Aesthetica piece: Emotive Architecture – An homage to timber

Swedish architect firm White Arkitekter has won a commission to build the tallest timber building in the Nordic countries. The project marks an important milestone in sustainable urban development and pays homage to the region’s traditional local timber heritage.

For nearly two decades, White Arkitekter has invested in establishing a unique research-based organisation of highly qualified experts in the field of sustainable design.The winning Skellefteå Cultural Centre proposal was chosen from 55 entries in 10 countries. Set for completion in 2019, the wood framed 10-story high-rise will contain a theatre, museum, art gallery, library and a new hotel in the heart of the city of Skellefteå. Architect Oskar Norelius states that this project demonstrates how “sustainability is more than just the environment, it is also the social, economic and cultural aspects of sustainability.”

Architect firms have had to adapt their approach to urban design due to the changing nature of busy city landscapes and the fickle needs of their dwellers. The growing popularity of temporary architecture, such as pop-up pavilions, represents a demand for agile buildings to fit a variety of functions. Oskar Norelius of White Arkitekter states that “the belief that we can create a masterplan that will last for generations is an outdated way of seeing things.” The Skellefteå centre has design elements that follow this theme of flexibility of use, such as retractable walls for rooms to be expanded or divided so as to better serve the function at hand – from an exhibition to a large congress. By bringing wood back into the core of the city, this will result in a more liveable, malleable space. As Oskar Norelius believes, “the structure in Skellefteå is rational and robust, but being in wood it has an inherent warmth and human scale. By leaving the structure apparent throughout the building, the spaces get the character of a culture factory, where you can still feel at home.”

For this project, one of the challenges for White Arkitekter is to present a building that offers both robust functionality and appealing aesthetics. A key goal is to improve the appearance of Skellefteå’s city centre and thus concrete, despite its benefits, is not as appealing as the earthy appearance of timber panels. Furthermore, by using only local wood of the highest quality, the centre will stand as a proud symbol of the region’s unique timber industry, whilst also generating an economic boost for the local suppliers. The timber skeleton will be left exposed throughout the building as a reminder of its origin and Swedish tradition; a foundation built from local natural resource and dedicated labour.  Architect Robert Schmitz states: “In a way, I would say that we never design an individual building. We always reflect on the impact of the context, and what possibilities the building can unlock in its surroundings.” Therefore, showcasing the structure creates a candid sphere in which the public can understand the dynamics of the building and see the mechanics behind its careful, thoughtful construction. The centre is also designed to endure Sweden’s harsh weather with an efficient energy consumption record and a green roof that contributes to thermal insulation, noise blocking, biodiversity and rain water absorption.

The city of Skellefteå is surrounded by dense forests and the region is renowned for its wooden buildings and excels in sustainable forest management – a vital component for well-maintained forests in order to reduce the risk of forest fires. The region’s timber industry creates jobs for the local community and these fine-tuned timber construction techniques range from traditional methods to modern technology. The choice of timber in this new building reflects and celebrates Skellefteå’s local timber industry; every piece of wood is locally sourced and selected with the local community in mind. As Oscar Norelius explains, “we need to bring people closer to the urban project, and involve them in the process.”

The success of this sizeable construction will demonstrate that a complex wooden multipurpose building does not imply a compromise on spatial qualities. New types of engineered timber that are considerably stronger and more stable than regular wood are now an option in a much wider range of projects across the world making timber skyscrapers – or “plyscrapers” – a real prospect. Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) is produced by layering glued timber sections of wood at right angles and this can be prefabricated in a factory to any shape or dimension. CLT is also much lighter than steel and concrete and takes 50 per cent of the time to construct. With climate change now the main consideration of any new architectural endeavour, timber or timber-steel hybrids are quickly becoming materials of choice. Despite their reliability and durability, the production of steel and concrete is hugely energy demanding and they each have significant carbon footprints. The ever growing populations in swollen cities means there’s now more demand than ever for housing in dense urban areas and a safe yet environmentally-friendly alternative is needed. Of course the essence of wood as a raw material is entirely natural but architects have had to invent ways to manipulate the organic form to ensure a stronger, more durable and fire-resistant variant. Most successful timber buildings so far have involved a steel-timber hybrid, which have eased worries over fire hazards and therefore excessive insurance costs. As Oscar Norelius confirms: “the introduction of wood in larger scale allows us to shape a construction industry to complement the heavier materials that is suited not only to create efficient and low cost construction, but also buildings and spaces for people.”

Our archaic loyalty to concrete is being challenged by contemporary alternatives due to the  wasteful and inefficient nature of the mixing process. From the very beginning of its form, creating concrete entails excessive water waste and once the material has served its function, used concrete is very difficult to dispose of. In contrast, when wooden building materials need to be deconstructed they are often repurposed or recycled into new products. However, compared to concrete, wood has not previously been considered as suitable for creating general spaces for flexible use, but it opens up the possibility of changing and developing the building in the future. Robert Schmitz, an architect at White Arkitekter, explains that “the life-span of a building is no longer defined by the durability of the structure, but by its ability to adapt to changing needs.”

It has been suggested that this age-old flair in wooden construction methods is largely due to Sweden’s essential pragmatism during the country’s notorious freezing winters. Historically, the ready availability of quality wood in Sweden meant it was the low-cost material of choice for house building, which can explain this long tradition in Sweden’s construction sector. More recently, the favouritism of wood in architectural practices has also been linked to Sweden’s dedicated, fervent environmental activism.

Sweden was the first of the Scandinavian countries to change building regulations to favour wood in 1994, which previously prohibited the construction of wooden houses with more than two stories. In 2010, Finland also changed its building code, meaning wooden buildings could reach up to eight storeys for the first time.The 2015 Finlandia Prize-winning Puukuokka apartment building is the tallest of its kind in the country; an all-CLT structure covered in a fire-resistant coating. Similarly in Sweden, fire regulations have previously limited the use of wood as a material in large scale constructions but now these regulations have eased and we are seeing a booming new building sector. In 2004, a national strategy for “more wood in construction” was implemented, which strives to support innovation and experimentation within this field. This manifesto stipulates that with these new regulations, wood should be a self-evident material alternative in all constructions in Sweden within ten to fifteen years. Objectives of this new strategy include the creation of different types of wood (therefore increasing competition in the market); developing more jobs in the timber industry; keeping carbon dioxide emissions to a minimum by avoiding the use of concrete and steel; and encouraging new types of treated wood to be brought to the market. Unlike other countries in Europe, this demonstrates Sweden’s unique cooperation between the public sector, industry and academics, all striving for the same goal in architectural innovation. Oskar Norelius states: “building in timber generates new questions that have to be resolved, but it also brings inherent answers to questions we have been confronted with when working with other materials in the past.”

These architectural practices in Sweden have sparked what has been called “the timber age”, which is revolutionising architectural practice across the globe. Similar projects in innovative urban development are taking place in the UK and beyond. White Arkitekter have undertaken a project in the Faroe Islands called The Eyes of Runavik; the winner of Nordic Built Cities in the Vertical Challenge category, 2016.  This three storey building will be built using timber construction and even local sheep wool, where residents can keep emissions to a bare minimum over a long period. In 2015, London firm Hawkins Brown completed a 33-metre-high apartment block in Shoreditch named ‘The Cube.’ The 10-storey residential building was constructed using a hybrid structure that is primarily CLT, but also integrates steel elements and a reinforced-concrete core. East London architect firm Waugh Thistleton’s new Dalston Lane project uses timber in high-density urban housing and is putting East London firmly on the map as a world leader in timber construction. The ten-storey 121-unit residential development (currently under construction) is made entirely of CLT and weighs a fifth of a concrete building of the same size; this material reduces the number of deliveries during construction by 80 per cent. This groundbreaking use of timber technology has significantly reduced the carbon footprint of the building in terms of both material production and on-site time and energy consumption.

Thanks to Sweden’s steadfast dedication to sustainable architectural innovation and courageous experimentation in this field, architect firms across the world are now factoring timber into their visions of the future. Priorities in construction have transformed from grand, artistic statements to an emphasis on practicality, ultimately to increase a building’s longevity: its agility as well as its strength. Robert Schmitz concludes: “apart from the impact construction itself has on the climate, architecture affects how we live. Our vision is to create architecture with people in focus, inspiring a sustainable way of life. We at White Arkitekter measure our success by the quality of our projects and ultimately the difference we make for people by creating emotive architecture.”

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