Svartlamoen, Trondheim – Harbinger to Norway’s massive wood phase-change

How Trondheim’s alternative community, Svartlamoen, built a housing block and changed the path of Norwegian massive wood

If there’s one project which people point to as having persuaded Norway’s architectural community to consider massive wood as an exciting contemporary building material, it’s the five storey student and affordable housing completed in 2005 in Svartlamoen, the alternative community district in Trondheim; the country’s third city half way up the Western Atlantic coast. There are those who say the whole Norwegian Wood extravaganza wouldn’t have happened but for Svartlamoen. “It completely inspired the people in Stavanger to do their Wood City,” says the affable Geir Brendeland, one half of Brendeland & Kristofferson (BKark), the practice who were propelled into the limelight by the building’s success. There could be a bit of, ‘well he would say that, wouldn’t he’, to such a statement. Oslo’s Wood Institute’s head of Massive Wood research, Jarle Aarstad makes the same point; a direct genealogical connection between Svartlamoen and the Stavanger programme three years later.

photo: David Grandorge

It’s a striking building. The uncompromising timber facade rising up the first two storeys vertically, before pitching inward by around 15 degrees, up to the roof-line of the fifth floor loft apartments. From ground floor up, a series of rectangular porthole windows cut deep into the facade, and much more dramatically, three sizeable top floor windows scaled proportionately up from the portholes, are lining up and peering out from the top of the building. Divided in two, they provide big bay window views for the two top storey floors.

Summer time…. – photo David Grandorge

At the back, is a communal play area and, at least in the summer a garden; external steel staircases lead up to the higher floor flats. Large-ish windows look out on the tree and shrub lined back yard; while on the northern side, a smaller two-storey block, altogether less dramatic and commanding, provides additional apartments, at the same time as a protective shield for this interior yard-space.

… and the living is easy  – photo David Grandorge

At five stories high this housing block was a massive wood project of a significantly different order to anything that had come before; three small Norwegian examples of the Nordic massive wood programme. Given Svartlamoen’s low cost budget and it’s mix of young alternative and student types taking up residence, along with an obvious low energy remit, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the architects began designing in as much adaptability as possible.

At five stories high this housing block was a massive wood project of a significantly different order to anything that had come before; three small Norwegian examples of the Nordic massive wood programme. Given Svartlamoen’s low cost budget and it’s mix of young alternative and student types taking up residence, along with an obvious low energy remit, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the architects began designing in as much adaptability as possible.

While in november… – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

Each of the four residential floors, containing either five or six rooms, was designed for communal use. Brendeland points to the considerable floor to ceiling levels, and how welcoming the feel of the apartments are. “Everyone’s very proud of it,” he says. The solid wood elements throughout the building, whether walls, roofs or flooring, have been left exposed so that when people moved in, they could build their own shelving and generally adapt the rooms as they wanted.

In a similar spirit of flexibility, the kitchens were left unfinished, to be completed when and as people desired.  Given this, and given so much that was new timber engineering terrain, Svartlamoen generated a swathe of research and subsequent documentation: on insulation, on acoustics, and on fire risk. This was principally handled by Jarle Aarstad and colleagues at Oslo’s Wood Institute, though the engineering department at NTNU, Trondheim’s Technical University also contributed. The building’s insulation is much thicker than had been generally normal; approximately 51 square centremetres added to the massively woody walls. Given the emphasis on insulation, it would be interesting to know how the acoustics have panned out, as these are usually one of the most challenging issues for Nordic massive wood buildings. Structurally, each floor carries load bearing concrete slabs, sitting under the cross laminated boards, weight distributed across the slabs. The first time I visited, back in the summer of 2008, Brendeland mentioned that the exterior was never completely finished, referring to how the building is in part a framework in which the student residents could also do what they wanted. This brought the down the budget; and the external staircase also reduced costs, though this design – which precluded a lift, is unlikely to be repeated often in such a thoroughly Northern climate.

Winter lines – from the outer end – Oliver Lowenstein

The cost at the time per sq metre, 2000 euros, states Brendeland, was average for any comparable urban building. He also adds that the building is low maintenance and simple to run, acknowledging that, with external staircase and other interior idiosyncrasies, the building as a low energy template, is probably too far beyond the comfort zone of the vast majority of Norway’s urban population.

David Grandorge

Still, as the tallest, indeed biggest, Norwegian application of massive wood thus far, and also as a building which resembles nothing else built from  massive wood before, the Svartlamoen housing block conjured up an appealing and youthful new identity for massive wood. On both my two visits, the feel of Svartlamoen whole was almost sculptural, as if carving tools had been brought to a seemingly, literal ‘massive’ piece of sawn timber, which had then been cut at and hewn away There is a heavy groundedness which echoes yet contrasts elementally to concrete, with Svartlamoen’s main housing issuing a graceful, sculptured yet geometrically compact form. And, since Svartlamoen’s completion, a small string of massive wood buildings have begun emerging which present something of the same qualities; not least Helen and Hard’s Mountain Lodge.

Yet, what makes the building all the more unusual is the context. Born out of the nineteen seventies squat and alternative culture, the Svartlamoen neighbourhood, as a ‘lost in time’ alternative district, had by the turn of the millennium, not only survived but thrived, entering into partnership with the city council and collaborating on a district-wide masterplan. Close to Trondheim’s harbourside, the entire district had for years been under threat of redevelopment. Surprisingly perhaps, it didn’t happen. By the end of the nineties and after years of political tussles, the municipality voted to preserve the district for housing and arts activities.

In 2003, after the green party won greater representation – and the Svartlamoen seat – in the municipality, a competition was organised to build a youth and student housing block in the middle of the ramshackle and down at heel district. Brendeland and his partner Olav Kristofferson, who were both working in a sizeable Oslo office at the time, put together a submission and although confident about its quality, were surprised when the news came through that they’d won. Two years of preparation, including setting up as a practice, and ongoing and involved participatory design with the young post-punk, anarchist, druggy and student community followed, before the building neared completion. Then an almost chance visit by Peter Davey, editor at the time of the British Architectural Review, and his subsequent highly complementary write-up, turned Svartlamoen overnight into an international architectural attention grabber. News of the building spread fast, bringing attention, prizes and new contracts for the young architects. All of a sudden massive wood had a poster child.

Though both architects were from Oslo, they had each studied at Trondheim’s Technical University. With his then girlfriend, today his wife, from the city, Brendeland moved back to Trondheim. As they turned their attention to focusing on a master-plan for the run-down district Svartlamoen became a longer-term project. This has involved two further buildings. The first was the conversion of a car sales showroom – literally a block away from the housing, into a neighbourhood kindergarten. Another paean to massive wood it was completed in 2008, and the kindergarten’s old showrooms’ interior has been all decked out in a wonderfully strange medley of woody shapes. The second building, also a rebuild, is a community, cultural and recreational centre for the Svartlamoen neighbourhood, the first phrase of which has been completed and is still in the process of further work.

Two views from the kindergarten – 1) Oliver Lowenstein, 2) David Grandorge

For the kindergarten, inside the anonymous one-floor ‘low road’ showroom, the design was again arrived at through thorough community participation, including the children. The result that gradually emerged, surprised Brendeland, to say the least. The community decided to place the classrooms right up to the front behind the large glazed windows, a literal sign of how open to the world the kindergarten was; which reversed the orthodoxy of contemporary school building design. They also decided to put an open crossing ‘piazza’ area in the middle of the building, so that, in the words of the schools head, Ann Sylvie Ulsen,  “everyone has to cross the piazza to get to other parts of the kindergarten. So we have to look everyone in the eye, something we shy Norwegians do not like.” Dividing up each of these rooms are completely one-off massive wood walls. Their strangely disorienting shapes seemingly splay off in different crazy paving directions, involved, according to Brendeland, a heavy workload of complicated geometrical work on the computer. Certainly the shapes are hardly orthogonal and the CNC machines have been busy. And the old showroom size window spaces have been replaced with reinforced low energy glass, so that the building receives natural lighting from three of its four sides.

Kindergarten photo’s – all David Grandorge

Beyond the entrance, there are two main classrooms, the central piazza and further smaller micro-spaces within the classrooms. The prefabricated timber has produced some lovely shapes, so very different to much modern school design; slanted walls and a buoyant irregularity immediately reminding you of the natural anarchy of small children, as well as the immediate neighbourhood beyond the open windowed walls.

For the small children there are also nests, hiding cupboards, miniature and false corridors, and windows cut between the rooms, which all add to the sense of an indoor adventure playground. All this – and the wonderfully warm timber walls. Above and below the ceilings, air piping and other services have been left exposed, while back at child level other materials, important for tacit learning also play their tactile part, an element in the developmental approach the kindergarten is philosophically committed to.

Outside, the play area – including a small urban farm – is bounded by a low timber wall. There is nothing in the way of security fencing, reinforcing a message of trust, so engagingly symbolised by the large open windows. Everybody inside can see and look at anybody outside.

The last, and BKArk’s third in the trilogy of Svartlamoen building projects, is the community centre, which is, as of early 2010, ongoing. I haven’t been to Svartlamoen since work on this building commenced. But according to Brendeland, they are using it to explore the potential for pre-fabrication production techniques once again, as well as further investigating CNC technology capacity to work with complex geometries. BKark also used CNC’s in various complex geometries for the timber components on their Svarlbard housing, where elementally basic housing sits amidst the elementally breath-taking mountain surroundings. Today, with Svartlamoen almost complete and with both partners relocated to Trondheim, Brendeland and Kristoffersen continue to look for contexts in which to take what started in the scuzzy harbourside district, various next steps further. The latest ‘opportunity’ has been as part of a European team working on London’s Olympic 2012 athlete housing, exploring  how this housing can be developed. Though they teach at the Technical University, and collaborate with the engineering department’s Institute of Wood Technology where possible, a sense of frustration about the limits of what actually is possible is evident in Brendeland’s voice. He repeats the oft-made critique that although the Norwegian timber sector is the country’s third largest industry, research and development is next to nothing. “There is no real innovation.” This may be so, but they can hold their heads high. With Svartlamoen, they’ve helped trigger a phase-change rethink towards their home country’s ample on-the-doorstep building natural resource. Along with all the international publicity, the Wood Institute’s Aarstad, points to how exciting, influential, and controversial the building was for the Norwegian architectural community. Which a half-decade on, is playing out with massive wood, allied to CNC technology and the wonders of pre-fabrication becoming an increasingly normal choice. It’s not only the architects though. Look at it this way: a less exotic variant perhaps, than the butterfly wing in California leading to a hurricane in the bay of Bengal – but would Stavanger, Norwegian Wood, and the whole strain of massive wood etc, of Norwegian timber culture that’s been growing since, ever happened without that small group of neo-punk anarchists, squat-land hippy greens and students high on the likes of Sonic Youth, holding out in Svartlamoen? It’s Babel and who’s to say no?   OL summer 2010

From aways – photo Geir Brendeland

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