November 26, 2014

Earth, Water, Air, Fire: Handcrafted Cabin by Snøhetta Celebrates Norway

“I had been thinking about this specific spot, this specific project, for the last 40 years. This is not just my own childhood dream but my father’s and grandfather’s,” Osvald Bjelland recounts. Bjelland is the founder of both Xyntéo, a high-level advisory serving global businesses, and the Performance Theatre, a leadership think tank. And the spot in question is on a Norwegian fjord, high in the mountains above the village of Etne, where his family has had a farm since the 16th century. “When we had been climbing for three hours, taking our sheep to the mountains in springtime and collecting them again in the fall, we would come to the exact spot where this cabin is now,” he continues. “We would be tired, and in late September there would be up to 25 feet of snow. It was pretty challenging.” When it seemed virtually impossible to take another step, his father would lean on his walking stick and say, “Osvald, we should really have a place here for some rest.” Which is precisely what the younger Bjelland commissioned Snøhetta to design, he explains: “Since I’m the first in the family to move to  the  city and make a little bit of money, I could afford to realize this. My ancestors never had the resources. They were very modest people.”

Bjelland’s overall aspirations for the cabin, as presented to Snøhetta founding partner Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, were for it to be small, built using traditional techniques, and seamlessly specific to the site. “So it would look like it had always been there,” Bjelland says. More specifically, he asked for sleeping quarters to accommodate members of his extended family, 21 people—a figure reflecting the number of beds down at the farmhouse. He also asked for a source of warmth and a basic kitchen, just a counter and cabinets, no electricity or running water. “And that was it,” Thorsen says. “The cabin embraces the idea of shelter in a very ancient way.”

Åkrafjorden, or Field Fjord, as Bjelland named the cabin, appears from certain angles to be a solitary boulder embedded into the glacial bedrock. “Now that the cabin has settled into the landscape, you can’t really see it. That pays respect to nature and also to my forefathers,” he says. Closer inspection reveals a drystone and timber structure with grassy and glassy elements. To handcraft it, Thorsen enlisted Trygve Øvstebø, a champion in the sport of extreme building. It took Øvstebø an entire year to construct the cabin—accompanied by his constant companion, a black Norwegian elkhound, and assisted by a brother, a friend, and a cousin of Bjelland. The process started at Øvstebø’s own home, where he prefabricated the whole building, then disassembled it into modules that could be brought up to the site via snowmobile or  helicopter, since there are no roads. A helicopter also ferried members of the foursome and the dog home on Friday afternoon and returned them on Monday morning. During the week, they had only a tepee for shelter. 

Because of the extremely harsh climate—snowdrifts cover the cabin completely during the winter—the roof curves to distribute loads effectively. It was constructed from a steel frame to which Øvstebø first bolted planks of local pine, each shaped by his handheld ax, then added lengths of pine or spruce to serve as the substrate for a layer of turf. A Cor-Ten steel I beam, laid horizontally, anchors the structure to a concrete foundation. Cor-Ten steel also clads the north-facing sidewall. The south-facing sidewall is glass, optimal for solar gain and melting snow. To serve as a barrier against wind coming off the Atlantic Ocean, the drystone was used for the east-facing wall. “The turf on the roof absorbs vibration when the winds blow as well,” Thorsen says. “It’s very low-tech, an extraordinarily beautiful little thing.”  

The curve of the roof, rising to 14 feet, allowed him to insert a loft at that end, thereby expanding the sleeping capacity of the 215-square-foot footprint. Below the loft is the kitchen. Occupying the rest of the ground level is the living area, where built-in banquettes surround a fireplace on all four sides. “We love sitting and looking through the flames, to the view,” Bjelland says. The banquettes are furthermore designed to give the maximum number of people just enough room to recline and eventually fall asleep, Thorsen adds: “A lot of work went into trying to organize the way they would lie, which direction their feet would go, so everyone is comfortable.” In the morning, visiting family members and friends head outside to cook, fish, or look after the sheep that graze there, just like they did in Bjelland’s childhood.

The major difference between then and now is how he arrives. It’s still a three-hour hike. Before it starts, however, there’s usually a five-hour drive in an Audi A6 from his home in Oslo, and there’s eventually a stop in Markhus, where he picks up his boat to traverse the fjord.

Project Team: Margrethe Lund: Snøhetta. Kraft Glass & Aluminum Design: Glasswork. Granit Kleber: Stonework. Hellesøy Verft: Metalwork.

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