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Self Build Systems Explained

One of the first things you’ll need to decide when undertaking a self build project is how your new home will be constructed. It’s a common assumption that all houses are made from brick and block, but there are many other alternatives that have been rapidly increasing in popularity here in the UK.

Each system comes with its own pros and cons, and no single system is better than the other. The decision will come down to your own personal preference and the requirements of the project, such as planning guidelines and site access. So it’s important to carefully research each method to find out which is right for you and your new home.

Timber frame

Timber frame homes are built from individually crafted timber components which are then assembled on site to create a solid structural framework. Advanced breathable membranes, insulation and vapour control layers are added to create a highly insulated, air tight, energy efficient and weatherproof shell. Timber frame is hugely popular with self builders because of its speed of construction once erected and its eco credentials.

Pros: Eco friendly, fast construction, low air leakage and high insulation properties.

Cons: Potential for rot if not properly constructed and maintained. There can be delays in delivery from the manufacturer of several months.


Passivhaus is a sustainable construction concept for creating highly energy efficient and healthy homes. Passivhaus demands high levels of insulation, almost total air tightness and a mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system to meet its rigorous certification standards. These standards can be achieved with both a masonry and timber approach to construction.

Pros: Eco friendly, low carbon footprint, healthy and comfortable homes.

Cons: High cost. Stringent quality control required throughout build to achieve air-tightness and meet certification requirements.

Green oak frame

Green Oak homes are eye-catching, natural and reassuringly expensive, guaranteeing a beautifully unique home every time. This traditional method of construction can be a challenge to get through modern regulations though, so careful planning is required. Today all oak frame houses will need to include an outer layer, typically insulated timber frame, to achieve energy regulations.

Pros: Great internal traditional look, eco friendly.

Cons: High cost, planning restrictions will apply and design may not always fit in well with typical street scenes.

Insulated concrete formwork (ICF)

ICF is a monolithic method of construction using hollow polystyrene blocks, often described as ‘grown up Lego’. The interlocking units are dry-stacked before being filled with poured concrete. ICF offers incredible levels of insulation and airtightness together with a rapid, low-skill build process.

Pros: High insulation and airtightness, quick to build, can be built in cold conditions and hands-on self builders will save on both build and labour costs.

Cons: Higher cost if a contractor is used. Limited natural materials used in construction.

Structural straw panels

Structural straw panels take advantage of the many benefits of traditional straw bale building and turn this into a modular system that is easy and fast to construct. As a Passive House certified building system, high thermal and eco performance are easily achievable and healthy houses can be erected in just a few days.

Pros: Low environmental impact, cost effective, quick to assemble and well insulated.

Cons: Sensitive to moisture until watertight.

Traditional masonry

The traditional method using mortar and insulated blocks. Whilst cheap and well known to all UK builders, it can be slow and messy, and the quality of build is entirely down to the skills of the builder.

Pros: Easy to find a builder and can be the cheapest build option.

Cons: Finished build quality can vary based on the builder's skills. Today’s tradesmen are often not familiar with the importance of air-tightness.

Thin joint masonry

The thin joint system addresses the drawbacks of a traditional build, such as air-tightness, by using engineered lightweight aggregate blocks and an adhesive in place of a mortar bed. This speeds up construction times and increases the accuracy of the build whilst retaining the solidity and thermal mass of traditional masonry.

Pros: Quick to lay, high levels of acoustic insulation and good air-tightness.

Cons: Accuracy of build is very important, and brick layers with experience may be hard to come by and expensive.

Structural insulated panels (SIPs)

SIPs take timber framing into the modern era, using cassettes of high-grade insulation sandwiched between Oriented Stranded Board (OSB) to make a strong, flexible and high-performing structure. Ideal for both contemporary and eco builds.

Pros: Five day erection once delivered, easy to achieve air-tightness.

Cons: Slightly more expensive than timber frame, but no fitting of insulation is needed and less labour is required on site.

Building systems in the Self Build Educational Zone

At the centre we have life sized examples of a range of these build systems in our Self Build Educational Zone. Come along to get a closer look at each system in person, and get professional advice from one of our in-house experts to help you make the best decision for your build. 

The National Self Build & Renovation Show - Friday 11th & Saturday 12th October

Create your perfect home at The National Self Build & Renovation Show! Join us for two days of an unrivalled line up of exhibitors and experts on hand to share their advice, this is an unmissable event for anyone thinking of self building or renovating their home.

The National Self Build & Renovation Show