‘Experimental’ housing always tends to stand on the edge of orthodoxy, palely loitering on the periphery. Yet it can also be envisaged as the cutting edge: the first breakers that surge and spill from the progressive wave, pushing on to batter at conventional thinking and received wisdom.
It’s exemplified by a new experimental housing project in Svartlamon, itself an experimental district in the Norwegian city of Trondheim, dedicated to ecology, activism and alternative lifestyles. (There is an annual ‘Eat the Rich’ festival.) Here, Nøysom Arkitekter have built a terrace of five self-build houses, intended to explore how architects can work towards a more mindful, sustainable and economical use of resources – nøysom means frugal in Norwegian. The experiment lies in the pioneering spirit of the project, as much as in its physical form.
‘An architecture that is non-consumptive and calculated at reframing an increasingly dissonant relationship with the environment’
Acting as an armature that can be adapted to individual requirements, the basic house model is a two-storey, timber-framed structure. A flexible stud wall can incorporate assorted reclaimed materials, doors and windows. Visually, the terraced quintet constitutes a riotous bricolage of texture and colour, yet spaces are generous and accommodating, unified by a strong communal ethos.
Literal and metaphorical ideas of frugality encapsulate Nøysom’s vision for an architecture that is non-consumptive and calculated at reframing an increasingly dissonant relationship with the environment. Trygve Ohren, Cathrine Johansen Haanes and Haakon Haanes, who all come from different parts of Norway, met while studying at Trondheim’s Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). The trio started their practice while living in Svartlamon. ‘Self-building and reuse can definitely be one way of improving quality of life without excessive consumption, but it is not a catch-all solution’, says Johansen Haanes. ‘Our approach is to try to uncover the potential that is latent in each project for reducing consumption by raising awareness of how to do things differently.’
The five houses project challenges established political tenets of home ownership that see any kind of dwelling as an economic investment, and a social structure that fetishises the home as a source of stability in old age, contingent on individual attainment during a lifetime. By encouraging self-building and user participation, the cost of a dwelling is reduced to around a quarter of the usual market price. It is the art of the possible.
The project took flight during Nøysom’s student days. While the university was supportive, as in many schools, there was not necessarily a pedagogical focus on 1:1 construction. The project was treated as a thesis, the building permit and loan application applied for in tandem with the thesis, and subsequently built.
Interior from siri and torfinn’s house (3)
Source: Line Anda Dalmar
Self-build in itself is not new, but seems doomed to fail at catching-on as a source of mainstream housing production, ‘disdained by both Right (too little profit) and Left (too much individualism)’, as Charlotte Ellis commented in her criticism of Walter Segal’s famous Lewisham self-build council housing (AR March 1987). The argument goes that such things are not inherently replicable and Svartlamon itself is a privileged environment, designated as an ‘urban ecological trial area’ in 2001, with the express purpose of supporting exactly this kind of project. It is run by a not-forprofit housing association formed of residents and representatives from the municipality, who acted as the client body and funded the five houses project. Some dispensations from the Norwegian building code were permitted to enable the project to chime more closely with the freewheeling spirit of Svartlamon.
Yet Nøysom remain convinced that the self-build model could be adopted beyond such a receptive milieu, emphasising the need to develop formal structures such as economic incentives, regulations and advisory tools that can stimulate and sustain architectural experiments of this kind. ‘If not, we hope that this and similar projects can inspire some different thinking’, says Trygve Ohren,‘so that new models will gradually coalesce into a radical alternative to mass housing production.’
‘By encouraging self-building and user participation, the cost of a dwelling is reduced to around a quarter of the usual market price. It is the art of the possible’
Within Norway, architectural firms managed to escape the recession, so younger people are still being taken on by larger practices and developing their careers. Though this is a fortunate state of affairs, it means that fewer young architects are leaving the corporate comfort zone and intrepidly setting out on their own to change the world. So Nøysom are genuinely exceptional.
Johansen Haanes has just read Braiding Sweetgrass by American environmental biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, which explores what has gone wrong with our relationship with the natural world and how we can mend it. It resonates with Nøysom’s attitude to architecture, that ‘sustaining the earth is not about inventing some sort of new amazing technology, but about respect, reciprocity and using only what you need’.
Lead image: The five houses project in Trondheim, Norway (source: Nøysom Arkitekter)
This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today