Materials Matter: Shou Sugi Ban

Matt and Lilly Lee purchased their Northside home in 2015, drawn to it by the artist studio in the backyard, the great corner lot, all the local businesses within walking distance and a screened in porch.

But after living in the home for a few years, the downside of screened in porch life became apparent to them both. After each rain the floor would be soaked, during the spring pollen would cover every surface, and in the winter it was just too cold to use. They still wanted a connection to the outside, but within a space that was more functional and could be used more often.

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Matt Lee owns Root Down Tree Management, and has partnered with RIC in the past on projects where trees needed to be pruned as well as job sites where we wanted to minimize disturbance to the existing landscape. So when the Lees decided they were ready for a porch overhaul, they reached out to us. They had already discussed some design ideas - they are both big fans of Japanese architecture as well as sustainable materials. When RIC’s Matt Warner and the Lees both brought up shou sugi ban as a possible material and design element, they knew it was meant to be.

shou sugi ban samples

shou sugi ban samples

Matt Lee applying the torch to burn the wood

Matt Lee applying the torch to burn the wood

Shou sugi ban is an ancient Japenese technique that preserves wood (usually cedar) by charring it with fire. The process involves torching the wood, cooling it, cleaning it, soaking it and then finishing it with oil or leaving it unfinished, depending on the look you want to achieve. While it can be time and labor intensive, the final product is a gorgeous rich, silvery finish that is fire, rot and insect resistant.

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Black locust wood was incorporated into the new uncovered deck. Black locust grows faster than any other known hardwood tree, reducing the demand on tropical rainforests. The wood is naturally rot, decay, mildew and insect resistant as well, so it’s perfect for an outdoor application. It is also stronger and harder than chemically treated pine decking, and will last much longer.

The RIC design build crew (Hunter and Nate) installing black locust decking

The RIC design build crew (Hunter and Nate) installing black locust decking

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The fact that this material is the most sustainable option was important to the Lees as much as it was to us. In his business, Lee focuses on protecting trees and keeping them healthy. He says, “dangerous, hazardous, dead and dying trees do need removing, but when possible we always advocate to keep a good, healthy tree. Green stuff is real important to us - we recognize the importance of having trees in our city and we want to keep them around as best as possible.”

 With these materials in mind, the Lees and the RIC design team began to put together the pieces of their new space. Matt Lee even chipped in on the labor, taking on the charring of the shou sugi ban himself. It’s not often you get to use a blow torch on something you’ll be putting up on the outside of your house!

 The shou sugi ban was used on the outside of the sunroom to bring in dark, modern lines below the large windows. The black locust wood was used to build the entire open deck off the sunroom so the Lees still had a truly outdoor space to enjoy. Over the course of the winter the space really began to take shape and was completed just in time for spring.

Several months later the Lees say the sunroom is the most used place in their house. “If we are home and relaxing, reading, staring at our iPhones - we are likely out here on the porch. We can see the whole neighborhood walk by. Good people watching!”

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All final photography courtesy of Mindie Ballard

All final photography courtesy of Mindie Ballard