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 , helping to find "appropriate expression for effective social participation" . 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" .
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) .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.
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.