Looking behind the white wall

August Schmidt outlines the low tech thinking which informs recent architect built homes and houses, including his own Shingle House, Dikehaugen 12 on the edge of Trondheim.

In the last few years a number of small, low energy houses in Trondheim have been challenging builders and planners to think differently. These buildings ask the question ’is the high tech approach the only solution to make houses for our times?’ I don´t believe so. The building industry pushes us towards designing houses by numbers and profit. New building regulation and standards also channel architects to approach building with hi tech, and generally more expensive, solutions. In my project, Shingle House, Dikehaugen 12, I set myself the challenge of working with these new standards of energy-efficient  house design, but doing so without challenging the budget. With the new standards, we must not leave behind the ideal of comfort, space qualites , natural lighting , architectural form, human scale and use of natural materials. We still want to create good living space for people.

What is a good house? For many people it is just space, where it is warm and dry. Somewhere to place your belongings, in a space functional for your lifestyle. Many people, however, also look out for good design, a particular modern feeling, or special qualities in materials and space. Generally, though, the majority of people don't have a proper notion of these things. They appreciate what is there if it feels right, but are not interested in what lies behind the white wall, what makes the light come in an attractive and functional way, of why the room feels warm and airy at the same time. What makes space to a good place to be in.

Living space should also contain these qualities when there is nothing in it: a mattress on the floor , one chair and a table should be all you need to feel at home.

If you are bulding a house,  the site is important, as is the local climate, the people and their culture. 96 % of all housing in Norway is built in wood. It is cheap and easy to build with. Generally, these common building materials are in themselves of mediocre quality. Fast grown spruce,  which requires much airing and coursely designed ”beslag”, water resistant paint and endures little weather exposure, is the common standard. Wood with high density and resins which give natural resistance to rot and fungi, are not.

If your ambition is to build outside the book focusing on high quality in today’s Norway, you will make a lot of extra work for yourself. But it is worth it. You will need to search carefully for a carpenter who is willing to understand non-standard solutions, and who has the confidence to give you the right price for the job. Quick and standard ways save construction companies money, with those who’ll live in the homes unaware of the difference. Similarly with the engineering. As architect, you will need to explain and carefully document any solutions which fall outside the engineers standard design solutions. In theory, building regulations and codes are general and allow for different approaches and designs for the same problem. In real life, though, technical standards tend towards supporting the mediocre solution. Building better houses is not the easiest path.

The best way to build well without compromise, is to take matters into your own hands so you’re able to control the process.  In the last few years, a small group of Trondheim based architects have done exactly this; designing and building their own homes. Taking on the building process have given us considerably more freedom. The architect couple, Nina Harsaker and Sevrin Gjerde have designed and built their Artidshus, where the emphasis is on natural materials and surface qualities. They have experimented with burned wood cladding and clay (from the project’s site) on interior surfaces. This playful use of materials provides a warm and healthy indoor climate. TYIN Tegnestue’s Yashar Hanstad has worked with a more visual design concept for his family home. Working with the core of a derelict log construction, Hanstad has created a series of interesting new spaces with unconventional detailing and bold exposure of materials, making a strong architectural expression. And Professor Fredik Lund has through his wooden holiday home demonstrated that creating architctural form and volume is his most important work focus; the strong silhouettes of his house also allows for nicely balanced spaces. Likewise, for my project I needed similar levels of freedom and flexibility to meet the challenges I’d set myself.

Three other recent Trondheim architects self-built homes underline the attempts at breaking from commercial orthodoxy: From top left Artidshus by Nina Haarsaker and Sevrin Gjerde, TYIN's Yashar Hanstad's Arne Garbohsveg house and Frederik Lund's hillside home.

For my Dikehaugen project, I wanted the building to act as a commentary on contemporary building practices, and demonstrate (rather than speaking of) alternative solutions and thinking to current Norwegian housing industry standards. My aim was to  maintain high standards across planning, materials, construction, and design, with the architect – myself -  involved in and in charge of all aspects of the building process. I also wanted to find low, rather than high, tech sustainable solutions, so that the project met current energy efficient and enviromentally sustainable standards.

 The result is a house which is compact but with a flexible floor plan that allows for much living space, the materials are natural and the construction breathing, the design robust. The house, and its outer building volumes are intended as distinctive, yet finely tuned to the immediate natural surroundings, working within the area plan. The building is low-maintenance, the exterior surfaces are unpainted and allowed to naturally age and weather. Likewise indoor wood surfaces do not require surface treatment and so have been left untreated. The design of the house, and outer buildings, their layout and the building volumes, aims at being distinct, but well tuned to the immediate natural surroundings. I wanted to challenge standard solutions to technical building regulations, I sought to do this while complying with the area plan. The area plan posed strict requirements for indoor area use, allowing a total maximum of 100 square meters indoor floor space, and defined the main shape of the volume as a low structure with a saddle roof, non-shiny materials and earthen colours. This framework resulted in a compact one-family home, which is also a good solution if you want an energy efficient house.

Dikehaugen situated in a forested area at Trondheim’s city limits, bordering on Bymarka the green belt which surrounds the edges of the city’s urban fabric. The land was damp and shaded, with a small hut sitting in the centre of the plot, leading to a design  which  complied with the character of the plot, but didn’t change the terrain. Little mass was shifted on the site, while the small hut was re-used and redesigned as an annex to the main building. The three buildings are all saddle-roofed, shingle-clad buildings, placed on site to create outdoor spaces, between the buildings and spaces which transist on the neighbouring forest.

The main house has ground floor concrete construction which is half-way below ground, and a first floor wooden construction with the living area. Eight large wooden frames (2400) were erected first and the exterior clad, closing the building and providing shelter for the remaining part of the building. The shelter is an outer skin, separated from an interior, insulated wall by an open air space of ca 1.4 meters. This allowed for a large basement, an uninsulated multi-use space for car and bike parking, work-space for ski-preps, carpentry, and storage. On the upper, main floor, the space between the outer skin and inner wall featuress capsules of deep window niches which provide extra living space in the warm area (although too small an area to be counted as floor space), while the cold area extending up from the basement includes a staircase, and an open area to store bulky space eating equipment like kayaks.

The roof construction has a wide beam span which allows for a large, column-free floor space in the living area as this had to be as open and flexible as possible. The walls of the living space are insulated with 35cm of paper insulation, giving insulation values (0.13 walls, 0.11 roof, 0.13 floor). The 1.4 meter buffer zone between the outer cold wall and the inner warm wall acts as a climate shield, for additional weather-proofing and insulation effect. The window niches may be closed off onto the large inner room to heighten the buffer effect and minimise heat loss through the windows. The volume of the house is simple and compact, the bathroom is centrally placed and the main bedroom does not require a separate heater because of its location in the house. The large main room, which also comprises the kitchen, is heated by a single air-based heat pump. There is also a wood-burning fire-place with chimney, as a second source of heating is required by Norwegian building regulations.

Wherever possible materials are non-synthetic; a mix of wood, plant-based and recyclable materials. The building’s principal material, wood, used for the main construction and secondary walls, exterior cladding and indoor walls and ceilings, was delivered from a local saw-mill. Paper fibre insulation leaves the walls open to diffuse moisture, with vapour control but no vapour barrier on the interior, and a wind-breaker in the exterior. The main living area has linoleum flooring, while the extra upstair bedrooms and small entrance area has sisal carpeting. Only the bathroom, which needed a simple and waterproof material uses vinyl flooring. The windows are aluminium, which may seem surprising in the context of a low tech, natural materials building, but which serves the concept of creating a minimum maintenance building.

Dikehaugen is designed on simple and sound solutions and a simple, architectural design aimed at giving the house a long lifespan. With its limited heated floor space, and additional un-heated multi-use space, the house is both flexibile and able to provide for activities on snowy winters and wet summers. Carbon is stored in the building binds co2 in its construction. When its life-span ends, the building will produce a minimum of non-recyclable waste.

Both my and my bank’s concern was that there were no buyers in Trondheim who’d be interested in a house with this uncompromising architecture, on an inconvenient plot, which emphasised alternative living qualities such as ecological materials and small, smart spaces as opposed to the norm; expansive, large space and high-tech, embellished design. In reality, the interest for the house was immense. The market offers very little innovative housing today. Most builders invest in standard solutions at a minimum cost and minimum quality, aimed at the mass market, while ignoring the need provide the people with opportunities for better and more sustainable choices

Dikehaugen offers a different low tech path. Like Artidshus, Yashar Hanstad’s home, and Frederik Lund’s holiday house, this project has been an attempt to express, what I find is the most important  concern - techtonics; to find solutions where architectural design works and interacts with construction and materials. My ambition is to build special homes for normal people, houses with breathing constructions, a healthy indoor climate and good living space, in all aspects thought through and well designed with attention to details, homes which in these ways make both the architect and the owner happy.

August Schmidt runs his own practice Arkitekt August Schmidt and teaches within the architecture dept at NTNU. August can be contacted here mail@arkitektaugust.no