Anything is Possible: A Self Build & Design Interview with Simon Orrells

Anything is Possible: A Self Build & Design Interview with Simon Orrells title image

Anything is Possible: A Self Build & Design Interview with Simon Orrells

Simon Orrells, managing director of specialist timber frame manufacturer, designer and supplier Frame Technologies – works on bespoke, energy-efficient new homes for selfbuilders throughout the country. Simon is a leading expert in timber-frame construction and a former chairman of the UK Timber Frame Association. His company was the first to achieve gold status in the Structural Timber Association’s membership and quality standards scheme, STA Assure.

Describe your childhood home

I was born on a small farm in Shropshire and all I really knew in my younger childhood was open spaces, fresh air and the agricultural life, which gave me a real appreciation for the environment. The original farmhouse was pretty much in ruins when my parents moved in, so they actually designed and built a replacement brick house just before I was born. When I was seven, we moved to another smallholding to live in an old house which we renovated, so it was normal for me to see building work going on. Our farm wasn’t big enough for me to work on after I left school, but I was offered a position with another farming family, 10 minutes from home, where I worked for the next 10 years. I’ve always been very hands-on and practical, wanting to modify and improve every piece of farming equipment we used.

How did you get involved with timber frame?

I spent a couple of years working with a friend, as he needed help with some timber-frame units, and I eventually decided to make it my full-time job because I was earning more at weekends than I was during the week on the farm. We got to the stage, in 1997, when we set up our own business and grew to be one of the biggest timber frame erecting companies in the UK, working for all the mainstream manufacturers. It was hard work and we were racing from one end of the country to the other.

Clients often queried why we weren’t making our own frames but it was a difficult transition because inevitably we knew that manufacturing frames would immediately cut off the revenue stream from our jobs installing for other people. They wouldn’t want us erecting their frames if we were supplying our own, but we decided to take the plunge anyway.

During that time, I was also invited to become a director of the UK Timber Frame Association, which was a voluntary role and a fantastic experience. I was the first chair of the association to own a timber frame business and was involved in its transformation to become the Structural Timber Association. Membership has trebled and the market share has now grown to more than 30 per cent.

How has your business evolved?

It’s a family business and my wife, Jennifer, also has vast experience in the timber frame industry. We’ve developed our own breathable closed panels, TechVantage, which are manufactured in a factory environment to ensure high-performance thermal insulation, improve thermal bridging and minimise air leakage. Frame Technologies has developed as a purely selfbuild timber frame manufacturing company. We’re not a provider for volume housebuilders, only for selfbuilders wishing to build their own bespoke homes with no two houses the same, which is a lot more interesting. Selfbuilders are totally different to profit-driven volume housebuilders. They know they don’t want fuel poverty in later life, so now that ‘heatless’ homes are achievable, they want a piece of that.

We deliver around 25 projects each year, and my philosophy is that if it can be drawn then it can be built. Some of our projects have been rejected by other companies as too complex, but somehow we always manage to find a way by thinking outside the box. Recently, we built a small house for a mother and daughter in Devon, where plot access was extremely tight. We surveyed the site and because we controlled the design, manufacture and installation as a one-stop shop we were able to make smaller panels and organise closure of the high street. By the end of day one, the ground floor was up, with the first floor on the next day and the roof finished by day three. The neighbours couldn’t believe it.

We’re not planning to expand Frame Technologies – we want to continue what we’re doing and serve selfbuilders well. Rather than taking on more projects, our ethos is to become more involved with each build from an early stage, so that we can spend time with clients and deliver better value. Three-quarters of our projects now involve producing Building Regs packages and all the energy performance side of things, such as SAP calculations, as well as all insulation and external joinery to provide a watertight shell. 

Describe your own house

We built and moved quite a lot in our early married life, but the last house – which we planned not to live in long-term – has been our home for the past 11 years. We built it during the recession and house prices then plummeted so we stopped there. It was a two-up, two-down picture postcard cottage, in around three-quarters of an acre, and I wanted to build a large timber-framed extension. We started building in one of the wettest summers on record so we had to delay building for two months until the September but still moved in a few months later, that December. Sadly, we had a fire last year, caused by an LPG gas explosion in the extension, but the timber frame performed incredibly well – flexing and absorbing the impact. In fact, the engineer said that the timber frame meant we avoided a total rebuild. The insurance assessor told us we’d need to move out for six months during the repairs but I built the house in nine weeks and was determined to be back at home for Christmas, which we were.

Do you have any tips for selfbuilders?

I’d advise people not to set themselves unnecessary targets. Timber frame can be very fast to build, but it’s important to leave pockets of time in between crossovers of trades so if they do overrun you’re not getting stressed about it and you will get the best out of people. Concentrate on getting the house watertight before spending time on the kitchens and bathrooms. Projects and houses develop as they go along and views or light may be different to what you’d imagined. So many people now are taking a bit more time with their builds and really focusing on the sustainability and energy efficiency of a building, which can make a big difference. Involve your timber frame supplier as early as possible for input because often they can save you money.

When comparing quotes, make sure you get apples for apples. There are so many build systems on the market that architects can’t have detailed knowledge of all of them, whereas we can look at the buildability and offer a complete build system without hidden extras for things like the structural steel element. From the ground up, it’s our responsibility and over 75 per cent of our business comes through referral recommendation, so we must be doing something right. Building your own home is a huge outlay but it’s not all about price. People want service and continuity and need someone at the end of the phone to help them bring everything together and understand the process when there’s information overload. I’m involved with every one of our projects all the way through, building strong relationships over several months and, to be honest, most clients are so appreciative of what we do that they become friends.