Frames for Freedom – Urban Alternative for a Detached House
At Kruunuvuorenranta in Helsinki, there is a rarity: a Finnish apartment building whose homes were sold as raw space. Architect and developer share their thoughts on the project.
Architect’s Viewpoint: ”You just have to let go of the control”
Architect PIA ILONEN, Harkko is the second manifestation of the raw space concept that you have been developing since 2003. It was previously applied in the block of flats Tila (2011) at Arabianranta in Helsinki, which you also designed. How has the concept evolved since then?
When Tila was on the drawing board, civil servants in the City of Helsinki were amenable to the idea, and creative innovation was encouraged. I was able to perfect the two-stage construction strategy, making it so good and so simple that nothing had to be changed when Harkko came around. The concept involves selling studio apartments where the wet area is finished, meaning that the homes are habitable as far as the authorities are concerned. Residents can then fit out the raw space as they wish; in apartments with enough ceiling height, they can even put in a loft to increase the space available, as long as they comply with laws and regulations, just as in any other home renovation. Empirical studies among residents over ten years have demonstrated that the concept works extremely well. The outdoor-corridor design has benefits too: it fosters community, allows building services ducts to be housed in service shafts outside the apartments and is affordable to build. The developer in the Harkko project wanted to build the building with a steel frame and block-built walls, and it is thus possible to merge apartments. Our development discussions mainly concerned whether we should offer various interior design concepts for DIY homemakers. As it turned out, there was no need for this, so the customers buying studio apartments were invited to choose one of several loft floor templates to be installed during the first stage of construction, which is what we did in Tila.
Why has the raw space concept not become popular in Finland, even though the pilot site was so successful?
The concept offers an urban alternative for people whose dream is to own a detached house, and a risk-free one at that: after all, it is the developer who does the heavy lifting in putting up the walls and offering prospective residents a ready-made space. But property developers are not interested in selling just a plot, as it were. For the pilot project, I found a developer who was familiar with the idea of involving residents in the design process, but the culture in the property development industry has since become harder. Perhaps the concept in the Tila project is not all that well known in Finland, or perhaps its strategic essence has been overshadowed by the trendy loft style. That is a shame, because in Finland, unlike in many other countries, legislation and regulations quite easily allow for this approach. What we have done has been appreciated particularly in central Europe, where resident-driven design has been part of the culture of housing construction for a long time. It was a pleasant surprise for me when the exceptionally broad-minded property developer behind the Harkko project got in touch with me in 2014.
You have also designed several conventional apartment buildings. How did the design process for Harkko differ from those?
You just have to let go of the control that goes with the architect’s profession! All I did here was to design the frame, and the homes themselves did not emerge until the residents took charge of them, using their own designers and builders as needed. Of course, I had to anticipate future usage by designing the spaces and apertures to be as adaptable as possible. Many residents, typically young families with children, will continue to remodel their homes over the years as their needs change.
Harkko occupies a prominent location on the waterfront in the new district of Kruunuvuorenranta. How did the landscape context influence the design?
We were originally looking for a foursquare plot at Kalasatama, in one of the perimeter blocks of Verkkosaari, because I thought that the simplicity of such a site would work best with the key notion in the concept of producing “maximum space at minimum cost”, to quote the slogan of the artists of Soho in New York in the 1950s. Individualist architecture can be fit even into a run-of-the-mill town plan, thanks to the loft-like proportions of this concept.
When we were instead given a plot in a prominent location at Kruunuvuorenranta, we were able to make full use of the potential of the concept to produce impressive results. Once the Kruunuvuori bridge is completed, Harkko will be visible to everyone travelling from the city centre to Kruunuvuorenranta, forming part of the seafront elevation of the new district. On the other hand, we had to consider that the building forms part of the uniform perimeter of a large city block in the middle of which there will be taller, light-coloured apartment buildings. Because of this, we designed the colour scheme of our building to echo the colours of the granite cliffs and trees surrounding the site. Artist Jaakko Niemelä created portraits of the trees felled at the site for the courtyard.
Harkko is considerably more coarse in appearance than contemporary Finnish apartment buildings in general. What led you to this approach?
The design process simply involved stacking blocks on top of one another, and the building definitely shows it. We laid identical apartments out to create two volumes aligned with the streets, and at the ends of the buildings we had to design quirky apartments to fill up the space left over and to make the elevations excitingly chunky too. There is a tension between the two volumes, so it was only natural to create an entry piazza between them to admit light into the courtyard. The two top floors are slightly less tall than the others, to allow us to keep the building under the maximum height specified in the local plan. In front of the glass wall, we made a copy of the wood lattice wall that I designed for the green elevations of a housing block in Jätkäsaari, to filter the sunlight and to soften the appearance of the building. ↙
Interview: Kristo Vesikansa
Developer’s Viewpoint: ”Harkko finally demonstrated that it is possible to break free of conventional thinking in this industry”
How did you end up involved in neo-loft construction, TEA EKENGREN-SAURÉN, Chairman of the Board of Directors of EKE?
Housing construction has been pretty much the same since the 1960s, with everyone being offered standard template designs. The housing market has lacked a model that would flexibly adapt to changing life situations. People value being able to stay in the same area, and there is no need to move out of your home if you can just adapt it as your circumstances change.
We had built four neo-loft apartment buildings in Vantaa before. Buyers felt that it was rather a high threshold that they had to build everything themselves in the raw space, so we began to tweak the concept and ease the path towards moving into a neo-loft home by offering some ready-made designs.
When we met Pia Ilonen we realised that we had common interests. While our work with Pia does involve designing raw space, at Harkko the wet rooms are also delivered in a finished state, and buyers can choose from a couple of options for the loft floor. Demand has been high. Harkko finally demonstrated that it is possible to break free of conventional thinking in this industry.
How is the design and construction process different for the developer company in a raw space project?
The frame and its details have to be more carefully designed, and that requires more work and incurs more costs. You cannot hide anything behind skirting boards or in conduits, and making repairs is expensive and difficult, so you have to find a designer and a builder who know what they are doing. Also, the building services interface must be carefully designed so that it is as easy as possible for the buyer to take it from there. On the other hand, not having to build intermediate walls, finish the surfaces and install kitchens lowers costs and saves time.
The construction site procedures are different from what we are used to. For instance, you can’t make markings on the walls with a marker pen or walk across the floor with paint-stained boots. After all, those surfaces may remain visible to the buyer. You have to get the builders committed to this new way of doing things.
In terms of time, Harkko did not take any longer than a conventional build. However, the project was a test case for costs, and there is still work to be done with the customising. We were constantly thinking how to make the concept more cost-efficient both for us and for the residents, but without omitting anything essential, such as the large windows or the high ceilings.
Does EKE have plans for further such projects?
We will begin building a neo-loft site at Kalasatama in 2023, also designed by Pia Ilonen. We get inquiries all the time. To keep the price of these raw-space apartments attractive for buyers, we cannot build these buildings on the most expensive real estate in Helsinki, and the plot also has to be of a suitable shape to allow for designing a rational building. We are pioneers in this field, and other construction companies are coming around to exploring designs that are more adaptable and more sustainable in the long term. ↙
Interview: Essi Oikarinen