Weathering design trends: how timber has transformed over time

By Peter Maddison, Director of Maddison Architects and host of TV’s Grand Designs Australia.

Architectural style has changed dramatically over my lifetime in terms of the way materials are appreciated and used. Changes in the perception of wood throughout architectural history continue to affect the way we use the material today, influencing our built environments and interior design choices.

When I was studying architecture at RMIT, I was witness to an important shift—it was the late 70s and architects started using wood in a more daring, unfinished way. There was a wave of architects in Australia—the ones I know in Victoria included Kevin Borland, Graham Gunn, Max May and Daryl Jackson—who had grown out of the modernist movement and found new delight in using materials in a very honest way.

This engagement with natural materials also came off the back of the growth of Melbourne into outlying suburbs where there was a lot of natural bush. You began to see houses with raw, unpainted timbers, rough-sawn timber still hairy on the surface just left as is, whole treated pine posts, or whole trees just thrown into the ground, with the structures extending off the trunks.

They created some really distinctive houses that are still appreciated today. It’s often called the ‘nuts and berries’ era and it was my first introduction to what timber could be as a young architect.

Baroda House

As I started working in the industry from the early 80s onwards, architecture swung away from that approach. This Postmodern period was a lot more refined, more concerned with colour and surface finish—it was more artificial.

In the case of wood, that often meant expensive and exotic veneers like sassafras and American walnut. All the solid timber was hidden in frames and covered over with render and aluminium sheeting.

Robert Venturi

The resurgence of natural materials

Since the turn of the century, there’s been a slow but steady swing back to a more honest, free-form approach to architecture, which has gradually accepted wood as a material with inherent integrity.

I believe that’s been driven by a number of factors. Partly it’s environmental issues—we now realise what embodied energy is, and the environmental cost of producing and transporting different materials.

From research that's been conducted recently, we know that about 50 per cent of the dry weight of wood is carbon that is taken in by trees, and stored in the timber forever. So by using certified, sustainably sourced timber—timber that’s allowed to grow back again—there’s this ongoing resource for the world to build from, with much less impost on the environment than most other materials.

Wood also provides a sense of identity. For example, people are now happy to celebrate beautiful local timbers like Victorian ash. Culturally I think we’re more accepting of imperfection—we seek spaces that have not been covered up by a veneer of luxury, but are expressing the natural beauty of the materials used.

Since 2000, there’s been a trend to leave timber and other materials like brick, concrete and rammed earth in their natural state—almost going back to the ‘nuts and berries’ style, but with more sophisticated building forms.

It’s not just the sustainability, strength and beauty of wood that attracts us but also the wellbeing we get from being around timber. We’re natural, breathing organisms—I believe we have an innate affinity with timber and natural materials.

Technology expands possibilities

Recent advances in computer engineering and a better understanding of wood’s properties means we can now be more inventive in the use of wood products, these are generally known as engineered timber or mass timber building systems. These new high-strength, bonded timbers, including CLT (cross laminated timber) and LVL (laminated veneer lumber) have enabled us to build 16-storey buildings entirely out of solid wood—except for the glass in the windows!

We can now draw on computers, and whatever you can draw you can build. If you look at recent work like the Melbourne School of Design by Wardle Architects, the whole central atrium has classrooms that hang down like stalactites that are all engineered out of wood.

My firm Maddison Architects recently designed a six-storey building that we’re proposing to make out of solid wood, something we would not have thought of doing at any other time in my last 40 years of practice.  

Melbourne School of Design

Looking forward to the future

It’s been a wonderful journey for me as I’ve always enjoyed using timber in my architecture. But now, because of the research and technology available, there’s this new frontier that’s pushing the use of wood into new realms.

I’m interested in doing buildings where the whole core of the building and all surfaces is just raw timber that you can actually touch and feel in its natural state. I think we’re moving towards an understanding that we’re not here forever, and we age and change—as all natural materials do.

There’s more acceptance today that timber will change in colour and it will weather, but also a realisation that maybe that’s the way the world should be. The use of natural material is becoming more enlightened, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.