Internationally acclaimed Finnish wood architecture increases appreciation and market for wood construction

Finland is known around the world for its high-quality wood architecture. Today’s Finnish wood architecture has its roots in the minds of internationally renowned Finnish architects and draws inspiration from nature. High-quality wood architecture is a significant facilitator in increasing the appreciation and market for wood construction and growing its reputation. Finnish architecture’s success story has always been associated with its close connections with nature and tradition. New industrial wood construction products, prefabrication and new wood construction materials have also increased the interest of architects in the possibilities of wood and in modern wood architecture.

Increasing numbers of the young generation of Finnish architects are interested in wood construction and believe it gives Finnish wood architecture a distinctive identity. According to architect Emma Johansson, who is interviewed in this article, the respect for nature and the human touch of wood architecture may be strengthening the international appeal of Finnish architecture.

Since the outdoor experiences of Lapland, the lake district and the archipelago are what Finland is known for as a travel destination, construction for tourism must be in harmony with the peace and sanctity of nature.

Wood architecture creates a good environment

Architect Emma Johansson’s close relationship with wood construction was roused while studying architecture at the University of Oulu. – The Oulu tradition includes a respect for locality and the human touch. We were raised with the use of wood, rather than it being a conscious choice. After completing my studies and starting work as an independent architect, using wood felt like an obvious starting point.

Emma Johansson, who works as a member of Studio Puisto in Helsinki, believes that Finnish designers can distinguish themselves with wood architecture and wood construction expertise and leverage the Finnish expertise brand to export products and know-how. – The Finnish way of using wood, which respects nature and has a human touch, could also increase the international appeal of Finnish architecture.

– Finnish design can forge its own path through a respectful attitude towards the environment, place and people. This approach can be woven into the entire design, helping Finnish wood architecture establish an identity with long cultural roots.

In Johansson’s view, good architecture provides human-centric surroundings and allows for the use of wood in one way or another in all everyday construction. “We have ended up using wood in many sites in order to create a good living environment for people. For us, wood architecture is a tool for bringing a human element into construction to increase well-being.

– Good architecture creates a holistic environment, not just individual construction solutions. For example, this is already evident in completed sheltered housing and school construction projects, where a good environment for people to live and thrive has been the design’s goal from the start. This means that well-being is the value that guides us when we begin the design work.

Studio Puisto is currently working on a commission from the Housing Finance and Development Centre (ARA) to design a modern concept for senior housing for the elderly. – We first considered what makes people happy, and then began to construct a surrounding environment that highlights functionality and sociability. A connection with nature also leads us to what is good for people.

Tourism construction that respects the experience of nature

Established in 2014, Studio Puisto is an architecture office with 16 people. It received an award for its design of the Niemenharju Tourist Centre for Pihtipudas. Wood solutions were also used in the Arctic TreeHouse hotel, built, and still expanding, on the arctic circle near Rovaniemi and in the architecture and interior design of the Anttolanhovi Art&Design Villa.

– Tourist destinations are challenging and gratifying sites that require more discussions about the starting point and values of design than usual. We need to know what is to be done, for whom and why.

Johansson particularly highlights the Asian tourists coming to Finland looking for experiences with nature in Lapland, the Finnish lake district and the archipelago. – Tourism construction cannot conflict with this objective. Since the true experience of nature comes from its peace and sanctity, construction must also align with these values.

– We do not need to artificially replicate something we already have in nature. There is no need to imitate others and look elsewhere for ideas when nature is such a strong presence in our lives. It may be that this is so self-evident that we do not always see it ourselves.

According to Johansson, wood was selected as the only material for the Niemenharju Tourist Centre from the very beginning of the project. – Right from the start, we brought all the stakeholders together and started looking for solutions through discussions. For example, it is much easier to approach a new site when we know the policies of the fire authorities and the expertise of structural engineers.

– We are fortunate because customers know when they choose us that they will get a wood building. The choice of materials is not questioned.

Towards economically sustainable construction

Johansson believes the biggest challenge for wood construction from a designer’s perspective is that there are very few databases available with information comparing different materials. – When making the argument for selecting wood, it would be good to be able to use databases on issues such as carbon emissions. 

– We aim for economically sustainable construction. When we consider how much money we have committed to the built environment, the investment must be managed well and for the long term. Finnish construction culture is unfortunately focused on the short term, when it should have a hundred year sustainability approach.

When it comes to construction materials, Johansson is of the opinion that what happens at the end of the material’s life cycle is essential. – I think that the interwoven use of different materials is an obvious starting point in all construction. Each material should be used in the right place given its properties. Wood has positive properties: it is a rational and cost-effective material that thrives on its own and also adds value to concrete construction.

– The building stock is not only an economic investment, it is also a carbon bank that binds carbon in the built environment for a long time. Our message to customers is that an investment in choosing sustainable construction is a good investment in the future, in marketing for commercial construction, and in building an image. We try to discuss scoring these values and finding lasting solutions with customers.

– For example, environmentally friendly construction, energy efficiency, the reuse of materials and their recycling all affect sustainability. From a social sustainability point of view, the environment and spaces designed for tourist user groups have a direct impact on business value.

According to Johansson, the shift to environmentally sustainable construction will not occur very quickly if driven by the market. – There is still a need for regulations and legislation to nudge change in the right direction. Instead of competing only on location and price, it would be great if a big company would take ownership of sustainable construction and begin to sell quality that places the customers first.

– The discussion on housing and construction should include the values of well-being and health. Here too, there are many research-based facts available.

Values as a design tool

Johansson regards wood construction as competitive when all factors are considered. For example, solutions using space elements can be extremely cost-effective because of the potential for replication. – All our wood construction sites have been cost effective. In addition to affordability, we have achieved superior end results for customers by using our values as a tool from the very beginning of the design.

– Wood construction is fast since there is no drying time to consider. We have often stressed moisture management and other construction time risk management to customers. Although humidity and mould problems are discussed a lot, it seems that customers still do not know enough about them.

Johansson says that holistic construction management and risk analysis are indispensable. “As designers, we sometimes feel like we are trespassing on a construction consultant’s turf because we are giving opinions on the contracting approach and looking at the entire construction phase.

Johansson believes that common standards will evolve for wood construction in future. – From a design viewpoint, the greatest benefit will be for large sites such as large-scale industrial apartment buildings. However, we have also leveraged the advantages of space element construction for customised sites. We are able to work within the current system as well, because everyone has their own skills and different ways of doing things.

This article is part of a series by Markku Laukkanen and Mikko Viljakainen. The series presents a variety of best practices and trends in the Finnish wood industry. The aim is to spread information about best practices and solutions in the Finnish wood industry to increase its competitiveness and make Finnish expertise more widely known. The articles will be published in Finnish and in English. They will be made freely available for use as source material and for publication as they are. The articles will be distributed as Puuinfo newsletters and will also be published on the puuinfo.fi and woodproducts.fi websites. The article series is funded by the Ministry of the Environment’s Wood Construction Operational Program.