Aug 26, 2019
Master builder Michael Primmer has been working with wood for more than 50 years, but he'd probably menace you with a bit of four-by-two for calling it wood rather than timber.
"It's timber: that's what you use for building things. Wood is what you throw on the fire. Get it right," the slightly cantankerous carpenter insists.
Primmer, 72, is one half of Smith and Primmer, a building partnership on the South Coast of NSW, which has created many award-winning timber homes. One of them, a spectacular holiday house at a secluded beach location, was for Flea, the bassist of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Primmer has done more renovations than he could shake that piece of four-by-two at, and insists that if you're planning to do one yourself, you should be looking to use as much timber as you can.
"It's just the best possible material, for many reasons, but one of the big ones that people don't think of is that if you use steel it's going to creak and carry on due to expansion and contraction. You'll hear that: all the stud work, in your house," he explains.
"They use a lot of steel stud work in commercial buildings, but that's because the temperature is really controlled in those buildings because of air conditioning. In residential houses you get creaking."
Timber is also much easier to work with because you can fix things to it with hammer and nails or a nail gun, rather than having to drill holes and screw things into steel, making it cheaper and less labour intensive.
While timber does expand and contract with changes in the weather, the movement is minimal, which is one of the reasons humans have been building with it since time immemorial, and continue to do so.
Perhaps the best selling point for wood, however, is that it's better for the environment. "We use a lot of what's called finger-jointed pine, which is made out of offcuts, and that means there's far less waste," explains Primmer. "If you're choosing pine from sustainable sources, you're doing the environment a favour."
Furthermore, the versatility of timber means when it comes to renovating or restoring a home, original wooden products can be recycled and reused in the makeover. You might opt to redo a room but keep the original floorboards, for example; or create an open plan look by knocking down a wall, but keeping the door to use for a table.
With scientists agreeing that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by 30 per cent since the middle of the 19th century, a great benefit of using wood (which stores carbon) is that it helps reduce Australia's overall greenhouse gas emissions.
Certain types of timber go in and out of fashion and expensive varieties such as cedar (which used to be very popular for bathrooms) and Huon pine are no longer readily available, according to Primmer.
But one thing that won't go out of fashion for builders is the use of sustainably sourced and certified wood. Primmer says more people are environmentally conscious these days, meaning when it comes to renovating, they're keen to opt for environmentally friendly choices.
Look for Responsible Wood or Forest Stewardship Council certification when you buy timber – it's a guarantee that it has been sourced in an environmentally responsible manner.
"Timber such as cedar has gone out of fashion because it's expensive – and also because people prefer lighter colours these days," he says.
For someone with Primmer's passion for wood – sorry, timber – there's also the question of aesthetics. Many of the homes he has built in the heavily-forested NSW coastal regions around Batemans Bay, Rosedale and Moruya, simply sit better in their surroundings because they are built from timber.
"It's very subjective, of course, to say that it just looks better, but we definitely feel that it's more architecturally sympathetic to use it in the kinds of homes we build and renovate. It just fits better," he says.
Of course, from a carpenter's point of view, there's far more to timber than making beautiful things: houses that will outlive you and provide happiness and homeliness to successive generations. You can be sure that if built from wood, they'll last a long time.
"There's a real satisfaction to crafting a piece of timber into something," says Primmer. "I wouldn't do it any other way."
Photography: Mary Grekos