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Lovely, like aged timber – James Fitzpatrick and the new thinking in design

If you have a lovely timber table, people will admire it and sit around it, but if it’s laminate or glass, it’s not so likely, says architect James Fitzpatrick. It’s like the dents and scratches of an antique chair, prized because of the character they create.

“You never hear people talk about the quality or beauty of aluminium windows either,” he says.

For Fitzpatrick, whose firm Fitzpatrick + Partners has positioned itself as a “thought leader” in timber design and other environmental considerations, this sums up “designing with nature”: it’s about the positive way people respond to natural materials, and the longevity they therefore have.

Fitzpatrick has designed just a couple of all timber private homes in Sydney. His own (totally in timber) in Castlecrag on the Lower North Shore is near completion.

James Fitzpatrick

His 28-person practice usually does large jobs such as the Macquarie Bank building at King Street Wharf in Sydney and Brookfield Place in Perth, but his aspirations lie with timber, and the firm has a seven-storey timber office building at DA stage for Mulpha International at Norwest Business Park.

When he first started talking about timber buildings about eight years ago, even at a domestic scale, people in Australia thought him crazy, he says. But, as he learnt at a recent timber industry conference in Sydney, there have since been 53 modern timber buildings created in Australia.

There’s a developing market and a depth of knowledge in the market place. Many builders, developers and architects now have the expertise for domestic and office  buildings. Businesses such as Dexus have commissioned a timber commercial office building (architects HDR) and a significant number of builders are pricing timber construction.There are also, he says, lots of new products on the market, for example, allowing “screw-fixing” to raw timber.

The 15,000 square metre building his studio is doing at Norwest, where there are already several timber buildings, will be “a really modern contemporary building” with great environmental benefits, aside from the obvious that timber is a renewable material. 

The prefab methodology, which sees large components built offsite and put together on site, is much less wasteful. Components are precisely fabricated to specifications in a controlled environment, making the process time efficient and not exposed to rain or cold, thus containing less “embodied energy” in the first place. 

Concrete has a massive CO2 footprint, while timber from certified plantations sequesters carbon. Because timber is so much lighter, less material is needed for foundations. With proper fire engineering, timber can be very safe, Fitzpatrick says.

That aside, there are other benefits such as cost savings because of speed and “point of difference” marketability. Fitzgerald says his client Mulphahad seen a few timber buildings (the Alec Tzannes-designed commercial building at Barangaroo in Sydney, and Lendlease’s apartment building at the Docklands in Melbourne) and was happy to promote the concept. 

James Fitzpatrick timber house

Other than whole timber buildings, timber is becoming “another tool in the toolbox” for achieving appropriate environmental credentials – perhaps the podium component of a high-rise office tower or a lightweight insulation to a façade, or a linking stair. 

Cross laminated timber – “a material that can do anything” – has been used in Europe for some time, but now that XLam is producing it in Albury, Fitzpatrick says we have entered the second stage of the market.

His own house is an “example project” of pushing boundaries to breaking point.

“We pushed it until we broke the machines. The timber beams were used to do extreme testing – we learnt as many lessons about what you shouldn’t do with it as what you should. There were intellectual and engineering and structural and building challenges.”

James Fitzpatrick timber house

It has two standout design features. The lightweight structure allows for very large cantilevers without support and the building can “soar out of the ground”, and there’s a computer design assisted circular stair at its core, its CLT panels cut by computer driven machinery achieving an extraordinary level of accuracy to create a “piece of artwork” with a wow factor. 

Many buildings have a “Christmas paper wrapping – they are wrapped with stone, plasterboard or metals to make them beautiful”. It’s not often that you see a manmade structure start out with inherent natural beauty and quality, and the periodic “unwrapping” and “re-wrapping” of buildings to keep up with trends is, he says, a cost that is not factored in when they are built.

Each generation, he says, has brought something to the table in terms of creating better buildings. His had brought speed, size and technology, but now it’s time to look at the ground roots. Timber is definitely part of the solution.

“We need to build smarter with less and with quality materials with more longevity, instead of adopting ’60s and ’70s methodology,” he says.

A generational change has made environmental concerns inherent in the definition of beauty, a pre-condition.

“For the next generation, beauty has to be environmentally appropriate. Being environmentally appropriate is one of the qualities of beauty.”

A plastic toy, for example, is often no longer considered beautiful because of environmental concerns.

“It’s just the way cigarettes are no longer cool – now it’s the opposite. We have to address the next generation.”

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