue to thrive, the sector must continue to innovate to keep ahead of the curve,” adds Alex Goodfellow - STA Chairman and Managing Director of Stewart Milne Timber Systems. “We have seen momentum grow over the last three to five years and the timber sector is well placed to continue to capitalise on the current and forecast growth. We should be celebrating the remarkable performance achieved over the last year, in continuing to grow the UK market share for timber frame technology.

The market is showing higher levels of optimism amongst the structural timber solution providers, with more positive signs of investment and an increase in activity levels. The time is right for the construction industry to embrace innovative timber technology and offsite techniques to develop better buildings at a rapid rate, to overcome the shortfall in housing stock and produce energy efficient buildings, which is particularly important for the social/affordable housing sectors.”

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