There is undoubtedly a certain prestige attached to using natural materials in house design. A natural stone floor, beautiful hardwood windows, handmade bricks, rustic solid wood flooring and real timber cladding are all seen as the ultimate in quality and the pinnacle of good taste.
Likewise, there can be a degree of snobbery surrounding synthetic or manmade alternatives to natural materials. This could be something to do with the fact that so many of them mimic the appearance of natural products — evidence that what people really want (but possibly can’t afford) is the real deal.
But are natural products are always the better choice? Are there, in fact, cases when choosing a manmade or engineered product is the preferential option — and just what constitutes manmade anyway?
Handmade bricks tend to be viewed as the creme de la creme of the building material world.
Whilst in terms of appearance, handmade bricks are pretty hard to beat, it is important to bear in mind that there is technically nothing different between a machine-made and handmade product — both are made of clay, after all. It is simply down to the way in which the products are formed.
Creased-facing is easily applied in the factory (as in 1 and 2 above) while other stock bricks have the look of handmade. The only genuine handmade is number 3 (from York Handmade Brick Company) while the only one with a defiantly machine made look, the blue engineering brick (4, from B&Q), would look great on contemporary styles
Some brick companies also offer wirecut bricks designed to replicate the look of handmades. Many feature colours which have been hand-blended and are given a weathered appearance. While they still have the uniform shape, they are a more cost-effective option for anyone looking for a handmade look on a tight budget.
If you are building a period style home, it is hard to deny the authenticity that a handmade product offers.
Brick slips are thin slices of brick designed to replicate the look of masonry, but are typically fitted to a backing board. They are either wirecut into slimline profiles before being kiln-fired in the normal way (preformed slips) or sawn from the face of a standard clay brick (sometimes known as ‘real brick’ slips). The latter method produces a product that allows thicknesses to be varied and allows people to use a cladding hewn from a handmade product — however, it also costs considerably more.
Some slips can be fitted to a backing board using an adhesive (much like tiling), while others have a profiled mounting system. You can also get panels that interlock.
Why use a brick slip over the ‘real’ thing, particularly when the costs of around £18/m² are comparable to wirecut bricks?
For starters, labour tends to be cheaper, the slips are lightweight compared to brick and using insulated brick-slip cladding as a finish for external wall insulation is a great way to upgrade existing solid wall homes to achieve modern standards of energy efficiency without adding too much thickness.
Each has its place, but given the low cost of brick as a percentage of an overall spend, those seeking a traditional style should prioritise every penny on handmades.
Take a look at the roofs of extensions to period homes that are covered in cheap concrete roof tiles and it is clear why so many people fear ‘fake’ versions of the real thing.
With real clay tiles, colour is baked through the natural material, so the clay mellows well as the years pass. However, with manmade concrete alternatives (typically around 20 per cent cheaper) colour is just on the surface of the tile and they tend to lose it over time.
Handmade clay roof tiles are made by throwing clay into a mould, cutting off the back with a wire then forming the nibs and nail holes by hand. Handformed, on the other hand, are made using an extruded block, which is then manipulated by hand at the end of the process to give character.
Both are available with a ‘pre-aged’ finish, meaning they immediately give a weathered look which can be useful if you’re extending or want to add instant character to a traditional-style self build.
However, buying a product that has been made to look like something it is not doesn’t sit well with some purists — is it really so different to buying a concrete ‘clay’ roof tile or a fibre cement ‘slate’?
Much of your decision should be based on finding a good-quality tile — be that real or a fake. Take slates, for example. Choosing a good-quality fibre cement, manmade roof slate over a very cheap Chinese or Brazilian slate could result in a product which lasts longer.
Buy the best you can afford — cheap natural products can be of inferior quality to some of the better artificial ones and authenticity is difficult to find in this market.
Natural stone has many uses within the home, from a building material to flooring, for architectural details or as a worktop.
There are a massive number of look-a-like stone products out there. Take flooring — stone tile replicas are in abundance. There are vinyls, ceramics, porcelains and laminates out there all designed to add a touch of ‘natural beauty’ to the home without the price tag of the real thing.
However, they can be disappointing. From a distance, squinting, some of these replicas can look a little bit like stone — but they don’t feel like stone or have the same texture.
The point is that if you want the look, feel and touch of stone in your interiors, you need to go for stone.
If cost is an issue, the range of different stones available does present the opportunity for using a cheaper type of stone — slate, for example, is cheaper than limestone, as are many types of travertine.
If you are happy to accept that your look-a-like product will always look like a fake, then go ahead. Otherwise, it may be better to buy a ceramic that looks like a ceramic, or a vinyl that looks like a vinyl.
In terms of building stone, cast stone (try Haddonstone) is often used as an alternative. This is one instance where it actually makes a lot of sense to use the manmade alternative.
Used in the UK since Georgian times, cast stone is often seen used on conservation and refurbishment projects in conjunction with natural stone.
It can cost as little as a third of the price of natural stone, particularly when used in the form of ashlar blockwork for solid masonry, which can be hugely costly in a natural stone format — yet it stands up well to the real thing in terms of appearance and performance. It weathers in much the same way too and is also more readily available in general.
Avoid stone replicas internally, but consider cast stone for external details — it has a distinct architectural legacy all of its own (on the right houses).
Solid timber makes for a beautiful floor.
Laminate flooring is a practical, cheap and quick-to-install type of flooring — but it will never look or perform like timber.
Wood-effect laminate flooring consists of a photograph of a wooden floor, under a protective layer, which is glued to boards, usually made up of a mixture containing composite wood.
Engineered timber, although very different from solid timber, has many advantages. Boards are made up of a layer of solid timber (the thickness of which will vary depending on the quality of the product), fixed to several layers of timber veneer or board placed at right angles to one another.
When it comes to flooring, ceramics (above) are often seen as a cheaper alternative to stone but it would be better to think of them as a different design solution in their own right, even though they do try to mimic the look
Engineered flooring is much more resistant to movement, twisting and warping than a solid product. It is also almost always supplied with tongue-and-groove edges, making it quick and easy to fit compared to solid planks that require nailing and gluing. It can be laid as a floating floor over almost any existing flooring too.
On the downside, the final appearance of some types of engineered floor can result in a look that is a little too uniform for some, although boards with ‘rustic’, ‘aged’ and ‘limewashed’ finishes seek to solve this issue.
Choose carefully and don’t view laminate as a wood alternative. Engineered flooring is a sensible option and some products can replicate the slightly rusticated look of solid wood — without any of the problems. In this instance, fake can be best.
Timber cladding continues to be hugely popular, with Western red cedar being among the most popular softwoods used. It has a natural resistance to decay and moisture absorption, meaning it can be installed without treatment — it is also one of the most stable of the softwoods.
You might wonder why a manmade alternative would be necessary. But, of course, there are options out there.
There are now a group of thermally modified timbers, such as ThermoWood, Accoya, THOR Torrefied Wood, Kebony and PlatoWood, not to mention treatments such as SiOO:X that stabilise natural timber.
Marley Eternit’s Cedral (fibre cement) weatherboard goes a long way to matching the look (and, to an extent, feel) of timber
Although all created by slightly different (patented) means, the modification process typically involves heating lesser durable softwoods such as pine at high temperatures in order to remove moisture and resin and permanently enhance them. The timber may also be injected with chemicals.
The result is a very durable and stable product (and in most cases expensive). Many manufacturers also promote the sustainable benefits, with thermally modified softwoods offering a good alternative to depleting tropical hardwoods.
Then there are those ‘timber’ cladding products which are not timber at all, but in fact fibre cement. Where these products beat timber is that they are maintenance-free, come in a range of pre-coloured finishes and are fire, rot and pest resistant.
On the downside, if you are looking for a more traditional, featheredged finish, it can be hard to replicate using fibre cement, although textured designs are now available.
The look produced is a uniform one — ideal for many contemporary homes, but often felt to be lacking the same warmth and character as real timber for those after a more traditional look.
Cost wise, there is little in it.
You will also need to factor in labour.
Cedar and larch remain good choices for most, although choose carefully on sections where ongoing maintenance might be an issue. Fibre cement boards have optimum stability and are maintenance free, too — but struggle to replicate the ‘natural’ look which is a big appeal for timber.