Anssi Lassila has been a busy man, of late. The Finnish architect has scarcely had a chance to enjoy the all-too-short Finnish summer — the weather finally turned at the beginning of the month — as the long days can also mean longer hours in the office. As the chair of the most recent Alvar Aalto Symposium, he’s spent the summer coordinating speakers from around the world on top of his responsibilities as the principal of his own atelier, OOPEAA, which has offices in Helsinki and Seinäjoki.
Indeed, this summer saw the completion of the first of three mid-rise towers in the Puukuokka Housing Block. Rising eight stories atop a hill in a residential neighborhood of Jyväskylä — downtown is just a few minutes away by car, across a short bridge spanning Lake Jyväsjärvi — the brand new building is the tallest timber residential building in Finland thanks largely to the modular construction method behind it.
OOPEAA worked with manufacturer Stora Enso to design a building that could well-serve as a case study for how prefabricated elements yield impressive results while reducing the cost and construction time. “The Stora Enso concept was still in its very preliminary stages at the start of the project,” says Lassila, noting that it started in 2011. “OOPEAA has been important in evolving many of the solutions applied in the final iteration of the Stora Enso Multi-Story concept.”
He also notes that the modules are fabricated just half an hour from the site and that the process has been highly symbiotic. “In addition to collaborating in developing a system that satisfies the technical requirements, the role of the architect has been crucial in helping to streamline the overall management of the production process and in making it possible to achieve high quality in the end result.”
Beyond the innovative approach to construction, Lassila also notes that Puukuokka boasts a unique financing model, as well, a lease-to-own model that is the first of its kind in Finland. “A seven-percent downpayment on the purchase price of an apartment allows the purchaser to secure a state-guaranteed loan, and, through rental payments over a period of 20 years, the purchaser gradually acquires full ownership of the unit.”
The apartments themselves are well worth the low-cost, low-risk investment: the design itself is understated and livable, characterized by timber elements and detailing that impart a sense of warmth to a relatively large apartment building in a suburban context. All three of the towers feature a slight bend at their center, alternating to the effect that the site plan looks like a meandering path down the hillside, oriented on a north-south axis flanking OOPEAA’s Kuokkala Church, across the street to the west, like a crenellated parapet atop the hill.
Each one is laid out as a pair of trapezoids that might be described as an exponential accretion of modules: each unit is composed of two different modules — one with the kitchen, bathroom, and foyer; the other with the living room, bedroom, and balcony — with four units per floor per wing, accessed via a spine-like central corridor, which is open to the full height of the building at various points, and a wedge-shaped atrium at the bend. Boasting a full-height stretch of windows at both the north and south ends as well as the entryways in the middle, the whitewashed common area offers yet another contrast to the various woods of the exterior and interior.
The buildings are clad in larch, to the effect that the dark-gray coloration of three façades of each building echoes the slate cladding of the church just a stone’s throw away; the courtyard-side façade, which faces the church, is left in its natural honey-blond color. It is on this western elevation that upwards of a dozen enclosed balconies protrude, Jenga-like, from each building — not quite as incongruous as the fully glazed boxes that protrude from the red-brick façade of OOPEAA’s Kompassi Block — while the balance of the units have recessed balconies.
Inside, the well-appointed interiors could easily make for a cozy place to call home. After all, sustainability is embedded not only in the architecture itself, but rather its continued inhabitance, and the 20-year financing model offers a compelling reason to invest in an apartment in Puukuokka. Indeed, tenants have already started moving in, with 80 percent of the units sold so far, and the two other buildings are on track for completion in 2016 and 2017.
Although it is precisely its social significance that would be difficult (if not impossible) to reproduce, the project's economically and ecologically conscientious construction sets a high standard for affordable housing in any context. “Puukuokka is an excellent example of productive collaboration between architects and engineers in developing a new concept that can be applied in other cases, as well,” says Lassila. “While parts of the final design solution offered are specific to the case of Puukuokka, parts of it can be directly implemented as a foundation for a solution to be replicated, also, elsewhere.”
If the Kuokkala Church was a kind of beacon on the hill, OOPEAA continues its proverbial ascent with the Puukuokka Housing Block, and we fully expect to see more great things from Lassila and his growing practice in the near future.