Westfield NSW

Why timber is having a vigorous revival

Apr 5, 2018
  • Article by Tiffany Paczek

Timber may have had a bit of a hard-knock time in the design space for a while there, but in 2018 it’s back and more popular than ever. AR looks into this feel good, beating-the-odds resurgence tale.

From houses to ships, furniture to floors, timber has been used in the construction industry – and thus our everyday lives – for centuries. In the realm of modern architecture, it fell out of favour for a period of time, as new materials and technologies infiltrated the space for their day in the sun. Recent times, however, have seen a resurgence in the use of this reliable and aesthetically pleasing material in architecture.

There are a plethora of materials available to architects and builders, and with such a bountiful choice available to them, their selections speak volumes. Timber and hardwoods are experiencing unprecedented levels of popularity in the current market, and there is no denying the visual beauty and sustainability benefits of wood.

South Melbourne home with timber details
Designed by Mitsouri Architects, Photography by Michael Kai Photographs

Australian Sustainable Hardwood (ASH) is an established leader among timber suppliers, with four separate manufacturing operations at its Victorian site, and it is passionate about sourcing innovative solutions for residential and commercial projects. The company specialises in Victorian ash, a beautiful hardwood that is dense, versatile, readily available and sustainably managed. Daniel Wright, ASH’s national marketing manager and Victorian sales manager, confirms that timber is definitely experiencing a vigorous revival.

“Floors, decks and furniture have remained popular throughout the years, as has [its use in] high-end residential architecture, but there has been a noticeable shift since 2005 towards architectural joinery en masse,” he says. “The commercial market kicked it all off and the residential market followed.”

According to Wright, this resurgence was instigated and has been spurred on by a number of factors. “It’s all down to the value proposition offered by various timber species,” he claims. “Timber looks and feels great… It offers pliability in design and makes an affordable feature, both inside and out.”

Timber is visually beautiful, evoking warmth and naturalness while also stirring a sense of nostalgia. It brings a building back to nature, and “there’s a feeling of warmth you get from bringing nature inside,” Wright says. “Timber can really bring life to concrete or plaster.”

Wembley Golf Course (Iron Ash): Designed by Gresley Abas Architects, Built by Firm Construction
Wembley Golf Course designed by Gresley Abas Architects, built by Firm Construction

Its versatility is immensely attractive to architects and builders alike, creating a buzz within the industry. “We now have more people engaging with timber professionals more often, pushing the envelope of what we thought timber could do,” Wright says. “Timber can be a structural element, a point of difference, a feature and an environmental solution – all in one. These are points that we valued thousands of years ago [and] it’s exciting that we are rediscovering this ancient building product.”

The appeal of timber is growing across a number of different areas within the industry, too. Wright names “the continuous flow of design” as a specific major area. Among the best residential designs, the flow from the indoors to the outdoors, and across various segments of the home, is seamless.

“The trick here is in understanding that these segments are often built by different professions,” Wright says. “Seeing a home come together, with various trades having influence and yet [the completed project] looking like a painting brushed by the one artist, is a work of art.” This multi-creator aspect is one of the differences facing businesses designing within the timber resurgence era.

Wright also reports that requests for timber stairs are increasing exponentially – perhaps because buildings are increasingly “going up” rather than out, and that engineered flooring is also on the rise, despite timber floors having remained popular for decades.

“Engineered floors have made timber floors more accessible and affordable, particularly in apartment buildings where lifts aren’t large enough to accomodate long lengths of timber,” he notes. “ASH started manufacturing Australian oak engineered flooring to appeal to those markets, and to limit the risk inherently involved in solid timber flooring installation.”

Inside the Wembley Golf Course
Inside the Wembley Golf Course

While it is aesthetically appealing, timber also has other strong benefits. In structural uses, glulam (glued laminated timber) is used, and the advantages are copious. The benefits of glulam do depend on the size of the build, but they include immense monetary savings, protective char ratings, a high strength-to-weight ratio, ease of use, carbon sequestration, safety benefits, low embodied energy rates (the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building), helping to meet green building and energy standards, and more.

In terms of using timber in external applications, Wright explains that its benefits depend on its ability to counterbalance any weaknesses. “Timber comes in a variety of decay-resistant durability classes,” he says, “and understanding these is critical to having lasting client satisfaction.” Its benefits range from the appearance it bestows and the feeling it imparts to the design – both in sentiment and physical touch – to advantages such as bushfire performance, char ratings, thermal breaks, and energy and thermal performance in window systems. “A timber window can outperform the energy rating of the walls, if it’s done right,” he says.

From an internal perspective, the positives come from the flow of the design and the beauty of bringing nature indoors. A recent study conducted by Planet Ark reveals that the use of timber in the internal decor of a building reduces stress and creates a more inviting workplace atmosphere in which, statistically, staff are happier to work.

Austrian timber flooring manufacturer Mafi, which opened in Australia in 2008, uses a three-layer construction technique and each board is handcrafted, passing through 44 pairs of hands to ensure a product of superior quality and structural longevity and integrity. Mafi’s use of a fast-growing conifer wood that runs across the grain adds strength and a naturally finished timber flooring allows the wood to breathe, regulate humidity and cleanse the air. Additionally, timber can now be used in bathrooms and wet areas for added advantages. Mafi’s unique structure and all-natural finish means the timber can process moisture while ensuring the floor doesn’t cup or warp. It also regulates humidity, filters odours and is antibacterial – all while looking beautiful.

Of course, in today’s economic and political climates, sustainability and environmental impact are of great importance to manufacturers, architects, clients, users and – well – human beings.

1 Walope St Project (Stairs): Built by JustStairs
1 Walope St Project, Built by JustStairs

“Sustainably-harvested timber is arguably the most environmentally friendly building material known to man,” Wright says. It’s carbon positive, is produced with very low amounts of embodied energy, removes carbon emissions from the atmosphere, is grown using solar energy, and is recyclable, renewable and biodegradable. Wright paraphrases the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), saying that timber is one of the best commercial possibilities to mitigate climate targets.

In practical terms, he says, timber helps pass energy and environmental requirements. “Wood Encouragement Policies (WEPs) are championed by forward-thinking councils and now there are new solutions that reduce the cost of timber to make it more accessible to the masses – solutions such as engineered timber flooring, mass timber construction and advanced durability treatments.”

Architectural practices play an important role in this reinvigoration of the earth’s natural resource. Architects have a multitude of materials available to them, and they both understand and research a wide variety of products. And they select the best materials possible to fit with a client’s brief. Wright acknowledges that architects’ use of ASH’s timber is a compliment to the product and encourages others to use it. ASH works alongside many different architects and firms, and a significant portion of its work starts with them.

“We do lots of work with architects and designers to launch new products,” Wright says, “and to keep old favourites fresh in mind. The last 12 months have seen a number of second, third and fourth uses of our timber by the same architecture firms – many for [the architects’] own homes. It was a proud moment when we realised this at our internal market review.”

ASH Timber Project (Flooring): Built by Orbis Constructions, Photography by DJWTV
ASH Timber Project, Built by Orbis Constructions, Photography by DJWTV

Architectural timber specialist Cedar Sales endorses this position, citing a strong relationship between timber suppliers and the architectural business. Cedar Sales provides an extensive range of cladding, panelling, screening and trims, all of which are stylish, practical and durable. It is able to deliver to architects and their clients beautiful designs, uncompromising quality control and modern creations, all from the timeless elegance of western red cedar and hemlock woods.

In a similar vein, manufacturer of modular timber systems Screenwood brings to the architectural space its deft treatment of timber’s unique acoustic advantages. Screenwood’s ceiling and wall panels are manufactured from solid timber slats and come in a variety of profiles. The system incorporates a unique acoustic textile backing, which enhances sound absorption, making it ideal for both decorative and acoustic installations, and a highly attractive option for residential purposes.

Given the peaks and troughs that the hardwood industry has experienced over its architectural and design life, what lies in store for it in the future? For ASH, Wright says the company has some exciting projects on the horizon, including nano technologies that will see wood fibre potentially being used to three-dimensionally print full-sized houses. Additionally, improved bonding strength of paints and glues could offer a 50-year warranty on coating efficacy – “effectively creating maintenance-free timber windows for high-rise buildings or bonding hard-to-bond timber species together with great success,” says Wright. It’s an exciting, innovative and beautiful space to be involved in.

For timber, the sun has indeed come out tomorrow – and that tomorrow is now.

This article originally appeared in AR154 – available online and digitally through Zinio.

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