Joensuu’s METLA Forest Research centre

The Finnish timberbuild scene is a paradox. During the last century Europe’s most heavily forested country all but turned its back on timber as a core structural and building material. Only in the last ten years has there been a fundamental rethink“ and timber is being seen increasingly as more of an opportunity than a problem.

In spring 2002, the Finnish Forest Research Institute, METLA, announced a competition to design the Institute’s office building, the first significant all purpose, timber constructed offices in the country. The office building is the only research centre outside of the Helsinki metropolis, far to the east of the country, in the city of Joensuu. This deeply rural region, known as Karelia, has been haemorrhaging its population since the sixties, and in an attempt to stay the outward flow, Joensuu’s University was founded in 1968, followed by METLA’s decentralisation, and the subsequent decision to make Joensuu the primary research base in the region. By autumn 2004 the Nordic timber architecture building refocused METLA’s research on the centre and the research staff was doubled, to approximately 100 researchers.

Central to the competitions’ aim was a flexible modern office structure, which could compete with the traditional modern materials, steel and concrete, used as commonly in Finland as in the rest of Europe, to provide the versatility of mainstream office building, but with a timber based structural system. The winning entry came from the established Helsinki SARC practice who turned some orthodox office techniques into an experiment in applying the increasingly popular massive wood techniques and technology in the Nordic countries to the specific requirements of office design and architecture.

The research centre comprises two office blocks covering 60 sq metres, one L shaped, the other a straight section, sited parallel to each other. Buffering and joining these is a third component, “a dramatically glazed hallway block, revealing a system of four double v form struts splaying up to the open ceiling. This hall completes three sides of the sites’ rectangular horseshoe, the fourth face is left open as an entrance to the alcove courtyard nestling within the interior walls. The timber component is almost entirely spruce either original, reclaimed, or glulam; the result is a series of sharp, austere boxes, and a mix of windowed and closed external timber facades, transmitting a clear and unequivocal signature, and proclaiming adherence to orthogonal neo-modernism, which remains so strong across the Nordic world.

The hallway struts are 20 cm x 20 cm rectangular glulam pine, square in section, with the two central strut pillars some 20 metres apart from each other. Dramatic and expressive in themselves, the double v struts are visually counterbalanced by the addition of a free form windowless auditorium, with a thick aspen mantle of shingle, cutting through the glass facade – half in the hallway and half out on the courtyard. The auditorium’s upturned boat organicism seats seventy, and provides a counterpoint to both the expressivity of the struts, and the overall cool Nordic neo-modernist aesthetic.

If this is the focal centre of the building, the visible v strut system also outlines how the combination of an experimental hollow massive timber structural system to the three storey offices, together with large span, vertical post and beam glulam framing, (here 40 x 40 cm square), can be utilized to ensure office space as large and versatile as any steel and concrete office structure. With the design SARC expressed confidence that this combination could be effective. After winning the design competition, SARC constructed a life size model to confirm the flexibility of the combined materials through load bearing tests, so that office reorganisation would be easy and straightforward in the future. Nonetheless these timber structural elements are supplemented by three concrete towers to each side of the hall, and the corner of the L block. The towers contain elevators, toilets and ductwork for the building.

Spruce is also used in the external finishes of the building around the perimeter, which are a mixture of closed walls, a vertical mosaic of 30 by 70cm reclaimed logs from two Joensuu buildings, and lining for the windowed buildings’ faces’ with long finger narrow 1.8m pine windows. The timber used, pre-manufactured off-site, is all local to Karelia.

This was the first time a timber system which set itself the task of competing with steel and concrete without constraining the building design had been attempted in Finland.  The costs were hardly cheap, coming in at 14 million Euro’s. Yet the project architect, Okke Kiviluoto, believes that when integrated into the manufacturing process such timber office buildings can easily become competitive, ˜everything is new, and shows it can be done,” he says. The result is both a regional showpiece for METLA, turning Nordic architectural eyes towards Joensuu, and an intriguing experiment in office timber functionalism, which may take further steps in the near future.

This piece was originally written in the winter of 2004/5 for the Canadian Wood Design and Building magazine, although it didn’t get to be published. Parts were canibalised for various other Nordic pieces over the next years, although this is the first time its been published.

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