Supertraditional – an interview with Jon Godal

Last autumn Rever og Drage's Martin Beverflord sat down to talk with Jan Godal, Norway's pre-eminent traditional wood construction luminary, about the future of vernacular and folk building in Norway. Now approaching his eightieth birthday, Godal has spent a life learning and passing on wood knowledge, skills, and experience in timber construction and boat building techniques, through a long list of books, workshops and his boat-building school in the Atlantic coast village of Valsøyfjord. Which was where Beverfiord and Godal met.

Jon Godal is a man who needs no introduction for those familiar with Norwegian traditional boats and buildings. However, outside this relatively specialist sphere, too few are aware of his work as an intermediary of traditional know-how, a font of traditional boat and building knowledge. He has traveled countless times cris-crossing Norway on a life long mission to gather knowledge from the old guard of wood workers before it is gone forever. It has been recognized in influential places though. In 2015 the 79-year-old forester, in a rare appearance in the national media's limelight, was appointed Commander of The Royal Norwegian Order of Saint Olav for his unprecedented efforts regarding the traditional crafts.

Even though Jon Godal is, arguably, the most knowledgeable person regarding wood in the country, and the entire national wood - boatbuilding and carpentry - industry bow to his word, his background is more complex than that nerdy position might suggest. He was born in Rauland, Telemark in 1937, and educated as a forester at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. After the last World War he wrote a manual for the Norwegian Army's elite troops with a rich variety of methods to get food when lost in the wilderness, and during the 1960's he participated in developing the Ministry of the Environment (established in 1972 as the worldwide first of its kind). During a career he has also been headmaster at the Norwegian ecological Folk High School in Rissa, he has built and started up a workshop for building and selling boats and educating craftsmen in Valsøyfjord, Møre & Romsdal, and been the author of several books about boats, viking-expeditions and of course about wood. Still, to us as Norwegian architects his most profound and important characteristic is his boyish 'want-to-try' attitude. The serious way Jon Godal treat playful ideas reveals a very confident mind.           

From my knowledge of him, Godal is not particularly fond of talking about himself, although he is more than willing to talk about the things he holds dear and considers important; first and foremost that some kinds of knowledge is only accessible through first hand experience and that this experience is best achieved if you also work alongside experienced workers. For those who do not have the possibility or desire to do just that, there are still some things to learn from his books, but according to Godal this kind of knowledge will always be inferior to first hand experience itself. (For myself, I do recommend the combination together.)

I have titled this interview with a made-up word of my own, 'Supertraditional', both to give the content of the text the sense of urgency it deserves, but also to indicate that Jon Godal's relation to tradition is not a straightforward antiquarian one. In many aspects he is both hyper-modern and also timeless (and possible out-of-time now and then.)

Over the past years I have been exchanging phone calls, emails, text messages and conversations, and not least shared a few building projects with Godal. The following interview is therefore a mixture of reflections made over these years and a more specific interview done in late 2015 drawn together as ingredients to bring some backbone to this text. We will see how far this exercise in the culinary arts will take us. Roughly speaking, there are four key topics that I thought were essential to the interview stew. Cited immedieately below, you can decide where in the conversational interview that follows which one of the four is being emphasised. 

1 Transferability      

2 Future        

3 Tradition criticism 

4 Material knowledge

MARTIN BEVERFJORD If you could give a limited list of things describing the most important traditional know-how to bring on to the younger generation of builders today, what would that be?

JON GODAL It is important for everyone to know that building is founded from within our identity and our culture. From our distinctiveness. Working with your hands has an existential dimension. The desire to do something useful is deeply rooted in the human being. It is distinctly human. Today some things must be thought anew. We must use less energy and reduce transportation. We need to begin to think about materials as something more than just a new surface. And to take care of the world in simple terms. Traditional know-how provides a shipload of good ideas to these challenges of today.

MB In Norway, sometime after 1950's the commercial building industry parted company with the traditional ways of building. Probably, it would have been an advantage for both if the gap between them could be closed a bit. Do you see any quick fix that can help the derailed building industry? What measures could help?       

JG In Norway the state funded 'Husbanken' (Housing Bank ) met the crisis of insufficient housing after World War II by introducing strict measures for how you could build a house if you wanted a loan. This was a social arrangement with good intentions; to ensure houses and housing to everyone. At the same time this represented a reduction of the building industry, because the houses you were allowed to build were standard houses based on desktop principles. All of a sudden the main decisions about buildings were not being taken by those who made them, but by someone who might never visit the building site, or where not aware of what kind of material that was going to be used. Before 1950 it was normal to think holistically about buildings. That is for a single craftsman or a team to include every physical aspect of a building from the material standing as roots in the forest, through processing and selection, to becoming an integrated part of a building, intended to last for centuries. After 1950, however, the craftsman was gradually reduced to an assembler standing in a production line without any ownership or understanding of the building as a whole. The requirement for documentation of every single product in use makes it illegal for a craftsman to think dynamically about either problem solving or the use of materials. After some time this regime undermines his or her ability to think. The consequence is that knowledge has disappeared dramatically among craftsmen, architects and engineers. The outcome was an eradication of informal traditional knowledge both in its practice and in its standing.

Take the art of boat building. This was made part of formal education in Norway in 1979. That could have been a good thing, but instead it was extremely destructive because of the insistence on building boats from drawings instead of creating a boat 'freely in space'. It is much the same case for house builders. The 'knowledge of form' was not transferred to the new systems of design and decision-making. Nobody learned anymore that we have thirty different constructive systems for buildings, some very elegant, using compression inside and tension outside the rafters.    

MB Systems and know-how are in the long run more lasting than objects and relics. Do you believe that there is too much focus today on the conservation of objects and to little on the continuation of building systems?      

JG Obviously the crafts are longer lasting than the objects. At the same time objects are important because we can harvest some lost knowledge from them. It is not a question of either-or. It is both-and. We do a lot of knowledge-protection. Knowledge-management. Last year we came by a roof made of birch-bark and peat made in the early 19th century. Besides a single hole due to some kind of physical impact the roof was still waterproof. An earth analysis by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences showed that the roof had an unusually low pH. The tannins of the applied peat kept the birch-bark  from rotting. Without the object we would not have been able to shed light on this piece of knowledge. The last 50 years people have been told to apply chalk to their peat roofs. That does the exact opposite of lowering the pH, and thereby reducing the longevity of the roof.          

Birch-bark research – Photo's from Birch bark research pdf – (see link above)
MB To what extent do you think that the traditional building systems should keep developing and incorporate new aspects, as they have done throughout history?    

JG I have been asked this question a thousand times. There have been a series of technological leaps in the development of the different building systems. But it is important to acknowledge that every time a leap is made something is learned and something is forgotten. A good example is found within boatbuilding (again); should the boat be carved as a sculpture, which is the case with the older clinker method, or should the boards be bent around a frame, which is typical for the later developed carvel method. The carvel method prevailed, at least for bigger ships, due to its stronger hull, but our most recent research has shown that the carved boards of the clinker method gives less friction and is therefore more energy efficient. Sometimes it is right to be dogmatic about not throwing knowledge away before you fully understand the consequences.          

MB There might not be an either-or answer to this neither?  

JG Exactly. There are parallels with house building, but they are not so clear as with boats. Most are related to the deployment of materials. The understanding of materials and their strength. It is not a problem in itself incorporating new aspects into a building system, but there must be an awareness regarding the characteristics that disappear. When Swiss chalet style buildings began to be made in Norway it took some time before it was fully understood how to build them appropriately. These things must be digested. Within the concept of 'custom' there exists a collective working out of how to do things in a functional way. In this tradition it is dangerous to build based on mimicking superficial characteristics as we are talking about deeply integrated systems.

Rever og Drage's first student project, the Silderrøykeri boat house completed under Godal's supervision.
Note the branch posts supporting the beams cut straight from the tree. Photo Rever og Drage

MB Do you find anything negative about tradition and traditional building, that is something backward and reactionary and not worth caring for, or is everything with traditional building positive in its nature?           

JG Any dogmatic thinking should be treated with suspicion, but at the same time; tread gently. There is no negative knowledge. It is healthy to regard tradition as knowledge. Of course tradition as anything else can be used in a senseless way.    

MB When can it be necessary to challenge tradition, and at what occasions do we see constructive interaction between old and new knowledge? 

JG Reflecting upon background and context makes it possible for old and new knowledge to interact in a good way. That is something you must do all the time. Both so-called innovation and tradition need to be reflected upon. Nothing is good because it is old, or because it is new. You need to understand the context and the connections.


Photos – Rever og Drage
MB What is the main learning from boat building when you are going to build a house?

JG There are many resemblances between the boat builder and the house builder. They both relate closely to the characteristics and qualities of the specific piece of wood that are in front of either. They both express themselves directly in form and space. There is a boat-mathematics constructing the geometry of the boat as there is a barn-mathematics constructing the geometry of the barn. When we constructed our current workshop we were forced by bureaucratic regulations to make drawings of the building. The company we paid to do this did not understand that the construction directs where the windows can be placed. They did not have an integrated thinking about the building.   

MB What do you believe is a minimum that we should be able to expect from carpenters, engineers and architects today when it comes to the judgment of wood?      

JG A carpenter today gets a certified material and a certified fastening technology. She is completely under external control. The building system is reasonable only as part of short-term economic thinking. It is generating loads of transport. You need a car park to put up a house. All this makes for alienation. What perspective should be used when calculating the cost and the economy of a building? After the commissioning? After 10 years of use? After total longevity? The judgement of material becomes something quite different if the ability to last is important. The selection of materials with regards to the different weather burdens each wall it will be exposed to. This kind of reflection opens up a bunch of issues. Wood is not wood, nor is the way wood is treated prior to use irrelevant. At what time of year do you fell the tree? Which part of the tree are you using? How do you store it? How much resin does the material contain? Is the heartwood facing out or in? Do you put the root-end of the plank up or down?

When we do chemical analysis of old houses today we often see that they contain less sugar and starch than might me expected. That is probably due to the fact that the materials have been kept in water before being used. This method was actually mandatory in the 1930s. After the last World War speed became the important factor in the building industry. As a result many craftsmen today restore earlier restorations while the original parts of the old buildings are often intact.    

A minimum must be to know that there are major differences within wood, and that there are methods to make wood last for a long time.    


Photos – Rever og Drage

MB During the most recent decades it has become a long way from the forest to the building site both physically and in terms of intelligent use of materials. How can we make a better connection between these to places?      

JG This is a major problem. Today we operate timber production entirely based upon volume. This is the modern forestry. Clearcutting and payment by volume. This is not a very intelligent way to ensure good material. Volume says very little about quality. Weight and age says quite a bit.   

Weight is related both to strength and to how long it will last. Also the storage of carbon dioxide is linked to weight and to age. The older trees only grow in weight, not in volume. They can gain 60-70% in weight without increasing anything in volume, and the older wood stores much more carbon dioxide which makes growing old wood a serious climate issue. To make dense, and thereby heavy, wood, the trees must grow slowly in the beginning of their lives. They must not be exposed to too much sun. Clearcutting is a hopeless way to do it. It does everything you do not want for the material. The education of workers for the forest industry should be rethought and probably integrated with carpentry. Recently we bought timber in Germany for a ship. It had been grown methodically for 400 years. Then you get timber where all of the log is usable, and the material will last for centuries if treated in a proper way.    

Photos – Rever og Drage

MB Are you able to see any advantages with the modern building industry, or do you see everything about the customs of today as degenerated?    

JG The speed of building has gone up. Nobody can deny that. Its easy and quick to get your hands on certified material even at nine o clock in a Saturday evening. It is effective and convenient. The prices have fallen radically. But the quality of the wood is not easy and convenient. We could have had more consciousness about what it is that can be mass produced at full speed and in a satisfactory way, and what it is that should be slowed down a bit.

Do you believe development in technology will make the use of drones or robots suitable for a new wood industry based on local production and a smart and precise harvest of the right trees at the right time, rather than clearcutting and transport? That a combination of this and a carbon tax might make local production competitive again.         

JG A carbon tax seem necessary. We have been working woods with both helicopters and snowmobiles. The use of helicopters has proven to be ineffective. A lot of fuel wasted. Snowmobiles has been more promising, but they to not have the power to take out big trees. As far as I know robots still lack the ability to improvise enough. They also need to be both smaller and stronger. Somehow use small amounts of energy, have much force and be gentle to the terrain. 


The interview-mixmastery comes to an end. The questions were not answered in a straight way. Transferability seem highest at grass-root level. The future seem as uncertain as ever. I tried to make Jon Godal join in on some tradition criticism, but I was countered. If the next generation of carpenters, engineers and architects master wood with ease it will not be thanks to the building industry of today. MB (...)


Along with writing and speaking Jan Godal continues to run courses in Valsøyfjord. He can be contacted here Martin Beverfjord and his Rever og Drage partner, Eirik Lilledrange, started life rebuilding the Silderrøykeri boat house as their final student project under the watchful eye and tutelage of Godal. The pictures above highlight the its building.

Photo – Rever og Drage