My wooden house

Article 1 - wooden house

Photo: Lal Lal House Western Victoria Australia. Architect: Paul Morgan

(The Lal Lal site, located an hour and a half drive west of Melbourne, is a beautiful expanse of extant riparian woodland. The design approach was to provide a two stage residential project (cabin and house), similar to the approach of this article’s author.)

My wooden house

Australia has a unique resource in its native forest hardwoods, producing some of the most durable and attractive timbers in the world.

Native hardwoods are sourced from sustainably managed forests and more recently, from plantations and farm forestry.

New South Wales in particular has some of the most beautiful and extensive hardwood forests in the world. The Great Dividing Range—extending from Victoria to the ranges of northern Queensland—supplies Australians and overseas customers with high quality, durable hardwood.

This level of quality can be seen in the many houses across the state. From the humble mountain cabin to large spacious homes with their large wooden verandahs—timber has been used extensively in Australia since the early days of settlement.

One of state’s largest wood supply districts is the New England area. On the eastern slopes, high rainfall and rich soils produce tall, straight hardwood trees—such as blackbutt, tallowwood, stringybark, ironbark and blue gums. This area has been sustainably logged for the past 20 years and continues to produce some of the finest building and furniture timbers available in the region.            

Turning inspiration into reality

My love of the Gibraltar ranges in the foothills of the New England Plateau once inspired me to purchase a 52-hectare piece of mountainside from a cattle farmer. He had logged and cleared 50 per cent of the land for grazing, and had left the steeper slopes and perennial creeks wooded. That was over two decades ago, and with natural regrowth and some reforestation work, the abundance has since returned. My place is now a semi-mature forest, home to many species of birds and animals.

I began building my cabin in the 1980s, sporadically doing work on it as time and professional commitments allowed. Living mostly in Sydney left little time for me to do much though, so in the early 2000s, I decided to move to the area to get serious about completing the project. It was then that I set my focus on locally milled timber, and the trees available on my own property.

Being an avid bird lover and conservationist, I was very judicious as to what I cut down and what I left. For the stumps of my cabin, I used ironbark—an extremely durable hardwood that’s known to be long-lasting. These stumps have been there for 20 years now and have shown no sign of weathering or any insect invasion. Mostly, I find termites stay away from the heartwood of Australian trees.

I then sourced the joist and bearers from a small, local mill, which delivered the seasoned wood to me on site. Seasoning is an important part of building with freshly milled timber, as the wood needs to dry and shrink. This process consolidates the “hardness” and durability of the wood as well, so I kept this as a top priority.

As I wanted to maintain a large percentage of timber in my cabin, I sourced second hand wooden windows and doors from a building recyclers in Lismore. These are hard to find as new, being mostly replaced with aluminium framed ones these days. But for me, there is a sublime joy in the labour of stripping old paint and revealing the beauty of the grain in these windows, many of which were made from cedar and silky oak,(Grevillea robusta).

Up and onwards

Having constructed the frame of my cabin, I lined it with the best possible bushfire-proof material. These are flat planks made of wood fibre, mixed with cement. They’re resistant to rotting, fire or permanent water and termite damage.

Next came the verandah. I chose to build a small one, as my needs were modest at the time. The timber I used for the bearers and joists was stringybark—a species that is prolific in the mountains where I live.

I sourced this from the same local mill but had to shop around for the tallowwood I wanted to use for the decking. I chose this species of timber as it has a very oily quality that makes it weather well. Its lighter colour also lends itself to the preservative treatment I had created myself.

To do all this, I was lucky to find a mill in Casino which was relocating and selling off slings of timber for a song. Best of all, the tallowwood was already well-seasoned, so it was easy to install.

For the interior cladding, I used a mixture of different timbers, mainly offcuts from a mill which specialised in producing thick floorboards. I also used this timber for the flooring inside. These were planks of approximately 10cm wide by 2.5cms thick. This really completed the feeling of bringing the forest indoors.

Settling in

Throughout this process, I used mixed hardwood—a generic name given for the timber milled from the various species, like those I mentioned above. As a result, the range of hues, textures, grains and smells produced a warmth and ambience in rooms that I still enjoy to this day.

Ultimately, the more I work with timber, the more I love it. Its texture and smell is a sensual delight, while the smoky, resin-filled aroma of wood in a home creates a connection with the natural world that lasts a lifetime.

Discovering the environmental benefits of wood

Thinking about the environment came naturally to me, after all my house almost literally grew out of the trees around it and others in our local area.

But it was also important to me to discover that making my wooden house was also doing my bit to tackle climate change. You probably don’t realise (I didn’t) that up to 50 per cent of the dry weight of wood is carbon, extracted from the atmosphere and stored for life by a growing tree.

Plus, wood also has lower embodied energy, that’s the energy used to produce it and transport it to your home than most other materials.

So, by making my wooden house, I was not only doing what felt right for the site and created the spaces I wanted to live in, it is also helping to protect the natural environment of the only planet we have. Now that’s what I call a great place to call home.