Stone and timber homes
A slick, contemporary, clean-lined house need not be lifeless and forbidding. Two of nature’s most ancient and elementary building materials — stone and wood — have the potential to imbue a Home with captivating come–hither allure and infuse tactility, nuance and spontaneity into just about any style of building.
“These are organic materials that engender comfort and hark back to simpler times,” says architect Bruce Rickard, who, as a key player in the organic architecture movement of the mid-1900s encouraged Australians to incorporate their unique natural assets into their homes. “I love timber and stone for their warmth, colour, variation, grain and the way they play with light and can be used as found and without paint.” Apart from their embrace of their natural surrounds, houses designed by Rickard are remarkable for their timelessness.
Stone and wood provide an experience that’s grounding, says architect Walter Barda, another design doyen who has fashioned these simple and eternal materials into spaces that provide an intriguing and delightful experience. “We can relate to these materials because we intuitively understand where they came from,” says Barda. “They reveal something about a human hand working a surface and speak a language we understand.” And, he says, homes made from these materials mature beautifully.
Since ancient times, stone has conveyed an impression of strength, opulence and solidity. There’s something about stone that unequivocally declares “this is something special”. Unlike most trends, stone’s classic good looks won’t fade and, when used artfully, can lift a space from the pedestrian to the sublime.
Interior Designer Nicole Drake, who recently clad her brick home in sandstone sheets, says stone provides the perfect foil to today’s pared–down aesthetic. “Stone is very textural, tactile and sensual. You want to touch it,” she says. “It creates an elegant, contemporary style with added warmth and character.”
Depending on the materials and the cut, stone can create either a hard or soft effect, producing stunning results in either modern or traditional-style homes. A single stone feature, says Drake, can totally transform a space. Apart from stone floors and paving, walls, kitchen benchtops and paving, strips of stone sheeting can be used to create feature walls, fireplace surrounds, facings and water features. A stone slab makes a unique and dramatic shower screen or bathroom vanity feature. Or, take a cue from design hotels and create inbuilt stone furniture.
Don’t limit yourself to prescribed notions, advises Drake. For instance, instead of using identical tiles on bathroom walls and floors, extra depth and nuance can be introduced by incorporating different cuts, finishes and textures of the same stone, establishing a stone feature wall, mixing several types of stone or combining stone with other visually striking elements such as glass, steel or pebbles.
Drake suggests using stone sheeting to create “stone columns” around unsightly structural elements such as metal poles. Finishing details can make or break the final look, she says. For example, rather than settle for wafer-thin benchtops, she has extra stone cut and mitred into the edges, creating the impression of a chunky, substantial surface.
An earthy investment
Because stone doesn’t date and can form elements of painterly beauty, using it in your home is like investing in good art. Rickard and many other architects favour stone that is rough, irregular and not dressed, while others relish how polished stone conjures colours and entices light. Whether the look you’re after is rough and rustic, flamboyant or Zen cool, stone can create just about any mood imaginable.
John Raffoul, director of a company that imports a huge range of natural stone, sources stunning, massive stone slabs. There’s ethereal Carrera marble or the drama of dark granite or black or bottle green marble; or mellow neutrals such as travertine that, when savoured barefoot, feel like soft sand. Combine that with the “stonewashed” look of honed stone or the shimmer of highly polished surfaces and the options become almost limitless.
Raffoul says the overall quality and price of stone are determined by colour, degree of imperfection, density and rarity. While stone’s inherent variation defines its uniqueness and beauty, excessive variation risks it looking hodge-podge. Before ordering, advises Raffoul, ask to see a batch or box and ascertain the extent of colour and calibration (thickness) variations.
Colour can also impact on durability. For example, white granite benchtops, being less dense, typically require more sealing, while certain shades of marble, such as green, black, white and cream, are denser and harder wearing. Veins indicate weakness.
Because stone is a natural, more volatile material than ceramic, it’s more vulnerable, so practical considerations must prevail. Heavy traffic areas such as entryways and kitchen floors demand a harder, more durable stone, whereas bathrooms, bedrooms and walls are much more accommodating. Polished surfaces may look lavish, but, warns Raffoul, they’ll highlight scratches and wear and require additional maintenance.
While they look slick, large sheets used on bathroom floors can be woefully impractical, says Drake, particularly in small bathrooms, as they don’t lend themselves to establishing an adequate fall. Critical to a stone’s functionality but invisible to the eye, says Raffoul, is density, which determines a particular stone’s absorption and resistance to impact and wear and tear potential. He suggests asking suppliers to provide data on the stone’s properties, including density, together with recommended laying and maintenance advice. Cut also plays a huge role in the overall look, explains Drake, naming a “rectified finish” as an excellent option where a seamless look with minimal grouting is desired.
Choosing and using stone
- Decide on the effect you want and that will complement the rest of your home and lay out large areas of samples.
- Considering your substantial outlay and stone’s sensitivity, you don’t want any old hack messing with your potential masterpiece. Raffoul suggests you make sure it’s someone who comes highly recommended, whose work you’ve seen and who is versed in the required preparation of surfaces and which adhesives to use (a critical consideration, lest your gorgeous green or white marble bathroom morph into a discoloured, lifting mess). Check also that adhesives and sealants used conform with manufacturers’ instructions and carry sound warranties.
- Tradespeople typically want to complete the job quickly, so if you’re using a stone that features a strong pattern (such as veined marble), take the time to lay out the pattern you want and ensure that your desired outcome is replicated.
- Stone’s porousness makes sealing it an absolute must. To avoid a look resembling “painted gloss”, use a penetrating sealer. Where a mirror finish is desired, adds Raffoul, finish off with a wax and reapply every six months or so. Harsh detergents, sand, strong cosmetics and perfumes can wreak havoc. Raffoul recommends pH-neutral detergents.
- Depending on the stone and the surface, special preparation — such as the provision of expansion joints and careful waterproofing — helps prevent nasty surprises.
- Generally, hardwoods have a deeper, more resonant appearance, with fine grains and a wealth of colours. They are more durable than softwoods, so more suitable for external use.
- Blond beech, rich red bluegum, honey-coloured tallow-wood, chocolate-toned ironbark, biscuit-toned blackbutt … we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to quality timbers. Each type has a distinctive colour range and grain. Some, such as ironbark and tallow-wood, are valued for their strength and longevity, while others stand out for their visual effects. Seek a supplier with a large range.
- Softwoods such as cypress or treated pine have the advantage of being termite–proof, are usually cheaper, can be purchased as plantation timbers and, when dressed with quality stains and oils, can look great. Delightfully fragrant, cedar is another softwood that imparts an appealing aesthetic. And, if you love the look of recycled timber, unsung oregon (featured in many older homes and likely to be given away on building sites) comes up beautifully when used for internal fittings or made into furniture then oiled.
- Manufactured timbers such as plywood look great as wall linings and can make very appealing doors, floors, cupboards, benchtops and tabletops. An added advantage, says Drake, is it simultaneously bolsters soundproofing, insulation and structural strength.
- Consider a carpenter a surgeon of sorts. If you’re using quality materials and want a slick finish, seek out someone who is inventive and has pride in their work.
- Some timber features, such as wide posts, are becoming expensive; a similar effect can be achieved, for example, by using two pieces of timber separated by a space.
- Test and choose “dressings” carefully as they’ll have a huge effect on finished look. Going naked? Make sure it is a durable hardwood. If applying a coating, be aware of the difference between oils and sealants and the need to recoat.
- Low-grade timber can be bought very cheaply, especially from auctions. When laid and the imperfections are filled with clear or black resin, it can resemble sought-after (and expensive) recycled timber.
- Some timbers that are often thrown out on building and demolition sites can make attractive internal features, such as window boxes or work benches. They look great when planed back and oiled.
Know your stone
Dense, very strong and even in tone. Responds brilliantly to polish, wears extremely well and requires minimal care and maintenance. Excellent for benchtops and high traffic areas.
Honed, polished, neutral or colourful. Marble screams glamour and indulgence. Iron oxides create a wealth of colour options. Requires careful laying and sealing and isn’t as tough as other stones, staining and scratching relatively easily. Marble with a mottled colour will be easier to match than varieties with a strong linear element.
Rome’s Colosseum is made of this wispy golden stone, which attests to its longevity. Now popular as a paving and facing stone, travertine can look fabulous as an interior feature. The pockmarks and pits can be left as they are or filled with either the same colour or, for a dramatic effect, a contrasting shade — black, for instance.
Works well in sleek interiors. Very hard and porous (though softer than granite) with beautiful flecks. Ranges from creamy white to grey and warm honey shades.
Harder than limestone and more resilient. Colours range from sandy to reddish brown, with purple or grey overtones in some sandstones.
Much maligned after 70s overkill, slate has found an edgy new incarnation as sheeting for stone feature walls and for use in gardens. Very economical and available in surprising colours.
Very popular for benchtops and, more recently, as tiles (such as the lovely shell-stone). While they lack the variation and nuance of natural stone, composites — a mix of stone, resins and pigments — are claimed to be more heat- and wear-resistant than the real thing. Featuring colours or consistencies not normally found in nature, they expand design scope. Check the warranty and ensure the manufacturer is prepared to back them up, says Drake.
The tactility of wood is inimitable and, as with stone, timber can make a standout contribution to just about any house, creating features that can be rustic or slick. When used as lining boards, exposed rafters and posts, it can create strong linear elements. There is almost limitless scope to make a strong stylistic statement with this very adaptable material.
Timber can be used for floors, posts, interior linings, screens, ceilings, balustrades, handrails, skirting boards and architraves; as a frame for doors and windows; for kitchen and bathroom vanity benches; as exposed rafters; or for something unique such as handmade timber doors, vanities and kitchens. Blissfully relaxing daybeds and built-in furniture can be fashioned from timber, says Drake, adding that timber can be used to create a tropical effect in bathrooms, including floors.
The trick to using a lot or different types of timber in your home, says Drake, is to either use the same tone throughout or use timbers that are dramatically contrasting in tone. To avoid the “log cabin” aesthetic and keep things slick, a definitive, bold approach is called for. For instance, in her own home, Drake will be lining both the ceiling and walls with timber boards, but, because she’ll be using wide boards with only one resulting groove and will paint ceilings and walls the same colour, it won’t look too busy.
“Timber animates the building’s surface, especially as the sun moves,” says Barda. “I like to use seemingly inferior materials in inventive ways. For example, we use rough–sawn plywood for ceilings and walls and contrast it with finely sawn and polished timbers for the architraves and skirting boards. This highlights the textures.”
Depending on the look you’re hoping to achieve, says Rickard, timber used externally can be either coated to protect it and enrich the colour and grain or it can be left to weather.
A beautiful blend
Because stone and wood both spring from the earth, they combine beautifully. Achieving a look that works for you is largely a matter of taste and contemplating your options. Most suppliers will let you take home samples, which you should make as large as possible and try different combinations, ensuring you appraise them in different light and in different combinations.
Simplicity is the key to keeping a home looking streamlined and light, says Bruce Rickard, as is integration: “Establish a continuity of materials, carry an effect throughout a house and keep things consistent — for instance, keep all openings the same height.” Extend the look with dry stone walls and timber in landscaping, he suggests.
To further the relationship between the indoors and outdoors, Walter Barda often brings the very materials used outside into the house. “Painted feature walls have been done to death,” says Drake. A more modern option, she says, is to create feature walls using timber or stone.
Know your timber:
Choosing and using timber
Northern beaches house
“We didn’t want to look back in years to come and realise it’s old-fashioned,” says Greg Martyr of his family’s unique and soulful new house on Sydney’s northern beaches. What’s particularly striking about the Martyr home is the way it engages the senses, even from a distance. Chrome and glass structures are rapidly replacing old cottages in these increasingly glitzy beachside suburbs, but the Martyrs chose an earthier approach.
For architect Walter Barda, an appreciation of the refinements of Asian design and a reverence for natural materials found a fine canvas on this steep site. “The Japanese have words such as wabi and sabi to describe the beauty of aged, hoary surfaces. They have an appreciation of how the nuances of time can affect materials and they value that transformation.”
The house, whose external construction consists of stone blocks and timber posts and details, features striking dark (stained pine) timber posts externally and internally, exposed rafters, handmade timber sliding doors, along with kitchen cupboard, bathroom vanity and bedroom doors made from honey-toned timber found at a roadside, a centrepiece stone fireplace and a bathroom embellished with rough-cut stone. In the cabana, constructed of huge timber posts, a table has been created from a stone slab.
The home looks like it’s candlelit. “It’s important to illuminate a space with sensitivity to the textures and to the way light falls on the human body,” suggests Barda.
Melissa Rimac is a freelance photojournalist based at Whale Beach, Sydney.
For more great home ideas, why not check out our Wellbeing Directory
Like what you read?
Sign up for a weekly dose of wellness
Why the creative brain is different
Researchers discover brain networks that don’t normally work together but are activated in creative people.
Try listening to happy music for innovative solutions
Listening to happy music can enhance creativity and finding innovative solutions than listening to silence.
Try listening to happy music for innovative solutions
Listening to happy music can enhance creativity and finding innovative solutions than listening to silence.
Doodle your way to pleasure
Making art activates the reward pathways of the brain, even in the absence of artistic skills.