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  • Kivi Sotamaa

The New Possibilities of Wood in Architecture

Digital design and fabrication techniques in combination with materials such as cross laminated timber are opening up new possibilities for architectural experience. The combination of wood, an ancient and sustainable material for construction, with contemporary digital design and fabrication methods enables the creation of aesthetically novel buildings that are terrific to live in.

The Meteorite. Private residence made of CLT under construction in Finland.

Beautiful Buildings, Which Are Healthy To Live In

Digitally conceived wood architecture can represent the best of the two worlds; traditional building materials and techniques with contemporary design and manufacturing. Digitally created buildings come with all the traditional benefits of wood. They are structurally sound, sustainable to build and healthy to live in. In combination with digital fabrication they also enable flexible creation of unique and exciting structures, which respond to peoples’ dreams. The digitalization of wood construction can unleash an unprecedented variety of aesthetically novel buildings.

Holistic Rethinking for Wood in Architecture

Past five years we have explored the new experiential possibilities that digital design and manufacturing offer when combined with wood in the context of living. Based out of our studio in Helsinki, we have designed homes, which use ingenuity, digital technology and wood to create architecture for good life, which is affordable and buildable. 

In designing these buildings we have attempted to holistically address and rethink all of aspects of a wooden house; its aesthetics, atmosphere, social and political space, figure ground relationship, part to whole relationships, relationship to context, repetition and variation within a community, building physics, technical systems, manufacturing logistics, construction, circular economies, maintenance and life cycle management.

The Misfit - A Strategy Perfect for Wood

Designing with digitally manufactured wood, such as cross laminated timber (CLT) necessitates new architectural design strategies, which make the most out of the material and the manufacturing process. The Meteorite, which has been featured in the images above, is an example of such a strategy. It is a three story residential building currently under construction, made solely of cross laminated timber. 

Its design is based on a contemporary organisational strategy, which I have nicknamed the misfit. In the misfit there are two formal systems which generate an inbetween space called the poche. The air in the poche acts as insulation for the building and in addition it contains inbuilt storage as well as all technical systems, which can be easily accessed and maintained. Aesthetically the misfit strategy allows for the creation of a large scale monolithic form on the outside, which addresses the scale of the forest, and an intricate human scale spatial arrangement on the interior.

New Aesthetics And With It, New Social And Political Spaces

Honorable mention entry to the Helsinki Guggenheim architectural competition by Ateljé Sotamaa in collaboration with Antti Ahlava and Fredrik Lindberg.

Aesthetics is often simply considered synonymous with beauty. However, aesthetic philosophy deals with our relationship to objects in all of its complexity. The aesthetics of a building have powerful impact on how people feel and behave in the world. This is what the term social or political space in architecture means. Aesthetics in wood architecture is not a frivolous issue but key to its future role in our culture and society. In order for wood architecture to succeed, it cannot be based on the logic of 1950's concrete element construction, but has to develop its own, new and original expression.

Our entry to the Helsinki Guggenheim competition, entitled Kissing Helsinki, is an example of the search for a new aesthetic for wood architecture. The formal sensibility of the design is based on boat making. The fluid aquatic sensibility of the forms was created to contextualize the design to its location in a harbor, and to create a new dynamic social and political space in the intersection of urban flows on the site. Our ambition was to create aesthetically new, inherently dynamic, urban architecture from wood.

Sustainable Hedonism

One of the best ways of impacting climate change is to affect peoples’ behavior by designing attractive alternative lifestyles. The combination of creativity, digital technology and wood can generate hedonistic architecture, which encourages a more sustainable mode of living. Our wood buildings stage exciting relationships to the surrounding forests, lakes and the sea, in order to create an intimate relationship to nature, which makes the inhabitants attuned to the natural flows in the ecosystem.

The Atelier House by Ateljé Sotamaa

The Atelier House is one attempt at creating sustainable hedonism. It is a wooden home built near lake Hvitträsk in Finland - not so much just a prefabricated system as a philosophy for living in nature. It blends into the landscape, integrating nature and technology, and defines new neighborly relations. The Atelier House is our answer to creating affordable dream homes for sustainable living, made purely out of wood.

Customising Design to Dream

Wood and digital processes have introduced a great degree of flexibility into the design and manufacturing process. Today, it is possible to design a detailed Building Information Model (BIM) of a house and then effortlessly modify it based on peoples' dreams. In designing unique versions of the Atelier House for individual families, we start from sketches and then move to editing the prototype BIM model towards the desired configuration. The process allows people to engage in every step of the design process, with the aim of creating affordable bespoke homes, which respond to their dreams.

The Positive Psychological Effects of Nuance and Variation

The logic industrial mass manufacturing inevitably leads to large quantities of simple building components assembled into large series of identical houses. Our designs, which are based on digital processes, represent an alternative approach; a strong architectural idea, which is customized to each individual family, resulting in a community of homes where each house is variation on the theme. The flexible design strategy enables an evolution of the community over time, instead of the execution of a one-time rigid plan, resulting in a richer, more layered collective in the manner of old villages. The resulting community is a collection of nuanced differences, rather than radical differences or monotonous repetition. The psychological experience of the relationship of the individual to the collective is more healthy, integrated and coherent.

Atmosphere & Feelings

Atmosphere, like aesthetics, is an aspect of architecture, which is often overlooked when considering the potentials of wood building. Atmosphere is to architecture what a soundtrack is to a movie. It affects our feelings without us being aware of it. It can be used to reinforce or challenge conventional behavior, suggest new ways of being in the world or simply to nudge towards something desired. Atmosphere can even be used to ‘tell stories’ in the sense of creating moods and experiences, which subliminally correlate with something else in the world. Digitally fabricated wood has unique haptic, acoustic and material qualities, which make it apt for designs whose atmosphere is inherently biomorphic.

The Finnish Pavillion at the Astana World Expo by Ateljé Sotamaa

In our Astana World Expo pavilion we designed five cross laminated timber buildings, which contained distinct interior atmospheres and stories; Clean Energy, Smart City, Pure Water and Excellent Education. In between the five buildings was an interstitial space, which aimed at re-originating the experience of Finland to Astana. The solution was to aesthetically locate the design between the world of natural formations and mathematical geometries in order to reflect a country, which is both technologically advanced and close to nature. The space was also designed to have no instructions for use but filled with opportunity for use, in order to create an experience, which is inherently free and democratic.

Digital Design & Fabrication - Freedom of Expression

Astana World Expo CLT building structural analysis

The digital fabrication of wood elements provides freedom for design and architectural expression. In so doing it also creates wonderful possibilities for people who are looking for alternative modes of living. An example of how the process works: In contemporary digital design a dataset evolves continuously from software to software, from sketching (Maya) to modeling (Rhino), analysis (Rfem), manufacturing (Tekla) and construction (Revit). The Finnish world expo pavilion, for example, was digitally designed in order to optimize the geometries both structurally and architecturally. The architecture evolved in the digital environment eventually resulting in manufacturing files for each element, which were electronically sent directly from our studio to Stora Enso machines in Austria for fabrication.

Astana World Expo CLT buildings under construction

Wood Has a Positive Energy Balance

Heat Sauna by Ateljé Sotamaa

The wood in our projects comes from the Finnish forests, which are always grown back after being cut down. The maintenance of the forest is key to making wood a truly sustainable material for construction. Wood is in principle a sustainable building material with a positive energy balance, meaning that a wood product restores energy more than the manufacturing process takes. The restored solar energy is utilized, for example, in the end of the product life cycle for heating and electricity production.

Wood absorbs carbon dioxide during a photosynthesis turning it in to carbon (C) and oxygen (O²). Wood restores the carbon and releases the oxygen back to the atmosphere. At the moment, forests have a capacity of a billion solid cubic meters (a solid cubic meter ≈ 1 m³) ready for use. After the manufacturing process, a cubic meter of CLT slabs contain 676 kg carbon dioxide. The Meteorite, for example, contains 59 488kg on carbon dioxide.

CLT Element manufacturing at Hoisko CLT in Finland

Low Carbon Footprint Assembly and Construction

The challenge inherent in complex architectural designs, which are based on large quantities of formally unique elements is the logistics of assembly. A crucial skillset both for the architect and the manufacturer is the numbering, packing and transportation of the elements. In the near future, Augmented Reality (AR) will become the method for viewing construction instruction in three dimensions on the site. When the pieces are in order on site and instructions clear, the assembly of the three dimensional puzzle can happen swiftly and efficiently saving energy and resources when compared with conventional construction processes.

Lahden Puurakentajat assembling the CLT crust of the Meteorite

Traditional Timber Construction as a Cutting Edge Technology

Cross laminated timber is by no means the only exciting wood building product. Even traditional log construction is still a viable and in a sense a cutting edge technology. Buildings made of solid timber logs are great to live in due to the air quality, they are sustainable to manufacture, and most interestingly, they can easily be disassembled, moved, and then reassembled again on another site. Logs are like sustainable Legos, which can be reused time and again in the spirit of circular economy. 

Kehla cottage. Small vacation house constructed with traditional Finnish and Swiss wood building techniques from timber grown on the site. Designed by Ateljé Sotamaa for a private client.

The Kehla cottage was an experiment and a learning experience is designing a small vacation house using traditional methods of timber construction, and logs grown right on the building site. All details, including foundations and wooden gutters where built using traditional techniques by a Swiss and German craftsman. The result is a simple, exquisitely executed, and materially beautiful house, which could easily be disassembled and moved to another location.

The Future - Better and More Beautiful Ways of Living

In many ways, wood is one of the most exciting materials to work with today, and if forests are managed well, it can help fight climate change. However, it isn’t enough to consider wood simply as material for construction. It is necessary to holistically address all of the things that architecture deals with, including issues such as aesthetics and atmosphere, in order to make the most of the new opportunities wood affords. Innovative wood architecture is not only sustainable to build, but it can offer people better and more beautiful ways of living.

Blast from the past: Jyväskylä Music and Art Centre Competition proposal from 1997. Kivi Sotamaa & Johan Bettum with Ocean North team. Model view of the wooden spaceframe structure, which animates the public atrium of the building. The photo is from a 2004 model built by Michael Hensel and his students at the AA School of Architecture for the Venice Biennale. The project is in the collections of the CCA Canadian Centre for Architecture. The 2004 model is in the collections of the Frac Centre for Architecture.


About the Author: Kivi Sotamaa, Founding Partner, Ateljé Sotamaa

Based out of our studio in Helsinki, we create buildings, spaces, objects, infrastructure and artworks. We use ingenuity and digital technology to design projects that are unique, affordable and buildable.

We believe that architectural environments must appeal to our emotions, and seduce us into exploring new ways of being in the world. We combine experiential design with criticality and responsibility.


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