By Candace Sofianos King | Photos by Swissline Design

Move over bricks and mortar – timber modular structures are taking over traditional building methods.

Timber is one of the most versatile materials to use for modular building and boasts endless capabilities as far as design and techniques are concerned. There are several advantages of building with timber frame modular structures in comparison to conventional brick and mortar, says Marc Lüdi, master Swiss carpenter and owner of Swissline Design, producer of high-quality European style timber construction and joinery for the South African market.

Timber modular structures are on the rise in South Africa.

Backed by intensive knowledge and experience of the timber frame industry, Lüdi has extensively constructed timber frame buildings in Switzerland and now in South Africa for the last 10 years. Having studied the South African market, he realised that there is an increasing demand for modular frame timber homes.

Lüdi says, “Among the main advantages of modular timber structures is the sustainability aspect of using timber which is the most sustainable building material. Another advantage is the faster assembly time on site because most of the construction is done off site under careful supervision. This involves the manufacturing of all the elements including the infilled insulation and the window and sliding doors; making installation time on site much shorter than building from the ground up.

“The drying time a brick house requires is quite long – which effects the finishing time; whereas with a timber frame build, the finishes can commence the day the structure is up as there is no drying out time. When building with the correct materials, there is also very little, if any, maintenance required in the long run – therefore no cracks, no repainting and so on.”

Lüdi adds that timber can be laminated to practically any structural specifications. “A-grade construction spruce timber – which we generally recommend – is available in 12m lengths, making for seamless roof beams and structural possibilities,” he highlights.

‘Comparing apples to oranges’

There seems to be a general misconception that building with timber frame modules is far less than conventional building, Lüdi notes, adding that, “This is not

Above garage timber frame apartment living.

always the case when using high-end quality timbers that are kiln dried and are construction timbers. Having said this, there is no real way of comparing both construction methods as this would be like comparing apples to oranges.

“For example, building with a proper insulated modular timber frame means the R-value is far higher than brick and mortar. It is also widely believed that a timber home will be subject to rot and more exposed to fire but modern building regulations and the option of fire retardant properties of insulations on the market and dry lining means that fire is simply not an issue.

“There are also options to pre-treat against any potential problems. Also rot-producing fungi will only attack wood that boasts a moisture content consistently over +/-20%, therefore building with kiln-dried timber is a necessity in the industry.”

The design plays an important role in achieving optimum effectiveness of the natural characteristics that timber offers, highlights Lüdi. “The design capabilities of timber with modular structures are endless. Careful planning is necessary with timber frame since the modules are produced off site –they have to fit precisely on site, everything from the floor elements to the roof finish.

“The latest requirements by town planning with regards to fenestration schedules is also something to keep in mind as most new builds have new regulations with regards to the glazing required and so forth. Obviously double-glazed windows and sliding doors add a high R-value to the structure, but can be quite costly at this point in time. Hopefully this will change.”

Trends taking shape

A quintessential country style timber frame home.

Tiny home living has been highly popular with our northern hemisphere neighbours mostly due to their restricted spaces available and obviously the trend to ‘simplify life’ also plays a role, Lüdi points out. “Whereas in South Africa we tend to have more space for living so the call for this tiny living market is not yet in our hemisphere.

“There is, however, a trend to add value to existing properties by adding onto the existing conventional homes, which is ideal if the space allows for it and if there is accessibility to the footprint. We have done several projects where modular timber frame design was specified for roof top building – penthouse apartments and building onto existing structures like garages – to maximise space and to add value to the building. This becomes more expensive as this involves more on site work with the existing roof, however, it becomes well worth it in the long run.”

With the planet-conscious movement on sustainable and eco-friendly living and building on the rise, we see a huge influx in demand on this type of building; and an increase on acknowledgment from town planning and municipalities to readily and eagerly accept this kind of building for approvals is imminent, despite that there is still quite a lot of red tape with regards to this, says Lüdi. “As this building method becomes more commonplace and demand increases, hopefully we will see a more competitive pricing structure as a result.”