By Dineo Phoshoko | Photo by G. Fisher

With almost 20 years in the timber industry, Grier Fisher of Town and Country Projects, tells Timber iQ about his experience as a businessman in the timber industry.

While living in New Zealand, he gained a horticultural background which exposed him to the timber industry. Having a natural ability for timber construction gave him an advantage and helped him get ahead. “I’ve always had a basic understanding of the mechanics of putting timber structures together,” explains Fisher.

Upon his arrival in Cape Town in 1995 with his wife, Fisher got an opportunity to work on the thatched B&B chalets at the Monkey Valley Resort in Noordhoek. He stayed there for three months and during this time he learnt the traditional South African way of building all the pole roof structures for nine thatched bungalows. While in Cape Town, he also learnt other valuable skills in different areas including reeded ceilings, timber floors, external timber cladding and interior fittings.

After a two-year stay in Europe, Fisher and his wife returned to South Africa in 1998. “After working for a decking contractor for a year followed by a six-month stint with a timber frame building company , I then decided to go on my own and started Town and Country Projects in 2004, focusing on all aspects of external timber design and construction,” he says.
As the owner of Town and Country Projects, there are many responsibilities including project management, designing, interacting with clients and supervising. “The role is very diverse and ever-changing. You have to constantly remind yourself that anything can happen or change at any time – and it usually does.”

“Growing up, I have always had a fascination with the relationship between structure and design,” says Fisher. This motivated him to pursue a career in the timber industry. “While working on different building sites in different countries over the years, it was inevitable that I would become a self-taught carpenter.” Embracing the challenges, taking full advantage of opportunities and learning critical skills allowed him to thrive in the industry.

The power of sharing knowledge

Having worked in New Zealand, England and South Africa, Fisher has 19 years’ worth of industry experience. During these years, he has faced many challenges in the industry. In his view, cash flow is one of the major ones. “Almost every structure we have built we have done with confidence and worked out all challenges in the end. The difficult part is doing this with little working capital or cash flow,” he explains.

On a lighter note, there have been many highlights. These include winning regular national awards from the Institute of Timber Construction South Africa (ITC-SA) and working on large projects that have received a lot of attention from the media.

“I think my biggest highlight was when I was asked to lecture at UCT (University of Cape Town) on the importance of timber and timber structures for hard landscaping to post-graduate students. It was supposed to be a three-hour lecture; I was so scared I spent four days putting it together.” The three-hour lecture turned into a four-hour question and answer session between Fisher and the students. “I realised only then how much knowledge I had obtained over the years and that it did have value even though I am not a teacher. I learnt a lot about the value of knowledge that day and the value of teaching or parting with that knowledge,” he says.

Regarding the timber industry in South Africa, he is optimistic about the development of the industry. “Coming from a country where 85% of houses are timber framed, there is still a huge scope here in South Africa. There needs to be more awareness and education that sustainably grown timber as a material is the best eco-friendly option by far as a building material,” Fisher says. He adds, “Statistics in favour of timber are unparalleled and there is a huge scope for development with right-minded architects, developers and ultimately clients.”

Local industry development

Every industry has opportunities for development. The timber industry is no different and in Fisher’s opinion, classification and education about sustainable material can be improved. “We need to change the way we think in order to change the way we shop. Gone are the days of deforesting virgin natural rain forests so you can have that Indonesian teak hardwood boardroom table,” he says. He adds that it is essential that people educate themselves on more sustainable options than prioritising desired look.

This could result in a slight difference in the overall look of the wood finishing. Fisher emphasises that people need to get used to the idea that a more commonly used sustainable timber still has beauty. “There is no reason sustainability and style cannot go hand in hand. The decision to choose sustainable material can be quite simple in principle, however, there are some regulations regarding sustainable material that make it financially not viable to offer it as an alternative. It can be a complex situation and is a worldwide topic and will take a long time to govern correctly. “The best thing a consumer can do is to educate themselves,” he says.

Being a business owner keeps Fisher very busy, leaving him with little time to spend on other hobbies. When he does get some free time, he enjoys spending it outdoors with his family. He is also a surfer and it was through surfing that he discovered another talent – making surfboards. “The first board I made was while taking a friend’s board-building course – Jason Hayes of Hayescraft. It was a solid wooden Blue Agave 8ft ‘retro gun’. The board was created with dried stems from the Agave plant in the Karoo. Once the stems were harvested and machined into planks, the carving process followed. It wasn’t a case of creating exactly what I wanted from start to finish, it was more like removing all the timber I didn’t want, and the board was the result of what was left.”

Opportunities and hope for the future

With such a long and successful reputation in the industry, Fisher has learnt that one is only valued on results. In his view, the challenge is around the understanding of what actually goes into the result. “In general, there is little understanding of the process involved in mobilising the production of large scaled timber construction projects and the order in which this is done,” he explains. To get around this, he believes that it is important to get the correct vision of what the end result is, and then work methodically back in reverse to get a starting point.

For anyone planning to get into the industry, Fisher believes that getting started as soon as possible and obtaining a qualification would be a good start. He also highlights the importance of doing research to get as much information as possible. “Try and find a good mentor, maybe a retired carpenter, and be a sponge.” More importantly, one must be in the industry for the right reason.

Although he has a wealth of knowledge and has been in the industry for so many years, he still has a lot that he would like to achieve in the future including passing his knowledge onto people eager to learn. “I hope to be a better carpenter, a better designer, a better idea’s person, and evolve as technology does.” In addition, he will continue to search for solutions about sustainability and explore modular living solutions for an ever-increasing population.

As a final thought, Fisher thinks that the hemp building industry combined with Bamboo products and a more sustainable timber frame building industry would make a significant difference to our current environmental problems. “It’s so simple its frightening – wood is good,” he concludes.