ALTHOUGH it is one of the world's oldest building materials, wood has not always been the favoured choice for construction purposes because of perceptions that it is a fire hazard and structurally weaker than, say, concrete or steel.
Today, however, it is staging a revival, and even undergoing a "true renaissance", says Michael Snow, executive director of the American Hardwood Export Council. It is becoming the "raw material of choice" among architects and designers the world over, including in South-east Asia.
He says: "There are several reasons for this, including the nearly endless variety of textures, colours and species that add to the designers' palette, but I believe a key reason is a growing understanding of wood's unmatched environmental credentials."
In Singapore, the trend of using wood is also catching on with residential landed property owners.
One of the reasons for this, says Robin Tan, principal architect of Wallflower Architecture & Design, lies with the country's concrete landscape, which has made Singaporeans more appreciative of green, natural spaces. He says: "In the kampong days, people didn't really demand parks. As the urban environment gets tighter, you need more green space. It's a reaction to these developments."
Beam Ker, director of interior design and architecture firm Luxur Living, confirms this: "Singapore is a very concrete city and many of my clients choose timber because it makes them feel closer to nature."
For some home owners, the material offers a therapeutic benefit. "Wood is a very expressive material and many find that it creates a nice, relaxed ambience. When they return after a hard day's work, they find that it helps improve their mood," Ms Ker says.
For others, the appeal of using timber lies in its very nature: no two pieces of it are identical, and it has a beauty that cannot be replicated by man-made materials.
Yong Ai Loon, founder of architecture consultancy firm Timur Designs, says timber products cannot achieve the perfection that comes with machine-produced items and although some see this as a limitation, it is this natural aspect of imperfection that gives timber its beauty. "It speaks of craftsmanship rather than 'factory production'," she adds.
In addition, timber is also versatile. Apart from using it in conventional structures such as flooring and doors, it can also feature in structures such as columns, beams and wood frames, says Aamer Taher, principal of Aamer Architects. He recalls how, inspired by a traditional Sarawak longhouse, he put solid hardwood to use as a sun-and-rain screen over the communal areas of a bungalow that his firm worked on.
"In these projects, we are 'reinventing' the use of timber in the modern tropical house," he says.
As with all things related to craftsmanship, using quality timber in the construction of one's property is not an exercise in economy. While there are several engineered or composite wood products in the market that claim to replicate the look and feel of wood for less money, there is really no substitute for the real thing for home owners with the means.
Dennis Teo, managing director of Evorich Flooring Group, recalls a client who commissioned an American walnut floor for his $50 million property. "He didn't even want engineered wood," he says.
For these home owners, quality wood flooring is a luxury item that is a reflection of their status.
Apart from its aesthetic appeal, timber also offers practical benefits. It has outstanding thermal- and sound-insulating qualities.
In a warm, tropical climate like Singapore's, materials like metal and glass heat up quickly and radiate that heat into the interior of the home. Wood, when used, particularly on the building façade and ceiling, can reduce the heat transmitted considerably, says Chu Yang Keng, principal architect of IX Architects.
To keep the sun's rays out, wood features such as strips and blinds can also be incorporated into a property's design. These also enrich a plain façade by adding texture and a distinctive pattern to the overall look, he says.
Another practical use for wood's property as a thermal conductor of heat is when it is laid on the floor; it is more comfortable on the feet than marble is in air-conditioned rooms.
That said, a major reason for the growing appeal of timber lies in the fact that it can be reused and recycled. It is also "green" in the sense that it requires less energy to process than materials such as concrete and steel, thus producing less waste and pollution in turn.
Furthermore, wood is a "carbon sink", which means the carbon dioxide absorbed by the trees during photosynthesis is stored in the wood even after it is converted into construction materials or furniture.
For home owners concerned about the provenance of their timber supplies, Mr Teo advises engaging reputable contractors and looking out for green labels such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Singapore Green Label, and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).
Regarding the question of maintenance, architects say property owners who choose to use timber in their homes should be aware of its physical attributes.
Owing to the humidity here, they are advised to varnish timber that is used outdoors at least once a year if they wish to prevent its colour from fading.
In addition, those who choose to use certain non- tropical hardwoods outdoors should also be aware of the likelihood of shrinkage when the moisture in the wood dries out; they should be prepared to replace timber strips that have shrunk or warped.
For those concerned about the risk of termites, the good news is that this is not an issue in well-designed properties, as the timber would not be in direct contact with the soil. Even if it is used as flooring, a layer of concrete would have been laid between the timber and the ground, says Wallflower Architecture & Design's Mr Tan.
He adds, however, that it is important for home owners to observe proper preventive measures, such as not leaving wet cardboard or broken furniture in the garden, as these are magnets for insects. Choosing the right kind of wood is also important.
Certain hardwoods such as teak, chengal and balau are naturally termite-resistant. There are also protective coatings that owners can apply to wood for added protection.
Alternatively, High End Resilient Flooring (HERF), a man-made product that resembles wood but is 100 per cent water- and termite-proof, can be used.
Wood may sound like it takes work to maintain, but the upside is that if maintained properly, it can last a long time. Mr Teo of Evorich Flooring Group says: "All building materials need some degree of maintenance to make them last longer. The same applies to wood. At the end of the day, it depends on whether the home owner wants to maintain it regularly or not. If well maintained, wood flooring could last generations."