Giving old boards a new lease of life has benefits for both consumers and the industry. By Finn Seccombe
What is it about gnarly old bits of timber that gets us so exited? Rusty bolt holes, weathered grain, blackened dents and tool marks that were once considered defects are now the hallmarks of high-end design. In a sea of highly polished, synthetic and manufactured surfaces, it seems that what we now crave are materials with personality. We want to be able to run our hands over a timber post or benchtop, feel the bumps and scars and imagine the stories that lie embedded in the grain.
Architects and designers are experiencing a rapid increase in demand for recycled timber flooring, exposed structural elements, feature panels, joinery, designer furniture and outdoor structures. With clients in both the commercial and domestic building sector being drawn to the warmth and character that recycled timber brings, it’s not surprising that the industry is experiencing a healthy growth spurt.
Building with recycled timber
In January this year, I was asked to join a specialist in recycled timber construction, Gabe Horsley (Creative Building), to construct a series of traditional roof trusses for an ambitious house project in Tasmania. Roughly 10 tonnes of hardwood were salvaged for the job from the Inveresk Railyards Precinct in Launceston, circa 1860s. The timber was delivered to an empty warehouse in Hobart, large enough for us to be able to manoeuvre eight-metre-long trusses.
Working with recycled timber (in this case beams often weighing over 200 kilos) was a challenge. Every piece of timber differed in dimension, straightness and degrees of twist – not to mention being peppered with rusty fastenings. We used chainsaws, custom-made augers and chisels along with a metal detector and laser lines to create finished joinery that had to look as though it had ‘grown that way’.
One of the biggest problems we encountered was maintaining consistent points of reference. Drawing on an old-fashioned sense of ingenuity we set up a perfectly level full-sized jig, so that all joins, holes and rebates could be made on consistent planes. By necessity, a cut or hole was often made with one man holding a level and directing, while the other operated a chainsaw or drill. There were endless splinters, digging out rusty nails and resharpening (or replacing) tools that had ‘run foul’ of a fastening we had missed.
Needless to say, building with recycled timber (especially if it hasn’t been re-machined) is time consuming and can be expensive. Timber recycling is usually designed into a new building as a ‘feature’ or bespoke element that provides visual contrast against the expanses of gyprock and glass that comprise most modern structures.
Although this doesn’t exclude recycled timber from structural elements. In fact, the larger dimensions and lengths found in old factories, bridges and wharves are ideal for exposed posts, beams and trusses in load bearing applications.
Despite the challenges that using recycled timber can create for architects, builders and salvage businesses, there is a growing demand in both the domestic and commercial sectors. Some might explain this trend simply as fashion, however most clients I’ve spoken to over the years have deeper reasons for choosing to include recycled timber in their project. For some it is ‘the feeling’ that a piece of raw, weathered timber brings. People use words such as ‘warm’, ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ to describe this feeling. A little like growing indoor plants, it seems that bringing elements that we usually associate with outdoors to the interior of a building changes the way we feel about a space. It transforms the impersonal to something with more character – something that we can relate to personally.
This experience is deepened further when we introduce the provenance or ‘the story’ that describes the historical significance of the timber. It connects people to their past. When I asked Dave Hutchinson from Timberzoo in Moolap, Victoria about the importance of provenance and ‘the story’ in recycled timber sales, he made sense of it in terms of human experience: “Provenance becomes more important as the years roll on because the people that remember timber sheds and handmade items as part of their childhood are older now. Gen Y grew up in a machine age with an over-familiar sameness and obsolescence in the things that surround them.”
He adds, “Recycled timber can bring a memory of something else to a building project. People’s behaviour changes in the presence of timber. It has an effect on people, in ways a new iPhone doesn’t.”
With such high currency placed on provenance, it has become important for recycled timber suppliers to document the origins of timber and the structures from which it is salvaged. This sometimes requires digging into a bit of local history. The Salvage Yard in Castlemaine dismantled an old bridge where all the bearers had a strip notched out along their length on the underside – it didn’t make any sense. After making some enquiries with local residents it was discovered that the alterations were made some time in the 1940s so the local courier could get his truck underneath! A story worth recounting around the dinner table.
When timber is removed from an old building it is satisfying to know what the building was built for, who worked there and what sort of stories unfolded within its walls. The end users of the recycled timber want to be able to say “see that beam – it used to be part of the old Balmain Jetty,” or “my grandfather used to work in that factory.”
Wreckers and recyclers
As the cost of high-quality new timber continues to grow, recycled timber and salvage businesses have identified a growing need to partner with demolition firms and provide incentives to keep precious materials out of landfill. Often timber that was used to build houses, factories and warehouses pre-1960s was of exceptional quality, having been cut from what would now be considered premium old-growth saw logs.
Anna Winneke from The Salvage Yard in Castlemaine, Victoria, emphasises the importance of fostering a shared understanding about the value of recycled timber, between demolition contractors and building ‘strippers’. Salvage crews can remove up to 80% (by weight) of what would otherwise end up in landfill. Building waste can cost as much as $70 per tonne to dispose of in Victoria so it is in the demolition contractor’s best interests to repurpose timber and other recyclables.
The main problem that recycled timber businesses encounter when dealing with demolition contractors, is the lack of worksite coordination. Building strippers can save the demolition business a substantial amount of money, but they need time and space to remove materials safely and effectively. Often there is only a short time-frame for demolition work to be completed, meaning that adequate planning for stripping of recyclables is not allowed for. This problem is being met with a continuous effort from building strippers to engage with contractors at the planning stage and inform them of the many benefits of cooperating with the salvage industry.
The Court House
Winner of the 2017 Australian Timber Design Awards [best use of recycled timber], Peter Winkler Architects’ Court House is a wonderful example of recycled timber design that is ‘fit for purpose’. Situated in coastal bushland between the Great Otway National Park and the Bass Straight, the finished project strikes a sensitive balance between the comfort and luxury of domestic living space and the rugged surrounding environment.
The exposed framework, windows and doors were constructed using recycled Blackbutt, with Australian White Mahogany for the horizontal ship-lapped cladding. Hoop-pine plywood, concrete floors and cement-sheet ceilings complete the surfaces. Inside and outside spaces merge seamlessly through a multi-use area that connects the kitchen-living room to the bedroom quarters. Bi-fold track doors seal off the area during weather extremes or open and extend the living space to an outdoor patio and barbecue area.
Dense Australian hardwoods (including the recycled Blackbutt) were chosen for the exterior construction to achieve an aesthetic that complements the surrounding bushland, and also meets the required BAL 12.5 bushfire rating.
The good, the bad and the ugly of recycling
Two main challenges are faced by the timber salvage and recycled timber building industries on a daily basis.
The first is consistent supply. Every salvage mission is a little like a treasure hunt. You never quite know what you’re going to find when you start lifting floor boards and removing cladding. Timber dimensions vary wildly and rarely match current sizing standards. For architects and builders this introduces a ‘wild card’ into the design and construction process and, as a result, efforts to use recycled timber can often end up in the ‘too hard basket’. There is no point in designing a building with 2000 linear metres of 140mm X 20mm recycled hardwood cladding if you’re uncertain about supply. This problem is often solved by designing a building around timber that is already available. This requires exceptional vision and forward planning especially with large timbers, for example, truss beams needed for a roof span.
Another solution is to make the design flexible enough to allow for varying dimensions. This can work well in the case of interior cladding or decorative screens.
The second major challenge relates to the quality and safety of recycled products. Salvage businesses are constantly having to distinguish between what is a desirable ‘feature’, and what is an unusable, structural defect. That, of course, depends on what the timber is being used for. Cracks and holes might add to the intended aesthetic of a counter top in a shop-fit, whereas a load-bearing beam, will need to be structurally graded in line with AS building codes.
Like the conventional saw log industry, consistency in quality is what the majority of customers are looking for. In the case of recycled timber this can be a moving target, subject also to accelerated fashion trends.
Processing salvaged timber introduces important safety issues too. I was once contracted to build and install a set of doors and internal joinery that made use of rare ‘King Billy’ pine that had been salvaged from electrolysis vats at the old Electrolytic Zinc smelter near Hobart. The boards had already been re-sawn to remove contaminated surfaces that had been in contact with chemical solutions and we were assured that they were safe.
During the installation of the joinery I noticed there were white crystals forming around holes where timber dowels pinned the original structure together. I sent off samples to be tested and discovered that the crystals were, in fact, salts which contained high concentrations of lead, mercury and cadmium.
Salvage crews today are very aware of the dangers of chemical contamination, hidden fastenings and less-than-ideal worksites. David Hutchinson from Timberzoo emphasised the need for rigorous stewardship, extending from the salvage site through to the finished product. He says, “The challenge facing recyclers is the same as that faced by dry-mills and retailers: stewardship. The attention paid to board and beam through all stages of milling, processing, storage, wrapping and transport, fills the working days of dozens of people in even the smallest timber operation.”
Reclaimed products are often made from premium timbers, and they show their worth and strength in every year of their history. This helps to educate the public about the qualities of high-grade timbers, and to reposition the perceived worth of top-end products.
There are some who would mount an ethical argument for the use of recycled timbers, but to my mind this would be like comparing apples with avocados. Recycled timber and the conventional saw-log industry fulfil different consumer needs and it is rarely an either/or choice between the two products. Recycled timber is generally chosen for a specific, visible design feature (e.g. interior panels, benchtops, exposed beams), whereas the majority of new hardwood and softwood products are used for structural elements which are often unseen or painted and where cost may be the dominant factor in the choice of product.
Regardless of your beliefs, using recycled timbers won’t solve the problems of scarce supply streams for local manufacturers or losing habitat to illegal logging in Asia. But it will give new life to a precious resource that would otherwise have rotted in landfill.
From the perspective of someone who has worked in both design and construction using recycled timber I think we can be optimistic about the direction the industry is headed. Aside from the remarkable trade skills that are needed and therefore sustained through the processing and use of these materials, it is encouraging to see timber used in a way that kindles the public’s appreciation of the material in its raw state.
The timber industry has a rich and colourful history that is brought back to life through the re-purposing of salvaged timber in current architecture and design.
Image: Peter Winkler Architects’ Court House uses recycled timbers for the cladding and for feature joinery elements.