Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

The road to perfection: Trollstigen Visitor Centre

10/02/2013

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I made a point of visiting Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter’s Trollstigen visitor centre last summer. I suppose it is a peculiar byproduct of architectural tourism, that a visitor centre itself can become as much of an attraction as the natural feature it was set up to serve.

It is tempting to talk about the challenges of imposing contemporary architecture onto settings that are literally as old as the hills. How to marry the old with the new without creating discord; how to create an impact that is big enough to impress and subtle enough not to spoil or overwhelm the surroundings.

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However, for a Scandinavian practice to meet those challenges successfully isn’t actually all that remarkable. It seems to happen all the time. The National Tourist Route project (of which RRA’s Trollstigen centre and the surrounding hard landscaping form a part) gives plenty of textbook examples of how it should be done.

This project also presented a slightly different challenge, though. Trollstigen (“the troll ladder”) is a road rather than a destination. Opened in 1936 and winding steeply between the Geiranger fjord and the highlands, its 11 hairpin bends are breathtaking – but still form a stretch of road from A to B.

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What Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter have achieved is to create a destination out of a piece of land that was essentially a thoroughfare. This is as much down to the landscaping as to the actual buildings (restaurant, gallery and tasteful-troll-tat gift shop) themselves. The buildings cover 1200 m2, whilst the surrounding 150,000 m2 of landscaping encompass cascading pools of icy-clear water, carefully designed paths, and viewing platforms edged with weathered steel balustrade panels that jut out over the dizzying precipices. The effect of the finished landscaping work is to look as if it, too, belongs here – moulding into and meandering through the ancient landscape.

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Along these paths – true to Scandinavian tradition – visitors had built hundreds of little cairns, piling stone upon stone in order to leave something behind other than their holiday budget. In an environment where everything is breathtakingly and record-breakingly big (the nearby Trollveggen is the 2nd largest expanse of vertical rock in the world), we bucked the trend and built the world’s smallest cairn… We think.

world's smalles cairn

I will leave you with a few more of my images from Trollstigen: the smooth concrete side of the visitor centre contrasting with the rough hillside above, and the imposing Trollveggen (“troll wall”) crags.

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Green, green grass of home: Norwegian turf roofs

26/09/2012

For a moment, let’s leave aside the technical benefits (or otherwise) of green roofs, and just enjoy how they look in the landscape.

In an article for the forthcoming ESI.info Expert Guide on facades, roof finishes and rainwater management, director of the Future Cities project Austin Williams writes:

Green roofs are now lauded for their biodiversity, carbon neutrality, pollution-busting, happiness-inducing, rainfall attenuating, energy-saving goodness. Putting grass on a roof has evolved into a moral agenda that almost brooks no challenge … Specifiers need to be aware that green roofs are not a miracle cure.

This turf roof blends almost seamlessly into its hillside surroundings. Spot the chimney and small skylight on the left!

Needless to say, green roofs alone won’t meet all the challenges involved in creating a built environment that really works… Sometimes it’s good to view them from a purely aesthetic angle.

That is just what I did last August in Norway. On many of our walks during those two weeks, there were turf-roofed cabins round every corner – although because of their camouflage tops, we often did not spot them until we were right up close.

Most of the pictures in this blog post were taken at or around Herdalssetra, an isolated hill-farm that has been in continuous operation for over 300 years. The 30-odd buildings here are generally small, old timber shacks. Their turf roofs are simply a part of that vernacular and a reflection of which materials were most readily to hand at the time. However, we often saw green roofs in new-build housing developments in major cities like Oslo and Trondheim.

This post, then, is intended as a low-tech visual feast and nothing more. I hope it conveys some of the beauty of the Herdalen valley. Look at these pictures and imagine the bleating of goats, the crunching sound of fjord horses grazing in juicy pastures, the smell of sun-warmed juniper and dwarf birch, all to a backdrop rush of snow-melt waterfalls – and you’re half-way there!

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Norwegian stave churches: 1000 years old and still standing

11/09/2012

A stave church, or stavkirke, is a timber church with a structural framework of timber staves (beams) resting on timber sleepers and carrying timber wall plates. The wall frames are infilled with vertical planks.

Borgund stave church

The exterior varies from simple and rough-hewn to painstakingly ornate, and in size the churches range from small, shed-like structures – such as Haltdalen stavkirke – to the more imposing Heddal stavkirke, which is the largest of its kind still standing. (At the end of this post, you will find the legend of how the latter was built in only three days.*)

In medieval Norway, the stave frame was the prevalent construction method for churches. There were at least a thousand of them – some sources say as many as two thousand – the length and breadth of the country, built in the 12th and 13th centuries. But by 1650, most of them had disappeared. Following the devastation wrought by the Black Death, many churches fell into disrepair, whilst the Reformation brought a change in the construction, style and use of churches.

Tarred pine shingles clad the steep roof sections

Today, only 28 of the original stave churches remain. Set on stone foundations, the rest of the buildings are entirely made from wood; from the dowels to the roof shingles. It is amazing to see how well some of them have lasted.

The best preserved is Borgund stavkirke in the county of  Sogn og Fjordane, in which most of the existing structure consists of original timbers.

Built from pinewood between 1180 and 1200, it is a striking, darkly ornate structure at the heart of a lush valley. I took the pictures in this post when I visited Borgund last August.

From the interior. In places, rune inscriptions can still be seen.

The intricate carvings, small-format shingles, and black dragons’ heads craning their necks from projecting gable apexes, are miles away from the simple, neutral style we tend to associate with Scandinavian architecture.

Through the centuries, stave churches were preserved by covering the timber in tar. When I visited this summer, the church had just been freshly tarred, making the external wood even darker than normal and lending it a rich, warm scent in the sun.

The external gallery, freshly tarred

The magnificent detailing and impressive longevity of it all made me think of the immense contrast between the church itself and the bleak, sparse living conditions of the people who built it. For farmers and craftsmen eking out a living in a remote Norwegian valley, building such a structure must have been an immense undertaking.

Medieval carvings, beautifully preserved

* There is an old legend about the building of Heddal stave church.

A local farmer, Raud Rygi, wanted to have a new church built. A mysterious stranger came along and offered to do the impossible: to build the church in only three days. His fee for this task was one of three things: either the farmer would have to fetch him the sun and the moon out of the sky, hand him his own heart on a plate, or guess the stranger’s name. Unsurprisingly, Raud chose the third option. He thought he would have plenty of time for name-guessing, as surely nobody could build a church in three days…

However, on the first night, the materials were already in place. On the second night, the steeple was raised. Despairing, and with only one day left before the church would be complete, Raud wandered round the building site at dusk. Suddenly, he heard a haunting voice rising out of the mountain, singing a lullaby: “Hush now, little one, tomorrow Finn will bring you the moon, the sun, and Raud’s heart for you to play with…”

Riddle solved: the builder was Finn, the troll. Raud Rygi’s life was saved, and Heddal had its new stave church.

Runic inscriptions on a church wall

The Old King’s Road, leading up to Borgund stave church

Case study: soundproofing a music room using folding sliding doors

09/07/2012

Doors, by nature, will allow a certain amount of noise to escape. However, there are specialist designs and techniques available to help alleviate the level of audible sound. Here is how Baca Architects and Sunfold Systems solved a musical soundproofing dilemma.

The clients wanted the music room to have an open, airy feel

A client approached Baca Architects, requesting that as part of their home they wanted a music room. This room was to form an important element of their living and leisure time.

A central point of the house was perfect for their requirements for entertaining guests and a key part of the family’s time together, but when it came to the times where privacy was required, they needed to be able to close the doors for recording purposes.

To create the open feel the clients required whilst also having the option to shut off the music area, lead architect Robert Barker wanted to incorporate interior folding sliding doors as an effective and visually appealing solution to the overall project. “Noise transfers so easily through most doors, so it was important for the internal folding sliding doors we used to be flawless, to create a balanced sound level,” he commented.

The music room had to be soundproofed for recording purposes

Robert chose to use Sunfold Systems’ timber range of folding sliding doors, the SFK69 painted in white. This is the highest specification timber system available, and is manufactured from triple laminated solid timber sections. As noise control was key, it was vital that the joints, tracks, frame construction and head detail connectors had no air gaps, to make sure that there was no flanking sound either side.

By using slim-width panels and through the natural slim sightlines of the SFK69, both the structure and the appearance of the internal sliding door system worked well together to achieve the desired effect.

Soundproofing sliding folding doors

Set in stone: time travel at BGS Keyworth

04/07/2012

The recently opened Geological Walk at British Geological Survey’s headquarters in Keyworth near Nottingham crams three billion years of the Earth’s history into a beautiful, 130m long stone concourse. Stephen Parry (Mineralogist and Petrologist at the BGS) and Michael Heap (Managing Director of expert natural stone suppliers CED Ltd) did the time-walk with me.

An ammonite-bearing block of Portland limestone

Each step on the Geological Walk takes you 25 million years closer to the present day. What can we learn from this ambitious project? (more…)

Unseen, unused, unusual: roofscapes

15/06/2012

Think how much, in terms of sheer square metreage, of a city’s space is taken up by roofs. For such an essential building element – the sine qua non of even the most basic shelter – roofs are often unseen and unappreciated. In this post, I take a look at some unusual and appealing roof designs… and finish off with a fairytale for good measure.

Dutch roofscape

One of the more spectacular uses of a roofspace is to place a great, big infinity pool on top of it. This is what the septuagenarian architect and urban designer Moshe Safdie did on the Marina Bay Sands opulent hotel and casino in Singapore. The project is, apparently, the most expensive integrated resort property ever built.

The SkyPark pool, Marina Bay Sands (image by Eduardo MC on Flickr)

On a more modest scale, the Urban Sketchers blog “features sketches and often equally colorful stories behind the scenes by 100 invited artists/correspondents in more than 30 countries around the world. Some are architects and illustrators, others are graphic designers, web developers, painters or educators, all sharing the same passion for drawing on location.”

Beauty is sometimes hidden in unusual places. But if you look for it, it will definitely come up where you would not expect it to be. City roofs are a perfect setting for these findings.

In a previous post, we have summarised different types of green roofs as another way to make the roofspace work harder. Turf has been a traditional roof covering in Norway for thousands of years, and this Inhabitat post shows some good examples.

It was not unusual to keep livestock grazing on the roof either – serving the dual purpose of keeping the grass short and the animals fed. Occasionally, you can still see goats on green rooftops in Norway, as well as on the Old Country Market in Coombs, British Columbia, which makes a good trade from this curiosity.

From Hardanger, Norway (image by janticom on Flickr)

The practice was not without its dangers, though, as this old folk tale shows:

The husband who was to mind the house

Once upon a time, there was a man who was so bad-tempered and cross that he never thought his wife did anything right in the house. One evening, in the haymaking season, he came home, scolding and swearing. “Dear love, don’t be so angry” said his wife, “tomorrow let’s change jobs. I’ll go out and mow, and you can mind the house.” Yes, the husband thought that would do very well. So early the next morning, his wife took a scythe and went out into the hayfield with the mowers, whilst the man was to mind the house and do the work at home.

First of all he wanted to churn the butter (…) When he had churned a bit, he remembered that their milk cow was still shut up in the barn and hadn’t had a bit to eat or a drop to drink all morning, although the sun was high. It was too far to take her down to the meadow, so he thought he’d just get her up onto the roof, for it was a sod roof, and a fine crop of grass was growing there (…)

Now it was nearly dinner time, and he hadn’t even finished the butter yet, so he thought he’d best boil the porridge. He filled the pot with water and hung it over the fire. When he had done that, it occurred to him that the cow might fall off the roof and break her neck, so he climbed up onto the house to tie her up.

He tied one end of the rope around the cow’s neck, slipped the other end down the chimney, and tied it around his own leg. Then he had to hurry, for the water was boiling, and he still had to grind the oatmeal. He began to grind away; but while he was hard at it, the cow fell off the roof, dragging the man up the chimney by the rope. There he stuck fast. As for the cow, she hung halfway down the wall, swinging between heaven and earth, for she could neither get down nor up…

Don’t try this at home

Esprit d’escalier: the wit and symbolism of the staircase

04/05/2012

What is it that fascinates us so much about staircases? More symbolically rich than any other building element, the staircase gives rise to a multitude of associations.

The staircase is a place of fleeting conversations, chance meetings, contrived accidents, secret assignations, ghostly encounters, lost opportunities for witty responses, and a symbol of lofty ambition.

It can be a descent into the underworld (‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’) or a Jacob’s ladder leading into heaven.

Do you dream about going up or down stairs? It could mean that you are coming to a decision on a complicated issue… The bottom of the stairs represents your current reality; the top landing is the conclusion for which you strive.

Any budding guitarist, of course, will attempt to learn the inevitable ‘Stairway to Heaven’ intro. (The bane of many a music store.)

There is even a page on Pinterest entirely dedicated to ‘Wonderful stairways and staircases‘.

For photographers, staircases are a constant source of inspiration. When viewed from above or below, the stairway takes on a purely graphic, geometric quality – like an abstract pattern rather than a physical object.

Out of self-indulgence, I thought I would share with you some of my favourite images of stairs and steps – below.

In the meantime – if you need to find, compare and select staircases, balustrades and handrails, ESI.info is a good place to start:

Fractals in architecture: good for the soul?

20/02/2012

What comes into your mind when you hear the word ‘fractals’? Maths and geometry lessons? Swirly spirals in cosmic colour-schemes on student bedsit walls? Self-similar shapes in nature, like snowflakes, ferns and broccoli? The drip-paintings of Jackson Pollock?

Wikipedia says a fractal is “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole”.

Fractal architecture is generated by the application of fractal geometric principles to the design of facades and building forms. Here are some examples of fractal architectural facades.

Yannick Joye, from Belgium’s Ghent University, argues that this type of geometry has been used in architecture for two main reasons:

1. Fractal rhythms, created by midpoint displacement, are used as a creative tool to generate a variety of architectural components, such as planning grids, strip windows, noise abatements etc. Examples can be found throughout architectural history, from Doric entablatures to modern facades.

2. The typical measurement techniques of fractal geometry are used to analyse the structure of buildings. The box-counting dimension, for example, is a measure for the recursivity of detail on ever smaller scales. An extract from Joye’s Fractal Architecture Could Be Good for You:

Carl Bovill [1996] has applied this method to different building styles. He found that Wright’s organic architecture shows a ‘cascade of detail’ on different scales, while in Le Corbusier’s modernist architecture, the box counting dimension quickly drops to 1 for smaller scales. This finding is consistent with the fact that ‘Wright’s organic architecture called for materials to be used in a way that captured nature’s complexity and order … [while] Le Corbusier’s purism called for materials to be used in a more industrial way, always looking for efficiency and purity of use’.

In the following illustrations, forms like arches and domes reoccur on different hierarchical scales throughout a Hindu temple, the Stadhuis (Town Hall) in Bruges, and the Notre Dame de Paris.

Stadhuis, Bruges

Notre Dame de Paris

However, as satisfying as fractal geometry may be to mathematicians, Yannick Joye is more interested in a less visible side-effect of fractal architecture. From an aesthetic point of view, Joye (whose specialist field is philosophy) points to research showing that human beings are innately attracted to fractals, that fractal shapes and images have a calming effect on us, and that this affinity may be related to our long-ago habitat – the trees:

… as a result of evolution, the brain has a preference for fractal structures, and feels relaxed when surrounded by these. This means that one of the reasons why we like the fractals in Gothic and Hindu architecture is that they remind us of our ancient, natural habitats. Because our brains have not fundamentally changed since prehistory, these biofilic responses are still at work.

A classic example of fractals in nature: the fern (Freefoto.com)

Do you see fractal architecture as calming and harmonious, or do you have more of a Euclidean frame of mind? I would love to see examples of the buildings that appeal to you the most.

300 years of brick-making: the Chailey kiln

17/02/2012

In a world of mass-production and building products whose inherent sustainability is lost in the amount of air, sea or road-miles it takes to get them to site, it is (at the risk of sounding a little bit Luddite) comforting to know that some products have been made in the same way, in the same place, for centuries.

In 2011, the Chailey brick factory in the middle of the Sussex Weald (owned by Ibstock since 1996) celebrated 300 years of continuous, traditional brick-making.

The Chailey clamp in operation at night

Bricks from the Chailey kiln are still produced to an original recipe, which includes a blend of local Wealden clays from Ibstock’s own quarry. The stock bricks are fired in a traditional clamp (one of only three still in use in the UK), giving them distinctive textures and warm colours. All Chailey bricks are then sorted and packed by hand – although the craftsmen and stackers do not, presumably, wear this traditional garb every day:

Ibstock stackers at the Chailey site

Clay pipes, tiles, pottery and bricks have been made in and around South Chailey since 1711. Since 1792, successive generations of the Norman family owned and operated the factory until it was finally sold to Redland in 1959.

The Chailey factory has the capacity to manufacture approximately 14 million bricks per year using a soft mud moulding process. It also manufactures pavers and brick specials. This video on Ibstock’s website details the history of the Chailey site and shows the traditional, clamp-fired production process.

The fire hole at Chailey

The Bulmer Brick & Tile Co – specialists in purpose-made bricks for restoration and conservation projects – also make their bricks in accordance with time-honoured methods. Fired in a coal-burning down-draught kiln, their facings, rubbers and specials are made from London clays that have been dug from these Suffolk seams in a near-continuous line since Tudor times.

The Minter family: skills handed down through generations

Another building product largely unchanged through time is the traditional plain roofing tile, which has been made to a standard size since 1666 (when the Great Fire of London gave rise to product standards and building regulations). Historically – and for obvious reasons – factories for making bricks and tiles were sited right where the clay source occurred, and that’s where they remain.

Image by Hotblack on MorgueFile

PassivHaus: the devil is in the detail

07/10/2011

The PassivHaus concept is quite a simple one: create an airtight, super-insulated structure, install mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, address thermal bridging, and find yourself with a building that can essentially be heated by a hairdryer. However, as with most things, the devil is in the detail…

Here, I take a look at the following questions:

What does a PassivHaus look like?

PassivHaus is really a design and build process, as opposed to a particular style of architecture. Whilst we may have preconceived ideas of a PassivHaus-certified building’s aesthetics, it could (at least in theory) look pretty much like anything – especially given that existing buildings can be retrofitted to PassivHaus standard.

100 Princedale Rd, Paul Davis + Partners

This was done at 100 Princedale Road – a Victorian house in a London conservation area – by Paul Davis + Partners and contractor Philip Proffit of Ryder Strategies Europe Ltd. This house was the first of its kind in the UK to achieve PassivHaus accreditation, meeting its target to reduce carbon emissions by 80%. (Granted, with the subject of the retrofit starting out as a drafty, four-story old house, there was plenty of scope for improvement.) In other words, a passive house can be anything from a large, new office building to a centuries-old, traditional house. Below are some examples:

Single-family residence in Brooklyn, NYC | Gregory Duncan

Eurogate Sozialbau, Vienna – Europe’s largest PassivHaus settlement? | Tiger46 on Flickr

Passive house office building in Austria | Tõnu Mauring

What does a PassivHaus cost?

The Footprint article on the Princedale Road Retrofit for the Future project includes an interesting breakdown of the cost / payback time / bills before and after completion, making a comparison between refurbishing to PassivHaus or Decent Homes criteria. The Green Building Store, in conjunction with Building magazine, has also provided a breakdown of costs for the Denby Dale PassivHaus in West Yorkshire.

What about air quality?

The more passive (or other enclosed, airtight and sealed) houses we construct, the more important it is that we keep monitoring and assessing the quality of the air circulated in these buildings. Are we avoiding moisture build-up? Is the air too dry? Is there enough of it? Will we see a concentration of emissions inside these buildings, over time, from the building materials used? What are the potential positive/negative effects on occupants’ health and well-being? Housebuilder’s Bible author Mark Brinkley experiments with air quality and CO2 levels in this House 2.0 blog post, relating his findings to PassivHaus standards.

To ensure a good level of fresh air supply, most passive houses are ventilated and heated by mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR). Heat from the warm air that is being extracted is passed to the incoming fresh air through a heat exchanger – with the result that heat loss is minimised and heating costs are reduced. Ducting is an integral part of this: “Marion Baeli, the architect on the [Princedale Road] project, stressed that in a retrofit with MVHR, the coordination of ductwork requires considerable design attention, and should be integrated right from the start.” (Footprint)

Airflex Pro suspended ceiling ductwork installation (Airflow Developments on ESI.info)

Which products are used in a PassivHaus?

The PassivHaus Institut provides a list of certified building components, products and systems suitable for use in PassivHaus construction. Presumably, as this concept gains popularity and awareness, the list will grow. We have already looked at ventilation. Other important components are energy-efficient windows, airtight seals and thermal insulation.

But of course, a component is only as good as its installation. As well as architects who know how to design a successful PassivHaus, and manufacturers who can make products suitable for this type of construction, we need contractors with the right skills and experience. (PassiveHouse Builders, Passivhaus/LCC, Passive Development and Viking House are some of the firms I have come across.)

Project Green Home, Palo Alto | Mark Hogan

What is it like to live in a PassivHaus?

Bill Butcher, the construction manager of the Denby Dale house, kept a 17-instalment diary during the building process. But what happens post-occupancy? How does the building perform, and how does it shape the lives and behaviours of its occupants? In a separate post, I have taken a closer look at the realities of living in a passive house.

What is the next big thing after PassivHaus?

In the absence of a unified, international environmental standard for buildings, there is a certain amount of ‘competition’ between the different accreditations. There is no shortage of acronyms to choose from, and there are almost as many opinions on which accreditation makes the most sense as there are design-and-build professionals. (For a sensible take on PassivHaus vs the Code for Sustainable Homes, see “The Bout of the Decade” by Sustainable Homes.)

Andrew Holt heads the practice Architectopia in Norway, and also runs a course on sustainable architecture. He has worked extensively on PassivHaus developments. In an Arkitektnytt.no article, he talks about what the next big thing after PassivHaus might be. Mentioning BREEAM, zero-emission housing and “plus houses”, Andrew emphasises the importance of tailoring the standard to the individual project, using different tools to come up with a package that is fit for purpose. He comes to a refreshing conclusion (my translation):

What follows ‘after’ the PassivHaus standard should be a variety of different possibilities, so that our ambitions are based increasingly on the individual project and its local climate and conditions. This would facilitate greater innovation, creativity and cross-disciplinary co-operation. This approach demands a high level of competence within the project team.

An understanding of what the PassivHaus standard is, is a prerequisite for high-quality construction within the energy-efficiency sector. An understanding of what the PassivHaus standard isn’t, is a prerequisite for moving forwards.

PassivHaus office in Langenhart | Train.bird on Flickr