Timber architecture is undoubtedly a global hot topic: it’s been showcased at the Milan Expo, featured in architecture publications, discussed in conferences in Ljubljana, and is being built more and more. As Slovenia-based architect firms OFIS, SONO and Bevk Perović are already making waves abroad, we explore the numerous facets of Slovenia’s contemporary wooden architecture.
With nearly 60% of its territory covered by lush woodlands, Slovenia boasts the third largest forest cover in Europe. However, despite being a strategic resource of great importance, the wood industry now lags behind. “The production is scarce, while too much wood is still being exported and sold back to us in the form of half-products and products,” explained Katarina Arsekić, architect at Ekokoncept, a local manufacturer of low-energy houses.
The Rebirth of Wood in Slovenia
Despite this crippling paradox, wood has slowly been experiencing a rebirth as a construction material, thanks to the general public’s increased environmental awareness and a greater interest for energy-efficient buildings. Several wood manufacturers and prefabricated house companies were established in Slovenia in the past decade, and an increasing number of designers and architects use this resource.
Among its prefabricated wooden dwellings, Ekokoncept developed Mini for -4 for a camping resort in Bled (in the Slovenian Alpine region). The energy-efficient wooden construction, made from local spruce wood, is protected from humidity with a side bitumen cladding and a back façade covered with larch. Each of the four units is made of two volumes with a slope roof, connected together in the region’s traditional A-form. Prefabrication allowed for the separate volumes to be transported on the site and positioned into prepared bases and connected on site in less than a day.
High Quality, Low Cost
In the words of Blaž Rupar, partner at 3biro, sustainable architecture is now self-evident in Slovenia. “Our clients naturally expect low-energy or passive houses when they come to us, the environmental aspects always taken into consideration” he said. Under the leadership of Pr. Janez Kozelj, a strong advocate of contemporary timber architecture in Slovenia, the Ljubljana-based practice is currently working on 31 projects, 25 of which are wooden constructions.
“Smartly used, wood can be as cheap as other materials, while giving special character and high quality spatiality,” he said. “For instance, we’ve recently designed a house in Mlačevo, whose structural system is entirely made of timber without metal parts, like Shigeru Ban did in his Tamedia building [in Switzerland].” The structure’s rhomboid pattern, visible on the gable end, is inspired by traditional Slovenian hayrack’s truss framework, “which was already the best construction technique to maintain stability at the time,” Rupar explained.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The sustainable principle of 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) is very much embedded in 3biro’s creative process, and visible in their mobile Pavilion designed for Ljubljana European Green Capital 2016. The pavilion is made from laminated spruce wood and covered with three-layer wood panels on the inside.
This event space consists of two volumes made of three-layer panels, whose modular interior is equipped with locally made wooden furniture designed by Luka Ločičnik. At the end of the event, the two units will each be relocated to the zoological garden and to the botanical garden, and the ramp will provide access for the disabled in the municipality.
Rok Oman, co-founder of OFIS Arhitekti, stresses the role that contemporary architecture can play in preserving and revitalizing the local heritage, such the wooden hayrack or kozolec, a national symbol and an integral part of the Slovenian rural architecture. “Many of these no longer serve their purpose, therefore are mostly in poor condition, and often simply destroyed and replaced with generic housing with questionable aesthetics and gaudy ice-cream colors,” he said.
A Prime Example of Reuse
In order to offer a new life to an endangered architecture, OFIS Arhitekti turned one of those old barns into a loft apartment with a sleek wooden interior designed for modern living. The original exterior appearance of the two-century-old Alpine barn was left intact. Apart from necessary repairs, the only interventions are circular perforations into wooden parts behind internal windows and opening of the front porch to insert a large window. Inside, the barn’s original timber framework is complemented by a wooden shell and a lining of local deep-brushed spruce.
“Given the context, wood was the obvious material to use here. Not only is it consistent with the existing building, but it contributes to create a warm, cozy atmosphere in an economical and sustainable way,” Oman explained.
Since its completion in 2015, the project has aroused enthusiasm among barn owners, inspiring some of them to consider similar renovation work, and was praised by the Slovenian cultural authorities.
As all the actors in the industry are taking steps to push for an increased use of wood in construction, a little revolution seems underway. Slovenia is worth keeping an eye on to follow the developments of a creative industry poised for greatness, once it’ll overcome its production paradox and make use of its under-exploited yet promising potential.