BUILDNG WITH TIMBER - BECAUSE I LIKE TO!

It is not because of tradition that I have used timber in some of the buildings that I have had the chance and privilege to build.

I’ve used timber because I like to! I like the smell; the touch, the natural colours, the veins, the knots, the mullion and the transom, the post and the beam, the dowel and the tenon; the chisel and the gauge ….I like….carpenters.

I like their work, the necessary rigour, having to think before cutting, think while cutting, as it can’t be mended afterwards; the softening of the wood; the handling of the timber to find its natural bend, as a billiards player would do.

It’s not just building with timber that got me thinking about why our methods of building, the Portuguese methods in particular, must be, or are a continuous act of construction, demolition, construction, or, the re-construction of demolished walls, all so as to hide that which we do not want to see or should not see.

Is it not possible to do better? Is it possible that, here in Portugal, we can do better? “Our” construction methods, apart from being a labour intensive process, seem to me, above all, to be irrational!

Just as if you were building a piece of furniture, a very large one, building in timber forces one to foresee, to think, to organise, to organise the thinking; because all of the infrastructure has to be considered in advance and installed before and during the construction process, which itself becomes an assembly process, where assembly is a rational activity.

There is also the advantage that the rough work becomes the finished work, the exterior so often crosses over to the interior, without involving obsessive problems of thermal bridging; the beam is mistaken for the window frame and meanwhile that frame acts as a beam; the ceiling provides the flooring and the floor, the ceiling; simple solutions, if they are accepted, tolerated.

Except in the case of some refurbishments and alterations to the roofs of existing buildings, it wasn’t easy to find a way of using timber in the buildings that I was working on.

Problems, preconceptions, other people’s advice, made it difficult and sometimes even impossible to address the subject, to propose an alternative, to make it clear that, no that isn’t so, it is not true.

Concrete, the so called eternal material, the lightweight slab, the guarantee of never again having any problems; the hollow brick, a very Portuguese material that has not evolved at all over the last century; rough and fine renders; cover-all paint, “tartaruga” for outdoors and “tartaruginha” for indoors; anodized aluminium and powder coated painting, natural colours and eggshell colour, and many, many other things, generated a building culture that allowed no space for thinking, simply, “this is how we always do it, as we always have done”.

The challenge of not always doing things this way, of not wanting to always do it this way, is no easy task! Engineers with their structural calculation software; clients and their wives; builders: ”if it was done the usual way, it would be a lot cheaper”; hardware shops with their promotions; Ana Salazar, the fashion designer and Madredeus, the band, who by selling their own ranges of ceramic tiles, all combine to cause the work of the architect to become a reductive process.

The ever growing interest, here and abroad, in well built work in timber, led me to some analytical thinking. Buildings that are 500 years or more old and the modernist architecture of the 1930’s, both of which remain current and generally futurist, gave me the strength, reason, justification and impetus to proceed, to experiment.

The necessity or decision to build my own house allowed me to follow up on some of the concerns and objectives that in either a conscious or unconscious way had gathered along my journey in architecture.

To build with timber was the objective. I never intended to build a timber house.
All timber built houses necessarily use other materials. Stone or concrete for foundations, steel for connections, ceramics or metal for weathering.

That is how my own house is: concrete for everything under ground, above timber, protected from the weather by copper sheeting.

Initially the process seemed difficult. It was necessary to select the people to carry out the work, in particular the carpenters, to select the timber, the timber and its price. As the work progressed the enthusiasm became contagious and spread over to the carpenters. The weather didn’t help, despite it being summer time. This and other problems were overcome. The project was completed. It turned out well, I like it, we are comfortable there.

Other houses followed, after people seeing mine, and I believe like Saint Thomas, that more will follow… because I like it! And the clients do too! … Well some of them.


October of 2001
Carlos Castanheira