North stars: 3 designs show how Nordic architecture leads with sustainability

Nordic architecture is recognized as leading with sustainability. Explore three projects where data-driven design realized green ambitions.

Sustainable architecture: aerial view of Dort

Mark de Wolf

March 18, 2021

min read
  • Nordic architecture has evolved to be human-centered, sustainable, and connected to nature, dating back to the oil crisis of the 1970s.

  • In arctic Greenland, a psychiatric treatment facility enhances patients’ contact with nature to for evidence-based “healing architecture.”

  • A humane prison in Iceland and a wooden office tower in Sweden emphasize energy efficiency, a low carbon footprint, and modular versatility.

Kaj 16 overlooking Gothenburg’s waterfront
Set to overlook the waterfront in Gothenburg, Sweden, Kaj 16 has been designed to be sustainable from the ground up. Image courtesy of Dorte Mandrup.

What is it about Nordic architecture? Town or country, residential or commercial, there’s something ineffably cool about this region’s built environment. And it’s not just the aesthetics that are inspiring. The Nordics are world leaders in sustainable design, too.

In 2019, Lars Strannegard, president of the Stockholm School of Economics, told the Financial Times that in the Nordics, businesses try to make “sustainability part of everything.” “It’s no coincidence that Greta Thunberg is Swedish,” he said. “The connection to nature is clear here. A lot of industry is nature-based, and it is part of the culture.”

It’s no surprise, then, that sustainability is a topic that Danes, Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, and Icelanders take seriously. Nordic architecture favors rough-hewn materials such as wood and stone and designs that maximize the impact of natural light. There’s also a belief that spaces should be adaptable and that buildings should be easy to take apart. Everything seems to mimic colors and contours preinstalled by mother nature. It’s an aesthetic based on simplicity, minimalism, and efficient functionality that almost always comes wrapped in a sustainable package.

But what’s behind that sustainable focus in Nordic design? One could blame the cold. When it’s dark and wintry much of the year, it simply makes sense to craft spaces that celebrate light and retain warmth.

That explanation may be too easy, though. Noel Wibrand, digital director at Danish architecture firm Dorte Mandrup, says geopolitical realities have been just as important. “As a driving factor, the oil crisis in the 1970s was very influential,” he says. “It triggered the state to change taxation and reform building regulations so that architects here had to optimize for energy consumption from the start of the design process.”

Changes like these enabled Nordic builders and governments to take green concerns seriously, sooner. They were even among the first to see the benefits of building information modeling (BIM) and generative design principles—including how they could be used to improve sustainability.

Below, experts from Dorte Mandrup, along with leading architecture firms White Arkitekter and Arkis arkitektar, explain how they built three unique projects the Nordic way: by embedding sustainability in everything from materials and building lifecycle management through to eventual demolition.

“As these projects illustrate, sustainable design decisions lead to healing architecture, safer structures, and reduced waste,” says Lynelle Cameron, vice president of Sustainability at Autodesk and general manager of the Autodesk Foundation. “Such choices move us toward a net-zero carbon economy and are good for people and the bottom line.”

1. Bringing clinic patients closer to nature in Greenland

nordic architecture BIM 360 helped Mossige maximize the clinic’s exposure to daylight
Autodesk BIM 360 helped the White Arkitekter Oslo team maximize the clinic’s exposure to daylight. Image by Luxigon. Courtesy of White Arkitekter.

Anyone building in the forbidding climate of Greenland needs to welcome whatever Mother Nature offers. Try to impose human will on the landscape, and it won’t end well.

So when White Arkitekter from Sweden won the competition to design a new psychiatric treatment facility for Greenland’s Health Department, the firm’s Oslo studio had to make the most of the site’s Arctic location in every aspect of planning: subzero temperatures, howling winds, wet weather, extended periods of winter darkness, a short building season, and little or no local source materials. All materials needed to be transported to the site by ship, which informed the choice to build a wooden construction.

Despite the harsh conditions, the design brief called for something that would enhance contact with nature for both patients and staff. Every room, corridor, and public area needed to have a naturally calming aspect to reduce stress and support therapeutic outcomes.

White Arkitekter called on its specialist healthcare team, which has solid experience in evidence-based design and “healing architecture.” The team took advantage of the site’s seaside location and used dynamic lighting to stay in sync with the natural rhythms of daylight and promote feelings of warmth.

“Greenland forces you to be sustainable,” says Gina Bast Mossige, White Arkitekter Oslo’s project manager on the clinic. “There is breathtaking beauty to the Arctic, so we wanted the building to promote contact with the landscape outside. But nature can be harsh: Weather conditions mean the building has to co-exist with excessive cold, dark, and heavy rains.”

The facility also provides patients access to nature.
The Greenland facility also provides patients with easy access to nature. Image by Luxigon. Courtesy of White Arkitekter.

Those challenges compelled Mossige’s project team to make the most of BIM technology. Working mainly from their offices in Sweden and Norway, White’s architects used Autodesk’s BIM 360 to simplify client collaboration and apply generative design to model various options against the brief’s structural, therapeutic, and sustainability objectives, as well as to maximize exposure to daylight.

The facility also provides patients with outdoor experiences to help diminish feelings of enclosure or restriction. An indoor garden facing the facility’s atrium is semiclimatized and acoustically independent from the rest of the building. It’s designed to give patients access to nature and can be adapted to suit the changing seasons.

Scheduled for completion this year, the clinic’s designs have already won a World Architecture Festival award in the Future Health category and an honorable mention in European Health Design (2019).

2. Balancing Prison Security and Sustainability in Iceland

Holmsheidi, first prison built in Iceland since the late 1800s
Holmsheidi is the first prison built in Iceland since the late 1800s. Image courtesy of Arkis arkitektar.

When it comes to prisons and sustainability, eco-challenges must be balanced with the care and comfort of inmates and the rules and legal restrictions that come with incarceration. The safety of prisoners and staff is a constant concern. Every construction element down to hinges and fasteners has to be impregnable. None of those goals is easy to achieve. Can sustainability even figure in the mix?

Yes, say the award-winning designers at Icelandic firm Arkis arkitektar. Their designs for the Holmsheidi Prison on the outskirts of Reykjavik have won numerous accolades for their innovative approach to blending complex and unconventional architectural objectives. Holmsheidi serves three types of prisoners with different needs and legal requirements. And as the first prison built in Iceland since the late 1800s, it’s a high-profile project that’s being watched by public-sector clients worldwide.

The Icelandic government had three sets of sustainability targets for the project. Alongside green objectives to minimize carbon footprint, Arkís had to deliver cost efficiencies in the building’s management, particularly regarding energy consumption and maintenance. The building also had to promote social sustainability through proactive improvements to inmate life. The prison would also be a designated trial project for the use of BIM technology in public-sector construction.

Holmsheidi houses short-sentence inmates, those on remand awaiting trial or completion of their trial, and Iceland’s first dedicated women’s prison. These three populations have unique requirements and need to be strictly separated from the others. Incarceration has to be balanced with humane treatment and eventual rehabilitation.

Simulations of different designs against parameters for security, pollution control, and more
Simulations were used to test different prison designs against parameters for security, pollution control, and more. Image courtesy of Arkis arkitektar.

“It’s an interesting set of challenges that poses many questions,” says Þorvarður Lárus Björgvinsson, managing director of Arkís. “How can you create an environment that accommodates the different microsocieties that develop inside a prison? We used a lot of simulations to test different designs against parameters for security, materials, pollution control, and energy consumption. Prisons use basically all the same systems as regular buildings—but, of course, there are also security and surveillance systems to consider.”

“Plus, the internal structures have to be especially robust,” says Björn Guðbrandsson, architect and partner at Arkís. “You can’t just drill a new hole each time something unexpected pops up. Every change has to be assessed for vulnerabilities. BIM technology really helped us manage those sometimes-contradictory requirements.”

3. Building Europe’s largest wooden structure in Sweden

Generative design tools have helped to predict the effect of weathering on Kaj 16’s wooden exterior.
Generative design tools have helped to predict the effect of weathering on Kaj 16’s wooden exterior. Image courtesy of Dorte Mandrup.

Can an office tower be built out of trees? The team behind the Kaj 16 project now under construction in Gothenburg, Sweden, aims to make that sustainable goal a reality. Designed by Danish architecture firm Dorte Mandrup, the new multistory development set to overlook Gothenburg’s waterfront will eschew traditional glass and steel for timber, making it the largest wooden structure in Europe.

Resting on a transparent base that connects the quay with the shops and pedestrian precinct on the street side, Kaj 16 features a wooden “crown” comprising office space and residential units. The project uses a range of Swedish woods, along with grasses and shrubs that thrive in microclimates occurring at various heights. The building’s base has been largely reclaimed from the previous building on the site. While those elements are probably enough to establish the building’s sustainable credentials, Dorte Mandrup is also designing the structure to evolve across the decades.

“The lifecycle of buildings is another important aspect of sustainability we’re addressing with this project,” Dorte Mandrup’s Wibrand says. “We didn’t want to rely on the traditional 50-year timescale where you build for one purpose and then leave demolition to someone else in the future. We’re using generative design to create a grid form that gives the structure flexibility.”

Wibrand and his team used cloud-based technology to create modular options that enable interior spaces to be easily converted from commercial to residential or vice versa. Generative design tools simplify impact analysis for sunlight, wind, cold, and rainwater on the building’s energy requirements and help predict the effect of weathering on the wooden exterior. Designers are also planning for eventual disassembly, making it easier for future generations to turn the site to a different use altogether.

As with the other two projects, it provides another perfect example of how data-led design can support Nordic values and express them in an innovative, budget-conscious, and eco-friendly manner.

Mark de Wolf

About Mark de Wolf

Mark de Wolf is a freelance journalist and award-winning copywriter specializing in technology stories. Born in Toronto. Made in London. Based in Zürich. Reach him at

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