Timber frame homes are sustainable, energy efficient, and beautiful. Do they cost more than a conventionally framed home? The cost question has been asked often and there doesn’t seem to be a perfect answer. The differences encompass much more than the cost.
All too often, the timber frame home is designed and when the homeowner takes the plans to a general contractor, they are discouraged. Sometimes a builder will look at the plans and argue the case that they can “build this house for much less”. Let’s look the differences more closely.
1) They tell the homeowner they can add some timber or box some beams to get the same look. The heavy timber in a timber frame is structural. There are no compromises, no way that adding some beams or boxing conventionally framed posts can compare. No home with timber added for looks or with boxed beams will ever be mistaken for a timber frame. Even if you aren’t concerned about the longterm sustainability and just want a “look”, this isn’t an option.
2) They insist that they can get the same energy efficiency by offering a home with no leakage. Air leakage is an important factor in energy efficiency, but insulation can never be discounted. The thermal breaks created by a stud wall, the eventual sagging of even well installed, paper backed insulation, and the risk of poor installation caused by weather or other onsite issues are inevitable and will not compare long term or short term to a timber frame wrapped in insulated panels.
3) The cost of the timber frame and panel package will not be removed from the equation. It money spent will be transferred from the timber frame company to the contracting company. The cost to conventionally frame, sheath, insulate, and truss a home does not disappear. The time onsite to do these tasks will be much longer than the time to install a package that has been fabricated offsite in a controlled environment and the costs (framing, sheathing, trusses, junction/boxes, subfascia, etc) are all there, just spread out over different categories.
4) The contractor’s fee is based on his/her involvement in the process. It is a valid fee and the insurance, oversight, project management are all valuable services. This fee will vary depending on the local market and the service provided. We’ve seen everywhere from 10% to 20%. While the contractor has contact with the timber frame company and does work with them (and often with their plans), the timber frame company has their own insurance, management, and often crews to install. The contractor’s fee for that portion of the project can be eliminated or minimized, depending on the involvement of the contractor in the timber frame portion of the project. Paying 20% to the contractor on the timber frame package will increase the cost, but not the value. This can be a significant cost that can make the timber frame home more costly. It is not necessary. If the contractor is not willing to reduce or remove this fee, you may want to consider another contractor.
5) Timber frame homes are often considered high end. They can be…or they can be more modest. If you are comparing apples to apples (the same finishes, appliances, windows, etc), there is very little cost difference in finishing the home. If the idea that all timber frame homes are expensive is brought to the conversation by the contractor early and you are looking for a home with a more modest budget, ask him to suggest other ways to reduce the cost. He should have suggestions that are realistic.
6) Talk about your budget early in the timber frame home design process. Timber frames can create their own economies…with smaller, more open spaces; simpler frames; minimizing corners; building up or down instead of our. Your choice of timber will impact the budget. Be reasonable and base your choices on the level of importance to you…not to anyone else.
7) Take into account the long term savings in maintenance, energy costs, and the value of a timber frame as you calculate the cost differences. Remember that a timber frame offers flexibility if later the rooms need to be reconfigured due to life changes. There are typically no bearing walls in a timber frame or hybrid home.
All of that said, we believe there is little if any short term cost difference and that the long term cost savings weigh heavily on the timber frame side.
So, build and build boldly.
And our guest this week, Rutherford, a resident of New York, is quite the bull dog about timber framing!