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Eloquent timber: Tacit qualities, telling materiality, and the inhabitants’ voice

Abstract

Global efforts are being made to reduce the climate impact of the building sector. The main focus tends to be on quantifiable achievements. This is also true for how benefits of wooden construction materials are generally communicated. In addition, the expert’s view tends to dominate the discussion, while the user’s perspective receives little attention. This paper argues for also attending to timber’s qualitative aspects, and the inhabitants’ desires, experiences and reference frameworks when designing urban housing. Focusing on wooden construction materials, the paper contrasts the architect’s conceptual design ambitions with the inhabitant’s lived experiences. Three dimensions of materiality turned out to be important to the interviewed architects and inhabitants, which relate to the material’s properties, experiences and values. The knowledge of the material’s properties informs the realisation of its affordances and reliability. How the materiality is experienced and appreciated depends on an interpretation of its atmospheres and what they are associated with. The values assigned to a material also inform which and how properties and experiences are valued and can become part of a corresponding narrative about a building and its materiality. These can be influenced by information, communication and community. Seemingly conflicting design consequences must be balanced when wanting the building’s materiality to simultaneously disclose possible uses, convey atmospheres and pass on narratives. The user should be involved in defining the relevant uses, atmospheres and narratives for each project. Drawing on Pérez-Gómez’ call for architecture to be “built upon love,” the paper delineates these design ambitions as “eloquent”.

Complementing quantitative sustainability approaches

Prolonged life cycle

In the light of ever more urgent environmental concerns and the responsibilities incumbent on the building sector, design approaches should aim for prolonging the lifetime of buildings and their components. Widely raised energy performance requirements for new buildings (operational energy) have increased the relevance of building materials (embodied energy) [1, 2]. Moreover, even when targeting renewable resources that store carbon, such as timber, or construction components that are designed for later reuse, the positive effects on the climate footprint are maximised when the elements remain in place as long as possible.

Quantifiable efforts and technical solutions often dominate design approaches with a sustainability agenda. Nevertheless, neither the construction’s durability nor plan layout’s flexibility suffice to prolong a building’s lifetime. Qualitative aspects of architecture also deserve attention, as differentiating notions of obsolescence suggest [3]: Besides suffering obsolescence because they break (absolute obsolescence) or when newer products perform better (relative obsolescence), constructive components may also become obsolescent when they are no longer socially accepted or their appearance is no longer desired (psychological obsolescence). “Only things that people like get a long life”, knows architect Dietmar Eberle [4], which implies a quantifiable effect of qualitative design efforts. Better liked buildings last longer and thus contribute to ecological in addition to social sustainability.

Tacit qualities and “lovability”

Unfortunately, these qualitative aspects are much more difficult to specify or assess, let alone agree upon, than for example CO2 calculations or the building’s energy performance. They are often addressed as “tacit” qualities. “One tries to speak about love but ends up talking about the weather”, observes architect Børre Skodvin. “The debate about architectural quality is often replaced by a discussion of other aspects that are easier to evaluate. Now, sustainability is the topic when (…) speaking about architecture” [5].

Sustainability, however, together with parametric design and other popular spheres of interest are, according to Alberto Pérez-Gómez, unfit to remedy the aesthetic, sensory and emotional deficiency he describes in contemporary architecture. Instead, he demands for architecture to be Built Upon Love. In his view, questions of ethics and aesthetics can positively impact humanity’s well-being. He sees this approach as an important contribution to solving even complex societal and environmental problems uncaptured by global planning, codes and norms [6].

Expert and user

By virtue of their professional education and experience, architects, theorists, critics and other experts tend to be ascribed interpretive authority when it comes to questions about architectural qualities. These professional views are expected to guide the inexperienced average public and prevent mediocre solutions [7], but there are also authors who point out that professional understandings, expectations and ambitions are different from popular taste and values, thus not readily transferable [8]. Moreover, some claim that architects tend to keep within their own circles and seem to direct their design efforts to a great degree towards recognition by other architects. Theoretical and built references that inform the architects’ judgement and the terms they use (“architalk”) are often unknown or inaccessible to laypeople [9]. Some authors observe opposing positions or even an absence of communication between designers and users during the design process [10, 11]. Design decisions are then based on assumptions about an anonymous user or the architect’s own preferences [7].

However, users are increasingly demanded to be recognised and valued as experts of everyday experiences and according views on quality [7, 12, 13] – without the users’ perspective, architects may fail to grasp the essence of dwelling, of a home [14]. Pérez-Gómez advertises: “Built upon love, architecture engages the inhabitant as true participant, unlike the remote spectator (…) or the consumer of (…) images” [6].

Well-being, needs and desire

Pérez-Gómez claims that architecture that is built upon love and that engages the inhabitant will improve people’s well-being, with ripple effects on larger societal and environmental problems. Well-being is also part of the current WHO definition of health, exceeding the mere “absence of disease or infirmity”: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being” [15]. Formulated in 1984 and ground-breaking at that time, this definition has been challenged more recently to rather emphasise “the ability to adapt and self manage in the face of social, physical, and emotional challenges” [16]. Being able to interpret and influence one’s life conditions on one’s own terms may contribute to such autonomy. This notwithstanding, Pérez-Gómez’ understanding of what makes architecture answer better to our wishes and dreams exceeds health aspects. He even criticises our expectation of “the greatest pleasure and least pain” at all times, and our constant wanting for more. “Our building practices, even when mindful of ecological responsibility or claiming high artistic aspirations, still pursue a functionalist utopia in which all desires are fulfilled through material means, eliminating all irritants and always aiming at greater economy and comfort (…). Consumption and possession prevail as the bastard aims of desire” [6]. To him, there are favoured and objectionable sides of desire, and ways to cope with this profoundly human trait.

“Man is a perpetually wanting animal” states Abraham H. Maslow accordingly in his Theory of Human Motivation [17]. Beyond needs that can be gratified, such as physiological, safety, love and esteem needs (“deficiency needs”), Maslow describes needs that are less likely to stop this wanting when they are met (“growth needs”): The desire to grow as a person includes self-fulfilment, self-transcendence, the “desires to know and understand”, and a longing for beauty and balance [18].

Pérez-Gómez characterises desire as an insatiable and unsteady longing for something that fills a perceived void within us, towards “a fuller wholeness”. But rather than meeting our only temporarily satisfiable craving for more, he suggests understanding desire as a driving force, a source of inspiration instead.

Addressing how residential architecture might accommodate this wanted side of desire, Pérez-Gómez writes that “true architecture (…) responds to a desire for an eloquent place to dwell, one that lovingly provides a sense of order resonant with our dreams” [6].

While dictionary definitions of eloquence describe it as the clear and persuasive expression or indication of something, Pérez-Gómez also highlights the importance of being capable to “convince and engage our hearts”, which ties in with discourse on rhetoric as old as Cicero’s time. The Ciceronian ideal was to "[speak] both to the understanding and to the heart" [19]. Pérez-Gómez argues that rather than “ideal exactness”, designs that are “evident to the embodied, synesthetic consciousness of an (…) inhabitant” will achieve this aim; rather than aiming for “more or less univocal meanings”, one should value “polysemic and yet often [inviting] silence, in the most eloquent way” [6]. This understanding of eloquence introduces desirable architecture as something that does not have one distinct message, but that can be interpreted in various ways. Furthermore, exceeding a mere cognitive apprehension, it also includes multi-sensory and emotional responses to architecture.

Qualitative research approach

On this backdrop, 27 inhabitants of urban residential timber projects and seven recognised timber architects, most of them architects of the interviewed inhabitants’ homes, have been interviewed as part of a doctoral research project conducted at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design [20]. The interviews were complemented by images taken during the visits and followed by a literature study on topics raised in the conversations.

Case selection and interview participants

Both architects and inhabitants were chosen on the background of contemporary urban timber housing projects that complied with a number of common denominators, such as timber as the main construction material; housing on an urban scale as a functional typology; and Austria, Germany and Norway as comparable climatic and cultural contexts. Other aspects were deliberately chosen to differ, such as the construction system (massive timber, column-and-beam systems or hybrid structures); the urban typology (referring to building geometry and access system); the type of occupancy (rental or owner-occupied); and the exposure of wooden construction members (covered by gypsum, painted, glazed or with wood’s natural surface). The cases’ maximum variation strengthens the findings’ significance in qualitative research where, as opposed to quantitative research, a limited number of strategically chosen cases is investigated with many variables [21].

The Austrian projects were Ölzbündt (1997, Dornbirn) and Mühlweg A (2006, Vienna) by Hermann Kaufmann + Partner (formerly Hermann Kaufmann Architekten); Mühlweg B (2006, Vienna) and Spöttlgasse (2005, Vienna) by Hubert Rieß; Mühlweg C (2006, Vienna) and Lobaugasse (2009, Vienna) by Dietrich Untertrifaller Architekten; Breitenfurter Straße (2013, Vienna) by Praschl-Goodarzi Architekten and Wagramer Straße (2013, Vienna) by Hagmüller Architekten. The Norwegian projects were Skadbergbakken (2015, Sola) and Vindmøllebakken (2018/2019, Stavanger) by Helen&Hard and Ulsholtveien (2017, Oslo) by Haugen/Zohar Arkitekter. The German projects were wk65 (2012, Berlin), sw40 (2011, Berlin-Friedrichshagen), c13 (2014, Berlin) and p1 (2018, Berlin) by Kaden + Lager (formerly Kaden Klingbeil Architekten).

Architects from all projects apart from Mühlweg B, Spöttlgasse, Breitenfurter Straße and Wagramer Straße were interviewed: 3 architects from Austria, 2 architects practising in Norway, and 2 German architects. The interviewed architects were Hermann Kaufmann and Christoph Dünser from Hermann Kaufmann Architekten (now: Hermann Kaufmann + Partner), Much Untertrifaller from Dietrich I Untertrifaller Architekten, Markus Lager and Tom Kaden from Kaden + Lager, Reinhard Kropf from Helen&Hard, and Dan Zohar from Haugen/Zohar. The conversations took place in 2017.

Residents from all projects with the exception of Mühlweg C and Ulsholtveien were interviewed: 11 inhabitants of 8 Austrian projects, 5 inhabitants of 3 Norwegian projects, and 11 inhabitants of 4 German projects. They had accepted an invitation sent out to all inhabitants of the respective buildings; their general interest in wooden materiality may therefore be assumed.

The main part of the interviews was conducted in autumn 2017. During a visit to the then completed project Vindmøllebakken in 2021, the discussion of the research themes could be continued with a group of residents.

Several projects had involved the future inhabitants in different stages and areas of the planning process. In wk65, sw40 and p1, inhabitants could make choices concerning their own apartment, such as the plan layout, surface materials or window positions. In Vindmøllebakken, future inhabitants were also part of negotiating and establishing new ways of co-living, owning and sharing, such as the programme and size of shared areas and respective reduction of the private units, regular duties for the community or procedures for accepting new community members.

Interviews

Set up as semi-structured qualitative interviews, the conversations were organised around a predefined set of themes and consciously left time to explore topics of special interest to the interviewees in greater detail. Without the presumption of any theoretical framework, the open-ended questions addressed more general architectural values and qualities first, before turning to how these relate to wooden materials.

The interview data was analysed by structuring the transcribed conversations according to the topics addressed, and by pinpointing corresponding and contrasting statements.

Three overarching and overlapping thematic dimensions were identified in the interview material, relating to wood’s properties, experiences and values. These dimensions were substantiated by the interviewees’ viewpoints, preferences and associations, which varied both among architects and inhabitants, and within both groups. The themes identified through the interviews informed an extended literature study and the identification of related theoretical material-related frameworks.

Three dimensions of qualitative materiality and their communication

Properties and affordances

Long-standing theoretical debate on the relationship between material properties and architectural form includes questions of “material honesty”. Initially aiming to ensure the construction’s soundness and durability, this tenet later also addressed questions of representation, when changing technical and energetic requirements complicated the exposure of constructive parts [22, 23].

Many of the interviewed architects referred to “honest” design ideals, either by characterising the decorative covering of concrete constructions with wooden “wallpapers” as dishonest (while not reacting to covering timber constructions with gypsum layers), or by rejecting material honesty as limiting design options and unrightfully moralising more pragmatic approaches.

The interviewed inhabitants were, in turn, less concerned with dogmatic reasons for shaping, exposing or painting the wooden construction than with whether the timber construction was reliable, and what it allowed them to do. For example, do cracks in the massive timber elements mean reduced stability, or lower acceptance when eventually selling the apartment again (Fig. 1a)? Will the walls tolerate the mounting of heavy furniture or the ceiling the instalment of a swing (Fig. 1b)? Is it technically possible to sand a CLT wall (Fig. 1c)? Constructive, surface and detail choices that clearly communicate a material’s affordances [24] should therefore be seen as beneficial. However, architecture does not always speak for itself, and the inhabitants were not always able to notice or understand the options to utilise and modify wooden construction components even when they were exposed.

Fig. 1
figure 1

The understanding of timber properties. a) Skadbergbakken in Sola, Norway; b) Ölzbündt in Dornbirn, Austria; c) Mühlweg (B) in Vienna, Austria. Photographs: Ute Groba, Timber Tales, 2021

Experiences and atmospheres

On the other hand, architecture that is too expressive has been rejected for interfering with poetic and atmospheric qualities. To Peter Zumthor, an important quality of architecture and its atmospheres is to evoke emotions, to move him. This is more likely to happen when the architecture is multi-faceted and undetermined [25, 26]. This degree of vagueness is counteracted by overly expressive designs that are overburdened with the architect’s messages, making them “chatty” instead of enigmatic and open to personal interpretation [26, 27]. In order to let atmospheric experiences be in the foreground, details are often designed in a way that conceals the load-bearing principles or constructive build-up.

The enigmatic qualities of atmospheric architecture are difficult to express explicitly and unequivocally. They result from individual encounters with architecture and its multi-sensory experience. Some interviewed architects were sceptical about the inhabitants’ receptivity to subtle atmospheric qualities. The inhabitants’ differentiated and well-articulated reflections proved both the appreciation of such qualities and their importance for the residents (Fig. 2a).

Fig. 2
figure 2

The experience of timber atmospheres. a) Spöttlgasse in Vienna, Austria; b + c) Lobaugasse in Vienna, Austria. Photographs: Ute Groba, Timber Tales, 2021

The inhabitants’ experiences of and preferences for the placement and amount of exposed timber surfaces were both influenced by information and associations. For example, some experienced the room climate in timber buildings as better even though the material was not exposed. Others either saw wooden surfaces as inappropriate in urban contexts or in contrast appreciated being reminded of their home region. The views of others and the expert’s explanations turned out to have a game-changing effect on the appreciation of their home for some residents—for example, seeing their home through the eyes of another person when approving photographs taken during the interview and being surprised when enjoying the captured views. In another case, an interviewee became aware of qualities, design prioritisations and care for details that had been invisible to her before (Fig. 2b + c). Coincidental side notes about the architect’s design choices during the interview turned out to “beautify” and “up-value” the home for the resident, who enthusiastically stated that she now saw her home with a fresh view. Their verbal communication had made some qualities accessible in the first place.

Values and narratives

The values associated with a material are part of what informs its reception – its perceived beauty and suitability. For example, inhabitants who valued sustainable materials and forms of dwelling highly appreciated the appearance of wood and its changes differently than interviewees for whom value stability and reselling value were prioritised. In the same way, architects deeply invested in the various dimensions of sustainability cherished wood’s visual and atmospheric qualities differently than architects who saw wood’s value mainly in its practical upsides, such as its high precision and suitability for prefabrication. This also influenced their ambitions for exposing the wooden construction.

Many inhabitants valued timber for being a “living” material with positive health effects. For others, the “liveliness” of wood was rather an unsettling affair. Some saw individualisation and beauty in the greying or unevenly darkening of wooden facades (Fig. 3a), associating this with the course of time and with lived lives (Fig. 3b) or with an individualisation of the different buildings (Fig. 3c). Others interpreted this as a sign of negligence and decay and wished they could regularly reinstate the pristine light colour of freshly sawn wood.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Values may inform wood-related narratives. a) Mühlweg (A) in Vienna, Austria; b) Ölzbündt in Dornbirn, Austria; c) Skadbergbakken in Sola, Norway. Photographs: Ute Groba, Timber Tales, 2021

Furthermore, social values also changed the views on wooden materiality. Several interviewees indicated that a participatory design process not only made their voices heard with regard to plan layout, surface choices or negotiating shared amenities; it also facilitated getting to know future neighbours and fostered a good community. Experiencing good neighbourly relations in return made it easy to help each other with everyday needs or communicate in case of disturbance. It also made some inhabitants focus less on eventual constructive drawbacks (for example, regarding the sound insulation) and experience these as less negative.

Participatory design approaches that also focus on shared amenities and not just the individual’s “dream dwelling” should therefore be seen as beneficial.

Eloquent timber

The interviews with inhabitants of urban residential timber projects and recognised timber architects, together with the study of thematically related literature, suggest that three qualitative dimensions of materiality are important for the user when aiming for more lovable timber housing projects in urban areas: properties, experiences and values. They have been exemplified by focusing on the affordances, atmospheres and narratives addressed by the interviewees.

These three dimensions reflect back on the understandings of human well-being presented in the paper’s introduction; they focused on possibilities to interpret and influence one’s life situation, a longing for understanding and beauty, and the identification with larger value systems transcending one’s immediate context.

The interviews also provided insights into how one can influence the understanding and perception of wooden materiality, they inspired thoughts on ways to include the user perspective in different design stages, and they substantiated the necessity to identify and consolidate apparently contradictory design goals in order to increase the lovability of residential timber architecture.

Nudging understandings and perceptions

What a material allows the inhabitant to do (its affordances) and how reliable it is perceived to be depends not only on the material’s properties, placement, exposure and detailing, but also on what the user understands by the material presence. The understanding is influenced by each user’s previous knowledge and experience and can be enhanced by additional information.

Likewise, the experience of wooden materials and their beauty, atmospheric qualities and effects on well-being and health is influenced by knowledge, the opinion of others, associations, or one’s cultural background.

How the materiality ties in with one’s values, individual or shared, influences the material’s appreciation as well, and may become part of a narrative, for example, about the material’s provenience and processing, about the course of life, or about the shared values and social ties in a neighbourhood community. This is influenced by one’s knowledge background, additional communication, collective agreement, social norms, habits and traditions. Some apprehensions are first made accessible through communication.

Intersubjective design processes

What the properties, experiences and values entail in detail needs to be defined and negotiated for each project. This needs to be done intersubjectively, which means in a collaborative effort where architect and inhabitant meet on eye level, as “true participants”.

In conventional design processes, a building’s messages are informed by the architect’s design intentions, along with—among others—building codes and the consultant’s interpretation of technical requirements, craftspeople’s ability and care, and the availability and quality of resources. With the exception of private commissions, inhabitants of larger residential projects rarely have a voice in the design process and need to decipher from the built result how to use, adapt and modify their dwelling.

Connecting both ends of this linear process, and allowing inhabitants to participate in the design process, will have a substantial influence on the lovability of architecture, as the gained knowledge of and sensitivity to other perspectives will inform both future design choices and the messages received from buildings. Two-way communication not only enhances the inhabitant’s understanding of constructive, spatial and surface choices, as well as the values behind these design decisions and their consequences for use, modification and adaptability; it will also make architects aware of the users’ needs and desires; associations and emotional reactions; financial or practical restraints; worldview and values.

The user’s updated and extended knowledge background, reference frameworks and awareness of design efforts become a broader context for individual preferences, values and subsequent choices. Architects become acquainted with the actual affordances, atmospheres and narratives of interest for each project and respective user group. Rather than architects dedicating their efforts to a top-down production of inaccessible or irrelevant architectural qualities, the qualities’ intersubjective definition, negotiation and materialisation makes their lovability more probable. It may also close the gap between the "language of architecture" and the language used by architects to communicate their design intentions [28], helping to find "appropriate expression for effective social participation" [6]. This does not render the architect’s role less important. The interviews indicated that the architect’s competence is both required and appreciated when it comes to streamlining the various inputs into a functionally, formally and constructively coherent whole as well as when communicating important design efforts and qualities.

Even when projects do not allow for a participatory design process and the architect cannot meet the actual future inhabitants of a building, focus group workshops or post-occupancy evaluation (POE) can yield valuable insights. As this research argues, these encounters not only disclose individual preferences, but reveal the reasoning behind these preferences and how they are embedded in everyday life situations. These findings are valid beyond the individual participant, as well as for materials other than timber. They may update the architect’s assumptions about the imagined user criticised in the introduction. Considering the desirable lifetime of a building, subsequent inhabitants who have not been part of the design phase will outnumber first time occupants. The aim is not necessarily to design highly personalised dwellings, but rather highly personal architecture that invites manifold interpretation. As suggested in the introduction, this relates eloquence, rather than mostly unambiguous social language, to poetic language that opens up for a "plurality of meanings" [6].

It also extends the user’s typical role, making the inhabitant part of the prefiguration of a project (the understanding of its context, which the user’s concerns should be a part of), its configuration (its design, which among others represents an opportunity to build neighbourhood communities when involving future inhabitants) and its refiguration (changes and adaptions made by the inhabitant over time, understanding the design phase as unfinished when the architects have done their part) [29].Footnote 1

Balancing conflicting design ambitions

Sometimes, the intersubjectively defined properties, experiences and values are not readily transferable to design moves. When materiality is expected to communicate these, for example, to disclose possible uses, convey atmospheres and pass on narratives, these may result in conflicting ambitions that need to be negotiated and balanced. While the display of affordances may be supported by tectonic articulation, and the conveying of atmosphere may be facilitated by tectonic secrecy, these design ambitions do not need to exclude another. Projects that are both atmospherically engaging and allow for an understanding of their build-up require the architect’s constructive competence, artistic sensitivity and sincere engagement with the user’s concerns, as much as an early and candid collaboration with technical consultants and sometimes producers. These are preconditions for architectural eloquence.

Eloquent timber

When wooden materiality by way of its placement, exposure and detailing communicates balanced qualities that are informed by a collaborative involvement of both the architect’s and the inhabitants’ expertise, the material’s messages become eloquent – both accessible, convincing and plurivalent. In addition to convincing through environmental and production-related upsides, eloquent timber also engages by way of sensations and emotions. This is capable of rendering wooden materiality relatable and meaningful to the inhabitant. Inspiring a more imaginative, diversified and personal architecture, eloquent timber is an important contribution to architecture’s lovability and longevity.

Notes

  1. Pérez-Gómez refers to various works by philosopher Ricoeur in the chapter cited above, among others to the three cited types of figuration. The adaptions to the concerns of this paper in brackets have been added by the author.

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Correspondence to Ute Christina Groba.

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Funding and competing interests

This paper draws on material included in the doctoral thesis “Timber Tales: A Qualitative Study of Timber Materiality in Housing Projects”, defended June 29, 2021 at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO). The research leading to these results was funded by AHO.

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As part of the doctoral research, all interview data has been registered and treated according to the guidelines provided by the Norwegian Centre for Research Data (NSD).

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Groba, U.C. Eloquent timber: Tacit qualities, telling materiality, and the inhabitants’ voice. Archit. Struct. Constr. (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s44150-022-00029-w

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Keywords

  • Architecture
  • Materiality
  • Timber
  • Qualitative interviews
  • User
  • Participatory design