Wood adds flair to residential areas

In Turku, the modern wooden apartment building area of Linnanfältti is closely connected to the area of old wooden houses in Port Arthur.

The peripheries and surrounding municipalities of major cities are now drawing in new residents. There is even talk of a new so-called “Nurmijärvi phenomenon”, as they called the move to the surroundings of Greater Helsinki in the early 2000s. For wood construction, the pull of the surrounding suburbs opens up new possibilities.

Text: Anne Soininen | Photographs : Puuinfo, Timbeco, Susa Junnola/Helsingin kaupunki

Read the article in Finnish: Puu tuo persoonallisuutta pientaloalueille

In recent years, Finland has invested heavily in supplemental and high-rise construction in city centres. A record number of apartments were built in Helsinki in 2020 – similar numbers were last seen in the 1960s. Of the new apartments, 58 percent were studios and one-bedroom apartments.

According to a forecast published last summer by the regional development consultancy MDI, Finland’s urbanisation will continue. The Helsinki metropolitan area and other university cities, in particular, will continue to grow.

In addition, municipalities around larger cities and popular tourist and summer cottage towns are attracting new inhabitants. The Covid-19 pandemic and a general increase in remote working have led to a desire for more spacious homes, which has inspired many to move to more sparsely populated areas.

The so-called Nurmijärvi phenomenon, with its increased commuting to big cities from surrounding municipalities, also increases the opportunities for wood construction. Markku Norvasuo, a researcher and associate professor at the University of Tampere, has studied the regional significance and modernisation potential of wood construction.

– Wood’s strength lies in its flexibility: it can be used to make areas of varying heights that are still human in size, so to speak. A good example of this is Helsinki’s Kuninkaantammi district, says Norvasuo.

Increasing density in single-family residential areas

There is also significant interest in detached, semi-detached, and row houses in the Helsinki region. In recent years, Helsinki has drawn up only a few new plans for such low-rise housing areas. On the other hand, some of the already planned plots are still unbuilt, says architect Johanna Mutanen from the City of Helsinki’s Urban Environment division.

– In the Helsinki Master Plan 2016, the most common housing area type is A4, which means detached/semi-detached/row house areas with a maximum building efficiency of e = 0.4. In total, these areas make up a significantly sized portion of Helsinki.

According to Mutanen, the big question is how to best approach this efficiency. Mutanen notes that this is not a problem with new, unconstructed plots: they can be made efficient with sufficiently specific zoning regulations and site marking, which can also ensure sufficient garden areas.

– The best way to proceed with existing low-rise residential areas is still up for debate. Namely, efficiency on one plot can restrict the construction potential of neighbouring plots. The issue is also important at a social interaction level and is known to raise eyebrows among existing residents.

Wood’s positive image

Wood has many strengths in small-scale construction and supplemental construction, and in the refurbishment of suburban areas and their older suburbs.

Wood construction generally evokes positive emotions. According to the Puuta näkyvissä (Visible wood) research project led by Markku Norvasuo, residents regard wooden buildings as more beautiful and environmentally friendly and as having better indoor air than those built with other materials.

– A wooden facade, whether it be logs or board cladding, shows the characteristic surface structures of wood. A wooden surface has a friendly appeal and is pleasant to the touch. Wood brings life to a courtyard and ties it together, says Norvasuo.

Wooden buildings can add new, interesting contrasts to neighbourhoods where every building has wound up looking the same.

– Single-family homes are typically built using prefabricated house models, but wood would be good for designing more cohesive, individual, and dense areas with better efficiency.

Wood suits dense construction

According to Norvasuo, wood construction could bring back the concept of low and dense construction that also gave wood construction a boost, especially during the first Nurmijärvi phenomenon in the early 2000s.

The concept’s main principles are a dense layout and a low building height. The houses all have a maximum of three-storeys. Each area should also have a distinctive look and identity.

Dense, low-rise, down-to-earth housing was promoted in a government program throughout Finland and led to several projects, including the areas of Länsiranta in Porvoo, Lehtovuori in Helsinki’s Konala and Karisto in Lahti. The Linnanfält wooden apartment building area in Turku also has its roots in a Governmentapproved wood construction promotion program from 2004.

Of course, there are numerous other ways of constructing with wood. According to Norvasuo, the townhouses of the Netherlands and Denmark, which are single-family urban houses connected side-by-side, would be a good fit for the small and dense residential areas of Finnish cities.

– There are a few townhouses in Finland, too, but the share of wood in their construction could be increased. With the influx of wooden apartment buildings, wood is now giving other materials a run for their money. The traditional strengths and versatility of wood can be of particular value in the current situation.

The article has been published in October 2021 in Wood magazine 2/2021.