Designing and building with wood.
In my training as an architect I had the opportunity to approach the subject of prefabricated buildings while completing my degree thesis on Architecture and Prefabricated Buildings at the Milan Polytechnic University in the 1980s, a time when in Italy this building technique was considered highly dubious; it was a low-performance technology and related construction techniques that could not guarantee the construction of authoritative, credible and customized buildings. Consequently it was mainly used for the construction of industrial buildings, factories and offices, and considered unsuitable for domestic buildings.
Considered a 'partial' construction system and a purely technical solution, prefabricated buildings were often used to create 'less' prestigious projects as opposed to 'unique' and non-repeatable architecture projects, with the exception of a few prestigious and successful examples such as the industrial landscape architectures for the headquarters of important Italian brands; the projects of Architect Angelo Mangiarotti, a complex and multifaceted creative figure, as an innovator was interested in experimenting with technologies to design buildings composed of modular parts, thus moving beyond the relationship between technique and formal result.
Angelo Mangiarotti was an architect and a free experimenter like anyone who approaches materials and new technologies with a curious and open-minded approach.
Despite the perplexity and research by a few professionals and construction companies, years later we see a much needed development of real estate in Italy, which has been redeveloped and strengthened to the extent that green building is now being used to design and build truly sustainable projects.
Amidst innovation, research, experimentation with new materials and new choices, a global trend is emerging that involves a new design culture and new design paradigms for everyone: designers are faced with a setting that needs to be understood and tested.
To focus on the current situation and engage in a dialogue with professionals on the subject of design reality and the evolution of the sector and prefabricated construction, we interviewed Architect Luca Compri of LCA architetti, an expert in sustainable architecture who, following a professional decision, 'thinks' and designs wooden architecture based on the modularity of pre-built parts to be assembled on site.
Designing wood houses is a courageous choice in Italy today.
Luca, what do new technologies and materials mean to a designer?
The great architect Souto de Moura claims that "There is no such thing as intelligent architecture, ecological architecture, [...] there is only good architecture". I feel exactly the same way. For me too, it does not make sense to talk about bio-architecture or sustainable architecture.
At my firm, we believe strongly in giving the profession the right importance, interpreting the work as a humanistic and multi-disciplinary practice. If we have chosen to practice architecture that we describe as “sustainable”, it is because today's time and environmental issues impose it on us.
Building with materials that are not natural and continue to harm the planet would be not only irresponsible, but also anachronous.
But, for a true architect, architecture comes first and sustainability is a side issue.
Architecture and the Environment are issues that we must all face, acknowledging the irreversible process of the environmental crisis in order to take responsibility as designers and citizens. We talk about architectural solutions, bio-architecture, green building, energy saving, energy regeneration and reduction of consumption.
Responsibility is purely ethical.
When we look at the analyses, data and climate limits set by international research institutes and institutes in terms of temperature increase and resource usage, there is no alternative to survival. Unfortunately, our Planet has an already marked end. The studies and facts are clear and leave no room for hope.
So why continue to think and work towards a solution?
Because not doing so would simply be the wrong choice.
We cannot avoid the end, but we can work to postpone its arrival,
and above all to begin to understand how to cope with the coming disastrous consequences.
Ethics is the only thing that can guide us now.
Building in wood is in fact a step forward and a technological evolution, as Luca confirms.
Changing our smartphones every 2 or 3 years does not frighten us and (alas) has almost become an obligatory action, a conscious practice. Though with longer timeframes for our homes, more or less the same thing happens. Knowledge advances, circumstances change and we have to find the right solutions to move forward without causing further damage.
In this respect, we must think of wood as a mandatory alternative to concrete and brick; we must understand immediately that we have to resort to the exclusive use of natural materials from renewable sources.
In this sense, and in the construction industry, wood leads the way.
According to Luca, the architectural-design approach to the adoption of wood remains unchanged, just as his attitude towards the project is unchanged.
On the contrary, what is changing profoundly is the technical and construction knowledge.
Wood has advantages and disadvantages like all materials, but its qualities help us for several reasons: it is a natural and renewable resource, it reduces time and favours the organization of the building site; it has excellent qualities in terms of seismic response, it ensures a high degree of precision and, if accompanied by appropriate finishes and installations, it gives us healthier indoor comfort than traditional construction.
On the other hand, Luca Compri emphasizes that the real weak point in the construction of wood architecture is direct contact with water and damp parts; a disadvantage that the skilled designer must absolutely avoid from the earliest stages of design and address specifically and wisely.
Architecture and wooden houses, between dream and reality. What is the origin of this approach?
I decided to take an interest in wood and its applications in architecture when I realized that each of us would have to be responsible and straightforward with regard to the client and, more generally, the Planet. The minimum time we spend inside a house is generally equivalent to at least 1/3 of our life - that is, when we sleep.
The idea of designing environments that can affect the health of the person living in them is an important consideration that has led me to favour the use of natural and non-harmful materials.
On a larger scale, the same approach applies to the environment.
What considerations and reflections should be made when faced with innovative and technologically available design and architecture as opposed to a traditional type of construction?
The thoughts are the same:
Designing a space that has the soul of the person commissioning it, through mediation and input associated with professional experience.
Technology comes later; it helps us improve an architectural idea that basically has to work regardless.
Building your own wood house nowadays is not a dream but a reality.
There are many advantages, as well as preconceptions, unfortunately.
Therefore, I would like to debunk the beliefs that houses of this type burn, rot and have a limited lifespan. Wooden buildings are comparable to what we call “traditional”' buildings - made of concrete and brick; but they are greener, healthier and often - for the same performance - cheaper.
We have to think of wood prefabrication as a must-have alternative to masonry.
When we speak of "wood" houses, we refer mainly to the static component alone, to the set of pillars (or walls) and floors that support our dwelling. The external and internal finishes can be the most varied: plaster, metal, stone, etc..
Once completed, some buildings have a wooden core, but a decidedly different external appearance!
In its early days, prefabrication was seen to limit the designer's creativity, and the positive and vital relationship between architecture, people and the environment, the necessary balance between the parts, seemed to be missing.
Luca believes that prefabrication has evolved profoundly and now offers a great deal of freedom to the designer, while maintaining that it is important to "find good ideas" - making good architecture - and not to physically realize them. Everything has to start from the spatial needs of the client; on the basis of these ideas and thanks to the training and talent of the designer, the architectural project and the development of new architectural forms begin.
There is a recent awareness of wood, a natural material considered "green" by definition, used both for structural parts, such as floors, vertical walls and external facades, and for interiors, cladding and flooring.
What is the role of architecture in this regard?
Architecture has the task of interpreting the contemporary. Wood is and will increasingly be a leading player in the years to come. To continue to do research, to work on the definition of a specific language and aesthetics that give life to new architectural models, is a complex and fascinating challenge.
We have been trying for almost 25 years, combining experiments with new materials with philosophical concepts that characterize our time.
The March 2023 edition of Klimahouse promoted the first edition of the Wood Architecture Prize, currently the most important award in Italy for sustainable wood architecture.
The initiative was a great success and achieved widespread visibility to the extent that 64 professional studios from all over the country participated in the event.
The prize, and above all the interest it generated, are clear proof that (good) sustainable wood architecture is now a tangible, widespread and much appreciated reality!
What do you think about the transformation of the building sector from when you started as an architect?
The housing market and culture have radically changed.
Today, those who build their own homes often consider the construction system in advance, not only in economic terms but also in terms of quality and ethics.
Builders are much more willing to question the desire to build only in concrete and brick; when they open themselves up to discussion and start considering prefabricated wood, they are often convinced that a bio-ecological building is a better house to live in.
The recent focus on food heralded a now unstoppable trend in the direction of taking care of ourselves and protecting our well-being.
In the relationship between sustainable architecture, green building and professional ethics, what is the role of the client and the client's awareness of the choice “towards” sustainable architecture?
The client is a determining factor. I believe that the "best" house project stems from a close and functional collaboration between client, architect and contractor.
House 4 - the wooden, rice straw and cork house that we built in Magnago and which won the Wood Architecture Prize 2023 in the "Private Architecture" category - is the most appropriate example of this.
Together with our studio, the young couple that commissioned it embarked on an ethical and cultural journey that resulted in a very simple architecture with a great soul, which I would define as natural.
Novello Case provided substance and support to the project through its execution, from the supply of materials to the management of the building site to build the finished home in all its parts.
We are now moving in new directions, following new trends and realizing that the vision of an architecture that is more "humanized" and closer to people promotes wellbeing and allows for a balanced relationship between people, the natural and social environment at the same time. The home is synonymous not only with durability but also with safety.
Have Italian history and architectural culture influenced the training of architects?
The cultural and architectural history of Italy is an absolute value from which to draw inspiration and lessons. I love Italy immensely and consider myself lucky to have been born here. The examples that the past has left us are unique masterpieces to which I often turn my attention as a designer.
How did your collaboration with Novello Case support the development of your projects in order to define volumes, shapes and construction details and to give identity to your architecture?
Novello Case is a very large and well-structured company that has, however, retained a craftsman's soul.
Personally, I am very close to the (two) owners and to the company in general; I was commissioned by them to study and design the exterior fronts of their premises in Oggiona (VA), and here we deepened and consolidated a good professional relationship, an important condition for setting up new projects and their execution.
My studio's projects are not standard, and the availability of a technical office within the company with which you are collaborating, as is the case with Novello Case, is useful to accomplish successful work. Discussion with the people who physically implement our ideas is just as fundamental as the discussion we have with the client.
Novello Case provides advanced techniques, materials, research, solutions and experience to best guarantee the realization of the designers' project ideas.
Some of the wood architectures realized with Novello Case include the renovation and extension of a domestic building in Varese, where the architect was able to materialize his creativity by expressing a language consistent with the initial project idea.
The real difference in architecture, in terms of living quality, is mainly made by good architecture, regardless of the dress it wears. Wood is an excellent "garment to wear": it brings us closer to nature, it is beautiful to look at and touch, it has an absence of toxic components and it acquires beauty and charm as it ages.
Luca Compri and his team have focused on spatial research and experimenting with finishing materials that have been neglected to date or not used at all. The primary objective always remains to make good architecture. In order to achieve this (result), LC insists that it is necessary to find "evolved" and demanding clients who understand the value and are reflected in the spaces designed for them, giving them the opportunity to fulfil them by making them tangible.
And he specifies: Where there is true sustainability there is also, and above all, beauty.
On-going experimenting, training and professional development are essential.
The mistake is to focus our interest, our actions and above all our projects on too extreme technicality and functionality.
I find this attitude wrong and it completely empties the architecture of its true soul.
Balance and competence are needed.
When we talk about energy saving, surface area, volume, cost, etc. we are in the construction business, if we want to talk about architecture we must add: space, light, poetry, soul.
Some important notes on building maintenance and monitoring the "state" of the wood should not be ignored.
From Luca's account, we report on how crucial the management of technical problems through good design combined with workmanlike execution is to prevent a wood building from presenting technical dysfunctions and inefficiencies.
Dealing with details in the preventive phase, shared with the client and the builder, creates fewer problems during the execution phase.
The maintenance of wood used as an external finish, Luca adds, “can often be frightening; personally, I try to convince the client to accept that this material ages naturally, avoiding the use of chemical treatments that would undermine its quality and aesthetics over time.
Due to its intrinsic characteristics, wood oxidizes, it moves, it trivially changes colour like almost all other materials found in nature. Once matured, these changes give it an even more beautiful appearance than when new. When it comes to beauty, nature never disappoints "
It is impossible here not to evaluate the real estate value of wood houses and architecture today. The market is not comparable to the brick market, and Luca is bringing the real estate market culturally into line with the change taking place in the construction industry.
Investing in a “wood” house is no longer scary, neither for the contractor nor the buyer..
While thanking you for your availability, I have one last question.
Luca, what is your ideal home?
The next one we will design.