The range of materials that may be utilized during the construction process is much wider today then even a couple of decades ago, yet there remains a core of enduring materials, some of which have been around for centuries, which in one form or another account for the majority of building materials consumed.
Timber is a very convenient material to use for construction. It is easy to transport and handle, and generally easy and forgiving to work with. Th ere are two categories: hardwood and soft wood. It should be understood that these names are not intended to describe the actual properties of the timber; rather they refer to its origin.
Soft wood is predominantly from coniferous trees such as larch, pine and spruce, and oft en farmed in managed forests. It is generally used for construction (for example, light timber frames) and therefore usually hidden from view. However, it can be used decoratively, too.Hardwood species are broad-leaved trees such as oak, ash, walnut and teak.
They are most oft en used decoratively for floors, furniture and interior fittings. Hardwoods are sometimes farmed from sustainable sources, but tropical hardwoods such as teak, iroko and wenge are vulnerable to illegal logging operations in their native forest habitats and several species are recognized internationally as being either endangered or critically endangered as a result.
A responsible designer will check the status of timber species before specifying.
Stone is used in construction and many types are considered attractive enough to be used for their decorative as well as their practical properties. However, natural stone should be selected carefully as some types (limestone, for example) can be porous (the result of which is that it can stain easily), and can be relatively soft , such that they may not be suitable for uses such as flooring.
When using stone, the suppliers’ recommended fixing methods and aft er-care regime should always be followed. Th e surface can be cut and finished in different ways to highlight colour, pattern and texture.
Designers should alert clients to the fact that, as a natural material, installed stone may not match completely any samples which have previously been viewed, as there may be significant variations in pattern or colour, even from stone quarried at the same time and in the same location.
Although relatively little energy is used to finish stone to a usable condition, it is not a sustainable material simply because once quarried, the source cannot be renewed. Indeed, designers are already finding that some quarries are exhausted of particular types of stone.
Brick is manufactured from clay that is hardened by kiln firing. Th e mineral content of the clay will define the colour of the fired brick, which may vary from dark brown through red to yellow.
Surface texture can be applied to the molded or cut brick before firing. Standard sizes are used for construction, and brick can be used decoratively rather than structurally to clad interior and exterior surfaces.
Concrete has been used as a building material for centuries. It is a mix of cement with an aggregate, traditionally stone chippings or gravel. Concrete is generally used in construction, where it is poured to form slabs for floors and foundations, or into moulds (called shuttering) to form vertical features such as walls or columns.
It is oft en used in conjunction with steel reinforcing rods that combat tensile and shearing forces, but it is a very versatile material. It is increasingly used for its decorative qualities as it can be polished and coloured.
Th e gravel aggregate can be exposed, or other materials (such as crushed recycled glass) may be substituted, which give new opportunities for colour and texture when the surface of the concrete is polished. However, the manufacture of cement used for concrete uses vast amounts of energy and produces a great deal of pollution, to the extent that many designers choose not to use the material because of the environmental harm that it causes.
If used in large quantities in a structure, though, this damage may be off set by the thermal store effect of the mass of concrete which helps to regulate temperature. Considered over a period of at least 15 years (depending on the installation), this can off set energy used during manufacture.
STEEL AND OTHER METALS
Used in large amounts in the construction of the frames of many structures, steel is another material that is being used more for its aesthetic qualities. As always, careful selection of materials is important as there are different types and grades of steel suitable for different purposes.
Decoratively, stainless steel is most commonly used for kitchen appliances, but other steels can be used for other purposes. Steel is available as sheets, bars and tubes in various sizes. It can be formed into different shapes by metal fabricators.
Architectural metal mesh is a relatively new treatment that has great decorative potential in which steel cable and rods are woven into sheets. Depending upon the weave and the gauge (size) of material used, the mesh may be completely rigid, or it may fl ex parallel to the warp and / or weft , allowing it to be wrapped around other objects and surfaces.
Other metals used both in construction and for their decorative qualities include aluminum, zinc and copper. Designers should carefully consider the effects of oxidation on the visual appearance of these materials, and protect against this as appropriate. Some metals are also relatively soft , and wear and tear needs consideration before specifying.
Glass can be used as an interesting material in its own right, rather than simply being a practical choice of transparent material for windows. Glass has many uses such as for shelving, work surfaces and splash-backs, doors, screens and wall panels.
For any interior application, toughened or tempered glass should be specified. Such glass has been made safer by heat treating. Not only does this make it around five times stronger, it also affects the properties of the glass such that when broken it shatters in small square fragments which are far less likely to injure than long shards.
However, once heat treated, the glass cannot be cut or worked, so any drilling or cutting required for hinges and handles must be done before the heat treatment takes place.
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