Conversation: Studio Granda

“The sands of an arctic volcanic desert are black, shadowless and constantly shifting. There are no trees, buildings or roads and footprints are instantly erased. To survive one must watch the celestial bodies, focus on the horizon, heed the warning of the winds and make clear and precise judgements. The necessary acuteness of thought and tuning of the senses is equivalent to the practice of architecture where listening, reevaluation and production are all equally interdependent.” – Beginning of Studio Granda’s practice statement, found at http://www.studiogranda.is/

Today I met with Steve Christer from Studio Granda.  He started the firm with Margrét Hardardóttir in 1987, a few years after completing their studies at the Architectural Association in London.  They have a completed as number of notable buildings in Reykjavik, such as the City Hall and Reykjavik Art Museum as well as a variety of other school, private residence, and urban projects.

Setting up meetings during the major travel season (for tourists as well as Icelandic people) has been a challenge. The work day starts earlier here in Reykjavik.  After trying to juggle travel schedules, we found the only time we could both meet was at the right at the start of their week, Monday at 7:30 am.  Their office is just a few blocks from the water in an unassuming 2 story building set back behind another low building that Studio Granda is currently renovating.  Our meeting was brief but provided a useful perspective as I began my research in Iceland.

Q: How did the financial crisis affect Studio Granda’s practice?
A: Studio Granda estimates that 90% of their projects came to a halt during a period 10 days. Because they had a diversity of projects and clients they thought they might be more insulated from the crash, but unfortunately that was not the case.  They had nine people in the firm, and now they have two.  But, with their reduced size they have been able to do relatively well. For example, I saw drawings for interior renovations and a new private residence, and they have teaching positions.  However, the market has yet to turn and there are still limited prospects.

Q: Several Studio Granda projects have been held up as examples of sustainable design. The Reykjavik City Hall has green moss walls that appear to float atop Tjörnin lake (the lake where the first inhabitants of Iceland settled). Their Hof Residence in Skagafordur was recently featured in the New York Times.  How do they approach sustainability?
A: Steve is critical of branding designs as “sustainable” and suggested that Iceland has not developed in that way.  I got the impression from his and others’ reactions that there are many students and researchers who come to Iceland looking for some sort of utopia of clean energy and green buildings, and that this is an over-simplification that ignores past developments based on greed, profits, or shortsightedness.
For over a thousand years Iceland was poor and life was based on subsistence- this is inherently low impact and in that sense sustainable. But with the trend of a rising standard of living and wealth, growth was embraced and sustainability was not at all a main factor.  Furthermore, there is a difference between the image of sustainability (dripping moss walls at the city hall) and the actuality of it (the city hall is not intended to be nor does it function as an “ecological“ building).
In Iceland there is more built space can be used- that is not sustainable.  Steve suggests a legitimate method towards actually sustainability is to reuse and make existing spaces function with the current needs.

Q: Adaptive reuse is a valid strategy, but are there times when there are new needs that cannot be fulfilled with the current building stock? Furthermore, is being limited to reuse essentially self-defeating as an architect?  If new development is going to occur, shouldn’t it attempt to do so in a non-detrimental way? What about the Hof Residence- that seems to have a very specific relation to the site and use of materiality?
A: Of Studio Granda’s projects, that ones comes the closest to fulfilled what can be defined as “sustainable.” It is oriented to let in daylight but protect from strong sun angles, and uses turf as the roof material.  It incorporates local materials and uses concrete, which can be produced in Iceland. The house is also a very well used space, as the family has many visitors.  The family breeds horses on the property, which is a staple of the economy in Skagafordur.  The high profile family and project helped attract attention to the region and in this way helps to bolster the economy of the area. But there are several caveats. For example, the source of stones for the floors was extremely local, but it had to be shipped out to a mason who could cut it. Also, it is a large (3000sf) private residence located away from a town.

More images of the Hof house can be found at http://www.archdaily.com/13324/hof-residence-studio-granda/

Q: Does the long history of turf houses in Iceland make it a more obvious choice?
A: Despite the abundant examples of turf as a roof material, Studio Granda still had to do a bit of convincing to assure the Icelandic client that the turf roof would not leak or be a maintenance issue.

Q: What does a typical wall section for a building look like in Iceland?
A: Nowadays, they typically use approximately 150mm of concrete with 4” of insulation and the interior layer.    This is not necessarily proportionate to level of insulation usage in comparison to the US. Although as a whole the heating load is larger in Iceland, the winters are not more extreme than in New York City.  The upper level of Studio Granda’s office is a concrete wall with two air gaps that are separated by a vapor barrier- this functions relatively well as an insulator.   Steve described to the manner in which the surrounding buildings protect from cold winds, and the certain areas that have local conditions that make them less comfortable.  While perhaps sensitivity to site has not been a ubiquitous guiding principle for Icelandic buildings, Studio Granda certainly has a refined awareness of it.

Q: What are some of Studio Granda’s ongoing projects and prospects for the future? 
A: During the discussion there was a model on the table for a large single-family residence, relations of the owners of the Hof Residence.  Monochromatic and at a small scale, the elegant roof form was the first noticeable design element.  Reacting to a trapezoidal site, the roof  along one end is flat, which creates a modern roof line. As it spans the building footprint it becomes pleated and contracted, changing in section to something that abstractly references the traditional gable front “burstabær” of the turf houses.

Iceland may not have a large amount of natural resources and the economy is now sluggish- but some of the materials at their disposal are light, shadow, and the talents of Icelandic people.

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