Sustainable and practical architecture

Tim Harrup

At yesterday’s ‘Lunch with an Architect’ (Forum Press and Communication) the speaker was Bolle Tham of Swedish architectural bureau Tham Videgard, founded in 1999. He articulated some of the challenges and practical factors facing architects in their work. Most of the projects he presented were in Sweden, but these underlying factors are relevant to all markets.

Setting the context, Nathalie Zalcman and Kathleen Iweins spoke of the importance of circularity and sustainability in contemporary architecture, and cited the New York Times which recently praised European cities (and in particular Amsterdam) for their work in this domain. In Belgium, outstanding projects at the moment, they said, are the renovation of the Proximus Towers and of the 55,000 m² ING Marnix building, the former retaining 75% of its original structure and the latter set to be carbon neutral in 2024.

Continuing with the theme and explaining some of the practical aspects, Bolle Tham used the phrase ‘continuous history’ and often during his presentation referred to the importance of fully taking the context of a future construction into account. One of the first projects of his bureau after it was founded also demonstrated what he meant by ‘practical’. Stockholm is made up of a myriad of very small islands, and an early project was a simple house on one of these. The first reality was that as little new material as possible should be used, quite simply because all of it had to be brought by small boat and carried by hand to the site! The house was also built on top of the bedrock rather than with foundations penetrating this, so that if the house were to be demolished at some later date, no trace would be left and the landscape would be as it was before construction. Another island project, with a number of residential dwellings, was designed so that from the water their silhouette resembled a series of boathouses – again therefore with context as the defining element.

An additional practical factor became apparent when Tham Videgard won one of its first public projects – a museum to be built in a park. The new element was there are now three parties to the project – the client, the architect and the public. And in this case, 50% of the public were in favour of the proposal and 50% against… When housing is to be built, even more considerations come into play – budget, improving the surrounding area, the desires of the future occupant, etc. And Bolle Tham describes housing as being one of the most important and most difficult challenge for an architect.

In terms of materials, Bolle Tham spoke of all the timber required for a large project having come from Swedish forests, and the fact that the amount of timber used is regenerated by these forests in two minutes. Another of his favourite materials is brick, which is capable of lasting for a very long time and does not need replacing after just thirty years or so. A long lasting building, he pointed out, is of course a sustainable building.

One more facet of the architect’s work which is not normally considered to be part of the ‘sustainable’ domain, is aesthetics. We have to create beautiful buildings, he said, because then people will want to conserve them for a long time, and not replace or demolish them. We do after all, only keep the buildings we like!