Nordic wood construction makes a comeback

Photo: Sven-Erik Knoff / VisitNorway
The Snøhetta mountain can be seen in the background of Tverfjellhytta, designed by Snøhetta.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Norway and trees are so connected that the Beatles wrote a lovely song pairing these two elements, “Norwegian Wood.” Because of Norway’s lovely lush forests, timber became a building material of choice, for both seaworthy vessels and other edifices, perhaps reaching its pinnacle in the far distant past with Viking ships and stave churches.

Unfortunately, timber construction for both interiors and exteriors grew out of fashion for several decades in the 20th century. We are left with stark white homes, our feet are grounded to concrete floors and, more often than not, inferior construction, for many of these materials were chosen with an eye to the cost of supplies and skilled labor, rather than to taste, design or environmental impact.

But we are beginning to see more wood: in cabinetry, flooring, and contemporary wood paneling. The latter’s popularity is more similar to the Art Deco style of the 1920s rather than dad’s ubiquitous paneling of the 1960s. It is nice to see some warmth and sheer beauty returning to our abodes and places of employment.

Photo: Fredrik Hagen / NTB
Mjøstårnet is Norway’s tallest wooden building.

And, once again, Norway is one of the countries taking the lead in the timber development. Mjøstårnet (Mjøs Tower), at 19 stories (280 feet), opened in 2019 in Brumunddal, Norway, and can boast that it is the tallest timber building in the world.

Mjøstårnet holds the high standard of being an all wooden construct including load-bearing structures in glued laminated timber (wooden layers are bonded together by adhesives to create strength to bear weight) and cross-laminated timber. The latter was developed in Austria and Germany in the 1990s for multistory construction that is load bearing. In Mjøstårnet, it was used for stairwells, elevator shafts, and balconies.

At first sight, the tower looks very much like an 18-story rectangular prism. But close up, the skin is clad in wooden panels that vary in color, size and direction, becoming a decorative element, as seen in traditional brick buildings.

Much of modern architecture, especially in urban areas, expends more energy and thought on the interiors than the exteriors. For instance, the spiraling staircase that floats above the ground floor of this building is stunning. However, the entire populace passes such a structure and this is important to consider when adding to the built environment. In other words, how does it fit into the surroundings, does it overwhelm, or does it add or detract?

Wood softens and warms the structure, creating less imposition and instead integration to its environs. This is perhaps hard to see, as it is a standalone, but one can imagine it on an urban block. Could there be wooden skyscrapers to follow? Well, yes, Tokyo is planning to have one completed in 2041, a 1,148-foot high-rise, soaring above the metropolis.

The public has been fed the bunk that the newer materials being used for construction are better for the environment, including adding LED standards. In fact, wooden construction is more sustainable, as is preservation of the majority of existing buildings. Of course, it is important to ensure that timber materials are not sourced from old-growth forests but from farms slated for this purpose.

Stavanger held a Nordic Expo on timber architecture and construction in 2008, Norwegian Wood, as part of its European City of Culture celebration. This is an apropos topic for a city that has preserved its charming old town, a haven of curving streets and over 1,000 wooden wonders. Many of these doll-like houses have been painted into Bermudian hues, making it one of the largest collections of wooden houses in the world.

This expo served as a laboratory to bring this ubiquitous material of the north into the 21st century. One ambition was to show that large wooden buildings could compete with concrete and another was to trumpet its sustainability.

The conference was not all talk; it actually had concrete goals, and 25 projects were selected to become realities in time for 2008. These run the gamut of bridges, residences (including rows and apartments), lodges, and a kindergarten. But 2008 was the year of a housing crisis, which resulted in only five projects being completed on time, two under construction, and others being left in limbo.

One beauty that endured is Lanternen, in Sandnes. It was designed by AWP + atelier oslo to revitalize the town, serving as a market in the day and a venue for cultural events at night. An open structure (encased in a glass peaked enclosure) takes the skeleton to the forefront. You can see the craftsmanship, Viking tradition, and absolute awe of such a structure, reminding me of a Viking boat shed in some ways and reminiscent of a Norwegian stabbur sitting on stilts. It is raw yet elegant.

Farther afield, at the place where Norway’s north and south divide, lies Tverrfjellhytta, The Norwegian Wild Reindeer Center Pavilion. Designed by Snøhetta in 2011, from here, you can observe the Snøhetta mountain and all the uniqueness Dovrefjell National Park in Hjerkinn has to offer. Even how you arrive there is truly experiential, as you have to hike to the site. From expansive windows, you can watch the wildlife wander about, and educational programming is offered.

The building design is based on a contrast between idea and organic, with a rigid outer shell and a soft inner core, subtle, yet stunning. The interior is a pure wooden sculpture, a canyon worn by wind and waves, creating smooth, curvaceous forms that entice one to nestle.

Photo: Marc Audan / Flickr The interior of Tverfjellhytta is a pure wooden sculpture of wind and waves, with it curvaceous forms.

Timber is also being used for the humblest projects in extraordinary ways, such as The Bands Sauna, built in Kleivan, Lofoten, by Norwegian students from the Scarcity and Creativity Studio, part of the Oslo School of Architecture. Its quirky, whimsical shape juxtaposes straight lined geometric steps pressed on top of the jagged stones that lead to the sea.

It references three types of traditional buildings in the area: one for cod salting, one for processing cod liver oil and a fisherman’s hut successfully and sensitively. It was built in just four weeks and the interior’s walls consisted of warm larch, a softwood traditionally used for watercraft.

Another interesting project is Snøhetta’s home for bees, Vulkan Beehive, which resides on the rooftop of Mathallen, Oslo’s food hall.

These two projects prove that great things can be constructed in small packages.

Interestingly, the United States is “one of the few places in the world where wood is the dominant material used in new-home construction—90% of homes built in 2019 were wood,” according to an article in time.com from June 2021.

This leads one to wonder whether the Nordics will bring new timber construction materials and methods to the United States. After all, the Norwegians are credited with bringing clapboard construction to the New York area when it was a Dutch colony. The Swedish Delaware Colony used log cabins at around the same time.

Scandinavians populated both coasts, as well as the Midwest, before there was a built environment, thus having to create one for themselves. So, perhaps, Scandinavia deserves some credit for the love and ubiquitous use of wooden structures, especially homes across the American landscape.

Photo: Snøhetta
Beehives buzz on the rooftop of Mathallen in Oslo.

In our times, timber construction is also being revitalized because of its much less harsh environmental impact. A 2018 report by Chatham House, a British think tank, estimated that the “4 billion tons of cement that are produced annually worldwide account for 8% of emissions; carbon is released into the atmosphere by the combustion required for the manufacture of cement, and by the chemical processes involved.” In Norway, one must replant trees that are taken for industry. Perhaps, this is something that could be instituted on this side of the Atlantic. The natural connection between wooden construction and Scandinavia has begun to take root in the United States. In 2020, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design held a studio entitled, “Mass Timber and the Scandinavian Effect.”

The magic of the Norwegian touch in design and construction is seeping into the United States, Snøhetta opened a New York headquarters and is responsible for the 9/11 Memorial Museum, rethinking Times Square and the new Far Rockaway’s Writer’s Library.

They have also made a dent in other parts of the United States, reimagining venues for foodies. Projects include The French Laundry in the Napa Valley, Calif., the James Beard Public Market in Portland, Ore., and in the Willamette Falls Riverwalk, which is in the process of transforming a former industrial area into a bucolic public place in Oregon City, Ore.

Perhaps Snøhetta and other Scandinavian “starchitects” working in the United States will be catalysts in bringing new timber methods to us. Norway’s unique aesthetic strives to make seamless or, at minimum, integrate its spectacular outdoors with the constructed environment.

Norway’s meticulous attention to detail and its exuberance for whimsy, innovation and creativity has resulted in a burst of wonderful timber design, architecture, and construction. Norway is achieving this by digging into their deep traditional roots and germinating new shoots. Both are being developed into branches ever reaching toward the future.

This article originally appeared in the July 8, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.