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All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of living of the cultures the produce them. It may be adapted or developed over time as needs and circumstances change. – Paul Oliver (Dwellings)
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Vernacular architecture relates to available resources and their environmental context, and they are usually owner- or community- built, using traditional technologies. (Dwellings) There is not a number of how many dwellings there is in the world today, but between 90 and 98% of these buildings are vernacular. Traditional buildings in most parts of the world often reflect the knowledge of a climate, an activity typical of its culture, and a building material, and this is evident in Norway’s architecture. Norwegian wood (16) The know-how and sensibility, the skills and the capability to build successfully in response to the climate, the land, and the resources to hand, have been passed on between generations. (Dwellings) It progressed to meet the requirements of a distinct way of life, and lies integrated into a distinct terrain. Norwegian Wood (15) In contrast to the Mediterranean countries “stone culture”, Norway belongs to a Nordic “wood culture”. Reima Pietila, a Finnish architect, asserted that the vision of Nordic man was a “cave of wood.” The need for a “cave” was for protection against a tough climate. It had to be made of the warm material wood to offer comfort during the long winters, and colourful to make people remember the flowers and the green trees of the summer. Norwegian Wood (7-8) Norway had no urban traditions until the nineteenth century. But from the Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution it had a strong rural class. Norwegian architecture and art were therefore influenced mainly by local sources. Then because of its rural traditions, Norway’s highest accomplishments in both building and art were executed in the same medium: wood. Norwegian Wood (15) Norway’s traditional architecture had a remarkably long history, which began earlier then the Middle Ages. The buildings that developed in Norway are inspirational because they show an intimate marriage between refined techniques and native materials, placed within a distinct landscape. Stave churches in Norway (23) In the wooden acres area of the northern world, the tree provided the Nordic man his building. Norway was a massive forest belt. The upper Europe’s landscape was covered with woodland, and a strong wood-building culture grew from the fifth century. Norwegian Wood (15)
Vernacular architecture in Norway (Log construction)
The Norwegians built well-crafted wooden structures for 800 years, and they developed buildings that were suitable for their activities. The use of similar structures for such a long time was dictated by Norway’s agriculture way of life and the environment. Norway’s traditional architecture is represented by two groups of wooden buildings: farms and stave churches. Norwegian wood (16) There was two technical methods used by the Norwegian builders; the log and stave construction. In the stue (dwelling house) the horizontal logs created a cave of wood; in the stave church the vertical staves made the association to heaven obvious. Norwegian Architecture (50) The farms were skilfully built to suit their specific needs. The pride of each farm was the loft, a two-story building that was used as storage on all traditional Norwegian farms. The best woodworking skills were applied on this structure during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which therefore signified the highest achievement of Norwegian wood-building techniques. The loft’s companion was the stue, the traditional dwelling, which reflected the loft’s character in its advanced log construction. Norwegian wood (17) Norway’s restricted economy up until the seventeenth century made it harder to import building materials other than wood. Wood was plentiful, although the labour required preparing it, transporting it, and shaping it was not. Tough conditions forced the culture to collect a lot of knowledge about their native material. This collection of cultural “wealth” inspired the creative powers of the craftsmen for several generations. Norwegian wood (18) Tradition is the heart of any vernacular. The Norwegian tradition is the great degree of craftsmanship. The Norwegians inherited an understanding about form and proportion from the natural properties of wood. The craftsmen of the Viking ships (ca.900 AD), the stave churches (ca.1200 AD), and the farms (ca.1700 AD) used the same resources, lived on the same land, and constructed the same sorts of structures for centuries. Not unexpectedly, a thoughtful handling of the wood is evident in Norway’s structures. Norwegian wood (19) The rural traditions in Norway continued to be strong well into the nineteenth century, and the farmers continued to stay close to nature. The topology also resulted in comprehensive climatic conditions, which had significant consequences for its building patterns. That Norway is located in north Europe leads to short summer and long winter seasons. The winter could last up to nine months some places; this meant that there were no second chances if one did not pay attention to the elements. Norwegian Architecture (28) I was nearly a life-and-death battle between man and nature in some parts of Norway. In a numerous of places, life was an endless battle against cold, starvation, and disease, a element that steered builders to select their site wisely. Norwegian wood (30) Norwegian craftsmen had a precise awareness of the performance and weathering of the wood. The two building techniques; stave and log construction, have been modified for several building types from culture to culture for a long period of time. In stave construction the builders used vertical planks to make the walls. It was originally fixed to the ground with no supporting frame. They were later raised and positioned on foundation beams. The logs that were notched at the corners were used for log construction, and were horizontally stacked on top of each another. Less wood were necessary on stave buildings than on log buildings, but their walls were thinner and retrained less heat. Log walls were the main construction of the dwelling, the stue, and the storage building, the loft, was constructed with a combination of both stave and log work. The craftsmen chose stave construction to build churches that would rise beyond the tall pine trees and also connect the structure to a rough ground. Norwegian wood (62) Log construction is a quite simple building technique: one log stacked horizontally on top of another offers a robust wall and a solid connection at the corners. The integration of the log technique allowed for tighter and more compact structures. Norwegian Architecture (50) The common use of the log technique, or laft technique as it is known in Norwegian, began in the period after the Viking era. The earliest surviving farm buildings date from this time. A new era of building began after the Black Death, around 1535. During this time, the Reformation in Norway created contact with other European countries; this led to an increase in the Norwegian economy. The wider international communication and trade led to a highpoint of folk and building arts that culminated in the 1700s when log construction reached its highest expression in Norway. Norwegian wood (67) Denmark ceded Norway to Sweden in 1814, and that was the beginning of Norway’s modern history. When the industrial revolution began in the 1840s with the paper and textile industries, farming was already a business, and the agricultural techniques were modernized. But the expanding economy could not keep up with the rapid growth in the population. In the late half of the century, many emigrants, mainly from agricultural communities, left for America. The way of life had then changed, one could not farm on a family scale anymore, and traditional building techniques had been replaced by mass-production processes. Norwegian wood (68)
Norway has always been a lightly populated country, and there were few public structures during the medieval times. The rare exception was the stave church. The stave churches were built between 1030 and 1350. They usually stood unaccompanied against a group of farms and represented the sacred aspect of medieval life. The stave churches of Norway are some of the finest wooden buildings in Europe and are, at the same time, some of the oldest. They express some of the most advanced farming methods preserved in wooden architecture, and it is not shocking that this amount of complexity is apparent in a religious building. The stave churches confirm the extraordinary technology achieved by wooden construction techniques during the Middle Ages.
It is surprising that these structures have lasted for so long, even more surprising when one realizes that most medieval structures left today were constructed in stone. Norwegian wood (17) Norway had no church-building traditions to draw upon when Christianity was introduced in the eleventh century. They had to trust their instinctive and extensive knowledge of the landscape to find a suitable site for these buildings. Norwegian architecture (27)
The stave churches represent the transition that the Norwegian people had in the eleventh-century, they went from pagan and animism worship to Christianity. Norwegian wood (103) The Old Norse building techniques were customized the Christian usage in the stave churches. It received many Romanesque features; the basilica shape is similar with the old Romanesque basilica. The circular arcs wad used in most of the stave churches from the Middle Ages, mainly for construction and décor. The décor could be found on gables, portals and in the interior. The décor were mostly animal ornamentation, interspersed with Christian motifs. Norske stavkirker (19) The appearance of the stave church is unlike anything else. They have a very simple basic constructional system, but its extrapolation has created complex and extravagant architecture. Some of the churches contain of more than 2000 individual elements, without counting the roof shingles. The church rests on horizontal beams of wood that rests on a stone foundation. The vertical poles, the staves, wraps around the central square. The staves are joined to each other by clamping beams, usually with additional St Andrew’s crosses and knee braces to make the frame more solid. The pitched roof of the central part of the church is then supported by this frame. Norske stavkirker (13) Stave churches were often built in the best stored pine. The builders used different techniques to make the wood more solid. One of these techniques were to not cut down the tree, but to only cut the top of the tree off, all the branches and remove the bark, and then let it stand there for sevral years. The tree then tried to survive, but became more and more covered in resin. The more resin it came on the wood, the more solid it became. Stil og interiør (70)
The Nordic sky is “low” and mostly grey, compared to the “high”, burning sun of the Mediterranean countries. This means that in Norway the sun casts long shadows. The interior in the stave churches was dark and mysterious, and the light was dimmed, this expressed the environmental quality of Norway. The staves rise like the pine trees of the woodland toward the dark ceiling, and the people coming from the closed horizontal stue are transported into a superior world. Stave Churches in Norway (13) The wood also helps to create the quietly mysterious atmosphere, together with the structural pattern rising towards the sky, which contrasts the hard undecorated effect of the material and technique of stone architecture so radically. Stave churches in Norway (20) After the Reformation many churches became too small for their congregation and had to be enlarged. The liberal pastors also though the churches were to dark, and there for had windows built in. They also often lowered the ceilings in order to preserve more heat in the winter. Stave churches in Norway (26)
The Black Death swept through Norway in 1349, with catastrophic consequences. Between half and two-thirds of the population died. It was to take 300 years for the population to return to its original size. By the time new churches were built again, the knowledge of complex stave construction seems to have been lost. Architecture in Wood It was built more than 1000 stave churches in the thirteenth century, but today only 22 remain. Norwegian wood (52)
The union with Sweden was dissolved in 1905 and Norway became an independent nation.
Most countries in the turn of the nineteenth century experienced a romantic, nationalist movement, also Norway, this was caused by a longing for the greatness of its past. The building styles that emerged were an imitation of the stave churches, but the period also recognized the lost art of the laft construction. As a result, remarkable buildings built in the old log technique were moved from several farms and assembled into open-air museums. The need to describe building as an “art” quickly arose. As a result of the people’s national feeling, the open-air museums came to be regarded as folk museums. What was called “folk” art in other European building cultures was Norway’s main form of expression and was being produced even as late as 1900. Norwegian wood (68)
The Norwegian folk museum in Oslo, known as Norsk Folkemuseum in Norwegian, is the largest museum of Norwegian cultural history. It has a collection of over 150 buildings from all around the country, and it represents how people lived in Norway from 1500 to present time. These buildings represent different regions, different time periods, and also the differences between town and country, and social classes. The stave church located in the open-air museum is Gol Stave Church, dating from 1200, this is one of five medieval buildings at the museum.
In earlier times beauty was an expression of the people; today it is the expression of each person’s personality. However, one instinctively feels that beauty is not either old or new, it is timeless.
Medieval buildings have the quality of beauty that one can rarely see in contemporary architecture. My readings have led me to determine that the idea of beauty exists, and was always used prior to modern times. The concept of beauty seems to have been lost in today’s building culture, because of the loss of good craftsmanship. The characteristics of Norway’s traditional buildings were the remarkable ornamental qualities. This shows the importance of the craftsmanship process when construction was still considered an art and a craft. The marriage between fine materials and good craftsmanship seems to have been forgotten by today’s builders and architects. This marriage offers the greatest inspiration for the building art. The past contrasts the present-day in many ways, and its constructors naturally had fewer choice of materials. But the lessons and knowledge given by a vernacular building culture are still valid. Norwegian Wood (9) One of the most important qualities for an architect is the response to the physical surroundings. It requires an understanding of the land to solve the problem of how to dwell in a particular area. The end result, generally for most traditional architecture, can be a quality linked to a specific site, or to a particular landscape. The mountains that generate wind or rain, the seasons that bring snow, the way that sun shines, or does not shine, are all important in determining a settlement – social events are not the only thing that create its character. How a builder responds to these issues reflects his ability to build within a certain landscape. Norwegian wood (27) The vernacular buildings reflect the skill of building when tradition, and not new inventions, inspired builders: the beauty of this was that the tradition uncovered existential meaning. This is missing in today’s building culture, together with the drive of the craftsmen and the joy of constructing. Vernacular buildings have a breathing uniqueness, independent of its constructor, and because the builders highlighted this unique individuality in all its elements, a wonderful building appears. The Norwegian architect, Gunnar Granberg, said, “the craftsmen’s knowledge was a given: rather than thinking about it, they simply built the buildings.” Norwegian Wood (9)
Learn from vernacular architecture
Older buildings have many features that we can learn from and leverage further, both in modern construction and the maintenance of older buildings. Older buildings are often built with materials that are locally produced and lightly processed. The production of these materials has required little energy and caused little environmental impact. This is an argument both to preserve older buildings and to use their knowledge for new construction. One should take advantage of the material properties, which means the right capacity and quality at the right place and function. This means that this part of the building will be more effective for a longer period of time, and one is then resource efficient when using the best qualities where it is most needed. Good craftsmanship is all about good material knowledge, good practices, knowledge of what is going to last, and how to perform the work. Each part of the buildings life span has great importance when thinking about resources. Old buildings are often constructed of materials and building components that are built to last, without losing function or become aesthetically undesirable. How long a building can be used depends on the original quality, and whether it can be maintained in an appropriate manner. Traditional materials and building components are often very easy to maintain because the materials are lightly processed, and because the components are easy to get to and remove from the building. (Book) Many modern materials are presented as “maintenance-free”, but in reality they do not last and must be replaced more often. Many modern building elements consist of different materials which cannot be taken apart, which means that it is the material which has the shortest life span that determines the building component longevity. This is a poor use of resources.
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In older buildings not all rooms are heated to the same temperature. The hallways could often be colder than the living rooms, and some rooms were closed off in the winter. It was also common to furnish the center of the room or up against the fireplace, so that the breeze from the windows was not so infuriating. The indoor temperature was also kept lower. This was who they saved energy. Traditionally the natural ventilation made a good indoor climate. Wood heating and air channels create negative pressure, and fresh air is drawn in through leaks or vents in the winter. Venting through open windows in summer is also a simple and good solution. Natural ventilation provides ventilation without the need for energy input to operate the fans and heat exchanger, etc. When using a ventilation system the durability of the system corresponds to the durability of the building. The current building regulations make it almost impossible to build for natural ventilation. The tighter and better insulated a building is, the more energy is required for ventilation and the more dependent one is that the advanced technical equipment works, maintained and used properly. Development of natural ventilation will give us knowledge and solutions that contribute to energy efficiency also in modern construction. (book) Modern construction relies on ‘as tightly insulated as possible’ and represents with other words, a completely different building physical principle the traditional buildings. It is therefore important not to think “modern” when working with old buildings as it can cause major structural damage over time. A very thick insulation layer requires efficient ‘sealing’ of the house. This is challenging both during construction and later in their life cycle. Leaks may lead to rot and mold problems. A well-insulated house is totally dependent on a properly functioning ventilation system at any time. The physical principles in traditional buildings can provide useful knowledge in the development of new construction that looks more into these challenges.
Traditional buildings are often characterized by the fact that there were few resources when they were built. Everything had to be done by hand, transportation was cumbersome, and the processing was often done on site and was limited. We then developed a tradition of building energy and resource efficient based on passive measures. This stands in contrast to the current to today’s trend towards ever more advanced technical solutions and energy-intensive processes.
Older houses are often less isolated and leakier than the requirements set in the current building regulations. They therefore require more energy in the production phase. The reason for the increasingly stringent energy requirements is the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is often difficult to isolate older houses so that they meet the regulations without destroying the heritage values. The Directorate in Norway are working towards trying to compensate the use of renewable energy for the higher energy consumption in older houses. This will help achieve the goal of reducing CO2 emissions while preserving the cultural historical values.
Wood as a building material causes little environmental impact compared to for example the production and use of concrete and steel. This relates to the entire life cycle (production, transport, maintenance, durability and disposal etc.). Using more wood in buildings as a replacement for less environmentally friendly materials will help to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions.
“It is essential that vernacular building traditions are supported; to assist local builders in matter of sanitation and disaster preparedness, while same time learning and benefiting from their experience, knowledge and skills.” – Paul Oliver
By investigating vernacular architecture we can recover much accumulated wisdom. The ever-growing number of vernacular studies that has kept on appearing since the nineteenth century, these has improved our knowledge and understanding of historic and modern vernacular traditions. (Built to meet needs)
Housing the ever-growing global population is one of the biggest problems we are facing today, but this has not yet caught the same attention as issues of food, health, climate change or the reduction of biodiversity. This problem has to be recognized for the future well-being of the people to be ensured. The survival of the vernacular will help not only with housing, but also sustainable techniques. (Vernacular Architecture in the 21st Century) Architects and builders should look at vernacular knowledge and performance to respond to the over-growing demands for housing and natural disasters. Studying vernacular traditions will give us better adaptation knowledge. Many traditions from the vernacular have been an associated with poverty, underdevelopment and the past; this became apparent in the process of urbanization, globalization and modernization. It is not viewed as a work of architecture that is well-adjusted to its local surroundings, cultures and economies, but rather as a work in progress. This has led to the replacement and abandonment of many unique and distinctive vernacular buildings. (Atlas of Vernacular Architecture)
It is important to take care of the local traditions. And in Norway that means that we need to use more wood in modern buildings. The challenge with timber is that it takes a long time to warm them up, but when they are warm, they stay warm for a long time. If we unite the old log technique with the best of new heating technology it will be big changes. The question is not old or modern building technique, but more use of timber. The vernacular buildings still standing today should be preserved and learnt from. In the case of Norway, some measures can be made, if all the Norwegian boroughs that have houses from 1650 and earlier built houses in this tradition, the Norwegian heritage buildings could be saved, and young people would then also learn how to construct in a traditional and sustainable way. This would make a radical change considering the environment; when one kilogram timber can bind 1.7 kg CO2, and a house made in log technique with locally produced timber have a lifespan on 800-900 years. This is what I call sustainability!
“Take it easy and be completely focused on the task. Remember, in the end, no one asks how long it took. What is crucial is that what you have done is correct.” – Arne Berg
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