Trondheim Built – Sustainability and the future of Norway's building culture

Where is sustainability in the built environment going in Norway? Trondheim, as a university and research city, provides a significant sample of examples pointing in different directions. From national programmes like NTNU's Centre for Zero Emissions Buildings and an uptake in CLT, to 'timber bricks' and cradle to cradle upcycled window re-use, a spectrum of projects, provide a window in on Norway's current sustainable building scene

Looking up, I can still remember my stunned silence at the sheer scale of the glulam beams spanning the concourse ceiling of Oslo's then new Gardermoen airport, Gardermoen. That was a few days into a new century and a new millennium, January 2000, and the airport, the largest project in Northern Europe at the time, had recently been completed. A millennial showcase for a young, newly oil rich country, Gardermoen, like the equally new dedicated train route and redesigned stations running into the city centre, was a big sustainability statement of a certain, explicitly political, sort. The stations, Lillistrom, Eidsvoll and designed by the veteran infrastructure architect, Arne Henrikson, like the airport, made a point of using timber. As I travelled that short train ride into town I felt myself being pulled into the myth of Norwegian Wood. The myth of timber as the building material of the 21st century; those giant beams previewing the future. Now seventeen years later the airport is busy with building again, the first large-scale extension, Terminal 2 or T2, is close to opening. Once again, timber and timber engineering is at the centre of the T2. This time round, however, the wonderment of engineering may well be tempered. Through the intervening years, as sustainability has brought up a host of agenda's, timber as 21st century building material, has become – almost - the new normal.

Oslo’s Gardermoen airport – past and near future
Photo Steffen Sauder, rendering Office for Nordic Architecture

Likewise, in the interim decade and then some, sustainability in Norway has grown in fits and starts, reflecting comparable growth patterns across the planet. Oslo, by far the largest urban centre in Norway with nearing a million population, municipality-wide, dwarfs the nearest urban centres, Bergen (250 000), Trondheim, (190, 000) and Stavanger (125, 000.) Inevitably a significant sheaf of the country’s sustainability in the built environment projects and research is found in the capital.

Trondheim's NTNU from above – Photo NTNU

Despite, and also because of its smaller scale, Trondheim provides a lens onto a more compact cluster of projects and research reflecting the development and evolution of sustainability and the built environment in Norway. At this smaller scale, projects are more visible, their sharper outlines reinforcing the relatively low level of sustainable building research across much of the country. Norwegian cities are far and few between; equally there are only a small number of universities. Trondheim’s NTNU, or Norwegian University of Science and Technology, is, after Oslo, the principal – both explicit and indirect - centre for sustainable building research. At the other end of the spectrum, the self-seeded, quasi-autonomous, live projects student culture – albeit encouraged by the architecture department - while not focused on sustainability as such, are thought provoking windows into the current architectural generation’s hopes and dreams. More conventionally NTNU, as both the country’s largest and principal national scientific and technical university, is home to major mainstream research, which impacts significantly on the practice of sustainability in the country. And with nearly 40, 000 students, training the majority of the county’s technical and scientific students, including 80% of civil engineers, NTNU not only dominates the city economy, its research reach is at a national, Nordic-wide and international level.

Placed side by side NTNU’s technical emphasis and the success of the live projects culture – see companion pieces in this Unstructured Extra - and is paradoxical; although technical, the student scene is underscored by an ethos and aesthetic of simplicity, not easily packaged when trying to file under ‘scientific.’ That apparent mismatch hasn’t stopped the architectural department from running with the live projects culture, turning their research focus onto the phenomena itself; - why it’s happening, what its educational and pedagogical value is and, maybe inevitably, an effort to co-opt the culture’s energies into something of an official agenda, which the university can profit from longer term. The departmental investment in the live projects culture pedagogical potential as a significant research field (plus an additional research card in the game of academic research ratings) has proved effective.  Its lead tutor, Steffen Wellinger won the Norwegian Education Award and the NTNU Education Award in 2015. During the same year TRANSark,- ‘a trans-disciplinary group of educational programs’ focusing on four main research paths was launched, aiming to turn the live projects culture into a living research lab, a space in which the current pedagogically fashionable ‘transformative’ learning happens. Last year Rural Studio’s Andrew Freear was signed up as a guest professorship, bringing the sort of heavy-weight international profile that the academy lusts after.

If this feels, to put it mildly, out of keeping with NTNU’s science and technology focus, the live projects culture is just as out of step with mainstream city architecture, including sustainable projects to be found across Trondheim.

Eggen Arkitekter's Asveien School, the first Passivhaus school
in Norway – Photo Eggen Arkitekter

“The mainstream in Trondheim is very mainstream,” Bjorn Otto Braaten, a tutor within the architecture school, notes dryly, of the limits to the possible within commercial, industry led priorities. The liveliness characterising the young practices and student live projects scene contrasts vividly with the prevailing industrial, corporate momentum currently remaking chunks of Trondheim. It is a tale, in effect, of two architectural cultures, though also of, the lost in translation process that happens once scale and size of projects kicks in.

You can uncover a small basket of sustainability hued projects around town, if you know where to look. Trondheim practices Agraff and Eggen have both produced ground-breaking sustainable projects. Agraff’s Sparenbanken was the lowest energy office in the country when completed in 2010, Eggen’s Asveien, Norway’s first Passivhaus school was finished in 2015, and is up on the outskirt hillside suburbs. Off the main E6 road southbound, is PIR II’s NINA, or Norwegian Institute of Nature Research (see also the Pir II feature), with appealing fenestrated windows amidst a wavy cladded facade. Near-by is the first phase of Oslo’s MDH Arkitekter’s CLT Moholt timber towers, the first phase of a student village campus. Meanwhile, downtown, Brattøra - the old container port hugging the sea-front, - continues to be re-developed, and is still Trondheim’s largest building site through the last half dozen years. You can find there what will surely be promoted as the city’s flagship sustainable building, the Snøhetta designed Brattørkaia Powerhouse will be the country’s principle Zero Emissions Buildings, (ZEB) when it opens. Brattørkaia Powerhouse’s updated design was only recently finally given the go ahead, after many delays. The original design caused a citywide outcry. The building was bang in the middle of the sea horizon sitelines, which PIR II’s master plan had sought to retain. When complete Brattørkaia will be the most showy in the office block dockscape gradually emerging across the container port, though what competition there is, a variety of corporate offices, hotels and apartments, is decidedly underwhelming.

Two worlds: Snøhetta's Brattørkaia Powerhouse and
Noysom's self build recycling window frames
Rendering Snøhetta, Photo Noysom arkitektur

A primary reason for the Brattørkaia Powerhouse as a showcase on Trondheim’s waterfront, rather than Oslo’s, is because the Centre on Zero Emissions Buildings (generally known as ZEB), one of Norway’s flagship sustainable building research programmes is led by NTNU. In the process of transiting into a new research phase, the eight year and 30 million euro ZEB research programme pushes the comparably tiny, semi-official research happening at the edges, such as Svartlamoen’s window frame upcycling experiments, into the long long grass and out of the frame.

Upcycling, re-use, the circular economy are edging into Norway – see the Nordic Built Component Re-Use Report , which Trondheim’s Stavneblokka ‘wood-bricks’ have been co-opted into – but these are at the sidelines, compared with the main trajectory of sustainable building research and culture. One programme within Nordic Built’s research into the built environment Nordic Built Component Re-Use was organised at the pan-Nordic level, with the purpose of sharing results across the Nordic region. Alongside its pure research programme, the Nordic Built Challenge competition focused on sustainable renovation featuring twenty finalist demonstration projects, four from each Nordic country, including Norway, all of which are presently underway. Implicit in the programme is a confidence that ideas and innovation generated by Nordic Built ripple out into the broader industry incubating and encouraging sustainable change. This strategy is found again in the newer follow-on Nordic Built Cities programme, which kicked in in 2015, with one project per Nordic country, the Norwegian segment in the Oslo region. The urban focus envisages ‘innovative solutions for liveable, smart and sustainable cities’ further emphasising the export and business development potential. If Trondheim has been peripherally involved in Nordic Built, then the other main sustainable research programme into sustainable urban building and districts the ten year Future Built programme focused on realising up to fifty pilot projects between 2010 and 2020, is almost exclusively within in the Oslo region.

Like Nordic Built and Future Built, ZEB, will help those interested in uncovering the principal research influencing the direction of travel for Norway’s sustainable building research culture. Unlike these other two research programmes, the emphatically technical ZEB, is currently Trondheim’s main research contribution to the broader Norwegian and pan-Nordic contexts. It may well become dominant and part of industry norms within a few years, as NTNU is hardly shy of promoting this instance of research leadership wherever possible. A pan-national programme, the ZEB Centre underscores the pervasive international scientific and technical ethos of NTNU. “ZEB,” as professor Anne Grete Hestnes, noted during a 2016 interview with herself and her colleague, Ruth Woods, “draws on architecture and engineering, so it is logical to work together.” Working in partnership with SINTEF, Scandinavia’s primary independent scientific research organisation, the ZEB Centre has produced a steady stream of research in the field, across a broad research agenda, including a series of experimental buildings – headlined by Brattørkaia Powerhouse - testing and aiming to commercialise findings and research, and propel the research towards various next chapters.

Linz Solar City, a major nineties European solar architecture development, and early
example of Zero Energy Building – Photo Latz + Partner

Zero emissions building are a variation on zero energy buildings. The idea and aspiration to realise completely zero energy buildings has been around for at least the last three decades. The core concept is straight-forward enough; the overlapping zero energy fields - broadly where the amount of total energy used for running a building is equal or is outmatched by the amount of energy – by solar, PV, heat pumps and other techniques and technologies – the building and its surfaces produces. Since the beginning of the century zero energy buildings have grown into a major research endeavour across the developed world. Born out of the earlier solar architecture and the autonomous house movements, zero energy – and net zero energy - projects can be found across Northern Europe. Although the dream of buildings operating from their own self-produced energy can feel like an extension of self-sufficiency and human off-grid autonomy, more recently the concept also became integrated into related hydrogen economy research. Such an autonomous agenda might feel relatively simple to the uninitiated, the zero energy building field has become grail like; solutions continue to reside just the other side of the horizon. Over the last twenty years the pursuit of this quest has consumed acres of research grants in technical projects, papers and people-hours. Physical research with test building exemplars, experimental product research, and screeds of research PhD’s have poured forth exhaustively, and yet the final destination – the true zero energy building – seems to remain elusive, the greener end point still tantalisingly some distance away.

At NTNU the specific focus is on emissions, ie, Green House Gases or GHG’s. The ZEB programme has produced a series of variant definitions - and research strands pursuing each of these variants. One underlying source of zero energy general research growth – at least across Europe – is common, the 2010 EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which required all members to develop strategies to ensure buildings were – and here introducing a heavy duty fudge – ‘nearly zero energy’ by 2020.

Different countries have responded in different ways. In Norway, zero emissions buildings’ research has been one of the principal efforts to prepare for the continent’s 2020 zero energy aim. While not a member of the EU, Norway is a signatory to the EU’s legal framework and is therefore required to meet the EPBD Directive. Since 2008/9 nine years of research has been led and administered by the NTNU group, and Hestnes is well known as one of the ZEB approach’s principle proponents, having been involved in the research field for thirty years. 2016 was actually the ZEB programme’s last year of research, and the Centre is currently morphing into a new programme, Zero Energy Neighbourhoods In Smart Cities, or ZEN for short. ZEN transfers and expands the same zero emissions agenda from single buildings to neighbourhoods, and with a 380 m NKr (43 million euro) budget envisages both research on new pilot projects on the broader scale that neighbourhoods will demand, and a fresh batch of at least twenty PhD’s.

During its lifetime NTNU’s ZEB Centre has been productive, its’ necessarily interdisciplinary reach spreading across and through various NTNU departments. There have been five principal research foci, of which three are focused on technical research. These include experimental – and particularly phase-change nano-insulation – materials conducted with the universities Advanced Materials and Component Laboratories; climate adaptive materials focused on a buildings’ envelope, from windows through to solar shading and PV’s, and research towards optimising these experimental building systems and their energy uses, and also developing research tools for wider uses, such as live usable guides and information for realising Zero Emissions Buildings.

Snøhetta's ZEB Multikomfort Larvik demonstration home – Photo and rendering Snohetta

More immediately visible are the research centres’ cluster of experimental Zero Emissions Buildings, (also the fourth of ZEB’s research pillars.) There are currently seven experimental buildings projects either completed or underway across Norway. In addition to this is the Living Lab and the Test Cell Building. The former sits at the edge of NTNU’s campus, both designed by Luca Finocchiaro, an Italian architect teaching sustainable building modules. The experimental buildings are spread across Norway, including Oslo, Larvik and Bergen, as well as two Trondheim projects, underscoring ZEB’s national research profile. Also striking is the presence of Norway’s best known and sole starchitecture studio, Snøhetta, who are involved in the lion’s share of projects. Look down the list of project partners, and a roll call of Norwegian, Scandinavian and indeed European building industry names crop up in front of you, from Skanska through to St Gobain, a reminder of how both ZEB and ZEN are very much industry partnership research.

Outside the ZEB Centre's Living Lab – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

A short distance from one of NTNU’s main buildings, the modestly sized, single floor Living Lab, passes at first glance for a very clean, fully furnished, though unoccupied, developers eco-showroom. The building has been the focus for the last eighteen months or so for the ZEB’s Centre’s final research period. During this period six groups of people lived in the Living Lab for around four weeks, each group; two cohabiting students, two young families, and two older couples were closely observed and their behaviour continually monitored. With sensors in every corner and crevice, ZEB’s principal sociologist, Ruth Woods, has sought to uncover how the different groups use the two-room home. Woods findings are intended to feedback into the future ZEB and ZEN design thinking, and no doubt the zero emissions neighbourhood. Both Woods and Finocchiaro stress the technical flexibility of the Lab, that there is a balanced ventilation system, “given,” notes the architect, “that in the Norwegian context people like sleeping with open windows, it is important that the windows are open and there are air flows working through the ventilation.” This live testing culture’s next stage is the Snøhetta designed ZEB Flexlab, which will again apply social science to an expanded repertoire of similar questions, including the planning and building processes, as well as, once built, its use.

While being shown round by Finocchiaro I was reminded of the Svartlamoen self-builders with their re-used window systems. Both, it seemed to me, were social experiments. Both, also, were in close proximity, at most a couple of kilometres from the other, but the reality gap was an ocean, hundreds, if not thousands of miles. Another thought sprang to mind; the Self-Build is Svartlamoen’s fifth live building project in twelve years, Powerhouse Brattørkaia, if you include the Living Lab, when it breaks ground will be the sixth live project in ZEB’s eight years.

Inside – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

Indeed, it hardly needs stating that the Living Lab’s research is rather a long distance from Rural Studio, whether Norwegian coastal or Alabama inland. ZEB, and now ZEN, are manifestations of NTNU’s scientific and technical strengths, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the programmes are at radical odds with those young architects and academics, who have propelled Trondheim’s reputation as a live projects hive, highlighting its experiential and phenomenological dimensions, into broader Nordic and international debates. I’d already received the distinct impression that neither of these communities talk much with each other, let alone hang out together. This was implicitly confirmed when the palpable reserve during the interview meeting turned a definite further shade of cool with Hestnes and Woods, after I mentioned some of the Trondheim architects work, with Hestnes observing that some people may think what they do is sustainable, but when analysed it came up as fundamentally lacking. Not entirely dissimilarly the impact and influence of the Centre for ZEB Research felt seriously remote and separate from the concerns of the younger generation architects. Here was a well-known example of architectural two cultures, with neither the means nor interest to bridge the gap. There was something else as well. Despite the younger generation architects relative national and international success, the chasm was a vivid illustration of the sheer distance they were from the sorts of funding that could maintain major research programmes for eight consecutive years. Within NTNU’s scientific ether Trondheim’s young architectural spirits were just too romantic a bunch.

Nina Harsaaker and Sevrin Gjerde's Årstidshus explored passive heating
strategies, local quick clay and timber char techniques
Talk with many of those young romantics, in Trondheim, though also across Norway, and what has very clearly agitated them, has been EU regulation and its recent legislative interpretation. August Schmidt, TYIN’s Yashar Hansted and Nina Harsaaker and Sevrin Gjerde’s recent domestic homes recent domestic homes and houses all emphasise lower tech approaches, materiality and the tacit dimension, passive heating and ventilation, willing and skilled builders and particularly carpenters, and a openness to risk non standard building industry approaches. The same is true with Noysom arkitekter’s  self-build project, where Svartlamoen’s unusual experimental eco-district status, in effect allows what would otherwise be legally impossible to build. Noysom’s Trygve Ohren points to Brendeland & Kristoffersen’s original student block, and how that project too, with its outdoor staircases and other frugal features, wouldn’t have made it through planning to the build phase. If these are all comparatively small projects, they demonstrate a building philosophy distinctly uncomfortable with orthodox industry approaches. The approaches that NTNU and its scientific based research, in turn, symbolically embodies.

Two years ago, the divide became particularly heated over the Norwegian - if EU derived - technical building regulations, TEK15. For architects upset by this new legislation, the tightening of energy performance levels, including insulation levels, U-values, thermal performance, and specifically, mechanical heat and ventilation, appeared to be primarily driven by the influence of Passivhaus and Passivhaus related technology companies on both the EU and Norwegian bureaucracies involved. Arguments hit boiling point through 2015, with the Norwegian Architectural Association breaking out into low-level warfare, passions running high on each side of the argument. Well known architects, both old and young and from all parts of the country saw the fingerprints of some effective lobbying by the European HVAC industry all over the regulatory recommendations. In the period since, while changes were made, the emotional divide remains palpable. Passion still runs through Borre Skodvin’s - one half of the influential, if small and idiosyncratic, Jensen & Skodvin Arkitekter - voice, when the TEK15 battles come up during an interview conversation across the fibre optic wires. At times Skodvin became particularly passionate, railing against “the very persuasive lobbyists from the HVAC industry” and their influence on Government Civil Servants, who claim “that their products will solve the problem” - including mechanical heat and ventilation – solutions which are “most likely from somewhere else.”

Hurdal, Norway's eco-village has been home to the Aktiv-Hus experiment.
Gaia Arkiteker's Change Petition - Photo Vesper Frames.

Skodvin may have been vocal at the time and over the phone, though he and others cite the veteran Norwegian-Scottish Gaia Arkitekter Network as the heart of attempts to draw attention to the TEK 15’s perceived weaknesses. With near to almost forty years of experience with sustainable building, the Gaia Arkitekter Network’s respected body of work has long been identified for its recognisably low-tech passive energy approach. Indeed, during the campaign Gaia put up a Change petition, asking those signing, to support four key questions, which needed to be answered; 1) would tightened Passivhaus standards actually achieve the intended reductions – noting half the total greenhouse gas emissions were ‘linked to the use of materials’; 2) whether the reduction of greenhouse gases was actually going to be achieved; 3) whether passive air conditioning was being discriminated against - and by implication ‘envisages solutions already obsolete and will stop well-documented environmental solutions’ -  and 4) whether the claimed health benefits, given scant documentation, were still to be proved. They signed off, with a plea to consider diversity of solutions which enabled flexible responses, and were ‘healthy for people and the environment.’

Hurdal again - Photo Vesper Frames

As a pioneering eighties generation eco-practice with the hard earned sustainability credibility of actually doing many projects, Gaia Arkitekter’s design ethos stood outside much of Norway’s architectural world over the last decades. Recently, however, they’ve become increasingly noticed by just the sort of younger generation architects that make up Trondheim’s new generational wave. Their opposition to TEK15’s Passivhaus and technical requirements has only helped bolster their reputation further among the more idealistic of the younger generation. Noysom’s Ohren and Haanes, travelled to meet one of Gaia’s co-founders, Rolf Jacobsen, and enlist his support and advice for their self-build project. Jacobsen and colleagues have also developed an alternative lower tech passive heated Aktiv-Hus initiative.  Aktiv-Hus has been taken up as the main building approach at Hurdal, Norway’s best known eco-village, generating interest and enthusiasm from within this community, even if it is yet to arrive anywhere near Trondheim. Part of the pull is that Gaia Arkitektur’s approach, through projects like Aktiv-Hus, implies a different relation to its surroundings, one which is based around a closer relation to the natural world, just as it posits questions about industrial society’s building culture. The emphasis on materials use in the petition underlined another core difference between the Gaia Arkitekter Network’s natural building/lower tech approach, and those trumpeting the arrival of Passivhaus building technologies in the mainstream. Norway’s mainstream adoption of Passivhaus informed standards has happened alongside the take up of a slew of industrial materials and products. It was Bjørn Berge, another of the Gaia’s original stalwarts, and author of the influential Ecology of Building Materials , who, after all, made the case in the book, that all Europe’s building needs could be met by the Northern Boreal forests.

Evanstad High School, a ZEB project by Ola Roald Arkitekter uses CLT

The broader argument - that, as Arkitektur N’s editor Ingerid Helsing, put it to me recently, “the answer is the forest,” is also seemingly being heard and listened to. Perhaps the sheer weight of climate change news in the daily news has led towards a collective rethink and migration amongst the bolder of the new generation. Indeed just as this new generation has been coming of age, timber, and particularly engineered timber, as a legitimate future twenty first century material has found much more receptive ears. It is as if the myth of Norwegian Wood is returned. The shift is genuinely recent, Geir Brendeland claims their Svartlamoen housing block inspired Stavanger’s 2008 Wood City programme to highlight cross laminated timber. That was nine years ago. In the interim some of Stavanger’s CLT projects were eventually built while the growth of CLT faltered. The small Norwegian based CLT factories, like Holz100 either closed down, or, like Moelven, stopped producing CLT products. Compared to 2008, the situation, if still nascent, is very different circa 2017. According to Aasmund Bunkholt , head of TreFokus, Norway’s main timber promotion organisation, CLT use has been gradually increasing over the last half dozen years, more than doubling from 15, 000/20, 000 to 40, 000 cubic metres. For several years, the only home-grown CLT company was Massiv Lust, founded by two ex-Oslo architects with a sense of humour. Running their operation out of Gaupne, central southern Norway, Massiv Lust provided CLT for the just completed ZEB project, Ola Roald Arkitectur’s Evanstad High School , also in the south of the country. The situation has changed, with new players, including Splitkon and Veidekke setting up CLT operations to meet increases in demand, while Massiv Lust have gone into partnership with two other companies, to enable expansion. Still large amounts of CLT continue to be imported from Sweden. Bunkholt states that this is changing; he believes production will rise quite quickly over the next years to 500, 000 cubic metres. He may be being over optimistic, but he may turn out right.

MDH Arkitekter's Trondheim student timber towers

It is the sustainability dimension, driven by regulation and awareness that increasing numbers of timber projects are turning up all across continental Europe, which seems to have drawn architects in. Time is on timber’s side. Like the majority of European countries, Norway has seen a flurry of timber towers activity, with Bergen currently boasting the country’s tallest, a fourteeen storey concrete core high-rise, on the waterfront titled Treet. Bunkholt states that schools and affordable, particularly student, housing, are the obvious typologies which use CLT’s advantages. The point is underlined by twelve storey student housing in both the capital and Trondheim, and twenty storey buildings on their way. Oslo’s MDH Arkitekter’s recently completed Moholt student housing on the edge of NTNU’s sprawling campus is a case in point, and sure to feature strongly in this autumn’s Nordic Holzbau conference being hosted in the city.

CLT may at last be finding favour with Norway’s mainstream architectural world, but there are also studios who pushing further, including critiquing the lack of adventure and experiment of this new normal. Stavanger’s Helen & Hard have created an international presence through their bold timber experiments, working with Swiss engineer, Hermann Blumer. They have also begun taking CLT to task for its sheer dumbness, redundancy and simplicity. Different but similar, Sami Rintala appears far more interested in both provenance - he’s been searching out local forest stands - and the tacit and experiential qualities of wood as material, and wood as forest (explored in more detail in the Rintala piece here.) Rintala, is one of several architects who have returned to exploring the world before industrialisation, running a course with Norway’s pre-eminent boat-builder, Jan Godal, (again profiled in this Unstructured) by Rever og Drage’s Martin Beverfjord, who himself became beguiled by Godal traditional woodworking, while completing his final NTNU student project. Likewise Borre Skodvin took himself off on a sabbatical boat-building course a few summers back.

Arguably, the closest building materials operation to this quasi cultural turn to smaller scale and lower tech building interest along the Western Atlantic coast is Norsk Spon, a small outfit producing various wood shingles cladding material. Based a half hours drive south of Trondheim, the resolutely small-scale operation is based on a farm in Melhus, producing shingles cladding, complete with a Gaia Arkitekter home providing a significant clue to its sensibility and origins. Norsk Spon has drawn the likes of TYIN Tegnestue and Noysom to experiment with the material on a couple of projects, including TYIN’s Fleinvaer Music and Performance Centre collaboration with Rintala. Norsk Spon, despite having heavy weight supporters - Jensen & Skodvin’s recent summer house Storfjord was clad in the shingles, is tiny, and the momentum of industry and much of the research is overwhelmingly towards easy large-scale solutions.

One of Jan Godal's boat building courses in Valsøyfjord
A Norsk Spon pine shingles clad project

It’s impossible not to view both these timber futurist instances and their overlap with the youthful low tech natural materials Trondheim scene, as talking to profoundly different worlds, for which read the primarily Oslo architectural scene, and the large-scale research agendas of the ZEN and ZEB research programmes. The split relates to big and small; ZEB is research at the heart of big, Aktiv-Hus, Norsk Spon and self-build, that of small. Imagining how to reconcile the two worlds is the challenge. The gestalt will likely remain the same, the mainstream working to the mindset of large scale, essentially industrial parameters, the edges trying to carve out space for experiments pointing to different futures. This dynamic is well known and ubiquitous. What remains intriguingly specific to Norway is the widespread resistance among significant numbers of architects to high tech, and particularly Passivhaus approaches. There’s no divide like this in either Denmark or Sweden, suggesting a cultural, as much as a, technical dimension at play.

Helen & Hard's 2016 Flekkefjord cultural centre – Photo HHA

What is becoming commonly accepted across the Norwegian architectural world is the return of timber as a building material. That myth of Norwegian Wood, and the answer being in the forests, contain new potency while old arguments about 21st Nordic century sustainability essentially turning on one kind of 21st century timber future or another, are taken more seriously.  Developers, and the construction industry are, as the CLT surge evidences, more responsive, though discuss industry support levels regarding timber, and you are directed to the concrete-marine industrial nexus. Norway’s offshore oil-rig and platform industry has prospered and developed considerable expertise and power over the decades, long exerting an outsize influence on dry land over the building industry in the form of concrete as the default building material. Timber, despite its credentials, still plays a distant second fiddle. Arkitekter N’s Helsing, like others, is coruscating about the absence of significant research funding in timber, lamenting the lost opportunities when compared to other timber powerhouses like Southern Germany and Austria.

That may or may not be why NTNU isn’t exactly the beating heart of engineered timber research, even if there is a modest research hub, Tresenter, though also, according to Bunkholt, Trondheim, of all the larger cities is the most receptive to developing its timber buildings profile. Not dissimilarly, the young Trondheim practices don’t appear that interested in the newly orthodox material. It’s Oslo offices. And elsewhere, which are propelling the growth in engineered wood. Though Trondheim’s Brendeland and Kristoffersen helped trigger CLT’s early entry into the mainstream, there wasn’t much of a follow up. Instead, in the years since 2008’s Wood City, it’s been Stavanger’s Helen & Hard who have pushed the CLT envelope the furthest.  

There are other cultural contrasts between the Oslo offices and Trondheim’s more modest scene.  For all its energetic activity and activism the latter has yet to produce any younger generation practices working at the level of their successful Oslo peers. Granted there are a few older studios, which would like to match Oslo, Pir II for one. But that misses a critical point. There’s a real sense that many of these young west coast practices have tasted something else, and don’t appear that interested in climbing the slippery pole of ambition. They are experimenting with other ways of working, to keep their small-scale, nimble dexterity and creativity alive and intact. Here there’s an overlap with the small-scale sustainable research at the edges. Add in other elements and whole cultures and ways of doing building, and building sustainably presents itself for learning from, and to be fostered further.  This is a lesson from Trondheim, one which isn’t out of shelf-life just yet. There are the beginnings of a space, given the enthusiasm and interest the scene continues to generate, to nurture further a different kind of sustainable building culture paradigm. In a similar vein to Svartlamoen where an experimental ecological building district was established, the ingredients feel present for a spectrum of relational experiments; asking, for instance, what an architectural practice is, and why, or exploring the nature of sustainable building beyond the market, what this could be. These aren’t agenda’s for the heart of big, but out at the edges Trondheim offers enough fertile terrain, if the dots were to be joined up. That almost sounds like a research proposal and project in itself. For those intrigued to explore further, you know where to go.