Between a rock and hard place: Helen and Hard’s Mountain Lodge

From above: Helen & Hard’s mountain lodge and lake (HHA)

Helen and Hard’s Preskesteolen mountain lodge reflects its dramatic setting, and shows how the Stavanger studios can also make breath-taking  architecture when turning their hands to massive wood

Walk downtown through Stavanger’s plentiful historic timber housing huddled together along street after street, and you quickly get to the water’s edge. Take one of the many timber-lined streets and you’ll find yourself gazing up at a giant industrial brewery, towering over the shoreline view. It is in the shadow of this commanding building that the young Austrian-Norwegian partnership of Reinhard Knopf and Siv-Helene Stangeland have set up their practice. It’s a slightly down at heel office for the youthful studio, complementing the fact that it sits side-by-side with Stavanger’s very own micro-version of container house city. The shorescape, atmospheric and unusual urban, is one part vernacular, the other industrial, and one which you think must have been chosen by the pair for its industrial romanticism as much as its presumably knockdown rent, when they went looking for office spaces.

Reinhard and Siv Helene have been operating as architects in Stavanger since the pair left Oslo Architecture school over a decade ago in 1995, taking up under the moniker, Helen and Hard, which sounds a bit like some German neo-punk band, and their abbreviated practice name reflects quite a bit of the informality that the whole practice seems to run on. When I arrived, in the immediate aftermath of the Norwegian Wood conference’s big day, the amassed ranks of the Helen & Hard architectural retinue – about eight or nine staffers – are sitting round a table eating a rather messy sandwich, spreads and cheeses type lunch, which they rather warmly offer to include me in.

From below – (HHA)

A day earlier Reinhard Knopf gave one of the keynote presentations at the conference, along with fellow Austrian, Hermann Kauffman. While each spoke of their commitment to timber in the built environment, beyond this their architecture could not be more different. If Kaufmann’s epitomises a Germanic orthogonal rationalism taken to a particular passivhausustainability conclusion, Knopf, Stangeland and their Nordic grupescule are exploring a wholly different formal architectural language and landscape, one whose expressiveness was formed in the experience of a younger generation. The two first met working together on a project in 1993, while studying together in Austria. Knopf, who’s from the southern Austrian city of Graz, then followed Siv-Helene to Norway enrolling on a post-graduate course with the old master of Norwegian architecture, Sverre Fehn, who died last February. “I like his architecture very much,” says Knopf. “It is a very different approach to architecture in Austria. The main differences were in the schools in the two countries. It is more homogenous, in terms of methods and approaching architecture.”

“What was interesting for me was the Norwegian interpretation of regionalism, which was taught at the school – a contextual approach, to nature, to climate, to the cultural influence. Genius Loci was a primary influence – the sensitivity to the circumstances around the project, and a sensitivity around the spatial dimension.”

Grey november day I – (Oliver Lowenstein, Fourth Door Research)

After the post-grad study in Oslo they moved to Siv’s hometown, Stavanger, and later in 1995 began they’re first commission – the Herring Sea House, a restaurant with one of Stavanger’s old timber fishing buildings. From this the earliest Helen & Hard projects involved the transformation of several further timber houses – direct interventions with the place of the buildings. Since that time in the late nineties, and with further experimental projects adding to their name, Helen & Hard were by the mid-2000’s something of a cult practice known for a tasteful, contemporary yet challenging vernacular. If this was a theoretically informed approach it was very much in line with the times and the nineties architectural generation they are a part of; urbanist, playful, the mix of head with hand. Most recently in the last three years there’s been a deepening in both their sustainability sensibility and a radical switch to timber; with the Mountain Lodge being one of the first in a series of projects beginning to flow from the change in tack. You might say the studio are in the midst of a new chapter, one in which they’re experimental experiential and process-led approach is meeting the possibilities of engineered wood, particularly massive timber. The result is something which feels genuinely exciting and, for many, new. It’s not surprising then, that the practice have become one of the young stars of Norway’s new architectural scene, itself the star of the wider Nordic architectural world. Not only this but the result of Helen & Hard’s slice of Stavanger’s timber action, what’s been titled the Mountain Lodge, and which Knopf details in some depth during his slot treading Norwegian Wood’s boards, is the big showcase project which has grabbed a significant chunk of attention at the conference.

Grey november day II – (Oliver Lowenstein, Fourth Door Research)

From both the new Nordic architectural and timber perspectives, whether Norwegian Wood’s roster of projects had remained complete or had been depleted by the effects of the credit crunch, the Mountain Lodge always looked likely to be a stand-out showcase, and Helen & Hard odds on favourites to be one of the star turns at Stavanger. If it wasn’t quite complete when I was ferried over to the island that the lodge is situated on, its been a continuous presence in both regional Nordic, and to quite an extent, the international media, which have picked up on its eventual launch this past April. It’s also, so far, the most realised in a series of cultural and public buildings which display Helen & Hard’s shift in commitment towards engineered wood – and particularly cross-laminated timber – as their central construction material. The building again shows how solid wood can be used for imaginative, indeed, exciting architectural ends while meeting very low energy and carbon footprint demands.

Bright sunny day (HHA)

At the other end of the ferry ride and further twenty minute car drive what’s firstly apparent upon arriving is how striking a building it is, even if it is dwarfed by the equally striking location. The new lodge is the result of the need for increased accommodation – a favoured Norwegian activity – providing a further 28 sleeping rooms, the additional accommodation for hikers and other visitors, who arrive to head up the Preskesteolen (the Pulpit) mountain path, an internationally famed scenic spot which ends in a dramatic 600 foot cliff edge plunge. Looking down from the hostel buildings “the mountain lodge complements two older hostel buildings – across Lake Refsvaten and on into Lysefjorden is just as breath-taking. The lodge revels in the dramatic landscape it is surrounded by, its sharp-angled roof pushing geometrically up into the sky. Drawing the eye is the large triangular entrance bay to the hostel’s restaurant, which joins the buildings two core sections, and acts as centrepiece to the sweep of the roofline’s crystalline angularity, with its multiple angled pitches, and upward thrust of the facade’s rib posts. Inside the criss-crossing lines are just as complicated, geometries skewering every whichway. This is a building where the form has brought on complex and individual geometric solutions, making many parts, from stairwells through to corridors and the various of the accommodation rooms all discreet moments of timber design interest, as if each part introduced new challenges to be solved and resolved anew by the architects. So it isn’t surprising when you hear that 400 prefabricated pieces, which have been joined together on site like an elaborate 3D jigsaw puzzle. And just as the building is complex, its early stages were also uncertain.

Helen & Hard first won the open competition initiated by the Stavanger Tourist Association, in 2004, as part of the Norwegian Wood programme, when the practice were relatively new to working with cross-laminated timber. Their only previous project with the material had been preparatory work for a Timber Heritage centre, although this never actually saw the light of day. In hindsight such inexperience with the material may have actually helped, rather than hindered their approach, though to begin with the practice were stuck as how to take the project forward. Help came in the guise of their timber contractors for, during the tendering process for supplying the massive wood, Holz100 Norge’s parent Austrian offices invited them to visit the Naturhotel WaldKlause in the Austrian Tyrol. This seems to have opened a pathway for Helen & Hard, towards what eventually has become the Mountain Lodge.

The NaturHotel in Langenfeld, Tyrol, Austria (Holz 100)

The sumptuous and sustainable NaturHotel, in Langenfeld, Tyrol, while completely different did share aspects of the type of building Reinhard and Siv-Helene were wanting to bring to the Mountain Lodge – setting the pair on the path towards what they were looking for; an equally ecologically and environmentally friendly building, if for a more modest trekking hostel context, compared to Langenfeld’s top-end Alpine health spa. Not surprisingly Holz100 Norge won the tender.

Interior (HHA)

Holz100, already one of Austria’s core of cross-laminated companies, is one of the two principle massive wood players in Norway at present. The regional offshoot, Holz100 Norge AS was launched in 2004/5 with operations based in Ellverum, a few hours inland from Stavanger. The other principle timber company, Moelven (Norwegian, though owned by Finnforest) established a separate subsidiary, Moelven Massive Wood company, or Moelven Massivetre AS, located at Kroderen, about one and half hours from Oslo at about the same time. While both have developed similar cross-laminated wood elements, the two massive systems differ in that Moelven uses glue while Holz100 use wooden nails to connect the planking into the massive elements.

The restaurant with the CLT panels used as space dividers (HHA)

While Moelven have been involved in a number of recent high profile timber buildings in different parts of the country, particularly Brendeland & Kristofferson’s Svartlamoen student block – which raced round the world’s architectural media in the aftermath of a chance visit, and subsequent rave write-up by Peter Davey, the then editor of London’s Architectural Review – attention making buildings has so far eluded Holz 100 Norwegian crew. They were in the words of one of those managing the Mountain Lodge build, “desperate” for a showcase to promote the wood. Now, at last, they have their building.

Jarl Aarstad, who directs the massive wood research programme within the Tre Institut, (the wood research centre situated within Oslo university’s engineering campus) remarks that both systems share both the same trees and research focus. Certainly as those involve readily acknowledge this is the most ambitious Holz100 project so far. 50 trees were apparently used for the laminated wood, although these didn’t come from the usual Holz100 sources. The tree stands come from the area around the Braskereidfoss – a village east of Lillehammer – waterfall. As the project manager, Bernt describes it, this was because local copper mining destroyed the forests, so pines were harvested from near Rorus, further inland. These were 40 years old, and reached 600/700 metres, and as older trees grew more slowly. The rest of the timber, for the massive wood came from lower grade waste-wood.

HHA’s computer renders of the Holz100 solid timber structural system, and the finished centre

Helen & Hard’s design highlights how massive wood can be used as both surface and structural heart, where elements of the buildings structure guide and inform the design of the building. So the load bearing massive wood panel elements became a core organising principle for the internal design. Rather than hide the load bearing walls, each of the thirty-two double-width ribs pushes up, fully-visible in the ground floor restaurant area, before cutting through the ceiling into the second and third floor accommodation area. Developed with Austrian engineers, Graz based Worle Sparowitz, each of the double-rib system begins at ground level with two rectangular panels, each stiffened with a further layer of boards, into which have been slotted triangular panels, which stretch out alongside a horizontal beam, which holds the ceiling to the first floor. It looks like an ingenious solution for the load bearing structure, so that no interior walls are needed, with the ribs interlocking together as they slant up into the upper floors to form a single long roof webbed around the building.

(HHA)

Paper insulation has been integrated into the voided sections of the rib system, as part of the sustainability agenda. A major design and organising feature of the lodge, within the restaurant area, the ribs rhythmically break up the room, forming separate bay eating wells. In addition to the restaurant, a smaller cafe and conference room make up the remaining ground floor space. Thanks to the concertinaed pitch and line of the roof, many of the second and third-floor sleeping rooms also contain individual geometries. This, along with the detailing of how the layers of rib panelling meet with the roof facade, made for complicated archicad modelling. Not dissimilarly with each room individually thought through, Helen & Hard have made space for 37 cabin beds within the 28 rooms, no doubt part of the reason for the 400 prefabricated different pieces, all designed to the architects specifications. Equally precise are the staircases, which like the rest of the internal surfaces have been lacquered with water-based non-toxic linseed oil. The restaurant and other sections of the ground floor are laid with solid oak floor, while the remaining two upper floors are reinforced with pine and soiled oak.

Craning in the panels (HHA)

Outside, pine cladding, which soon enough will turn grey, forms the varyingly pitched external roof facades, behind which is a layer of steel, mineral wool insulation, plus 20 cm’s of isofibres (a form of recycled granulated newspaper), a 3.5 cm wood fibre plate, airspace, pine cladding. Where the roof is particularly flat an extra steel layer has been inserted, because the wood fibre plate didn’t come with any waterproof warranty for slopes below 20 degrees. And given fire risk, health and safety regulation for hotels require non-flammable insulation into the airspace beneath the cladding has been added a 3×3 metre grid of fire-sealant, to ensure any fire breaking out is unable to spread.

As far as sustainability is concerned, project architect Dag Strass, points out that the buildings high insulation values are a core part of its energy reduction strategy. As well as this the Mountain Lodge uses a heat exchange from the lake, a low ventilation system, and a bioenergy system, derived he says, from clay and horse shit! As well as the embodied energy locked into the massive wood panelling, low energy joinery such as the ubiquitous Norden windows are used. This works out at approximately 100 kw per sq metre, with the majority of the building’s energy bill coming from the lighting, a result of high insulation.

(HHA)

Inside another element in the mix has been the reworking of traditional handcraft motifs in the some of the design, taken from typical woven material of the region. This derives, says Knopf from their previous work with the handcraft museum projects – with old techniques interpreted in new ways.

There’s no doubt Knopf is excited by the Mountain Lodge. “It takes us beyond – where no one has gone before,” he exclaims. “The road.” he states at another point, “is made as you go, which is quite different to the normal projects.” The Mountain Lodge, as well as the other new projects they’re working on, are a continuation in the way we worked, although it has deepened in some areas, within the general theme. Next up is a cultural centre along the coast in Bergen, sitting on the steep cliff face. This again will be a test-bed for massive wood. Most exciting though, for the whole studio is that they are to represent Norway in next years Shanghai 2010 Expo temporary pavilion.

Helen & Hard’s Norway pavilion at the Shanghai Expo (HHA)

Themed around Norway’s dramatic natural world. it’s titled The Nature of Norway – Powered by Nature. The pavilion’s programme involves 15 thematic trees – each with its own subject topic, where they’re using Moelvens glulaminated pine elements for the main structure and glue laminated bamboo “glubam, which is currently being developed within the Chinese timber research world – for the extended rootlandscape inside the pavilion. How the pavilion will turn out is perhaps less certain. As for the Mountain Lodge Knopf acknowledges there have been pragmatic compromises though also a belief that they “managed to express it as the way of working in the materials and in the structure very explicitly.”

Certainly H & H’s Mountain lodge as an expression of this mix of two usually separate strands; process and vernacular, and global and local sensualities. It’s the binding of these strands, which is making the waves. Or to express it another way; in Arkitektur N’s editor Ingerid Almaas Helsing words. “I don’t want to quote poets too much but instead of Pythagorus’s architecture being frozen music, what Helen & Hard are doing is melting music into architecture.”

This piece was written in the aftermath of attending the Norwegian Wood conference in november 2008

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