In Finland Eco-Villages grow up

Community and social housing are making new pathways across the Nordic countries. Here two Finnish examples, a contemporary large scale, suburban eco-village and the cross country Wood Town movement look set to influence policy throughout the Baltic world and further afield.

by Oliver Lowenstein.

In the Nordic countries the Eco-Village movement has been growing up. While here in Britain there are next to no examples to add up to what would pass for a bona-fide eco-village movement, across the north Eco-Villages have both been coming of age, and broadening the definition of the description, letting this alternative form of social housing initiative spread it wings, in all the main Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. So much so that something of the template is being used for some large-scale eco-developments in various Northern cities, bringing in the support and financial interest of Nordic regional governmental bodies.

Granted there is Findhorn in the north of Scotland, which has kept the Eco-Village beacon alive, while in the south of the country the very contrasting BedZed and Greenwich Millennium Sustainability ventures can be seen as two ends of a distantly related spectrum; the former arguably a millennium upgrade from a movement and cluster of ideas which were born in the midst and aftermath of the hippy years. The BedZed/Bioregional nexus is a singular vision of a small group of people, which seems on the verge of taking off on a larger scale, with talk of various Zed developments integrated into the Government’s mid-term affordable housing agenda. With its compact city, urban based emphasis, the Zed trajectory, however, isn’t the same as the eco-village movement. Even less so is the Greenwich Peninsula development, which gives off a somewhat soulless big development project ‘air’, imposed from on high, and during my visit – admittedly six months ago - the glue of community feels all but absent, the very stuff that these ventures may need in buckets to self-generate a momentum to keep going.


Across the North Sea, indeed around the inland Baltic Sea, both Sweden and Finland have a much a wider familiarity with the self-grown Eco-Village concept, and developing parts of towns with a strong emphasis on home-grown socially active sustainability. In Sweden, around twenty resident-led eco-villages have prospered since the eighties, Bjorkhagen in Stockholm was one of the first, along with another in the University city, Uppsala, as well as in a number of towns further south. These are resident led, and resident organised. Denmark similarly contains a widespread though generally smaller scale, and usually more rural network of projects. One of the first of these, Fjordvang, in Western Denmark, emerged out of the setting up of the Danish based Global Eco-Village Network (GEN)1. Since then GEN has helped co-ordinate, nurture and link the global growth of the Eco-Villages movement, with villages springing up in regions as far apart as both the African (a new Eco-Village in Odi, Nigeria opened this year) and Indian sub-continents.


Back in the far south of Sweden, Malmø, which sits on the Atlantic coastline facing Northern Denmark, a big Government funded millennium project Eco-Village has also been developed, though it is a dramatic contrast to the traditional Eco-Village vision. Stylistically, it’s something of a smorsgabord, all sorts of eco-developments crowded up against each other tooth by jowl. Its success, apparently, is somewhat in the balance. Both Malmo and the Greenwich project are part of a planet-wide intra-Government drive to propel the traditional Eco-Village concept into the mainstream. Across disparate parts of Europe there are now many significant initiatives of master-planning for bringing on-stream bureaucracy led Eco-Villages, which have in effect turned into large scale urban ecology projects. So many, in fact, they can be counted on at least two hands. In Germany these include developments in Kronsberg Hanover, and Freiberg, while the aforementioned southern Swedish Malmø, constitutes another example, the figure rising to about a dozen others across Europe.

Now, although also initiated in the pre-millennium run-up years, the Finnish Ministry of Environment is trying something similar with a large scale eco-village development 7 miles over on the east side of Helsinki, only now in 2004 is hitting its stride. Called Eko-Viikki, this is the most co-ordinated and ambitious attempt to develop an entire eco-residential sector across the Nordic countries. Set on some former research fields of the University of Helsinki’s agricultural dept, on a visit this summer the multi-purpose site is far from complete, earthworks everywhere and continual evidence of Finland’s rocky granite geological surface impinging through the ground. The Eko-Viikki city plan began in 1997, is seen generally as a sustainable housing area. There are six developers, with 28 sites, all of which are seeking to meet a set of ecological criteria’s. A significant portion of the buildings use wood as their principal material, but at the heart of the project is an involved research agenda; testing in a system christened PIMWAG, where ratings have been developed for a range of ecogical criteria (namely water saving, energy efficiency, sustainable building materials, waste reduction, allotment provision and effective recycling facilities.). Of the 28 sites 17 are monitored. There is also a whole section given over to self-build, where architects, builders and others are being given the lassitude to design and build there own low energy eco-designed homes. This is very much in the eco-village tradition. There is also a secondary and primary school, as well as two kindergartens. There is also a handsome stand-alone and timberbuild community centre to the north of the site, and, unbuilt as yet, what looks to be an excitingly designed timber-centric church.


When Eko-Viikki was first announced the project animated quite a bit of excitement among various eco-inclined communities in Helsinki. The fact that the reality of the project, mixing high rise – 6 or 7 storeys, with low rise 2/3 storeys, has, apparently brought on annoyance and disillusionment with some of those who have, or were going to move, into the community. People imagined something on the level of the smaller scale eco-villages that already existed. Indeed the initial perception of some who signed up was of low rise – the norm for most eco-villages – so a certain disappointed when high rise was unveiled, blew through those who had signed up early on as as part of the plan. The thought was, that these were neither as ecological nor as true to the Eco-Village form from its earlier evolutionary stage.

As it is, much of the residential building is either already lived in, or complete and ready for moving into. Where heating and electricity are concerned, a specific research testing method; the PIMWAG ecological criteria has been developed. These have been met in 50% of the buildings, and the target quality has usually been exceeded. Probably the most ambitious target of solar energy use in Finland to date, the solar array elements are a central feature of Eko-Viikki, About half the Eko Viikki’s buildings receive some of the solar energy created. The houses are south facing, thus applying passive use of daylight. The solar arrays are used as part of the building structure – as balcony balustrades, roof, balconies, and carports roofs, covering a total of 1248 metres squared of solar collectors, and overall heat storage volume of 73 cubic meterage and developed from a Thermie-96 Targeted project, as well as being funded by further EU (Solar Urban New Housing) Funding, and internal Finnish grants.

The solar array demonstration dimension of Eko-Viikki serves 368 dwellings, which have since been monitored by the Helsinki University of Technology (or HUT as it is known.) The target for solar was for 50% use of domestic hot water and 45% use of all hot water. This target has been met by half those where solar energy is applied. On average water consumption is 125 litres per day, 35% down on normal domestic hit water consumption. As an experiment there are also collectors installed on roofs at differently built angles because of the extremely high solar shine – so domestic hot water is related to the large sites of the solar array. Another segment of the design envelope – researched by HUT - has been to ensure that buildings cast least solar shadow on other buildings in immediate proximity, ensuring the optimum solar pickup by every building.

Eko-Viikki community centre

There is also solar energy from building integrated PV modules, used as see through balustrades. So far 17 buildings are in the early stages of post evaluation, with good energy results, and heating energy savings of 36/40%. Thermal energy is used for domestic hot water production on several of the different estates, solar heat being used on one site for water based under floor heating in all its dwellings, which is kept, for comfort, at a low temperature. The PV’s are described as a Fortum, lumen glazing, that is they are embedded in 2 layers of glass – and are providing 20% of electricity in buildings where there are common spaces. Overall the whole Eko-Viikki development gets much of its heating from the co-generation-based district heating network, with efficiency levels apparently at 85-90%. Other features which can be mentioned are the good indoor and health enhancing conditions, such as good indoors climate, and significant noise reduction, plus because of the high density planning a closeness to the outdoor nature, along with full glazing, and balconies and porches. These are particularly relevant to Finland, which in recent history has had the highest proportion of its population living in multi-storey buildings.

While the focus here has been on the solar energy element of the project other relevant features can also be mentioned, such as Biodiversity enhancement, innovation in emissions systems, and water consumption and waste. Not only this but the private house experiments at the edge of Eko Viikki are also exploring particular experimental features; houses relying on pellet boilers; a clay and straw building; and particularly large sub spaces for conservatories. Still what is interesting is that this is the largest large scale Solar and PV demonstration in Finland – it’s a joint public/private initiative, triggered in part by the recent eco-regulations emanating from Europe, as well as a new found interest and activism within government departments to develop such showcase experiments. What happens next with Solar and PV in Finland will in many respects depend on how Eko Viikki plays out.

A related though different and separate housing project which has been mushrooming up in many parts of Finland is the Modern Wood Town Project. Part of the thinking of these Wood Town’s is a return to urban spaces of the pre-modern period, to re-introduce the convivial elements that have been lost with concrete mid-rise living. For in Finland it is recognised that the country has the highest number of people living in flats, around 500, 000 more than any other European country. This is in part a function of recent history.

During the nineteenth century many of the country’s large cities, including Eastern Finland’s Turku, were wood cities. But in the mid-nineteenth century the age-old problem of the material’s inherent combustibility returned to haunt public and planners. Destructive fires repeatedly raged through large and small towns alike. In 1827 half of Turku burnt down; 2500 buildings were consumed in the blaze. As a result, stone began to replace wood as the building material of choice, becoming the preferred, and before long predominant material. Timber towns, timber cities went into eclipse, and today, travelling through these Finnish cities, one can pick out only the outline husks of these former timber built communities: clumped single and double storey houses lost in the cities’ modernist 60's grid remake.

Indeed after world war two, war-torn Finland embarked on a huge building programme to house its increasing urban population. The influence on the country of bordering the erstwhile USSR weighed heavily during these years, its independence compromised by needing to watch its step or face the possibility of being taken over by its powerful neighbour. This may account in part for the brutalist approach to urban planning of the post-war era, and the rise of many concrete cities across the country, although neighbouring Scandinavia proper has just as much a tradition for unappetising sixties’ flat blocks, described by one as 'Stalinist baroque'. Wholesale demolition of many major cities’ timber heritage paved the way for concrete and steel mid-rise; a functionalist approach which presently dominates the Finnish cityscape. This new generation of building stock brought significantly better living conditions inside, but their external features have not aged well. There are exceptions of course, but during winter, these concrete box buildings, merging with the murk-heavy grey of an average day, appear far from inspiring.

Oulu Wood Town

The Modern Wood Town Project, originated in the most northerly architectural dept on the planet, Oulu’s Wood Studio. Inaugurated in the early nineties by the Vice-Rector of the University, prof Jouni Koiso-Kantilla, Wood Town demonstrates another strategy for realising profoundly more sustainable forms of housing in EU Europe’s most heavily forested country; Finland is home to 23 million cubic hectares of wooded land. Although from outside the Finland, the country is thought to be a wood building paradise, the facts are very different. However in the last ten years there has been a concerted effort to change this within the different wood in construction sectors, and the Wood Town project can be seen as an early beneficiary of these changes. It’s emergence can also be dated to a thorough going change in the Finnish fire regulations when in september 1997 revised fire building regulations for any construction higher than two storeys, for the first time in over a hundred years, began to allow three or more storey timber-build to be recommenced, with new safety stipulations. The new regulations include sprinkler systems ensuring an hour's fire resistance, allowing time for people to escape, and flame resistant ventilation systems. Since 43% of the population live in multi-storey apartments, and three quarters live in less than five storeys, amongst the small but committed timberbuild community, the feeling is that this is a rich opportunity for development. If the country was minded to, it could easily turn its residential building over to wood materials.
Oulu, as mentioned, is far up on Finland's north-east coast, far from the countries south-east post-industrial hub. It is also home to the most vibrant electronics and computer research and products’ economy outside the gilded south-east. Oulu is one of the largest regional cities for people moving from the forested countryside. New homes are needed, and it is because of this need that one of the most significant wood projects in recent years, the Oulu Wood Town, has grown. The Wood Town was completed during the first half of 2002, but it began in 1995 as a student project, and developed into an open competition for architects. The final result was a completely urban district designed around wood.

Oulu Wood Town

Oulu's wood town turns out to be a core, seven block area of housing, in the suburbs of the city, a ten minutes’ journey from the centre. It claims to be part of compact city thinking, a town-like environment, rather than a fully-fledged wood town. Upon arriving, I found myself reflecting on the multiple versions of compaction. Certainly, within the Finnish context, it is a leading example of sustainable thinking. Considerable play is made of both the use of wood, the high density of the buildings, and the development of three or four storey timber housing. The development is over twelve hectares or 20, 000 sq metres, and consists of eight three storey, and 70 other timber buildings, with about half rented and the other half owned, so as to ensure a mixed social balance. The project inaugurated a completely new Finnish focus on researching and then designing wooden apartment buildings which take advantage of the changes in fire regulations. After the first apartment and the initial masterplan had been developed by students from the architecture department the site was handed over to a number of architects, who in turn became project designers for the further six areas of the site. Visiting the site, in deep winter snow, it is quickly clear the buildings are low-key social housing. Today, on the ground, six differently designed building sections have been completed, housing 450 people. Within the different architectural styles some of the buildings make an effective case for a renewed timber functionalist aesthetic.

The two project architects, Markku Karjalainen and Ristu Suikkari, elaborate on how such a housing model is preferable to the concrete apartment high-rise which so many Finns continue to live in. Using surveys, interviews and questionnaires, the pair found that the majority of those asked wanted to live in wooden residential districts, with higher density, though smaller human-scaled houses with backyards, rather than in flats. All this is innovative in the Finnish context, although it harks back to the traditional vernacular urban wooden buildings which existed before the coming of concrete. In the Oulu example the project team have created narrow alleys between the blocks, without car access, for children to play and people to meet, an innovation in a modern Finnish urban design used to planning with space. The connecting walkways and alleys between buildings are small by comparison with the open spaced functionalism of the post-concrete urban planning, in order to convey intimacy. Building heights have also been varied. The architects at Oulu claim a significant influence from the remaining medieval districts of regional towns such as Porvoo and Rauma, where close, varied, vernacular buildings are still clearly evident.

In comparison with concrete, these multi-storey timber buildings are a new building type for the Finnish construction industry. During planning, while looking for the necessary skilled work force to construct the building, Karjalainen and Suikkari found the relevant skills and knowledge were on the verge of extinction. Heavy carpentry were part of building until the 1950's, but quickly faded away as a living skill during that decade. For the wood town projects there is considerable prefabrication, but nonetheless a degree of retraining was needed. Karjalainen and Suikkari, therefore had to initiate training and courses with retired carpenters for a new generation of architects, engineers and builders to relearn forgotten skills for designing and constructing the timber the buildings. The two architects had to set up on-site training areas to reacquaint builders with the necessary skills. Karjalainen states, ¨We have the material, we have the tradition, and now again we have the skills, after having lost them¨.

With timber factored into the dwelling density experiment a sustainable dimension was added. Other natural materials are used in construction, such as linseed paints, which are cooked onto the side of the walls. The results are houses in yellows, creams, reds, greens and greys, the latter ironically only too reminiscent of the dispiriting concrete colourings these buildings are seeking to replace. From the Oulu Wood Town model there's been a mushrooming of interest around the country, with at least twenty other wood town districts in various stages of planning and completion, including a second in the Oulu district. The managers would like to have seen this in a central city site, as infill, but to their disappointment it has also been allocated a suburban position.

Overall the news is upbeat. Wood Town projects are expanding across many towns and cities throughout Finland. Other projects include ones at which is just being completed, in the dormitory towns of Helsinki’s urban sprawl Espoo and Vantaa. Other cities with exotic Finnish names, Mikkeli, and Alvar Aalto’s birthtown, Jyväskylä, are both being developed. One of the oldest towns with a significant old wood town district Porvoo is also coming to completion, and Lahti, home to much wood industry and Finland’s sole international flagship contemporary timberbuild, Sibelius Hall, is excitedly developing a major wooden town areas in the new Karisto section of town with plans for accommodation for 10, 000 people. A new area is also being planned in Helsinki itself, with an international architectural competition for the planning of Etelä-Myllypuro’s wooden ”urban village” having recently been judged and announced.

What the Oulu academic team have learnt since the initial is that people like smaller, lower storey living, and the more recent projects, as well as the ones on the drawing board, are following this research finding, while at times continuing to include three and four storey timber build. Future housing construction is going to focus on constructing two-story, closely-spaced town-like neighbourhoods because a cluster of interlinked reasons; living comfort, ecology and economy, returning as it does so to the space and human scale of older towns and villages. With it’s take-off around the country the Wood Town’s are demonstrating a viable, attractive alternative community oriented alternatives to concrete and brick mid-rise, the prevailing method of planning and construction.

Initially the pick up has been in smaller towns, and urban areas, although as can be seen this is changing. Yet, evenso, the larger "stone cities" as Suikkhari calls them, don’t seem to have been interested. There were no replies from two of the big four Finnish cities, Tampere and Turku, grist to his contention that there is an anti-wood bias. It's also noticeable that Helsinki's feted Arabianranta Virtual Village development, didn't feel any need to integrate timber for any but the most decorative of functions. Still the revitalised use of wood as material has meant there has been a reassessment in concrete and brick led construction circles as to the merits of timber, both with professionals and public alike. In this context the wood town project is very much a good news story for a country, which had almost lost its timber tradition. There is also possibilities of the Wood Town template being exported with interest expressed by Germany, Western Russia (St Petersberg being so comparatively near) and the Baltic countries.

To a certain extent one can imagine the template of timber building Wood Town’s overlaid onto the British context. Urban district ideas such as Oulu fit snugly into compact city theory, still beloved in Britain by the Urban Task Force and planners alike. Timber adds another option to the sustainable palette. Given the renewed interest in wood as a building material in Britain, and the need for imaginative compact thinking, this double-win environmental fusion could well be cultivated here, just as in Finland. At a RIBA timber seminar two years ago, director Maxwell Hutchinson mused on wood as the new glass. But whether planners here, in tudorbethan faux timber-frame Britain might experiment with such a wood-based functionalist aesthetic is an open question. And beginning a debate about how local British agro-forestry could grow radically given the redundancy of much British farmland, in parts of the country, is a debate that is in need of being aired. Of course that is before you get near to the town planners and the building industry, which according to Karjalainen, was in their instance, difficult enough. The conditions in Northern Europe are markedly different and cannot be reproduced literally in our specific temperate neck of the woods. Even so by means of comparison there are interesting exemplars here to take home and muse upon. And, whatever the wood reserves of any European country, Finland’s Wood Town project asks searching questions about the eminent do-ability in European, including British, contexts for urban housing schemes being built from this twenty first century natural material.

Web-links - for information on the Wood Town Project – for information on Wood Town projects across Finland

GEN is the Global Ecovillages Network
see and all the links. It is a very large network now.



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