Wood be good: Why top Australian architects love timber for building homes

In July 25, 2017

John Wardle Architects readily admits to being “obsessed” with using timber in residential designs. “Every piece is different and unique,” says Diego Bekinschtein, who oversees the Melbourne practice’s residential houses sector.

JWA‘s affection for wood reflects the attraction of many to this medium. Even in the face of our love for a more clinical modern aesthetic, we have an on-going attachment to this most ancient of building materials.

 Sydney architect James Fitzpatrick says this ardour for the arboreal speaks to our affinity for the natural world. “We’re becoming aware of the biophilic nature of timber,” he says. “We just prefer a lovely timber window over aluminum.”

Scientific research backs this up – studies have found we feel healthier and happier both physically and mentally surrounded by wood.

“Wellbeing is the buzzword with timber,” says Andrew Dunn, head of the Timber Development Association, which oversees the Australian Timber Design Awards. “It makes you calmer.”

Of course, we have used lumber to build with for many centuries and timber framework remains a popular, cost-effective housing substructure.

But it’s the creative, decorative, inventive and innovative ways the design and building industries are using timber at every level – whether externally or internally as structure, cladding, joinery, fittings and furniture – that is taking the material to new levels.

Part of that is an abundance of varieties (among them native hardwoods, soft woods, sustainable, recycled), colours and forms (solid timber, veneers, laminates and composites) to choose from.

“You can make all sorts of shapes, sizes, you can customise it, make curves and angles,” says Melbourne architect Anthony Chan, who loves the flexibility and ease of working with timber.

“So many projects are flat with render, steel or glass, but timber gives a building warmth, texture and contrast.”

For his award-winning artist studio in Thornbury, Chan used the popular blackbutt for the interior floors, walls and ceilings and a curved wall of equally popular spotted gum battens to trace the contour of a pond-like swimming pool. “It gave the project an organic feel,” he says.

JWA has adopted a sculptural approach with timber cladding. In one instance, it created a scalloped “fabric-like” motif, which carried across walls, kitchen joinery and bathroom cabinetry. In another instance, it invented its own profiles by using battens of varying depths to form an articulated facade.

“The profiles use the light and shade through the day to create texture and different rhythmic arrangements,” Bekinschtein explains. He stresses, though, it’s important to work with skilled trades – fabricators, turners, profilers and the like – to achieve the best results. The practice also designs furniture for its projects.

Behind the beauty, though, is purpose. JWA has developed a timber screen it calls a “hedge”, offering not only a decorative partition between neighbours but privacy. Similarly, Queensland’s Clare Design has designed screens of tallowwood and ironbark protecting against sun and rain, while letting air permeate and circulate. “People respond to timber,” says principal Kerry Clare.

Technological advances are also seeing more innovative uses. Chan points to improvements in the quality of reconstituted veneers and laminates, which now offer durable, aesthetic alternatives.

“Laminates are almost indistinguishable from veneers,” he says. Kerry has employed more “natural-looking” timber composite materials (like Innowood, ModWood) in bushfire-prone areas, due to their flame-retardant nature.

Architects like Kerry and Fitzpatrick are also embracing engineered timber construction, such as cross-laminated timber (CLT), glue laminated timber (Glulam) and laminated veneer lumber (LVL), which lend themselves to larger-scale projects.

“With computers, we can fully design and engineer timbers,” says Fitzpatrick. “We can be far more adventurous.”

Timber has been used to great effect at 16 Lancewood Road, a two-storey six-bedroom retreat built about 30 years ago on the fringe of Dural, and renovated in the past decade. Today, it’s selling for around $3,895,000 to $4.28 million.

While it’s comfortable and modern, there is a rustic charm never too far away. The exposed timber-beamed whitewashed cathedral ceiling in the main living room, contrasted with the slate floors and stone fireplace, perfectly illustrates this. As do the solid timber floorboards, doors and windows and French provincial kitchen.

“There’s something about this house that just grabs every single person who walks into it,” Merc Real Estate agent Mechlenne Douaihy says.

Over on Mermaid Beach, 14-16 Ocean Street highlights the complexity that timber tones can add to a residential build.

From the outside, this architect-designed, “no-expenses-spared” beachside residence is cool and chic.

It’s the sort of smart contemporary bearing you get from a house fully constructed from concrete.

Inside, the $4.95 million-dollar-home is equally slick and modern. But clever tonal colour schemes and use of materials – starting at the timber front door – suggest a softer side.

“The wooden design features break up the hard-edge architecture, while introducing softness and warmth,” Kollosche agent Jordan Williams says.


Wood be good: Why top Australian architects love timber for building homes by Paul Best, Domain Reporter.  Available from <https://www.domain.com.au/news/wood-be-good-why-top-australian-architects-love-timber-for-building-homes-20170720-gx4s9o/> [July 20, 2017]

ForestryConnect is a digital media platform for everything forestry. Sign up to our newsletter delivered fortnightly to your inbox.