Wesley Spencer, in conversation with domain.com.au, discusses his thoughts on using natural materials in building design.
What are thwree natural materials you would recommend consumers bring into their home?
Synthetic rugs or carpets tend to slip between the cracks because the untrained eye will tend not to notice the difference – kudos to the manufacturers for developing a superior synthetic product, but the truth is, synthetic floor covering just doesn’t age well. Yes, silk and wool carpets will also reveal their age, but it’s a more welcome ageing… that even synthetic carpet makers are faking in their designs … like buying new distressed jeans. Also, synthetic carpets don’t handle accidents too well – drop a candle or some red sauce and you can kiss your perfect carpet goodbye. Natural fibres retain their lustre and respond appropriately to the climate.
Like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket to defend yourself from the winter cold, linen curtains are just as scrumptious. They defend well against the sun and provide a delightful ambient light through them that isn’t harsh and has a natural grain through it.
Again, we’re competing so much with manufactured products, we’ve set aside the real thing … we’re just a hop and a skip away from pizza flavoured milk shakes like in Wall-E. yes, natural stone is more brittle and yes, it is porous … but it is also organic – the patterns are a one of a kind, the product won’t kill you … and also, this bit of stone on your bench was carved out of a rock in a mountain somewhere. How special is that?! Isn’t that better than knowing your stone was made in a factory with a high res photo of a stone printed on it?
Other than aesthetics, what are some other benefits of using natural materials?
Whenever we’re aiming for real quality, the products with the least amount of synthetic materials always come out on top. It’s because these materials make us feel something that synthetic materials never will. So if you’re after investing in a quality product, leave the synthetic stuff alone. What is it that you feel? Well it’s the difference between wearing a fleece jumper or a cashmere one – the cashmere one is a natural fibre that responds to its climate, so it feels cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
VOCs et al
We’ve now all heard of VOC’s, whether we’ve noticed the difference between a low VOC or high VOC product is irrelevant. The point is, we want to live in homes that are good for us and don’t have a long term harmful impact on our lives. We’re still living through the asbestos crisis, and are still learning of people with asbestos poisoning. So, it’s no surprise of course that, as architects and designers, we’re asked almost daily, if there are any harmful materials in this product … in a world where quality is synonymous with cost, synthetic materials don’t scream ‘quality’ if consumers are dubious about their impact.
Synthetic materials require a lot of manufacturing, then often, because labour costs are so high in Australia, are shipped from the country they’re manufactured in. ignoring the fact that these products are made up mostly of crude oil and plastic, the greenhouse gas emissions involved in creating synthetic materials is unnecessarily harmful to our environment. Ironically, the natural fibres often cost about the same as their synthetic counterpart. We usually recommend products with natural fibres that are manufactured in Australia.
Natural fibres never go out of fashion. You’re not in the clear yet though – I can’t help you if you’re colourblind.
The ‘raw’ and ‘textured’ look of natural materials such as concrete and timber is currently popular in home design. Why do you think consumers are being drawn to this look?
Consumers have seen and had enough of ‘faking it’. If you can’t afford natural stone, then there’s nothing offensive about getting a less expensive natural material. Especially if it’s not mutton dressed as lamb. we’ve entered a time that appreciates not just the look and colour of a material but also its texture, temperature and weight. There’s nothing more awkward about a stone counter that sounds tinny, or a soft shad pile rug that’s cold. We care for our homes beyond their photogenic aspirations.
Other than materials, what are some other ways to bring nature into the home?
Access to the outdoors. Plenty of natural sunlight. This seems obvious, but we’ve seen countless homes with a ‘designated garden courtyard’, which ended up being concreted in.
Use natural ceramics and pottery; indigenous art, which is always made using natural materials; real indoor plants and greenery, which help you to connect with the outdoor spaces.
Less is more
We can best enjoy the texture, look and feel of a product if it hasn’t been bedazzled. Your home shouldn’t resemble the set of the latest Aladdin to reflect quality. Allow people to enjoy the fabrics and finishes for what they are – but then, that’s why the ‘raw’ look of materials is popular – our client pool (Melbournians) have long since cottoned on to the joys of ‘a la naturale’.
Are there any misconceptions around specific natural materials that you’d like to dispel?
Yes – Inappropriate uses of natural materials.
We always hear complaints about the ‘durability’ of certain natural products, but the owners used them in the wrong places. Don’t use silk curtains unless there’s a durable backing material to protect it from the sun.
Don’t use a natural timber floor (especially bamboo) in a room that has a lot of moisture or direct sunlight – bamboo is a naturally volatile timber and will warp out of shape unless its environment is consistent.
Don’t use natural stone for a moulded sink … where the sink might require removal for maintenance. It will probably crack in the process.
Just ask your expert supplier if the use you intend a product for is suitable and they’ll set you in the right direction.
Also, many manufacturers of fine natural materials provide inferior support to the product, undermining its quality and durability. For example, a wool carpet laid into a synthetic backing. As mentioned above, synthetic materials don’t breath well, so moisture gets caught in the backing and often causes a smell. It’s not the wool, but the synthetic backing.
Or with timber floors – some timbers respond more aggressively to climate fluctuations (because they’re not natives, and don’t know how to behave in our local climate – the most robust timbers will always be local ones), so it’s important that, in an engineered timer, the layers of wood beneath the top layer are the same type of timber. This ensures that fluctuations are evenly spread, reducing cracks and squeaks in your floor.