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The Nordic dream homes surrounded by stunning nature
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(Credit: Snøhetta)
The Scandi love of stripped-back simplicity and open-air living come together in the prefabricated homes dotted around the countryside. Clare Dowdy explores the surprising story behind them.
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Dotted across rural parts of Scandinavia and the Nordic countries are cabins, huts, refuges and retreats. These countries have a long tradition of the remote and simple holiday home, places where people can indulge the national past-times that are so much part of their identities: foraging, hiking, skiing, wild swimming and, best of all, just hanging out outdoors.

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Scandinavians have their own word for this last activity: friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv), meaning "open-air living". It's a term that Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen made popular in the 1850s. For him, it was about spending time in remote locations for spiritual and physical wellbeing.

The Gapahuk was designed by Snøhetta and inspired by traditional Nordic wood cabins (Credit: Snøhetta)

The Gapahuk was designed by Snøhetta and inspired by traditional Nordic wood cabins (Credit: Snøhetta)

Nowadays, people in the region combine friluftsliv with their deep-seated love of natural interiors. The latest generation of cabin designers are tapping into this, employing local materials and contemporary aesthetics with innovative construction methods. Countries like Sweden and Finland have perfected the art of prefabricated housing, whether that's flat-packed panels, whole rooms or modules being low-loaded to far-flung destinations.

These houses have a beautiful openness towards nature, so you can almost bring the nature in – Tonje Frydenlund

Near Finland's Salamajärvi National Park, Studio Puisto's black-painted Niliaitta perches on a single column. "Its form takes inspiration from a niliaitta, which is what the Samí historically used as a type of storage to keep food safely outdoors, and prevent animals from accessing it," explains designer Jenna Ahonen of Finnish firm.

In rural Finland, Studio Puisto's Niliaitta prototype perches on a single column (Credit: Marc Goodwin Archmospheres)

In rural Finland, Studio Puisto's Niliaitta prototype perches on a single column (Credit: Marc Goodwin Archmospheres)

For Rindalshytter, Norway's leading producer of leisure homes, Snøhetta has designed the cabin Gapahuk. The name of the cabin, Gapahuk, is a Norwegian word for a simple wooden structure with two or three walls and a roof. It's often made to create shelter from rough weather conditions. Drawing inspiration from the traditional gapahuk, the cabin is shaped with the aim of adapting to the many varying weather conditions. The twisting roof creates a two-way gapahuk which gives protection from wind and sun. The angled roof surfaces can be used for energy production by placing solar panels on them, making it possible to have a cabin off the grid. 

Meanwhile, in Sweden, the roots of prefabricated rural housing go back to the 11th Century. Lukas Thiel, architect and partner at White Arkitekter, whose HQ is in Sweden, explains that in wintertime, log houses were erected in the woods where trees were felled, to allow the timber to dry out in the cold, dry climate, and were then later relocated to their designated place. "Moving timber is easier when you have a blanket of snow," he says. "It's a simplified way of saying that's the first time we standardised the house."

And in Norway, the cabin's predecessor were the shelters where cow herds would spend the summer, while their cattle sought out fresh grass, according to Tonje Frydenlund at Snøhetta, whose HQ is in Norway.

The creators of the Niliaitta home were inspired by traditional Finnish storage structures (Credit: Karl Nickul/ Fenno-Ugric Picture Collection/ Finnish Heritage Agency)

The creators of the Niliaitta home were inspired by traditional Finnish storage structures (Credit: Karl Nickul/ Fenno-Ugric Picture Collection/ Finnish Heritage Agency)

During those times of necessity, national identities were formed, like the Finnish notion of sisu or stoic determination. But since then, the cabin has become a leisure activity, and one that's booming. According to Nature Compact Living, which operates holiday homes throughout Norway, around half of Norway's five-million-strong population owns or has access to a leisure home, whether a cabin in the mountains, the woodland or by the sea. And now, 6,500 cabins are being built there each year, which is a more than 75% yearly increase since the early 1980s.

Frydenlund puts this down to the increased interest in "spending time in nature, being close to nature – there’s a longing for that". And these houses offer "a compact living concept, they're comfortable and have a beautiful openness towards the nature, so you can almost bring the nature in". Modern building methods allow for vast glazed areas for those inspiring views, nifty storage and multifunctional furniture that make a relatively bijou space work hard – characteristics that are typically associated with design from this part of the world.

Prefab is the favoured route, "because it's very easy to mount and to lift and place them in the terrain, without digging down too much", says Frydenlund. "They're easier to construct, and when you're building in remote areas, it's easier have a short construction time. And you're in control of all the detailing."

Snøhetta has designed a series of modular cabins based on a shipping container for NCL along these lines, and is now investigating smaller modules that can be lifted in with helicopters to the remotest of areas. That's useful where there are no roads, and the only access is by foot, boat or ski, she adds.

The Woody35 by Norwegian architect Marianne Borge was created to have a small footprint (Credit: Marianne Borger)

The Woody35 by Norwegian architect Marianne Borge was created to have a small footprint (Credit: Marianne Borger)

Prefabrication fulfils this need or desire to make as little impact on the terrain as possible. Along with Studio Puisto's Niliaitta on its single column, sits Woody35, a pilot cabin by Norwegian architect Marianne Borge, who set out "to prefabricate a cabin concept with a small footprint".

An overlooked success story

But prefabrication is not all about inaccessible holiday bolt-holes. In this region, much housing has been preassembled off site for decades – a technique which nowadays is known as Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). The approach has partly been driven by harsh winter conditions and limited daylight hours, which make the traditional construction process inefficient. And it's led to an acceptance of things not being produced on site, says Thiel.

In Sweden, it really kicked off at scale with the Million Programme, which saw one million homes built between 1965 and 1974. "That was a big ask, and it favoured a lot of MMC," says Thiel. Since then, White Arkitekter has honed this method, designing whole neighbourhoods which are prefabricated. MMC is ideal for building at scale, Thiel says, "because you can repeat (the design), produce in a controlled environment, maintain the quality, create less waste, and work to a predictable time frame". What's more, he adds, with the region's relatively high cost of labour, "you can produce something using unskilled labour and machines to replace skilled labour – happy days".

A newspaper ad for Puutalo Oy – the Finnish firm created factory-built, wooden homes to cope with a desperate housing shortage (Credit: Elka Archive)

A newspaper ad for Puutalo Oy – the Finnish firm created factory-built, wooden homes to cope with a desperate housing shortage (Credit: Elka Archive)

While Sweden's MMC craze ramped up in the 1960s, the Finns' use of such methods had peaked in the post-World War Two years. There, it was a response to a humanitarian crisis. The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940 had displaced 420,000 Finns. There was a desperate shortage of housing, so Puutalo Oy (Timber Houses Ltd) was formed to get building. Traditional building methods, materials and levels of labour weren't going to work. So architects – including Toivo Jäntti, designer of the 1928 Helsinki Olympic stadium – and industrialists joined forces to create a new model of factory-built housing that modernised the country's construction industry. "It was the first major attempt to industrialise wooden construction," says academic Kristo Vesikansa at Aalto University in the Finnish city of Espoo.

This extraordinary success story is little known, and Puutalo Oy's output has been rather overlooked by the architecture world

However, what started as a solution to a domestic refugee crisis evolved into a major export, and during the post-war years more than 95% of the units were sent abroad. Finland, which was in dire need of raw materials and machinery, swapped its houses with other nations. In return, it got coal, iron, steel and tractors from the UK; beef, lard, butter and cheese from Denmark; wine and silk from France; Dutch potatoes, chemicals and textiles; and grapes and oranges from Israel. By the mid-1950s, millions of square meters of buildings had been shipped to more than 50 countries.

Puutalo houses in Nekala, Finland in the 1940s – the homes were in demand across the world (Credit: Elka Archive)

Puutalo houses in Nekala, Finland in the 1940s – the homes were in demand across the world (Credit: Elka Archive)

And yet this extraordinary success story is little known, and Puutalo Oy's output has been rather overlooked by the architecture world. "The narrative of Finland's post-war buildings is about public buildings and the welfare state," says Philip Tidwell at Aalto University. "Puutalo Oy doesn't fit comfortably in that canon, there's nothing monumental about the houses. They occupy a funny space between industrial design and architecture."

Meanwhile, Vesikansa admits that "the buildings are rather modest". Along with fellow Aalto university academic Laura Berger, Vesikansa and Tidwell are hoping to shed some light on these houses. For this year's Venice Biennale, they have curated New Standards, which presents the story of Puutalo Oy.

While there may have been a snobbery around the houses' basic aesthetic, Puutalo Oy has had a significant influence on current MMC. "Its technology of prefabrication based on panels is the legacy of the company," says Tidwell.

Now, 60 years on, simple, prefabricated cabins set in stunning natural beauty are once again in demand (Snøhetta)

Now, 60 years on, simple, prefabricated cabins set in stunning natural beauty are once again in demand (Snøhetta)

The whole project could be mistaken for a nostalgia fest, he adds, "but it's looking critically at this period when so much of the foundations of modern construction were laid, and there are lessons still be learned. New Standards is a reconsideration of what standardisation does."

And as Berger points out, there are elements of Puutalo Oy’s output that chime with modern lifestyle attitudes in the region. "The idea of small, modest living – that you don't need a massive house for your family – that's getting more popular." Likewise, for cabin designers, the "compact-living concept" as described by Frydenlund is the style of choice. Who'd have thought that a modest log hut could embody so much of a region's value system and cultural identity? For northern urbanites, the great outdoors is the perfect place to marry Finnish sisu with Scandi friluftsliv while lodging in stripped-back simplicity.

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