Stavanger: Norway’s Atlantic city of wood

Sandnes – town centre’s Lanternen - by day (photo’s from Norwegian Wood (Ecobox) unless otherwise stated)

The latest of a series of high profile timber programmes, Norwegian Wood was a highlight of Stavanger’s 2008 European City of Culture. Aimed at being the Nordic world’s most ambitious timberbuild showcase this decade, exactly what, after the dust has settled, was achieved?

Eighteen months on Norwegian Wood’s high profile moment has been and gone. A big deal, as it was the largest Nordic timber push in recent years, with the Stavanger-centric Wood City programme finally getting its moment of glory in November 2008. Long in preparation, Norwegian Wood as an idea was, first floated soon after Stavanger and, alongside Britain’s Liverpool, won Europe’s city of culture competition in 2003. Five years later as the city coasted towards the end of its euro-culture year, the three-day timber jamboree loomed as one of its final features. For the Nordic world’s timber architecture and timberbuild scene, the event was a significant calendar date. Over the three days, the completed timber projects were showcased, the projects exhibition launched and, as a hotel hall full of delegates listened, architects, engineers, local and national politicians, as well as the organising team, presented Norwegian Wood – the conference.

Stavanger city’s waterfront, approaching from seawards (Stavanger city tourism)

Of course, you can’t reduce five years work to three days, and as Ingerid Helsing Almaas, editor of the country’s main architecture magazine, Arkitektur N, comments, it has been, “a process, initiating something, which is ongoing.” Similarly the conference document underlined how the project has been ‘a laboratory.’ So eighteen months later, with the Norwegian Wood team having long tied up various loose ends: principally an online data base; and the exhibition nearing completion of its two year schedule – how do some of those involved feel about the five years of work? Whether it achieved what those involved first set out to do?


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Although Norwegian Wood was always a genuine wood in architecture project – the idea apparently originating from a local architect, who’d taken his proposal to one of the early city of culture committees – raising sustainability’s profile, specifically through timber construction, was of equally importance. Beyond the Nordic world, contrary to popular architectural perception, Norway isn’t (nor does it think of itself as), that far ahead on the sustainability curve. “Ecological thinking is not that big here,” is a common refrain you heard once you talk to those involved in sustainable architecture. So on scale alone, Norwegian Wood’s twenty five separate and varying building projects, promised a new generation of buildings; something of a fresh start which could be put to use, both as showcases for sustainability and as the basis of a new generation of timber research.

Stavanger’s old town. With over 1000 timber buildings it’s one of the largest wood town’s in the world (Stavanger city tourism)

Since being founded Ecobox, the small sustainability team based within Norway’s National Architecture centre in Oslo, had worked to a job description which was all about raising sustainability’s profile in the Norwegian construction and architectural sectors. In the aftermath of Stavanger’s successful city of culture bid, they were given Norwegian Wood’s primary project management role. Here, while not out of the blue, but still rather surprisingly, was a real opportunity to propel sustainability into the architectural world. Through focusing on wood in sustainability, and through showcasing contemporary wooden architecture across a significant concentration of timber building projects in Stavanger and the surrounding Rogaland commune one relatively small concentrated region showing what could be achieved, seemed like a one-off opportunity for an eco-architectural community long used to life on the sidelines. Stavanger, Norway’s oil boomtown sitting on the country’s South Eastern Atlantic coastline, is one of the main centres of traditional timber buildings, with over 1000 old timber town houses.


Face on: Bergen’s HLM Arkitekters and Gronigen’s Onix joint Egenes Park housing

Yet Norwegian Wood wasn’t about tradition. Rather, the aim was to demonstrate that wood is a twenty-first century building material and that new kinds of engineered timber, put through its paces by timber engineering, could support a new attempt to bring the marriage of sustainability and timber construction into the heart of the Nordic architectural conversation.

In a country where modern building materials – particularly concrete – have held just as tight a grip on the building industry as in most of Europe, one of Norwegian Woods ambition’s was to show that large wooden buildings could compete with concrete. And of course Norway was a country of wood, with nine million hectares of forests, smaller than Sweden and Finland, but still large, equal to Germany’s forest cover. Some in Norway, such as Gaia Architects Bjorn Berge have been making the point that materials for the entire European construction sector could, theoretically, be sourced from timber. On a smaller scale, the same applied, of course, to Norway – that is, if the mainstream architectural community, as much as the industry, were listening. That, at least, was one sustainable building dream, and Norwegian Wood could provide a way into it.  Also, the timing looked good; with the sustainability agenda making inroads into the Government’s priorities, and environmental impact issues becoming, reputedly, a major concern for the ministry of housing.


Egenese Park under construction

With Ecobox charged with responsibility for the programme, and working alongside Stavanger municipality, a competition with a sizeable range of projects to enter was announced. Much was made of the Wood City developing the rich tradition of timber architecture in Norway, particularly the Atlantic West coast, by realising exceptional housing projects; 135 architects pre-qualified, and the programme generated considerable interest.  The first round was whittled down to a list of winning entrants, and by 2006 Norwegian Wood and Ecobox had announced that twenty-five projects were to be built, many of which, though not all, housing projects sited in and around Stavanger and its smaller satellite town, Sandnes. Each of these needed to respond to four main key criteria that had been developed by the organisers: Innovative timber architecture, rational building systems, sustainable use of materials, low energy consumption, universal design and site/orientation

Talking with people from the Norwegian sustainability community in the years prior to 2008 during the lead up period, there was considerable nervy anxiety as to whether the project would actually come together. Hope about what could be pulled off, and also darker mutterings of greenwash floating about. When Stavanger’s year long city of culture programme was announced late in 2007 it seemed more than chance that the Norwegian Wood launch was scheduled right at the end of the year (as if to squeeze out as many last hours of building time before the curtain came down) and that the results would have to go public. What no-one in that run up seems to have been anticipating however, were the credit crunches’ ill winds blowing in from the other side of the Atlantic. By the time November 2008 rolled round, the economic storm was on everyone’s lips and its consequences felt across the programme; some projects were mothballed, and question marks about what would happen next, were ever close to the surface.

Egenes Park II

By November the number of projects has thinned out dramatically. Fourteen projects were still live, the remaining eleven of the twenty five total having hit the buffers due to, as Grete Kvinnesland, the lead project manager from Stavanger City Council, put it ‘financial reasons.’ Developers had either pulled out or couldn’t raise the capital to continue. There must have been alarm that the initial ambitions would end in the rump of a rather smaller remaining tally of projects. But back in November, when the launch finally happened, for a couple of days at least, people were excited and in celebratory mood. At that cut off point, of the fourteen live projects, seven were at some stage of construction, and four pretty much complete: Helen & Hard’s Preikestolen’s mountain lodge was five days away from its first opening, and the kindergarten at the large Egnes Park, had been open since August. Of the others, the Lanternen project in the centre of neighbouring Sandnes was also ready, as was the first stage of Jatten Ost Housing, which consisted of 20 row houses with 73 units designed by the Oslo based half-Norwegian-half Icelandic April Arkitekter. Stage one, featured a shared private garden, roof terraces, and three playgrounds and was part of a winning entry in the 2007 EU Europan competition, even if it is the second stage which will be closer to the Europan frame, with 45 flats sharing five communal spaces. When stage 2 will begin is an open question. The other completed smaller development was Marilunden, designed by the local Stavanger practice, Eder Biesel Arkitekter, who twinned with the Austrian practice Nonconform. 5 of the 10 terraces houses here are complete.  The largest housing project, Egnes Park, another joint design mixing local with continental European – Bergen’s HLM with the Dutch practice, Onix although not quite finished by November – is visually commanding, and, was very much part of the building tour. Today, eighteen months on, this housing block, consists of 170 single-family houses, and 300 flats, most visibly concentrated around Egnes Park.

Egenese Park III

As to the remaining three projects publicised in the conference programme, the much trailed Siriskjaer’s shoreline warehouse mix of flats and ground floor business and office harbourside development is, as of mid 2010, no nearer to breaking ground, while uncertainty surrounds both the Sykkelbru bridge, by Norway’s old master bridge builder, Arne Eggen and the artist centre at Valenheim by the Arkitektengruppen Valen. Both Kvinnesland and Norwegian Wood’s project manager, Ellen Devold, suggest the artist centre is still happening. As for the bridge, Kvinnesland, talking in late April 2010, speaks of how cash-strapped the bridge’s immediate municipality are, without actually stating it is dead in the water. The remaining six projects, though publicised and planned for in the conference literature and exhibition, have also, eighteen months on, disappeared. From a metropolitan perspective describing twenty five projects, reduced to fourteen, shrunk to seven eventual live projects, a Wood City feels something of a stretch, although Nordic definitions of cities diverge markedly from those of, say, Britain, the United States or China anyway. Still, perhaps I ought not to be churlish, given seven projects have been realised.

Helen and Hard’s Mountain Lodge (interior lodge room)

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Helen & Hard’s Mountain Lodge – which applied massive wood to its crystalline timber structure – has probably been the most successful of all the Norwegian Wood buildings, getting attention locally, nationally and achieving international success: becoming the building by which the whole programme is probably most readily identified and remembered. Last year, the lodge won one of the major national architectural awards. It is dealt with in depth and separately within Annular.

Egenes Park IV

Egenes Park housing, at five stories was, scale-wise, the largest of the projects and also a focus for massive wood application. However, holding 300 apartments and with community centre and kindergarten on its northern, wind-protected side, aspects of the construction, again particularly the massive wood elements, it too ran into difficulties. In post-completion testing, the building’s walls acoustics did not meet national standards, though Kvinnesland states that people living there like it. “It’s quite popular.” The fact that the building encountered problems, prompts Kvinnesland to mention that ‘perhaps’ Norwegian Wood shouldn’t have begun so ambitiously, with such big projects.

“Smaller projects would have brought smaller problems,” she continues, which could have been studied, learnt from an absorbed; then, when larger more challenging projects were taken on, the knowledge base would have been there, and some, perhaps many, of the problems might have been avoided. This includes, she adds, not being so purist about using wood throughout entire projects.

But, for instance, applying slab concrete flooring at Egenes Park, which would have madeboth cost and completion more straight-forward. As it is, Kvinnesland relates how its developer told her, that he would have saved 50 million kroner (£5 million) if he’d been allowed to replace the massive wood flooring with a concrete-wood hybrid.

Egenes Park Kindergarten
Stavanger’s Studio Ludo’s and AART’s Siriskjaer waterfront visualisation

The other large-scale major showcase, Siriskjaer, the high profile water front project by Stavanger’s Studio Ludo, continues to be stuck out in limboland, a situation Ecoboxes Devold describes as “very bad luck.” Otium, a south Norwegian based developer, apparently hit big credit problems early on and attempted to wriggle out of the NW’s ambitious timber demands, trying unsuccessfully to get a different, cheaper project to replace the initial commitment to the higher cost eco-development. The municipality has been looking at how to buy back the land, and sell it on to a more sympathetic developer, so that at least some kind of reduced version of the project might be realised. Devold believes Otium were never really interested in the project, apparently pushing right from day one of signing up, for the developments timber stipulation to be removed. Stavanger municipality have refused to budge however, with the stand-off still stuck and unresolved. Talking over the phone with Atle Lenschow,  the Studio Ludo partner responsible for Siriskjaer, in August 2009, Lenschow confesses that nothing has happened in over a year.

Siriskjaer visualisation

For the young six-year old practice it sounds like it’s been both disappointing and frustrating, with the studio having had to lay off the four additional staff assigned to the project. When they first decided to enter the competition, Norwegian Wood recommended teaming up with a more experienced foreign architectural partner, so Studio Ludo partnered with the Danish Aarhus studio, AART. The team worked up the proposals through a series of drafts, and when they won the competition, brought in Walter Unterrainer, the passivhaus specialist from Dornbirn in Vorarlberg, Austria. Prior to this the practice weren’t experienced in massive wood, although they appear to have done extensive research into its application focused on acoustics, sound insulation, and sound transmission between rooms, with Unterrainer mainly involved in the earlier stages of the research. From there wooden façade and massive wood construction research continued with the Finnish Technical Research Centre in buildings. When I talked with Lenschow, he observed how massive wood’s expensive costs doesn’t help in making a winning case to sceptical clients.

Marilund by Eder Biesel Architects

Another of the completed projects, the smaller Marilund housing project of ten buildings, were also set to be built with indigenous massive wood, said the architect Eder Biesel, when I spoke with him in 2009, another Austrian who has side-shifted to Norway. But the high cost of the indigenous version meant that he had to look for another material; and he found a particular pre-fabricated wood manufactured by Trebyggen, which, according to Biesel, has turned out very well. The material performs particularly well as a high pressurised isolating material, and was competitively priced.

Marilund under construction

Biesel has specified the material again for a new housing district of 70/80 houses in a joint competition with three other architects in the Stavanger part of the new Cities for the Future programme. Slightly intriguingly, Biesel adds to the Stavanger-Austria transmission lines, what with Unterrainer, the Vorarlberg tours, Hermann Kaufmann as conference key-note speaker, and also Helen and Hard’s Reinhard Knopf being from Graz.

Jatten Ost by April Arkitekter

Less happy are April Architects, the outcome of whose second stage B7 Jatten Ost remains uncertain. ‘We haven’t heard anything for months,” says Arna Mathieson, one of the two women partners in the all-female practice, when I talk with her again back in the summer of 2009. They too had not used wood before in their work, though would like to, were other opportunities to arise.

Jatten Ost – Interiors and gardens

As it is, the first stage A7 is something of a compromise adds Mathieson as their original design gave much more emphasis to shared space within the housing, than has eventually emerged. Mathieson, says in a later email, that the design was already complete when Norwegian Wood added it into the projects, and it evolved through a kind of “post-rationalisation.”

April Arkietkter’s B7 plan

The original plan saw particularly dense design for a Nordic city of Stavanger’s scale, which brought on a set of fire regulatory challenges. Arna remembers that once the project had become part of Norwegian Wood, the organisers began proposing using Massive Wood. The influence of Vorarlberg, with its developed wood culture also began to feed in, with the architects being taken on a number of study trips there. But the Massive Wood proposal only added to difficulties with the developers, with expense again being an issue, particularly if untreated Norwegian massive wood elements were used as was being suggested, as this again added to the costs.

Jatten Ost (II)

Also, Arna didn’t feel particularly receptive to Norwegian Wood’s Vorarlberg message-ideology. “Why make special Austrian details, when the Norwegians have well proven details that work in the climate here?” she asks rhetorically in an email. Norwegian Wood’s Devold acknowledges that not everyone felt as enthusiastic about Vorarlberg as the Norwegian Wood team, but says the important issue was to show what was possible, and what has been ongoing in Vorarlberg for the last three decades. “They’re using their tradition in a new way, while here we’ve stopped completely.”

Jatten Ost III

Massive Wood, as both Studio Ludo and April Architects point out, is different in Norway to central Europe, and research into the material in the Norwegian context has been one of Wood City’s more palpable results. One research programme was connected to Egnes Park, while the other has been related to Trondheim’s NTNU technical university working with the Trondheim municipality. Titled SINTEF, this second strand of massive wood research is further housing in the Broefelt neighbourhood of Trondheim and again is part of the Cities of the Future programme. Trondheim is also engaged with research with Studio Ludo.

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So alongside a considerable massive wood research programme, what else did Norwegian Wood achieve?

From the timber industry and research perspective, Norwegian Wood has indeed provided a significant boost. Live buildings, research and its consequent documentation have all contributed to an increasingly comprehensible and higher profile timber-hued sustainability in the country, which in turn is feeding into the current  Cities of the Future and other programmes. A certain degree of mainstreaming is taking place. But financially, the project has not been particularly successful. Developers talk of Norwegian Wood, as ‘the one’ which lost a lot money. This, along with the sector’s inexperience and lack of knowledge regarding some aspects of the timber engineering and building, has meant that the commercial building sector have not been won over to using timber convincingly. Otium’s reluctance to build the Harbourside project is characteristic of commercial developers’ scepticism, many would say, cynicism, when it comes to timber as building material. Some of this has been down to timing. It was hardly the best time to launch a major Nordic expo of timber construction and architecture, right in the eye of 2008’s global economic meltdown.

Model of Arne Eggeson’s Sykkelvebro or Syllelve bridge

Still it did happen. Which is quite an achievement in a country less enthused by wood in construction than outsiders usually imagine. Indeed, one way to view Norwegian Wood is as the latest chapter in Norway’s periodic rediscovery of its wood constructive heritage, which is followed by some excitable activity only for this enthusiasm to die down, and then things to continue on much as before. It could be so different.

As Arkitektur N’s Helsing Almaas said some months after the launch, timber construction and timber research could be at the industry forefront, and help boost the ‘woefully low ‘r & d sector. Unsurprisingly, Helsing Almaas  is hardly optimistic about the Norwegian building industry, which she describes as one of the largest sections of the economy, while the allocation of research is ‘abysmal’, the lowest funding in any area of the economy. Yes, there are people working on things, she notes. Moelven, Norway’s largest timber building materials company, for instance, on computer-aided design. People keep pushing it, and timber, she says, could be up there at the forefront, a point echoed by various others when timber and r and d are mentioned in the same breath. Helsing also ponders aspects of the technical innovation, particularly given Norwegian Wood’s environmental agenda. “The logic behind certain choices, for instance, was it really necessary for Helen & Hard to need hundred’s of separate details for their Mountain Lodge?” – in what, she’s quick to add, was in many respects a very successful project.

Even so, when I floated that the lower number of finished projects compared to the organisers hopes might look like a rather diminished programme, Helsing was prompt to point to its effectiveness.

Valenheim – visualisation of the planned visitor centre

Much had been achieved in Norwegian Wood’s short lifespan, she said; the raised visibility and attention meant that projects were acting as reference projects which ought to spur continuing and new projects. Many involved, particularly developers and planners, learnt from the experience. Technical knowledge and expertise – which the NW team pushed, and perhaps did not pursue far enough, had helped to encourage the focus on the relatively new area of universal design become more common-place; and it is now “pretty well established.” More generally in Stavanger overall, the municipality has been pleased, according to Kvinnesland. “They got a lot out of Norwegian Wood. It’s given a lot back. Of all the City of Culture projects it’s one of one’s they’re most pleased with.”

The Lantern by day II

Helsing is less optimistic when it comes to the wider commercial building sector capacity to take on board the lessons, in that they are not willing or able to pay for the extra costs associated with the use of wood. Again, as is said endlessly, this won’t change until and unless it is either a requirement demanded of the client, or new regulation sets it in stone. She does acknowledge that some commissioning clients – principally municipalities and state commissioning, may have ‘seen the light’; though the undertow of reserve in her voice brings a certain don’t-hold-your-breath for big changes to any fast-track mainstreaming. Kvinnesland emphasises the positive experience in terms of ‘process’ rather than ‘the technical stuff.’ The organisational approaches that the programme applied, drawing in all those involved in building to the four environmental criteria, have been influential; being adapted to national and also Stavanger municipality’s, working guidelines of how to run sustainable projects. “We had a seminar in April 2009”, says Kvinnesland, “with a lot of partners there, who said how well, right from the start, the consultation process had worked. That’s been a success.”

As for the Oslo organisers, an early consequence of what EcoBox themselves learnt, looks as if it’ll be expressed in the new urban focused Future Built housing exhibition, about to proceed in Oslo, and also Drammen, one of the capital’s satellite towns.  Continuing until 2014, Future Built is planned to feature a range of housing, as well as offices typologies, and other public and private buildings and building on Norwegian Wood, and is focused on sustainability, though with stricter sustainability criteria than Norwegian Wood. Devold notes how without Norwegian Wood, EcoBox would themselves not have the experience to be able both to manage this new live building project, and to develop the much tougher building criteria effectively.

The Lantern by night  I

The building experience, as much as Norwegian Wood’s increased knowledge base, has been flowing into various new initiatives, at both national and regional levels. At the conference, local politicians, caught up in the moment and apparently excited by what had been achieved, announced that the programme would be extended in Stavanger. At the same time Bergen, the next sizeable city northwards along Norway’s Atlantic coastline, has been wanting to initiate their version of a wood city programme. A year on, Bergen’s Time for Timber project, or its Norwegian alliterative, has begun; while Stavanger City council are working on further projects in and around the petropolis. For Bergen, a smaller set of buildings, with some new aspects introduced by the Bergen municipality alongside those of developers and architects, is underway.

The largest programme in which Norwegian Wood’s expertise and influence can be felt, is the Cities for the Future Government programme launched in 2009, embracing Norway’s thirteen largest cities. Within Cities for the Future’s focus on zero carbon housing, both Stavanger and Bergen’s projects remain wood focused. This is an opportunity for Stavanger to continue Norwegian Wood by other means, thinks Devold. EcoBox are involved, she adds, though their involvement is peripheral rather than central. Eder Biesel’s second phase of Marilund housing is the first of these. Kvinnesland states that on the back of Norwegian Wood, the municipality have moved onto much tighter energy and carbon evaluation of buildings. For Stavanger the Cities of the Future programme is enabling resources and time to focus on post occupancy evaluation of the Norwegian Wood buildings, and applying this to the new buildings within much more stringent energy and carbon level guidelines. “We’re looking at what have we really learnt. Evaluating where things didn’t work, though also the good things.” Embodied or grey energy, including transport and whole life cycle research of materials being used are particular foci. “What we’re doing now makes Norwegian Wood not so ambitious.”

The Lantern by night II

A last project is in a rural district and revolved around differing approaches to low energy construction; and whether the passivehaus approach can be reworked to integrate old traditional approaches to heating. An argument has emerged which points to how, on the Western Atlantic coast historically, domestic buildings were often divided between warm and cold parts, with heating only in the warm part. Reworking this kind of house zoning, is being looked at as an alternative to passivehaus, in a project in Norra, Alfeson; a small town which wants to develop elements of Norwegian Wood, though for a country as well as town context and traditional as well as contemporary building styles.
A year and a half on, Norwegian Wood, is part of the past. Its principal legacy is the amount of learning that went on for a whole generation of people in the construction industry, be it architects, planners, engineers, government bureaucrats or developers. While the timing of its launch couldn’t be less propitious, and which certainly played into its reception, I can’t help feeling – with the Norwegian housing ministry, ratcheting up the toughness of the building regulations several further notches – that the lessons learnt are already valuable and useful to the sector. As Kvinnesland says, the knowledge embodied in Norwegian Wood, all point in the right direction. “Time is working with us.” This is already evident in the Cities of the Future, Future Built and other programmes. And even though Wood City’s physical results were diminished in number, as with the Olympics and Gardamoen airport beforehand, it still provides a template to move Norway’s timber conversation on, ready for the next time the country decides to prepare for another of its inspiring if occasional timber showcases.

OL This piece was originally written after attending the Norwegian Wood conference in 2009 and updated through early 2010

The Lantern by night III