Honesty of material

Honesty of material

Written by Raymond Smith, December 2021

There is something comforting and soothing about the honest use of materials. Meaning, to be able to look at and touch stone, clay brick, concrete, timber, steel and many other materials and fabric. A sense of surety and truth is perceived when we connect with material. There is no artifice involved, it is the real thing which we experience as authentic. We trust what we can see and touch as it enables us to observe its inherent qualities, strengths and determine provenance.

Placing one’s hand on a well-dressed stone wall, feeling the texture under your fingers while imagining what the stone must have witnessed over millions of years on this earth, excludes notions of pseudo semblance, while inducing a feeling of well-being through its solid state. No other natural building material provides a greater sense of cultural continuum than stone. From the earliest free-standing structures on earth, the megalithic temples at Malta, dating back 3600 BC, to the early pyramids in Egypt around 2600 BC, to more than 560 lost palaces in Southern Africa from 900 AD to 1850 (see Palaces of Stone by Mike Main & Tom Huffman, 2021). And of course, all the castles on the British Isles and elsewhere, with the Windsor Castle being the oldest and largest inhabited in the world built in the 11th century, to the Medieval Cathedrals all over Europe (read Ken Follet, The Pillars of the Earth, 1989), to understand how these priory villages with their cathedrals were built and functioned. Then much later observe pioneer era corbelled houses in South Africa dating from around 1820’s and earlier once in Southern Europe (see Patricia Kramer’s book entitled The Corbelled buildings of the Great Karoo, 2020), to mention but a few examples.

Thermal performance

Clay brick, surely the oldest known manufactured building material with unfired (sundried) bricks dating back to about 7000 BC with the first use probably in the South of Turkey. I cannot think of any other manufactured building material which can claim such a lineage of cultural continuity, having been passed on through generations and proven itself over millennia and still by far the most commonly used in the world today. Fired clay brick walls proved best in a study at UPE in 2014 during which six wall construction methods (including concrete, cement blocks, insulated light steel frame and insulated timber frame), were compared for their thermal performance. The study concluded that a 270mm cavity clay brick wall with 30mm extruded polystyrene insulation tested in house construction across South Africa’s climatic zones, outperformed all other wall construction types. Although the way we build with fired clay brick walls today has improved since the first use in 4400 BC during Neolithic China at the ancient Chengtoushan settlement, it is an incredible feat in cultural continuum and technology of over 6000 years.

The cold of steel and glass

A different emotion is evoked when we engage with hard cold steel, or smooth clear glass for instance. I will always think of Alessandro Baricco’s Lands of Glass, 2002, in which he tells the story of the visionary Victorian who worked with the architect Hector Horeau on the Great Exposition project determined to produce the largest glass palace ever imagined in the 1850’s.

The warm touch of timber

Different materials provide different textures and feel. Timber, the living material, is warm and welcoming and one cannot look or touch it without being reminded of how it was once a small sapling with year rings telling the story of drought and flood years when it is eventually cut down for use. Also, the long process of transforming it into a useful material from cutting it in the forest, transporting it to town and then to the sawmill after which the curing time begins before the carpenter or joiner gets a turn to decide on the final fate of the material. A piece of timber can become a roof beam in a building, a floor board, window frame, a table or chair. This entire process will always be ingrained in my memory through the story of the woodcutters in the Knysna forest during the 1800’s, so evocatively written by Dalene Matthee in Circles in a Forest, 1984.

Timber species have a wide variety of qualities and are specified for such purposes. Some have tensile strength, while others are waterproof and certain types are used in furniture for instance as a result of the density of grain making them easy to work with. Some species are so stubborn that their use is limited.

The oldest standing timber building in the world, the Horyuji Japanese temple built in 607 AD was constructed from 2000- year- old Japanese Cypress trees cut 1300 years ago. Experts believe that the building should still function well for the next 700 years or so. Critical to understand about timber construction is that the type of timber, quality and the site specificity is important for longevity of the structure. There is no way that this example shown can or should be possible today for environmentally sustainable reasons. This brings us to the most important consideration in choosing and specifying timber for construction today. To ensure a healthy biodiversity in the world, it has become critical that we stop using certain hardwood species (or any species) which do not come from commercial forests specifically managed for the use in the construction and manufacturing industry. Please see the FSC – Forest Stewardship Council website and familiarise yourself with the principles, aims and philosophy and why it is important. Information is provided on responsible timber consumption on their website.

Golden Hall Buddhist temple

Golden Hall and Five-storied Pagoda of Hōryū-ji, a Buddhist temple in Ikaruga, Nara prefecture, Japan.

OCT 2006 BY 663highland | PHOTO CREDIT: https://www.interactiongreen.com/5034-2/

Contemporary sustainable timber construction today has evolved to the point where we use various types of laminated members and boards referred to as mass timber construction such as Glulam and CLT. This is cross-laminated timber consisting of three, five or seven layers of timber orientated at right angles glued together for stability, light weight and durability providing good fire ratings, acoustic qualities, and thermal performance. It also ensures minimum material waste while providing low environmental impacts as it optimises sustainable timber production and manufacturing techniques. It utilizes only timber harvested from sustainable FSC forests. (See XLAM’s website.)

The fast-food, disposable society

Our entire understanding of the term durability has changed over the last century. It is as if we expect things to break within a given period. And indeed so, most things are designed for mass production which implies that you need to replace a part or product with regular intervals as it will fail after its intended expiry date. We live in a fast-food, disposable society in which little is meant to last. How William Morris of the Arts & Crafts movement would have disregarded this era in which hardly anyone assumes responsibility for the chair, or can take credit for it, as the different parts are made elsewhere.

Fashions come and go in terms of treatments of the outer skin of buildings. Various fads of cladding with different types of materials have seen the light while other buildings simply stood the test of time as they have been designed and built well. These buildings are truly timeless as the patina which forms on the materials is part of the building’s character and inherent qualities which develops with age, not unlike human beings. But of course, people tend to be slaves of fashion and this results in rendering various items in and around the house or office obsolete with no good reason at all. This also happens in architecture unfortunately.

Recyclable and sustainable

The recyclability of certain materials makes them more sustainable than others as they can either be re-used as is the case with stone or brick or they can be melted down and reformed for other uses in the case of glass and steel. As is the case with all materials, the basic green building principle is to use the material which is readily available within easy transport distance from the site. In 1925, P Geddes published in Survey Magazine what has become known to students of architecture as the ‘Geddes valley section’. This shows how building traditions and craftsmanship were informed by availability of materials and climatic conditions. It shows for instance how on the mountain, stone was used (which later led to dressed stone buildings), while on the forest slopes log cabins were built (later leading to balloon framed timber structures), and on the pastoral slopes, adobe structures were prevalent (later giving rise to brick buildings). It is therefore understandable why different materials and techniques were preferred and evolved in different parts of the world. Read Paul Righini in Thinking Architecturally, 2000 for an explanation on the Geddes valley section.

It is cost saving if you work with the appropriate materials in a given context without the need to cover it with a second sacrificial skin of usually synthetic finishes. Bachelard in the Poetics of Space, (1958), spoke of experiencing the essential, immediate in discovering the primitiveness of the essential original shell. All the other elements of a structure are replaceable and are revisited in most cases after time. Therefore, the choice of materials used for the core structure is critical as it needs to stand up to the test of time in various ways.

In closing, as astonishing as it may appear to us today, the choices we make in materials have become an aesthetic, phenomenological, environmental, economic and political decision with reference to regional and community sustainability.

Links of suppliers

  1. Overberg Quarry
  2. Pavement Materials Group
  3. Apollo Brick
  4. Megamix – Helderberg plant
  5. Cemflex by Sika
  6. Anglo SA Sawmilling – Botriver
  7. ITM Timber Merchants
  8. Builders Warehouse Somerset West
  9. Somerset Timbers
  10. Safintra
  11. National Glass