Long hidden away, materials traditionally viewed as useful for nothing more than construction and deemed to be concealed forever behind plaster, tiles or timber cladding, are now being allowed to shine. The raw beauty of these functional materials is currently in vogue — and for good reason.

Not only do these ‘ordinary’ materials offer some considerable cost savings over those conventionally beautiful finishing materials, but they also offer striking results too as these examples go to show.


It would have been hard to have missed the recent trend for warm metals such as copper, brass and bronze sweeping the world of homes and interiors of late. However, while everything from lighting to sanitaryware has been given the metallic treatment, something you may not have considered is cladding your internal or even external walls, kitchen units or worktops in metal sheets.

copper wall cladding tiles with door and weathered effect

There are several companies out there supplying both pre-cut and cut-to-size sheets available for bonding to walls or for use as worktops (try metalsheets.co.uk). And if an entire metal wall seems a bit dramatic, take a look at the huge range of metallic wall, floor and even ceiling tiles out there too.

Copper, brass, zinc, aluminium and bronze can also be used as exterior cladding. Usually supplied in prefabricated panels, shingles or sheets, metal cladding is lightweight, durable and weathers beautifully over time.

copper clad home on a sloping site


While concrete may be becoming a far more familiar sight in mainstream homes these days, it is no longer restricted to the floors of super contemporary homes. Exposed or ‘fair-faced’ concrete offers a perfectly neutral backdrop, suited not, as many people think, just to modern homes, but also to more rustic, traditional settings too.

concrete worktop in a modern kitchen

Concrete worktops available from Johnny Grey Studios

Fair-faced concrete can be constructed in two different ways: it can either be poured in-situ or made off site in precast sections.

Polished concrete flooring is usually poured on site and honed or polished as it cures.

concrete slabs on walls in a modern living room

These light-weight, easy to install PANBETON® custom-made wall panels by Concrete by LCDA feature a raw concrete side which can be customised. Available at Holloways of Ludlow

For walls, board-formed or shuttered concrete works really well. It’s again constructed on site: timber or steel boards are made up to form a mould into which the concrete is poured and left to set. The mould is then removed, leaving the imprint of the shuttering material on the concrete — resulting in some very striking effects.

shuttered concrete wall with wood grain imprint

This shuttered concrete wall, with wood grain imprint, features in a house designed by PAD Studio

In retrofit situations, or for those wanting just an element of concrete in the home as opposed to an entire floor or wall, precast wall panels can be used. They’re often made from glass-reinforced concrete for its lightweight properties.

Worktops can be poured in-situ or precast off site too. The in-situ method tends to be favoured as there are no joins, with the concrete being mixed and poured on site then left to set before being polished — a process which usually takes around 28 days. Although having precast worktops fitted is a great option for those remodelling or renovating, bear in mind that the worktop will be very heavy and awkward to lift into place.

Engineered Timber

One of the biggest interior trends to emerge in recent years is engineered wood products, such as OSB (oriented strand board), chipboard and plywood, being used as a final finish. In the past, these products have been used primarily as part of the structure, for floors, worktops, furniture and the like, before being boarded, tiled or upholstered over. Now, however, more and more people are recognising that these products can actually look rather beautiful left exposed.

OSB pods and furniture and walls in a converted barn in Norfolk

Almost all the interior fittings in this barn conversion in Norfolk are of OSB

That said, one of the main concerns among those considering such materials as a final finish is that such materials can feel rough or are a constant source of splinters — or perhaps, over time, start to shed flakes of wood, in the case of OSB.

Firstly, it is important to ensure they are well-sanded. Next, some kind of finish will be required to avoid ‘flaking’. While some choose to paint OSB for some very striking results, others opt for a clear polyurethane finish.

engineered timber wall cladding and kitchen alongside stone

Engineered timber has been used to clad walls and the kitchen in this organic style home

OSB, Chipboard and Plywood — What is the Difference?

Plywood is different to both OSB (oriented strand board) and chipboard as it is made from thin layers of solid wood, as opposed to flakes or chips. Several layers or ‘plies’ of wood veneer (usually five to nine in total) are glued together, with the grain direction alternating between each layer. These layers are then heated and pressed in order to make one single board.

OSB is far less expensive. It uses chips (or strands) of wood rather than continuous veneers, which are lined up at right angles to one another (or oriented) to make the board strong in all directions. Adhesives are added to the wood flakes before they are compressed into a board and coated with sealant to protect the material from moisture.

• Finally, chipboard — the cheapest and arguably least reliable material of the three. Similar to OSB, chipboard (also known as particleboard) is made up of smaller chips of wood – not dissimilar to sawdust in some cases – bound together by resin and pressed into a board. It lacks the moisture resistance and strength of both plywood and OSB, making it the least attractive option in most instances.

plywood kitchen with dark stain on counters and cabinets

Stained plywood has been used to stunning effect in this kitchen

Exposed Brick and Stone

Not exactly a new material, brick is usually seen as purely structural or as a cladding for external façades, yet there is a raw, earthy beauty to bricks which can add a surprising element of warmth to interiors. Of course, it is important to select your bricks wisely — cheap, brightly coloured engineering bricks tend to hint at the interior of a local leisure centre rather than lending industrial chic.

mixed materials and exposed brick and beams

Bare brick adds a rustic warmth to the otherwise contemporary interiors of a converted Georgian warehouse in London

Whether you are working with an existing brick wall or building with the knowledge that certain walls will be left exposed, some kind of treatment is advisable to keep the bricks in good condition. In the case of walls that have been exposed, having been covered with plaster for some years, or if buying reclaimed bricks to use as a final finish, you will need to clean the bricks.

While a power washer may be a good idea for external walls, it is going to make an almighty mess inside your home, so using a wire brush, although more time-consuming, is a better idea. If bricks are very dirty, using a mixture of washing-up liquid and salt to scrub away dirt and debris works — but wash the wall well afterwards with a damp cloth.

exposed stone walls in a sleek kitchen of a convtered historic home

The exposed stone walls act as the perfect foil for this sleek Neil Lerner kitchen

Badly damaged bricks can be removed and replaced (it may be enough to simply turn the damaged bricks around and put them back in). If the mortar is loose in places, scrape it out and replace, but make sure the new mortar will match the old, or else repoint the entire wall.

Finally, seal the bricks using a brick sealant with a matt finish — avoid glossy polyurethane sealants which tend to leave the bricks looking rather unnatural. Using a paint sprayer to apply the sealant saves time, but you may wish to go over it again with a roller to ensure the whole surface is completely covered.

exposed brick in an industrial style home office by Thomas Griem

Interior architect Thomas Griem used exposed brick for this mews home

Plasterboard and Cement Board

Plasterboard and cement board, normally thought of as materials reserved for the interior of a building, are now being used externally. Although plasterboard is not a material usually praised for its ability to handle damp conditions, new technology is making this possible.

“With cement particleboard, installers are required to leave a 3-8mm gap between boards to allow for expansion, but this compromises airtightness. By contrast, the dimensional stability of certain thermal plasterboards means that installers can create a simple, airtight layer, with expansion accounting for as little as 0.10mm,” says Steve Hemmings, Head of Sustainability at Siniat (formerly Lafarge).

With cement board, a product such as Knauf’s Aquapanel Exterior Cement Boards provides a solid, dry base that can withstand wind, rain and snow and can act as a substrate for directly applied render. Once taped and jointed it can be left unfinished for up to six months and is also easily curved.

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