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Timber Talk: Are Timber Frames More Expensive?

Ready to quit thinking to yourself: are timber frames more expensive? If that's the case, we've got you covered. Learn more about it right now.

Did you know that wood is the only truly renewable construction material on the planet? But wood and timber frame construction, in particular, is far more than a renewable resource or “nice” building method.

Timber frames, whether in cottages, boathouses, pavilions, barns, or mass timber structures, are well known to reduce the stress we feel due to our modern society.

We spend more time at home with the rise of work-from-home and remote work lifestyles. People are leaving cities, buying land, and building dream homes they can be comfortable in, and maybe even pass on to their children and grandchildren.

A timber frame house is a perfect solution to America’s housing inventory problem and to the rising need for ecologically responsible construction. But how expensive is it?

Keep reading to find out the factors that contribute to the cost of timber frame construction and whether it really is “more expensive” than other building materials and methods.

The Largest Cost Factors in Timber Frame Construction

The cost of using timber frames for the home depends on many factors, but the design of the residential, commercial, or municipal structure is where you can save yourself more money on the project than anywhere else.

Shape

The shape can be simple or complex, affecting the amount of timber or lumber used. This turns a stick-built structure that needs 22 trees on average, into a building that could need 25 trees to build.

The trees used for making a stick-built structure are old-growth trees. They’re either fir or pine trees with at least 80-foot height and two-foot diameter. For timber frame construction, you can waste a lot of trees (timber) if you aren’t careful in your design and engineering.

SIPs are structural insulated panels frequently used for infill. Because they’re structural, they can handle some of the load of the building. This reduces the number of knee braces and other elements of timber frame house plans.

Aesthetic Flourishes

To reduce your footprint and maximize your timber usage, building up instead of building out is best. To further reduce costs, consider fewer external flourishes like drive-through porticos in your design.

In addition to external flourishes, reducing internal ones could be even more important.

Vaulted timber ceilings with a lot of open space are charming and show off your timber trusses. Open plans like this increase the complexity of your timber trusses and remove vital usable space. Instead, by adding only a few feet of headroom with a 10’ or 12’ ceiling, you can create a similar feeling.

Window treatments like custom glass shapes will increase the cost of your project and have the potential to greatly decrease your thermal efficiency. This, in turn, will increase your operating expenses over time.

Likewise, custom stairs quickly burn into budgets. The most economical staircase is a straight flight without floating steps. Custom curved staircases — the most expensive option — can cost $10,000 and up.

This is especially true when exotic woods and engineering are considered.

Wood Species and Grades

The return to using wood timbers has come under a lot of attention in the past couple of years. Prices are continuing to drop as timber harvesting stabilizes. Reliance on imported timber is one reason for the high costs of lumber during the pandemic.

The most commonly used species for timber frame kits are Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, White Oak, and Eastern White Pine. The benefits to sourcing local timber species are many, ranging from sustainability to stretching your budget to supporting local businesses.

Douglas fir wood is exceptional to use in timber frames. After being cut, shipped, constructed, and air-dried, you’ll have a high-quality timber frame that will survive throughout the generations to come.

But it isn’t only the species of wood that you have to consider. Green wood is wood that still has at least 19% moisture content and hasn’t been kiln-dried. Green wood is less expensive but isn’t seasoned.

The process of seasoning helps mitigate warping and shrinkage, reduce insect and fungal damage risk, reduce shipping costs by reducing weight, and enhance finishing processes.

While kiln-dried wood is superior, that superiority comes with a high cost. Some ways to overcome this are using multiple species or sparingly using kiln-dried lumber for the most critical parts of the building project.

Between the Timbers: Infill Materials

SIPs reduce air infiltration and convection which increases the insulation rating, makes the home airtight, and increases sound dampening wherever they’re used.

The cost of SIPs can give you some pause until you consider the reduced labor and how much they save you once they’re installed. For example, using SIPs reduces energy costs by 50% and reduces build time.

On the other hand, you have a variety of other infill options.

  • Conventional framing with spray-in polyurethane foam

  • Straw-bale with clay or cement plaster

  • Insulating concrete forms (ICF)

  • Traditional wattle and daub

  • Brick infill or “nogging”

Straw and clay actually provide excellent counter-intuitive protection against wind, snow, and fires. It’s packed together tightly, with very few gaps, if any. It’s a renewable resource and a byproduct of grain production that’s often thrown away.

Still, these other materials don’t allow the flexibility that SIPs provide or an easy way to run plumbing or electrical chases. Even conventional framing is more labor, less effective, and gives the least airtight fit.

Putting It All Together

So, what’s the cost? Can you save money on timber frame kits over traditional homes?

The lifetime of an average house built in the U.S. is between 75 to 100 years. The median cost of building that home (2,600 sq. ft.) is about $150 per square foot ($390,000).

Taken on its face, the average of $200 to $250 per sq. ft. ($520,000) for timber frame construction seems like a lot more.

The reasons for this increase are generally:

  • Timber frame homes are almost always a custom-designed home

  • SIPs are more expensive than stud-framed walls

  • Wood species, cost of skilled craft labor, and timber finishing

Timber Frames Are Your Future

For a cost nearly 20% over conventional building practices, you get an energy-efficient structure that will still be there for hundreds of years. The durability and efficiency of timber frames save you much more than the up-front difference in cost over time.

For these reasons and more, architects and builders around the world are turning back to wood construction as a superior building material. The long-lasting nature of timber frames is an investment in the rest of our lives and of our future generations.

Grand Traverse Timber Frame specializes in true timber frame construction, centered in the Grand Traverse area of northern Michigan. With decades of experience, we know how to build the best timber frame kit for your needs without wasting time, money, energy, or timber.

Reach out and get in touch with us today to see how timber frames will end up saving you in the long run.


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