Timber frame accounted for just under half of all low-rise scheme housing built in 2021
John Desmond, Chair, ITFMA and Managing Director, Cygnum Timber Frame, tells ROBBIE COUSINS why he believes timber frame is the ideal solution to sustainably meet Housing for All output targets.
According to a recent members survey by the Irish Timber Frame Manufacturers Association (ITFMA), timber frame units accounted for 48% of all houses built in low-rise housing schemes in 2021. This was at a time of unprecedented timber price increases and supply challenges.
John Desmond, Chair of the ITFMA and Managing Director of Cygnum Timber Frame, says he is confident of the sector’s ability to meet the demand generated by the Housing for All (HfA) strategy, but he would like a government stipulation that a substantial percentage of houses being built should come from off-site construction, adding that this would not only overcome on-site labour shortages but would go a considerable way to helping the government meet its carbon emissions reductions targets.
“Timber frame manufacturing is the longest established sector of the Irish offsite construction industry, and ITFMA members enjoy long-standing relationships with Irish developers and builders,” John Desmond comments. “The primary driver of timber frame demand has been onsite labour shortages. ITFMA members produce a highly sophisticated product that reduces the need for on-site labour and dramatically reduces carbon emissions in the construction sector.”
He refers to a recent survey of ITFMA members that suggests that timber frame housing is experiencing substantial growth.
“A recent survey of our members indicated that last year 48% of low-rise scheme housing was timber frame. This amounts to 5,300 timber frame houses by ITFMA members alone. If you go back to 2019, that figure was 37%. So, there has been a significant change, and this has happened during a period when there were huge price and supply chain pressures.”
He adds that timber frame is also being used in other areas, such as medical facilities, nursing homes, commercial developments and creches, to name a few. “The most recent expansion of Kildare Village outlets was also in timber frame.”
Desmond says that the esteem with which Irish timber frame is held in the market is highlighted by the recent acquisition of Harmony Timber Frame Solutions by one of the country’s biggest residential developers, Glenveagh Properties plc.
“The recent acquisition of Harmony Timber Frame Solutions by Glenveagh indicates how many developers view timber frame as a key part of their delivery model.”
Housing for All
John Desmond welcomed the HfA announcement last year, as he sees it as a backdrop against which ITFMA members can plan for their future.
“Having HfA as a backdrop against which we can plan is very positive for the Irish timber frame manufacturing sector. It is an ambitious document with clear targets, and we feel confident in our ability as an industry to play an active part in its delivery.”
He adds that in recent years, the timber frame manufacturing sector has become more capital intensive, with highly skilled professionals, trades and workers required to deliver product.
“As an industry, we invest in people as well as plant and equipment. My big concern relating to HfA is that if there were to be a significant slowdown or deviation, it would be a major blow to the sector. The crash of ’08 left our industry largely depleted. We lost a lot of skilled people, and it has taken us a long time to rebuild the sector and give people the confidence to pursue careers in our field.”
He continues, “It is essential that we get pipeline guarantees if we are to increase capacity to meet market needs. In the UK, the government stipulated in its £12bn affordable homes programme that 25% of all homes built through the scheme must use MMC.
“A stipulation such as this or even bigger under HfA would give ITFMA members greater confidence to invest further in their plant and increase capacity. It would also bring greater stability to the sector.”
Timber frame and off-site presents opportunities to reduce the whole life carbon of developments. Earlier this year, a UK study found that modular construction could cut carbon emissions by as much as 45% compared with traditional building methods. It noted, “Using modular to build 900 homes had saved a combined 28,000 tonnes of carbon”.
John Desmond comments that it is widely accepted that in terms of embodied energy, timber has the lowest of all mainstream construction products.
“It would be a straightforward and painless move for public bodies to stipulate that timber frame is used for public projects. This would sit comfortably alongside a housing stipulation under HfA. This would also go some way towards helping the government meet its carbon emissions reduction targets.”
Enterprise Ireland support
John Desmond comments that Cygnum has invested heavily in upgrading its plant and equipment in the past few years and, with the support of Enterprise Ireland, has introduced new training modules and lean manufacturing systems for staff and management, which have helped it further develop its product offering.
“The timber frame product on offer in Ireland has become highly sophisticated. At Cygnum, we have invested in CNC equipment and software that has completely changed our factory floor, digitised our operations and made our overall setup leaner. We now have a web of digital information going directly from our design office to the factory floor. We can seamlessly incorporate individual customer requirements. This has given us a great platform for growth going forward.”
In closing, John Desmond says that, like everyone else in construction, he is concerned about inflationary pressures related to the Russian war on Ukraine, but he is confident that the market share of timber frame will continue to grow in the coming years.
“From talking to members, I know that the sector is in a good place. Supply issues with timber have been resolved, and prices are more stable than they have been for a number of years. Now, if the government was to stipulate a sustainable level of housing and public building to be delivered through MMC, this would be a huge step forward for the timber frame sector as well substantially reducing carbon emissions from the construction sector,” he concludes.
About the Irish Timber Frame Manufacturers Association
The Irish Timber Frame Manufacturers Association (ITFMA) is the representative organisation for the timber frame industry on the island of Ireland. The ITFMA was established in 1998. The association has a membership of 16 manufacturers and a number of supply chain members. The membership is made up of both publicly listed and family owned companies. In 2019, it collectively contributed to 33% of all the residential construction built in Ireland.
To learn more about timber frame manufacturing, visit www.itfma.ie