New Directions in Wood
Long Spans and New Products
The most spectacular development in wood construction in the twentieth century was the invention of glued-laminated timber (or girders consisting of pieces of wood stuck together in various ways) which represented a huge advance in terms of bridging wide spans.
New connecting methods, especially the nailboard method developed in the United States, brought about improvements in the assembly of individual pieces of wood and led to the development of new types of joint with better load-bearing capabilities.
Recently, trends have developed alongside the established construction techniques, which are all based on the natural rod-like shape of wood.
These trends are based on the desire to standardize wood as a material, ironing out its variable characteristics (such as its expansion and contraction and its nonuniformity of structure) in order to simplify the business of calculating and handling.
This trend, which could be dubbed "homogenization," is not a new thing in itself. in ancient Egypt there were attempts to modify the characteristics of wood by cutting it into very thin panels which were glued together crosswise or onto a solid support material.
For centuries this method was used only for marquetry and furniture. Now the range of glued panels available has expanded considerably, encompassing new types of chipboard and particleboard. Another advantage of this type of system is that lower-quality wood can be used in the production of the panels.
With the panel construction method, the load is borne not by individual posts but by whole panels, which only need to be reinforced against buckling. Wood can withstand very large pressures and so these panels only have to be a few centimeters thick in order to bear the load of a whole house. However, the panels have to be prefabricated in specialist workshops.
The Lappish Civic Center
For the Lapps, the far reaches of the Scandinavian outback are not a romantic option but a grueling way of life. The Lapps (or Sami, as they call themselves) are traditionally an itinerant people, wandering the most northerly reaches of Scandinavia.
Bjerk & Byorge's civic center at Karasjok, the Lapps' Norwegian capital, provides them with a meeting and trading base and, while their new parliament building is being constructed, a temporary political center.
Karasjok is high in the arctic circle, and conditions are extreme. For two months in midwinter the sun does not rise above the horizon. In the perpetual dark, temperatures can drop as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees centigrade). High summer, in contrast, brings constant sunshine and comparative warmth — typically 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees centigrade).
Building in these conditions is, of course, difficult; construction must be swift to achieve enclosure before the onset of winter, and materials have to be both durable and able to withstand the temperature fluctuations. For both reasons, says architect Eilif Bjorge, the partnership chose to design the civic center entirely in wood. Sited on the outskirts of the settlement, the C-shaped complex of buildings defines the edge of the open market square.
The main elevation faces the square and is marked by a curved canopy which is cantilevered off wood columns, creating a sense of welcome at the same time as affording real protection from the elements.
Inside, the building features a continuous wide concourse. Opening onto it are workshops and outlets used by Lappish craftsmen to make and sell their silver, textiles, knives, and stonework. At the east end of the building is a cafe and the auditorium or lavvu, currently used as the seat of the Lappish parliament.
Bjorge wanted to use local pine, from forests in the Karasjok area, but Scandinavian pine proved cheaper. The roof structure is of laminated wood, clad in silver-colored aluminum and zinc.
The structure of the walls is left exposed and the cladding treated in a light wood tar that helps protect it from the ravages of winter and gives the building a fragrant smell in summer. This dark coloring contrasts with the external canopy, which is treated in a clearwood oil.
The client, the municipality of Karasjok, initially asked for a building in Lappish style when they commissioned Bjerk & Bjorge. Some of the windows are picked out in red, yellow, and blue: the Lappish colors. Beyond this, however, little attempt has been made to give the building a traditional appearance.
Bjorge successfully argued that there is no real tradition of Lappish building. In nomadic culture what matters, he says, is not so much how buildings are constructed, as how the land is used.
The civic center provides them with a facility that, opening up in a grand sweeping curve towards the land, relates to the landscape that is their heritage, uses traditional building materials, and provides them with the spaces necessary to continue their indigenous crafts.
The Search for a New Form
Contemporary architects are exploring a new design world with wood architecture. In many cases, we can see traditional wood construction methods and typologies returning, in new forms made possible by technological advances. Traditional wood building methods are generating increased interest and are set to grow in importance.
On the technical side, the current challenges are to reduce energy consumption in both the construction and the operation of buildings, particularly in temperate and cold regions of the globe.
No-energy and low-energy houses and sustainable buildings are just a few of the innovations that are forcing their way to the forefront of design. Thanks to their ecological advantages, their outstanding capacity for natural air conditioning, and their excellent ability to insulate, wooden buildings will clearly have a large part to play in these trends.
There is no reason, therefore, to regard the current interest in building with wood as just a passing phase, in fact it is quite the reverse: wood architecture is here to stay.
Naomi Stungo is an architecture writer based in London. She has written for numerous magazines and newspapers, including Blueprint and The Observer. She now writes for World Architecture magazine.
This article is excerpted from Wood : New Directions in Design and Architecture, copyright © 2002, available from Chronicle Books and Amazon.com.