2 / 2013 - detached houses

Three out of four Finns would like to live in a single-family house. The main article of the issue examines the development of low-rise housing in Finland. Within the last hundred years the detached house, the semi-detached house and the terraced house have become alternatives to the block of flats. A carpet of low-rise dwellings has spread on the perimeters of cities, and families shuttle to work, to do their shopping and to their hobbies by car or often even by two cars. Long drives consume time and increase the carbon footprint. The wish to combine ecology and the dream of living in a single-family home has brought to the idea of townhouse areas, where services are close by and public transportation is fluent. In Helsinki alone over two million metres square of new gross floor area have been zoned for townhouses, but the building type is unfamiliar to the Finns and there is very little demand. Construction companies and house package factories have not seized the momentum. Is it possible for the Finnish dream of living to become more urban? This issue of Arkkitehti features nine different kinds of detached houses.


An architect-researcher examines the development of low-rise housing in Finland. Alongside the detached and terraced house, townhouse is making its appearance in the Finnish housing typology.

Peace and quiet, proximity to nature, a private yard and availability of services top the list of Finns’ housing preferences. Detached housing is still the favoured mode of housing although the popularity of high rise housing is slightly on the rise. Aspirations to live in a detached house are particularly popular with young people and families with children. Sustainable development, easy access to public services and a viable public transport system, however, necessitate high-density urban models. We are therefore faced with the task of developing housing concepts that retain the benefits of detached housing even if individual units are in close proximity. One of the types favoured by planners is the townhouse after the Central European model. In Finland the occupant profile of this house type remains vague, even if a considerable amount of land has been allocated for townhouse development by planners.

Detached housing in 20th century Finland

The concept of the detached house is linked to urbanisation and industrialisation. The garden city model launched by urban planner Ebenezer Howard in 1898, according to which a major city was to be surrounded by a belt of smaller towns, with ample greenery, so-called garden cities, which would provide an ideal form of housing not only for the middle class but also for the working man. Detached housing close to nature and tending a garden was considered a healthy living environment especially for children. Cities were seen as being unsafe, unsanitary and overcrowded. Bourgeois villas and working class detached houses based on type drawings form the background of Finnish low-rise housing. Finland’s agrarian tradition and rather late urbanisation have also influenced the popularity of low-rise housing. The idiom “My home is my castle” fits the Finnish mental landscape, where people are accustomed to living far from others and making their own decisions. Perhaps the roots of our scattered mode of low-rise housing go back to the Great Land Reform of the 1700s, when villages with groups of houses close together disappeared and farmers started to build their houses and farm buildings in the middle of the farmland they had been allocated. Village communities scattered and the return to a more community-oriented and denser housing appears to have taken little short of three centuries.

The first type drawings for detached houses appeared in the 1910s. Planned working class housing areas with wooden detached houses appeared in Helsinki’s Vallila area and Tammela, in Tampere. The Käpylä garden suburb in Helsinki was built in the 1920s. The building of hygienic, well-lit houses meeting new ideals of living, with separated functions for each room, started with the rise of Modernism. Alvar Aalto’s private house from the 1930s and Villa Mairea are internationally the best known examples of private houses of that era in Finland. The simple, unadorned modernist villas also influenced the designs of type buildings and the clear-cut square layout was based on rooms designed for different functions: living room, kitchen and bedroom.

The rehousing of displaced people after the Second World War faced the State with a special task. The architectural profession contributed to the joint effort by producing type drawings for housing war veterans. The form of the archetypal house, a cube with a pitched roof and a chimney in the middle still represents the paradigm of an energy efficient detached house. Although the war veteran houses are popular now, they were criticised in the late 1950s. By then the ideals of modern detached housing had shifted to single-level living, extensive areas of glass, the fluidity of living and dining areas and direct connection with the back garden. Roof pitches were lowered or flattened completely. Architect-designed private houses were modelled after Danish, American and Japanese examples.

The spirit of the family-oriented 1950s was conducive to rekindling the garden suburb movement. Tapiola was built so that houses and services were located within “pram pushing distance”. In 1954 Eila Jokela wrote in the periodical Kaunis Koti about Helsinki’s new affiliate town: “this is exactly how future residents of Helsinki should live: close to nature, yet only a few minutes’ bus ride away from the city. We should consider fortunate the children and young people who can spend their formative years in Tapiola, where modern housing culture and Finnish nature go hand in hand.” Today an article on the future of housing would be very similar, but instead of a bus ride we would talk about the Metro.

In the 1960s, the era of area development, detached housing production became an industry. Type designs were produced without mention of the architect, and houses were sold by mental imagery, such as “in a brick-built home there’s a happy family”. Modular constructivism inspired architects and engineers to develop system houses, in Finland e.g. the Domino and Bungalow houses. The era also produced some futuristic experiments, including Matti Suuronen’s Futuro, one of which is now on display in the Espoo Museum of Modern Art EMMA. In order to revive detached housing construction, which had been overshadowed by high-rise development, the first Finnish Housing Fair, in 1970, was held in Tuusula.

The division of private houses into two categories, unique, architect-designed private houses and system houses has continued to this day, but the gap between the two has increased since the 1970s. Package houses started to live a life of their own under the dictates of consumerism and advertising. Cuckoo-clock houses in the 1970s, split brick castles with hipped roofs in the 1980s and romantic wooden houses emulating manor houses in the 2000s, perhaps responded to people’s desire to express themselves and their way of life through the homes they owned. Only now in the 2010s, can a return to simpler designs be seen in the catalogues of system house manufacturers. Energy efficiency requirements place restrictions on detached housing. It appears that we have reached the limit of growth in the floor areas of houses.

The terraced house as an alternative to detached housing

Terraced or row housing is considered a community-oriented mode of housing. If community spirit is measured by the frequency with which you chat with your neighbours, those living in terraced or semi-detached houses have the closest ties with their neighbours. Neighbourly relations have to be maintained as matters of the housing organisation, such as snow ploughing or tending to the garden, have to be managed jointly. According to the Ministry of the Environment 2004 survey, it was security-oriented well-to-do families with kids who opted for terraced housing. A private garden is a recurring criterion of good housing in various studies. What those surveys have not provided an answer for is why a garden of your own is so important. Does it concern a private view and domain or function – what activity takes place in the garden? Could a big patio or a balcony replace the private garden, or is it a question of contact with the earth and man’s primitive relationship with the soil that feeds him? With regard to terraced houses and the garden, articles in the press point to such factors as the ease of shifting sports gear outside and the fact that kids can play outdoors while the parents can keep an eye on them from the house.

The heyday of terraced housing in Finland began in the 1950s. Before that only a few had been built in Finland – in the garden suburbs of the 1910s and 1920s and as workers’ housing in connection with industrial establishments. Armas Lindgren’s Ribbingshof, built in 1916 in Kulosaari, is considered Finland’s first terraced house project. Eliel Saarinen’s terraced houses on Hollantilaisentie, in Helsinki’s Munkkiniemi district followed soon after. Urban plans following the principles of the English garden city included several terraced houses, but few were realised.

In the early 1900s the terraced house was still considered cheap, barracks-like and something of a “lower grade” housing type. Perhaps this image originated from terraced housing projects with no conveniences built for workers. Row houses became an established housing type in suburban areas during the housing shortage of the 1950s. Houses were sensitively sited in the terrain, often designed for zones between high-rise and detached housing. Among the first examples were Hilding Ekelund’s terraced houses in Helsinki’s Oulunkylä district, and Ahti and Esko Korhonen’s Ekonomitalot project in Lauttasaari dating back to 1952. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of their housing company, the residents’ association of the Maunula (part of Oulunkylä) terraced houses published a book, Meidän rivari, in 2012 on the history of their housing company, the architect, and the everyday lives of the occupants. The book opens an intriguing window onto the community spirit of this form of housing and the story of one individual terraced house. The back cover feature a poignant quote from Hilding Ekelund that is well suited to describe the goals of low-rise housing: “Good architecture should be filled with broad-mindedness, life, warmth and a social mentality, congeniality and smiling allure.”

The terraced housing building boom generated several examples of high-quality architecture, for example in Tapiola. Atrium houses were a typical 1960s solution to designing linked low-rise dwellings, while giving each unit its own private outdoor area. During the late 1960s, when high-rise development prevailed, the volume of low-rise fell, only to see the Regionalist counter movement to the concrete-built suburbs emerge in the 1970s. The ideals of tæt–lav, low-rise, high-density, building that arrived in Finland from Denmark include compact street spaces and residential buildings of two to three stories, including terraced and small-scale blocks of flats. Later the terraced house became a kind of standard product for developers. Two-storey terraced houses with a pitched roof are designed after the same model all around the country and built at an affordable price. They do not involve the same kind of ‘dream home’ aspect as detached houses. The occupants’ influence on their appearance and size are as limited as with high-rise housing.

Townhouse – the detached house of the future

The competition for taxpayers among municipalities along the margins of cities has led to a land policy where sites for detached houses are planned on arable land with little regard for wider sustainability or regional development. The dispersal of housing leads to an increase in private motoring and centralisation of services in shopping malls along traffic arteries. Car ownership has continued to increase and the proportion of carless households is falling. Commuting distances in low-rise residential areas have increased. Of people who do not own a car, 91 per cent live in a block of flats. When you choose to live in a low-rise home, you in practice choose to drive a car. With public transport, changes included, your journey to work, e.g. from Espoo to central Helsinki may take three times as long as by private car. In these circumstances concern for your carbon footprint easily yields to the needs of managing your everyday life, despite the moral pressure to use public transport.

People’s living aspirations change slowly. In a life situation with children, with whom you spend time outdoors daily, the significance of a private yard increases. Spacious dwellings close to nature become an attractive option. A high-density, low-rise residential area along a railway line could fulfil the residents’ wishes without forgetting the environmental aspect. Planners have in recent years favoured townhouse-type dwellings when planning low-rise, high-density residential areas. To date in Finland few houses that share side walls have been built, but if the new urban plans are realised, in the future there will be tens of thousands of them. In Helsinki alone the planned floor area of townhouse development in the new residential areas exceeds two million square metres. However, as of yet, there are few options on offer when it comes to type designs or system houses. In competitive bidding for plot allocation there has been a shortage of clients, as Finns have not so far found the narrow and tall house type desirable and demand has been sluggish. We are faced with the question of whether the townhouse is simply an idée fixe of architects, a fad without inhabitants?

The townhouse differs from the modern Finnish-type terraced house in that its plan depth is usually greater and facade correspondingly narrower than that of latter. There are usually more than two storeys. A townhouse may be a part of a more extensive housing company or it may have its own plot so that every segment in a row can be designed and built separately. In Finland terraced houses are often grouped around gardens whereas the townhouse borders a street. In Central Europe the townhouse is expressly a form of urban living. When the architecture students at Aalto University this spring were given a project to design townhouse dwellings in Myllypuro, a Central-European student was puzzled about the paradox – a townhouse in a suburb, in the middle of the woods? Elsewhere in Europe the houses are flanked by streets even on both of the narrow sides, with little or no private yard, in a high-density urban context. Perhaps we should develop a new high-density, low-rise typology for the Finnish context, where we could apply Finnish building regulations and plot configurations.

Developing the Finnish townhouse

Reasons for the lack of enthusiasm for townhouses among Finnish builders and consumers can be found in residential building regulations as well as in the non-existent marketing and lack of examples. Many feel uncomfortable about the idea of living on several, even three to four levels. Our accessibility regulations, for example, are stricter than those in Holland. A dwelling on many floors also becomes too big and expensive for a single family, which makes the possibility of subdividing the unit an important concern. This in turn creates the requirement of stairway fire compartmentation. A second fire escape from the top floor also calls for extra arrangements. In a dwelling consisting of several stories, both unhindered access from the street and from one floor to another must be resolved. We would therefore have to invest in the development of lifts and lifting equipment.

Building wall-to-wall to the perimeter of neighbouring plots creates challenges for self build. You have to agree on common rules. The foundations and party walls between dwellings should ideally be constructed simultaneously. This makes joint-venture building a suitable way of constructing townhouses. However, a successful result in joint-venture building requires a professional coordinator – something to consider for the architect and when developing the services of an architectural practice. A few low-rise joint-venture building projects, e.g. Karin Krokfors’ Kellokas semis or Jakob Solla’s Arabian Ateljeeasunnot, were both architect-driven projects.

The City of Helsinki organised a townhouse design competition for the Jätkäsaari and Kruunuvuorenranta areas in 2010. Architect Heikki Muntola’s winning entry features dwellings divided into two separate zones: circulation and auxiliary spaces, and family and living areas. The architecture is clean-cut. It may be, however, that the low-rise urban townhouses designed for seaside plots remain out of reach for ordinary Helsinki residents. A townhouse accessible to all income classes is called for. A multidisciplinary research project about to begin at Aalto University will study options for a reasonably priced townhouse, technical solutions and feasibility in Finland. Project partners are currently being sought from among building industry and system house manufacturers. Development work and experimental building results can be expected by the end of the decade.

Ebenezer Howard’s old garden city principles seem to be alive and well in low-rise residential area planning. The justification for a close-to-nature, child friendly typology of living is surprisingly similar to what it was a hundred years ago or at the time of building Tapiola in the 1950s. People’s desire to have a contact with nature, to let children run free in the yard and to tend a garden remains constant, it is only the ways to achieve this dream that change.

Professor Pirjo Sanaksenaho prepares her dissertation on detached houses in the 1950s–60s at Aalto University.


A low-rise group of three apartments has been fitted along the courtyard alley running through a historical Jugend style city block.

address Huvilakuja 14
gross area 460 m2
completion 2012

The ensemble of two single-family houses in Northern Tapiola, on a site situated between a park and a busy road, was realised as a self-initiated co-housing project.

address Northern Tapiola
gross area 442 m2
completion 2011

The house was designed both as artist Ritva Puotila’s home and showroom. A special feature is the versatile connection between the interi­or spaces and the carefully framed exterior spaces, ter­races, balconies and an atrium yard.

address Espoo
gross area 590 m2
completion 2011

The heated living quarters and unheated summer sleeping huts of the villa are grouped around a sheltered and partly covered atrium yard. The structures are built entirely of wood.

address Puutossalmi, Kuopio
gross area 130 m2
completion 2012

The villa is the all-year-round base in Finland for a family currently living abroad. An atrium yard splits the house situated between cliffs and a fairly steep lakeside beach.

address Hirvensalmi
gross area 122 m2
completion 2009

The hospitality villa on the Estate of Söderlångviks, which contains residential and reception facilities, consists of a low, black sauna section and a taller silver-grey section.

address Sundsvedjavägen 200, Dragsfjärd
gross area 260 m2
completion 2010

The free-form-shaped house was designed as a single-family home and work place situated amidst the lake landscape of central Finland. The client had wished that the starting point would be organic architecture.

address Central Finland
gross area 387 m2
completion 2010

Näköislehti: Site Logic