Visualization of the Katajanokan laituri lobby, Anttinen Oiva Architects
Wooden architecture is in its prime with the help of innovations and cooperation
Finland`s wooden construction industry is rapidly changing. Global warming and the unbeatable properties of wood inspire everyone to work together for a common goal – to promote the development of wooden architecture and the material innovations it utilizes.
The history of wood construction in Finland goes back more than 800 years. For centuries wood was the most common and easily available material as more than 75% of Finland is covered in woods. While in the 20th century Modernism globally pushed wood aside and celebrated concrete, steel and glass, in Finland the material was still widely in use and architects like Alvar Aalto experimented with new forms and techniques of using wood in their architecture and furniture designs.
“The boom of wooden architecture started 20 - 25 years ago and since then important work has been done on harmonizing regulations, standardizing details and construction systems. Lots of organizations that help build with wood have emerged and architecture schools in Aalto and Oulu universities have developed educational programs dedicated to wood.” says architect Rainer Mahlamäki, one of the pioneers of wooden construction of the last decades and designer of buildings such as Finnish Forest Museum Lusto (1994, extension 2005) and Finnish Nature Centre Haltia (2013).
Today Finland is witnessing another renaissance of wooden construction driven by the worsening state of the environment. Climate change, declining biodiversity, overconsumption of natural resources have led to developing new ways of using wood as a construction material. This resurgence is strongly linked to the country's ambition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035 and become Europe's leading circular economy.
Towards new heights
Since the early 2010s there has been a rapid increase in the scale and amount of wooden buildings: schools, kindergartens, offices, libraries and housing. We still sometimes associate wood with smaller scale projects like archipelago cottages made of logs, but with new technology and regulations it is also possible to build large and high.
A good example of wooden highrise construction is a new urban block in central Helsinki called Wood City. This entire block built of wood consists of two housing blocks (2021), an office building (2021) and a hotel (2023). All the buildings are eight storeys high and constructed utilizing different variations of industrially manufactured massive wood construction systems.
The concept and architecture of the block is based on Anttinen Oiva Architects' (AOA) winning proposal to the competition organized by Stora Enso (Finnish-Swedish timber company, one of the largest in the world), construction company SRV (one of the biggest in Finland), and the City of Helsinki in 2012. The office building houses the headquarters of global mobile game giant Supercell. At 13 000 m² and eight storeys high, the building was at the time the largest and tallest wood structured office building in Finland.
Architects Selina Anttinen, Vesa Oiva and Teemu Halme from AOA who increasingly use wood in all their projects point out the long term effects of usage of wood:
“Wood has a strong material character and it creates warm, hospitable, atmospheric interiors. It is durable and it ages beautifully. As with any material, when using wood, it is important to think of the long life span and material efficiency. Wood has naturally good values when concerning carbon, but perhaps a major step forward would be optimizing the use of the material in hybrid structures''.
Research and development in focus
Together with innovations in manufacturing and digital technology wood can now provide near limitless possibilities for construction. With the help of different chemicals it's possible to reduce the moisture dynamics of wood, improve its resistance to decay and fire and make it more durable.
Finnish companies, such as Stora Enso and Metsä Group provide lots of sustainable solutions for that. The companies are producing massive wood materials and prefabricated elements for different purposes: general construction, structural applications, cladding and decking. For industrial scale projects Stora Enso has developed hybrid solutions making the best use of wood and steel in combination.
Another project by Anttinen Oiva Architects that shows the direction for the future of modern wood architecture is the new headquarters for Stora Enso currently under construction. The project is guided by the desire to minimize climate impacts and showcase the company's own wooden construction systems.
The project will bring wood into the historical center of the city and create a new lively urban space in Helsinki’s South Harbour: office block, hotel block and premises by the seaside.
Public sector as a key driver
The construction industry is guided by cities and municipalities. By choosing wood construction the public sector is able to pursue realization of social goals and support the domestic economy.
According to Sanna Meriläinen, development manager of housing production at Helsinki Urban Environment Division, “the proportion of wood construction is increasing each year. The city has a crucial role in the rise of wooden construction in housing as well as public buildings. Last year's Puupalkinto (Wood Award), for example, was given to a kindergarten commissioned by the city of Helsinki (Hopealaakso Daycare Centre)”.
The Ministry of Environment has undertaken the Wood Building Program (2016–2023) aimed at increasing the use of wood in urban development, public buildings as well as large constructions such as bridges and halls. The state expects that by 2025 the market share of wood will reach 65% in educational buildings, 46% in residential housing, and 35% in buildings for institutional care.
Well-being from the inside out
Wood is one of the most climate-friendly materials, as it is recyclable, renewable and helps to reduce carbon footprint. Wooden buildings work as carbon sinks by permanently storing the carbon that trees have absorbed from the atmosphere while growing. Moreover, when replacing materials such as steel and concrete that are very carbon intensive to produce, the effect is multiplied.
Wood is also energy efficient. It is widely used in residential buildings as it reduces the need for ventilation and heating. It is antibacterial, has a calming effect and provides good acoustic properties. In Finland and Northern Europe it is widely used in lecture theaters and concert halls.
No wonder it's the new material of choice in the public sector such as schools, kindergartens, and libraries. Finnish-Russian school built by SRV in Helsinki is a fine example of creating an excellent learning environment with versatile usage of wood. The Pudasjärvi log campus, which replaced several schools that were all affected by mold, is another bold example of using wood in public spaces. With a total floor area of 9,700 m2, it’s the world’s largest wooden building.
Development leads to wood-first architecture
Finland is strongly invested in the wood construction industry on many fronts. Aalto University has been operating a world famous Wood Program for more than 20 years. It is an international one-year program for architects, engineers and designers that explores the ecological, technical and architectural properties of the material. Every year the program produces an experimental wooden building.
New ways of wooden construction are also encouraged by numerous architectural prizes. One of the most famous is Puupalkinto (Wood Award), the winner of which is announced annually at the Puupäivä (National Timber Day). This year's winner is a wavy wooden ceiling in the newly opened expansion of Helsinki Airport designed by ALA Architects. The ceiling consists of 500 unique wooden elements (all together weighing 1,500 kg) that are joined with the precision of furniture carpentry.
All the above mentioned projects are prime examples of how the new wooden architecture utilizes the possibilities provided by the latest technology. Yet, wooden construction still has a lot to conquer before it overtakes concrete.
Architect Rainer Mahlamäki sums it up:
“Overall I have a positive feeling about wood construction in Finland. Nowadays there are no limits – it's technically possible to utilize wood in any type of building. Still, wooden architecture is waiting for its own architectural style (instead of mimicking concrete). Also the question of weather resistance - to protect the wooden facade against rain and snow - remains a challenge. The future of wood construction depends on the development of the industry”.
"If you fry an egg, it becomes plastic, according to the EU", says Suvi Haimi, co-founder of Sulapac, a material-focused start-up on a mission to drive a systemic change which would enable the usage of new sustainable material innovations.
The creative economy roadmap aims to ensure that creative industries can contribute more strongly to Finland’s sustainable economic growth. Creative industries currently account for less than 4% of Finland’s GDP, and the objective is to bring it closer to the EU average of 7%.