Photo – Sindri Ellingsen (also all photos below, unless stated otherwise)

Norwegian Wood's Alpine Silicon Valley connection

Stavanger, Norway's oil city is also home to the country's most committed timber architectural studio, Helen & Hard. One half of its founding partnership, Reinhard Kropf, just happens to be Austrian, and has brought in Hermann Blumer to support the engineering of their projects, their Finance Park, being a recent high-profile example. Would it have happened without their Alpine connection, though?

Make an architectural journey through Norway’s larger and medium sized Atlantic coastal cities and one feature becomes clear. Though many contain historical wood districts and buildings, such as Bergen’s UNESCO protected wharf waterfront, Norwegian wood is thin on the ground when it comes to present day cityscapes, whether it is Tromsø or Trondheim, Kristiansand or Stavanger. As in the vast majority of cities, the horizon is dominated by concrete, plus brick, steel and glass as 20th century runners up. Norwegian wood, as far as the present day is concerned, it turns out, is largely a mythological beast.

Finance Park under construction, with Bjergsted Park in the right-hand side
background – Drone photo – 3D4D Drones

This situation, however, seems finally to be changing. Though serial false dawns have risen on Norway’s wood world, a groundswell of at-scale timber projects, engaging construction and forest industries, and supported by national and regional government, has been coalescing into something more substantive than the earlier episodic waves. That this is happening at last, spurred on by the game-changing arrival of CLT (cross-laminated timber), is perhaps not as surprising as just how long the change has been in coming. There are other surprises in Norway’s contemporary timber story, though, one of which also reveals something about the country’s commitment and interest - and lack of interest - in the future of timber.

This story centres on Stavanger, paradoxically the city most closely entwined with the industry that has influenced the last fifty years of Norway's construction culture; oil, and more specifically, the sector which has most fully supported and serviced the oil platform construction boom, concrete. It is out of this somewhat under-inspiring backdrop that Helen & Hard Architects (H&H) have emerged, adding year-on-year to a spectrum of exciting, provocative, and increasingly influential timber projects. The surprise here isn't Stavanger as such, but that this roll-out of timber project after project features a quite serious Alpine- tinged dimension, so that when the history books get written on the return of Norwegian wood in the 21st century, there'll need to be discussion of just quite how Norwegian it was.

Helen & Hard – some of the team, including Reinhard
Kropf (second left) and Siv Helene Stangeland
(second right.)

It is Helen and Hard’s Austrian-born Reinhard Kropf (the Hard in H&H) who represents the core connection, but a new chapter began with the arrival of Hermann Blumer, the Swiss timber engineer into H&H’s circle of collaborators. If, as one-time studio architect, Peter Feltendal noted, “Helen & Hard’s work is difficult to imagine without the central European connection”, the umbilical Alpine link has been more explicitly underlined by the opening of H&H’s latest timber showcase, Finance Park. The building, just outside Stavanger’s city centre, highlights timber’s journey into the Norwegian mainstream. While not the first, Finance Park is the most ambitious of the post and beam skeleton timber structures that the studio has tackled thus far. Though some predate HHA’s partnership with Blumer and his Création Holz timber engineering office, Kropf is adamant that the project wouldn’t have happened without Blumer, underscoring again the Alpine connection and influence.

A crisp piece of corporate office architecture, the Finance Park project demonstrates how timber can be effortlessly tuned to the mainstream. The building is a new headquarters for Spare-Banken, a 180-year old regional Stavanger bank, which in recent years had turned into a national operation. In the aftermath of this recent growth, a showcase HQ was proposed, to bring the total staff complement of 650 under a single roof, from three previously separate sites. Situated on the city’s north side, in the Bjergsted Park district, the seven storey Finance Park is the result. Set on the site of an old car park to the nearby city concert hall, the V-winged building negotiates a sloping timber house-lined hillside to its southern edge, down to a main road, and to the immediate north, the local Bjergsted Park, hence the project’s title. The hillside varies the office’s height, two sizeable storeys, where it meets the ridges small houses, the full seven floors set against the main road and larger old bank office buildings opposite. Surrounding trees have survived the construction, two ash trees being moved and replanted 50m further up the hill.

Photo – Sindre Ellingsen (also all photos below,
unless stated otherwise)

Project architect, Njål Undheim, began on Finance Park after HHA, together with the SAAHA Architects, won the limited competition in 2014. On-site work beginning in October 2016 was followed by a further 18 months from when the timber post and beam system began going up in March 2018. From outside, the building, despite the ground floor-to ceiling glazing presenting the glulam post and beam interior to pedestrian passers-by, doesn’t fully show off its timber credentials. Taut rows of black 42cm fins run the lengths of the 80m outward facing V-winged facades, fitted with a Schüco CTB (concealed toughened blind) micro-louvre passive solar shading system. To the back of building, problems emerged during early groundwork and consequently the car park entrance required slimming the corners down as much as technically possible, while pulling in the cantilever overhang.

“We played with the concept of the hard, crystalline exterior also inside the organic design” says Undheim, of the overall building concept, when he showed me round late in 2019, during a brief visit I made to Stavanger. From certain perspectives, the structure feels akin to a dark expressionist crystal. At the inside end of the winged V, the open landscaped square slips down to the main entrance and foyer area. High above is a slanted glazed roof to let light in. Cross the entrance threshold and once inside, the timber comes into its own, as does Blumer’s presence and influence on the building.

For those who already know Blumer’s work, once inside the timber joints and details will feel familiar. Beyond the foyer entrance, the ground corridor runs the length of the building, large glulam timber columns and beams holding the roadside face of the seven-floor building - immediately recognisable and reminiscent as they are Blumer’s signature structural system, which already debuted to striking effect with Shigeru Ban’s Tamedia HQ – see the accompanying feature on the project here - in downtown Zurich. For Njål, the structure extends and expands on Blumer’s Tamedia post and beam system, including the seemingly over-size  dowels, rather than the usual conventional steel node connectors specified across the industry, though for Finance Park the dowels are somewhat smaller than with Tamedia.

Left two - The foyer and atrium entrance area - Right three- The two-dowel version of the hybrid beech and spruce connector system developed by Herman Blumer

The raised atrium, sitting on an expanded plinth, is open and airy, with a sizeable restaurant tucked off to the left, inside the glass security entrance. Light streaming onto the concourse, through the glazed entrance, underscores the sense of democratic openness, so much part of the Nordic model for institutional and office typologies. As it is, the building has been part of a broader organisational relaunch for Spare-Banken, embracing current business working orthodoxies, with hot-desking and small break out meeting spaces lodged across the floors. There are, I am told, still 1.7 chairs for every employee.

The body of the building sits on four concrete cores rising up from the underground facilities and car parking, between them holding three emergency stairwells and the elevators. These are discreet, background presences compared to the upfront timber, which, as you step into the larger internal atrium, explodes with the drama of the dazzling staircase array, almost as if someone just announced ‘showtime’. Indeed, H&H play to a theatrical designer’s sensibility that can pull at people’s heartstrings. Stepping into recent projects, such as Vennesla’s library or the Flekkefjord Art Centre can stop you in your tracks. The Finance Park is no exception.

Main atrium foyer and upper floors

The four staircases, two from each side doubling as walkway bridges between the wings, climb and curve upwards and amplify the expressionistic organicism of the wavy ceiling panels above the ground floor corridors. “We struggled a lot with the stairs,” says Njål. Veidekke, one of Norway’s large building companies, and the contractor, at first said they couldn’t be built without columns, which meant reworking the complicated piece of timber design, says Undheim, eventually smoothing out the problems after serial delays, which also stalled the 6 tonnes of BauBuche timber lattice joining and stabilising the two structural wings, and sits high above the atrium.

Resolved, both staircases and the roof’s sloping lattice of glulam joints helped H&H’s Oslo engineers, Degree of Freedom (running the statics figures and calculations) in stabilising the two wings and roof. The spectacular-looking staircases brought on other practical consequences too: apparently, the elevators are hardly used at all.

For Reinhard Kropf, Blumer’s contribution has been inestimable. These include the special dowel joints connecting beams to columns. “It’s a bionic approach,” he says when I talk with him over Skype some weeks after visiting Stavanger in December 2019. But Blumer’s involvement is also an invaluable card to be holding for the right moments. “He’s extremely experienced in doing the right thing at the right time, helping convincing clients to go for timber. Without him and the structural systems he has established this sort of design wouldn’t have happened.”

Left Photo - 3D4D Drones - Right - Raising a section, one at a time - Jan Inge Haga

Unlike most timber buildings Blumer’s system requires a section by section, rather than floor by floor, construction programme, beginning with the facades and roof, with the façade shade mounting running in parallel. Different engineered timbers demonstrate technically how applying a mix of materials to make for an efficient structure. This included Glulam for the staircase from German manufacturer, Hess Timber, near Frankfurt, the remainder supplied by the Norwegian manufacturer, Moelven, to make up the chunky post and beam system. Pictures of the dowels being malleted into place give an indication of the sheer size. The beams include a wavy curve, with lighting sitting in ridge and furrows. All told, 1900 m2 of CLT has been hidden away in floor and ceiling plates, with much of the services, including ventilation ducts, hidden inside the timber, on the third floor, diffusing the ventilation. BauBuche LVL (laminated veneer lumber), increasingly popular among architects because of hardwood birch’s strength, reduces the size of timber needed, with 600m2 of the thinner, more compact panels used. “The BauBuche prevents the size being too huge, it is double the strength of glulam, also used to strengthen the connections” notes Njål - the whole façade system with the LVL inside and the aluminium profile fastening to the glass. There is also 8000 m2 of ash for the exposed ceilings, in all 3600m3 of timber, representing, according to the publicity 2750 carbon tonnes as part of a LCA - conducted by Niras, but without any information on the methodology used - sitting in the timber. Much of the wood is UV protected or otherwise non-toxic, although the ceilings are fire-protected, a requirement of insurance approval.

Timber pegs for the beam connectors being
hammered home – Photos Jan Inge Haga

On most of the floors the low-level floor to ceiling heights are not particularly generous, so where double heights come into play enabled by the sloping roof and combined with open windows, these seem the most open and airy parts of the working spaces. There are hived off areas for casual meetings, plus more formal meeting rooms. 90% of the furniture was produced in Norway, including wooden tables from Eikund, a local furniture maker from Eggerud. Sustainability and energy performance measures include 24 thermal heat wells burrowed 250 metres into the ground, partially to assist cooling the data-centre sitting in the bowels underneath the ground level. Heat by the data centre (particularly in sending data to a mirror data centre up in the mountains outside Stavanger) is redirected into warming the building, around 25% of solar energy and 40% heat. Likewise the CTB micro-louvre solar shading further underscores its eco-credentials, with the project targeting BREEAM-Nor Energy + (rather than A Plus Energy.)

Einkund's locally made chairs and table (left, and right) the top floor under construction
– Photos Einkund (left, and right) and Helen & Hard

For Undheim, one of the most gratifying outcomes is the client’s positive response. “The bank staff really like the building. The clients are really pleased. They think this is the future.” At first cautious about committing to timber, various factors helped them accept the risk levels and draw them across the line. A full-scale mock-up of the Blumer system demonstrated that the structural system worked, acting as a physical rejoinder to the contractors who’d submitted higher quotes for the additional work they claimed would be needed. The model also demonstrated that the timber system could compete with steel and concrete cost-wise, and then Blumer’s active involvement and experience was a confidence builder. Kropf: “Blumer contributed a lot in the Spare-Bank. Not so much in its evolution, but producing the strategic purpose of the client, and the building companies, for the programme.” A visit to Tamedia in Zurich, Switzerland, also helped the persuasion process, as was understanding the fire-risk, how timber is generally safer than steel, burning slowly rather than melting suddenly and quickly, and liable to collapsing. Not that the cost, 650 NoK or about 60 million Euros is exactly minimal.

Both Finance Park's ambition and cost has scared some interested visitors away, and all those involved in the construction don't expect to turn a profit on the project; they committed to the build because of the showcase value of the Finance Park being part of their portfolios. HHA are working on an already design second office building in Oslo to a considerably lower budget, including exposed CLT, with the aim of demonstrating that the type of timber design can compete with steel and concrete, in what is still a concrete building culture.

Herman Blumer and Helen & Hard's digitally reversioned tree, Ratotask, in the V & A 's courtyard
– Photos Huber and Helen & Hard

For Kropf, the presence of Blumer was crucial. "The earlier projects use the same structures but are more practical and tectonic – along with organic expression. With this project we could really elaborate and find a technical realisation."

The studio and Blumer first met while H&H were working on the Victoria & Albert Museum 1.1 exhibition contribution. Their piece was the reworking a tree – which piqued Blumer tech curiosity - with CNC technology (computer numerical control) which had made the piece possible, in effect joining the tree back together again. He makes what sounds like an extravagant comparison: Frei Otto. I ask him if he really means that. “Absolutely. He’s opened many doors to think about timber structures in a new way.” Blumer, Kropf continues, is an influential part of the revolution in timber that has been unfolding since the millennium years. CLT may be its high-profile centre of attention, and the arrival of tall timber its most commercial and populist calling card, but long before CLT, Blumer had developed and invented numerous timber systems lighting a way, including the Lignatur box beam system, and different timber connections like Blumer’s BSB system, including the Création Holz approach skeleton construction that, Kropf notes “really stood up. From my personal viewpoint he’s the type of engineer that really has been a pioneer in material technology.” – see the Blumer profile piece for an in-depth exploration of the engineer’s life and work.

“Blumer” he continues “has been under the radar, and ‘under-communicated.’ He is very grounded - he comes from a carpentry family, and he is the perfect partner for us. He understands the philosophy of what we want to do in architecture.” This includes the organicist aspects of H&H’s work. “Bionic architecture is his hobby,” Kropf observes, before adding that he doesn’t share quite the same level of enthusiasm as Blumer when it comes to Ban’s wilder free-form projects.

Pompidou Metz, WaughThistleton's Whitmore House, and Schwarzach village centre by Hermann Kaufmann – Photos: Shigeru Ban Architects, WaughThistleton and Hermann Kaufmann Architekten/Bruno Klomfar

Kropf believes that several have become clear within the timber revolution, identifying at least three tendencies. First, there is a high-tech timber culture emerging, employing the latest parametric tools, robotics, and CNC machines. He cites some of Shigeru Ban’s free-form work. Then there are increasingly the pragmatic studios focused on mass produced CLT, Michael Green in Canada and London’s WaughThistleton, who are hoovering up projects in the mainstream. Finally, he mentions the Alpine region, architects such as Hermann Kaufmann and Florian Nagler, who have close personal and family connections with, and have emerged out of the regional timber craft traditions, with first-hand knowledge, experience and a subtle understanding of this wood culture, including woodwork and carpentry.

Face On – Hermann Kaufmann, and right Krumbach
Public Centre - Photos - Wikipedia/Roland Wehinger
and Hermann Kaufmann Arkitekten/Adolf Bereuter

For him H&H are fusing all three of these, though also with an added ingredient - organic architecture. “That this fuses in a more intrinsic way, and that it is more than technology.” He recalls how, after giving a talk, where Vorarlberg’s Hermann Kaufmann was moderator, observing that H&H’s work couldn’t be more different than that of the sons (and daughters) of the Bregenzerwald, Vorarlberg’s upland farming and forest region.

For him H&H have learned from all three of these, and also, he notes, have been inspired by the Norwegian boat building tradition, as well as a particular interest in the intrinsic formal and tectonic possibilities of wood and trees. “The exploration and use of these and the integration of the different parts and functions of a building can often lead to unexpected solution and organic interwoven timber structures.”

“What has been happening in the central European Alpine region is unique. There is so much more going on in Austria, Switzerland and Southern Germany than in Scandinavia. It is the silicon valley of timber.” Why though? And why hasn’t the whole of Scandinavia not produced anything comparable? Kropf pauses over the other side of the Skype screen. “Maybe there are several reasons” he responds after a moment’s silence. He cites Norway’s sixties oil rush to begin with, the consequent economic boom, though also, through their influence in the offshore oil rig work, the hold large concrete companies gained, feeding through into the country’s building sector. Next, the absence of a technical powerhouses such as ETH-Zurich or TUM Munich that research in and teach timber architecture anywhere across the expansive – if sparsely populated Nordic European region. “There is nothing like that in the whole of Scandinavia.” He adds that collaboration between timber companies found across central Europe is so much less developed in the Nordic countries.  And then there’s also the geographic density of the Alpine region compared to the much larger but low populations of the Nordic expanses.  

The result is that the level of timber knowledge, let alone the expertise, has been less developed in both Norway and across the Nordic region. “It has been a challenge” he continues, “although recently things have been changing, and an accelerating. Suddenly there are all these projects happening, and timber is coming through.”

Amidst this proliferation of timber projects Kropf notes how H&H “started quite early.” This is professional understatement. Helen & Hard, were the first Norwegian studio to grasp, possibly a mite inadvertently at first, and commit to the potential of a 21st century timber architecture. They can look back at their portfolio and point to having completed a prolific number of timber buildings, ones which, as Kropf himself notes, include pioneering reference projects, and have been influential across the Norwegian scene. There is a strand of this influence which, in some measure, also traces back to Kropf’s non-Norwegian origins. The studio architect, Peter Feltendal (a Dane), who noted that Helen & Hard were unimaginable without the central Europe connection, was right. Today, with the Norwegian timber construction growing exponentially, Helen & Hard are (by way of their most ambitious project to date, Finance Park) injecting Alpine timber expertise more fully into the Nordic conversation. What began almost incidentally has turned into something else; exactly the right time for Kropf, partner Siv Helene Stangeland, the Helen & Hard studio, and Swiss engineer, Blumer; Norwegian wood’s Stavanger cluster, to be feeding timber’s Alpine silicon valley live and direct into the nerve system of Norwegian architecture. 

3D4D Drones