A large quantity of Estonian timber is exported abroad as a cheap commodity. Unique Estonian wooden architecture might help us to add value to Estonian raw material, create more environmentally sustainable housing, and manage local forests more efficiently.
People have lost faith in architecture as a way to improve the human environment1, with hope regarding the feasibility of such improvement declining over the past fifty years in particular.2 The emergence of this attitude has been aided by the monolithic and unfriendly human environments resulting from 1950s and 1960s urban planning, which we are still surrounded by. The mindset is further deepened by modern architecture – glass high rises that reflect the new capitalist system, and the new suburbs of questionable architectural quality. Where or what is Estonian local architecture?
Wood is our main renewable natural resource, but the urban population of today is alienated from it. Luckily there are still areas with centuries-old wooden architecture in the larger Estonian cities and towns. Despite the fact that new wooden buildings make up a marginal part of local architecture, logging has not decreased. In fact, 91% of timber not used for power or heat generation is exported3 – for use in log homes in the Alps, saunas in the backyards of Central Europe, the interior of the Oslo Opera House. In this regard, Estonia has become a producer of a cheap commodity, not adding much value to it. It seems we cannot be bothered to look for novel ways to design wooden products which might add character to the local timber and increase the price of exports.
How might we bring wooden architecture back to our building culture and use it to create a healthier and more sustainable (urban) human environment?
Digital society and modern architecture have something in common
Architecture is moving away from the narrative (architect-engineer-builder) design process.4 The process where a concept design created by the architect is passed on to the engineer, who solves the technical problem of producing blueprints and an operational design, is far from ideal. The architect is left out of most of the process, and any later changes due to engineering or construction-related limitations may no longer be in sync with the original concept design. The inclusion of environmental technologists at an early stage of the design process provides much better opportunities to develop novel wooden architecture solutions.
Fortunately, the practice of having all parties from the architect to the builder work on a single 3D model is becoming more widespread in modern architecture.5 This replaces the above linear process with an iterative system, which is a prerequisite for designing effective human environments. Amendments made to the CAD design reach all parties simultaneously, which helps them arrive at an optimally economical and energy-efficient solution. The parametric design, widely used in architecture, where changing any one parameter results in the automatic adjustment of the entire solution, makes managing ever more complicated geometries faster and easier.
Computer-friendliness has become a national feature for Estonians. Therefore one might hope that among Estonians digital cooperation will catch on quickly. Estonian wood industries employ impressive technology – from automated production lines to multiaxis CNC mills (Computer Numeric Control, a computer-based control system which enables precise physical reproduction of digital designs – ed.). The Faculty of Architecture at the Estonian Academy of Arts has many years of practice with small-form wooden design, and Estonian engineers are highly experienced in the designing of wooden buildings and structures.