Self-build Svartlamon style

Europe’s self-build winds of change have reached Norway. In Svartlamon, Trondheim’s alternative culture eco-experiment, something new is brewing; the young Nøysom (Frugal) arkitekter prepared the participatory way for five families to build their own homes. Begun in 2015, the experiment has made waves the country over as it nears completion. Nøysom arkitekter tell their story.

Svartlamoen's self-builders – photo Vigdis Haugtro
Sustainability is a term you really should try to avoid if you don’t want to be misunderstood. But within ecology, sustainability quite simply refers to the adaptive capacity of a system, or how well it can adapt to changing circumstances.

Within ecology everything that surrounds us, and that we are part of, from the simplest cell in our body to the earth’s atmosphere can be described as a self regulating whole; a complex adaptive system. These systems are all part of something larger, and something smaller is a part of them, like a Russian nesting doll. In this context, the ability to grow while being able to adapt to changing circumstances is the key to a sustainable development.

The lesson for us as architects, is that we have to take into account how the built environment can be utilised as a tool to adapt to changing circumstances. Changing circumstances happen all the time. They can be the result of changes in systems that are dependent on the architecture, a house will function very differently if you have an accident and lose your ability to walk, if you get one, two or maybe three children and so on. They can also be the result of changes in systems that the architecture is dependent on, like climate change, changes in the economy, political turmoil and so on.

It is us as human beings that adapt, using architecture as a tool for survival, joy and comfort. So called adaptive architecture, automated systems mimicking this natural function, is working against our own adaptive capacity, taking control from us giving it into the hands of simplistic systems that at the present time in no way can compete with the complexity of the human brain. Anyone who has spent time in an office with automated sun-screening will be well aware of this fact. Architecture where you can’t decide if you want to open a window yourself, or pin a drawing to the wall without a hammer drill, is not sustainable in this context.

By winter - the Svartlamon self build - Photo Vigdis Haugtro
- and reality

Human beings are very good at adapting to changing circumstances, but at the same time we have a tendency to create systems that are in direct conflict with our own long-term survival. The way we see it, our current misstep is a market economic totalitarianism that reduces architecture to an immediate satisfaction of more or less construed needs, rather than a tool for adapting to our environment.

At the same time it has been more and more common that so called environmentalists claim that we actually don’t have to consume less to live more sustainably. Because, good forbid, we should suggest that spending more money doesn’t make you happier. Don’t try to challenge people’s  “life lie” unless you want to take away their joy of life at the same time, as the Norwegian playwight Henrik Ibsen writes. Especially if someone profits from it. The ‘sustainable solution’ seems to be to just continue to make people want to consume more and more, and compensate for all this waste of energy by doing it very efficiently. So we build Passivhouse mansions made from glued wood elements prefabricated in the Baltikum, with the newest and most expensive domestic technology, and charging stations for Tesla number 2 and 3, and call it “sustainable architecture”.

The birth of the self build project at Svartlamon

Self Build Family - mother and daughter - Photo Vigdis Haugtro
Trygve Ohren puts the self build question in the final student project

But there exists an alternative to the consumerist understanding of a house or a dwelling as something you buy to satisfy a short term need, or a long term financial investment.

The idea behind the self build project at Svartlamon, was conceived while we were still architecture students at NTNU (The Norwegian University of Science and Technology) in Trondheim, and was the result of a common interest in how we can use architecture as a tool to create a more sustainable built environment. We wanted to investigate an architecture that can be adapted by its users; that you can build and rebuild as circumstances change. An architecture that is understandable, versatile, where we avoid dangerous and unhealthy materials, and think holistically without prejudice. A frugal (nøysom) architecture, where we use creativity to make the most out of what is available to us, rather than deciding what we need from a catalogue. The way we see it, designing for urban ecology is exactly this, encouraging a continuous creative transformation of the urban canvas.

In our search for a more sustainable approach to housing, self building soon appeared as a solution that was as simple as it was obvious. If you can build something yourself, you can also change it, which makes the future inhabitants participants rather than consumers.

So, our thesis when we started the self build project was: How can we as architects help create physical surroundings that not just satisfy immediate needs, but become tools for a more sustainable lifestyle? An architecture that facilitate adaptive capabilities, and creates opportunities.

Svartlamon from above with the self build underway in winter
Photo Vigdis Haugtro
The traditional timber housing found in
Photo Haakon Haanes
Svartlamon's anti-iconic clt timber mid-rise,
seen from near the part of the land that
would become the self build site
Photo Vigdis Haugtro

An experimental site in an urban ecological area

Trygve knew about an experimental plot of land that would be ideal to go through with the kind of project, because it opened up for a lot of dispensations from the strict Norwegian building code. The plot of land is located at Svartlamon in Trondheim, the first official urban ecological area in Norway.

Svartlamon, which lies wedged between a railway line and an industrial harbour, got is current regulative status in 2001. The ambitious regulation plan was the result of a long struggle to conserve a large, continuous area of old low-rise wooden houses, but more importantly a bastion for artists, musicians, students, bohemians, poor people, and others that had inhabited in the area. The conflict, which culminated in the 90s, with squatting, barricades, art activism, demonstrations and using the microphone at Spellemannsprisen (the Norwegian version of The GRAMMYs) to embarrass the local authorities, was turned to a fruitful cooperation. The Svartlamon Housing Association was founded in 2001 to manage and rent out the houses in the area, and the municipal council defined the new goals for Svartlamon as an “alternative” area with room for experimentation when it comes to housing, ways of living, social interaction, participation, ecology, energy, municipal services, art, culture and business.

In the years after The Housing Association was founded Brendeland and Kristoffersen’s massive wood apartment building, the so called Nyhuset (new house), was built, and Strandveien Auto, a former car dealer, was transformed to an alternative and spectacular kindergarten. The projects got a lot of attention both within and outside Norway, but when we came into the picture, in 2013, there had not been any new building projects at Svartlamon for a long time. The Europan competition from 2010 had come to nothing, and the economy of The Housing Association was not in a state that it was just to host an architectural competition like that.  So our idea to develop a concept on the experimental site as a student project was greatly appreciated at Svartlamon.

Participation as method

The first thing we did was to introduce ourselves at the resident meeting, where The Resident Association at Svartlamon, which consists of all the around 240 inhabitants in the area, meets one time a month. We explained our intention to develop a housing project on the experimental site. We were going to present our concept on the first resident meeting after the new year, and hear if they wanted to continue to support the project.

The self builders as illustrated in Trgve Ohren's and Haakon Haanes's final student

One of the endless meetings between Noysom and the Svartlamon
self-building group

Then we went in to a comprehensive participation process with the residents. We hosted three open workshops in the fall, and discussed how and what could be done on the site, and what living sustainably at Svartlamon could entail. In every meeting we showed what we had done so far, and got feedback. We also had many conversations with neighbours and other interested parties, and interviewed people who knew about these kinds of processes. The following autumn we developed a concept of 5 compact, naturally ventilated self-built row houses, served by a “common house”. The common house, in addition to being a pedagogic project that would plant the seed of cooperation in the group, would have room for important functions like washing machines, drying clothes, storage and a central heating system.

When we presented the concept for The Resident meeting at the beginning of 2014, we got the full support of Svartlamon to try to get the project realised. The Housing Association would have to be the builder, and finance the project, which was a good thing, since it is an ideal organization, which isn't run by the need for profit maximisation. The question was if we could get anyone that was willing to build a house they would only end up renting in stead of owning themselves, in a time when most people in Norway see their home as a financial investment.

We had no choice but trying, and searched for self-builders that would build and inhabit the five dwellings. We announced on Facebook, with posters in the local cafeteria and other places, and were surprised to get over 20 serious applications from people that wanted to build their own experimental house at Svartlamon. They were people from all over the country, although most had some sort of connection to Trondheim. With the help of elected representatives from The Resident Association and The Housing Association, we chose a varied group of self builders that seemed motivated, engaged, and that we thought would work well together as a group. The group that would inhabit the five houses consisted of seven adults and seven children, spanning 50 years between them: Guro Sletnes and John Strandskog with their two children, Siri Gjære and Torfinn Borkhus, also with two children, and Markus Lantto, Per-Kristian Nygård and Iacob Sømme, all with their own children.

Planning for self building

During the spring of 2015, two years after the process started, we were busy with our master’s diploma centered around the project, Experimental Housing at Svartlamon, while continuing to work with the self builders to develop the concept further. We arranged several meetings with all the self builders, as well as individual meetings with each family, discussing how we would adapt the concept to their specific needs and wants. Not long after the self builders themselves started to meet informally, and developed a good relationship amongst each other.

Noysom's illustration of their self build design
Beginning the build – Autumn 2015

Because this is a project that is supposed to be built with the least amount of specialist knowledge and labour, it was important for us to use simple and straightforward building techniques. Often, architects working with self builders have tried to find new and creative ways of building to simplify the process, as Walter Segal’s famous bolted frame method inspired by traditional English and Japanese building.  But the way we see it, the most common way to build in Norway, the wooden stud frame house, is a method adapted to the “building blocks” that are most readily available for us today: planed wooden planks. The self build guru Strauss Lloyd Kahn uses a similar reasoning in his Shelter II, where he argues against his own fascination for alternative, and often impractical building methods in the 60s, especially the geodesic domes that appeared everywhere in America at that time (and were later abandoned), and defends the understandable and practical logic of the stud frame construction.

We developed a concept for the stud frame houses: A simple two story townhouse, with a footprint of roughly 35 square meters, double high in front towards the south western front of the site, which gets a lot of sunlight. The house ends up in two shed roofs, held up by a self built wooden truss, which makes it possible to ventilate the house through the double high room, as well as get more daylight into the second floor. A greenhouse in front functions as a double wall, making it possible to store heat on sunny days. A large roof surface towards the south western side also makes it possible to equip the
houses with solar collectors.

The point with building your own house is not just that you can create exactly the spaces you need, not bigger or smaller, but also that you can build with the materials you want. Central in our understanding of urban ecological building is that we use natural or reused materials when available. As well as making it easier to use uncommon and natural materials, it is much easier to reuse a good part of what you need in a self build project, because it is more natural to think creatively and use whatever you have at hand when you build yourself.

For practical and economic reasons we decided that the load bearing structure, the stud frame skeleton, should be made from new materials of a consistent quality. However, external and internal cladding on the roof, ceiling, floors and walls, windows, doors, stairs and so on can be reused, where they are not to have a fire proofing function. The actual building is closely monitored by Svartlamon’s own master builder, Arnleiv Overgård. The self builders started early to gather reused materials, and now have a considerable collection in a large container next to the building site.

Winter work
All photos Vigdis Haugtro

A project that challenge standards and conventions

Parallel with working with the diploma project, we were writing a building permit application, and an application for a loan in The Norwegian State House Bank (Husbanken). We had calculated that we needed around 3 million NOK (250 000 GBP) to build the six buildings ourselves, relying on a lot of reuse. Because the site we are working on is an experimental area, the regulation plan makes it possible to apply for a lot of dispensations to make the project as simple and versatile as we wanted.

The only thing we neither wanted nor could get dispensations from was fire safety regulations. Svartlamon is an area with a lot of old, wooden houses, and fire retardant gypsum walls and fire windows were necessary on several of the facades to avoid fire spreading.

Photo-Story – One of Vigdis Haugtro photo's from this community shoot of the self-builders would end up on the cover of Arkitektur N, Norway's principal architectural magazine

The most important exception we got, was the dispensation from the energy regulations in TEK10   (The standard technical regulations for buildings in Norway), which we felt were incompatible with a self built project of the type and scale we suggested. We also had to get a dispensation from the regulations of universal accessibility. Because we wanted an inclusive project, we have placed all the necessary functions (i.e. entrance, kitchen, bathroom) on the ground floor, and it is also possible to get a bedroom in there, but the main argument is that the self builders active approach to building and maintaining their houses makes it possible to adapt the buildings when circumstances and needs change. That’s the whole point with the project after all! And as we argued, we believe that the financial cost of getting into the house market is a bigger obstacle to an inclusive society than stairs or doorsteps.

Both Trondheim municipality and The Norwegian State House Bank were convinced that the project could create a precedent for a more nuanced approach to environmentally friendly and inclusive building in Norway.

The grand foundation stone laying ceremony and further postponements

Active involvement takes many
shapes – Photo Vigdis Haaugtro
Local press self build cartoon

The first two years we worked on the project we were students, and our work had been financed by student loans and stray jobs. So, when we were finished with our diploma, we had to think about how we could make a living. Together with Cathrine Johansen Rønningen, who had been a class mate of ours in architecture school, who by then was living together with Haakon at Svartlamon. The three of us decided to start an architectural practice together– Nøysom arkitekter.

After a lot of paper work and creative arguments we had finally got our building permit, and a loan from the The Norwegian State House Bank to finance the project. It was then that we understood that the loan we had secured could only be freed after the houses were built, we needed a separate building loan to finance the building of the houses. So, during the summer we had to take a new round in the banks in Trondheim to try to get a building loan. The achilles heel was the Svartlamon Housing Association’s economic situation, which at the time was in pretty bad shape. But it was gradually improving, and 3 million NOK is not that much for a foundation that rent out around 120 apartments, even if it is non-profit. In the end we secured a building loan from Sparebank 1. But our struggles were not over.

In over half a year we had been in dialogue with the municipality about a land lease agreement for the site. Svartlamon is on municipal land, leased by The Housing Association, which is responsible for maintaining and renting out the buildings in the area to the inhabitants at Svartlamon. The land lease agreement had been delayed and delayed, and suddenly we were told that it had to go through a political vote, because, as we were told from the ownership branch of the municipality, “everything that happens on Svartlamon is political”. It was important to get the support from the local politicians, and in September the self builders arranged a grand foundation stone laying ceremony, where representatives from all the political parties in Trondheim (except the neo-liberal Progress Party (FrP), which abstained) laid down a huge papier-mâché foundation stone made by self builder and artist Per Kristian Nygård, to the tunes from the electric guitar of “county artist” Truls Lorentzen and the chorus of all the children from Svartlamon kindergarten.

Because we were waiting for the political processing of the land lease agreement, the building loan could not be freed yet. It was now almost a year since the self builders were chosen, and the patience in the group was beginning to wear thin.

So The Housing Association financed the initial digging and the ground work for “the common house” – the digging had to be done anyway because of a septic tank buried under the site that the municipality had decided that had to be removed. We had previously decided that the digging and plumbing, in addition to all the electrical work, should be done by professionals. That is, all the ground work except the actual foundations, which the self builders themselves would build. 

The houses begin to emerge

The self builders bought concrete mix with their own money and started to build formwork and pour concrete for the foundation to ‘the common house’ and gradually from there the other five other houses. The framework of the common house was begun when we got the message that the lease agreement had been approved by the politicians, and that the financing would be ok. The original plan was that the self builders would build their own houses after the common house was finished, but we decided that it was more practical that they cooperated on building all of the houses, working almost simultaneously on all of them. The self-builders organised themselves in building groups, and started to account for the work they did on site to make sure it would be even.

The self builders began to meet every Wednesday in the offices of The Housing Association to discuss what progress has been made, and what should be done next, as well as organising the buying of new and retrieving of reused materials, and ensuring they are on budget. Often we architects are present as well, to give guidance and help to make decisions. In the mean time the self builders and their children have become good friends (or neighbours), with the group cooperation going exceptionally well up to this point, with almost no conflicts, which is quite extraordinary in a project like this.

Before we knew it the houses started to emerge. The self builders have very different preferences and needs for help in the process. With the volumes starting to take form, it is easier to go in and reconsider how each house plan should be, where the windows should be placed etc., particularly for those who are less familiar with architectural drawings. We stay in the picture, helping most of the self builders to tailor solutions to their needs, and making sure they are faithful to the original concept and ideas.

Svartlamon self build through the seasons
Photos Vigdis Haugtro and Haakon Haanes

The road forward

As of April 2017 one of the five families has moved in. However, there is still a lot of work before all the houses are ready to move into, and even more work until the project is finished. Finished is maybe the wrong word, as a self build project it will keep evolving with its inhabitants continuously adapting their homes to different needs and circumstances. This is the point of the project, not to spend as little energy as possible to make the least impact on our planet's fragile systems, but to develop an architecture that is easy for its inhabitants to understand and use, thus working towards a more adaptable built environment.

What we think is most important to take back from this project is that it is both possible and important to challenge the more and more conform ideas about what progressive and environmentally friendly architecture and building entails. We won’t get a better world by doing what we already do more efficiently.

We think that this project shows that it is possible and desirable to regulate other non-commercial, urban ecological research areas in cities all over the world, including areas where experimentation and alternative thinking is encouraged. We know, and can now prove, that there exists a lot of motivated and skilful people that have willingness, time and resources to spend on idealistic projects like these. We believe that an attitude change has to come, and that the change is seen in a new generation Norwegian architects that are on their way from architecture schools into working life. We believe that frugality (nøysomhet), creativity and cooperation are values that are deeply entrenched in us as human beings, and that give their own reward, both for ourselves and our environment.

Nøysom arkitekter are Trygve Ohren, Haakon Haanes and Cathrine Johansen Rønningen. Contact here or through Facebook Haanes andOhren’s final student project work can be downloaded here Experimental Housing in Svartlamon


A version of this article first appeared on print in Arkitektur N (nr. 03/2016)