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The wood that built Norway

Hear the echo of hammers banging long ago, from a time before saws were invented, before there were metal nails and spikes, when wood was held together by wood. These techniques are so good and durable that many continue to use them even today, including the well-knownlog construction technique called laft.

This was a time when the scent of tar — faint traces of which still remain in old log buildings, fishermen's shacks, and churches — meant preservation and continuity.
All of this is thanks to the trees. Without them, we would not have been able to live here in this rocky outpost in the far north.

Nor would we have been able to cross the seas. Norwegian Viking ships are one of the strongest symbols of the golden age of the Vikings, who had extraordinary craftsmanship and knowledge of wood construction techniques. These enabled the Vikings to sail the far seas and bring back new cultural impulses and even better building techniques.

Their intimate knowledge of wood was a key factor in elevating the Vikings and making them one of the world's richest and most advanced civilizations almost 1,000 years ago. Vikings once ruled large swathes of the North-Atlantic, and dominated the longest coastline in the civilized world.

The Vikings were the foremost seafaring nation in the world thanks to their techniques for building wooden ships. These skills even brought the Vikings all the way to what is now North America — or Vinland, as Leif Eriksson named it — long before Columbus.

The power of wood

Viking ships, Norse mythology, the arrival of Christianity, European cultural influences — some of the most important, dramatic history lessons are literally carved on the walls through elaborate carvings in the Stave churches. Mythical creatures and ancient Norse gods with big eyes and long beards look down on you – incorporated into the new Christian church.

When a growing population created demand for bigger churches, almost all the more than1,000 (perhaps as many as 2,000) Norwegian stave churches were torn down. Only 28 stave churches remain intact today.

But the craftsmanship still remains very much alive today. The traditional building techniques can be seen in more recent and contemporary Norwegian wood architecture.

Explore the history of wood

Visit Norwegian fjords and valleys full of timber history, like Gudbrandsdalen, Hallingdal or Setesdal, and the Trøndelag or Telemark regions, to learn more about building traditions and our rich cultural heritage.

In many places, you can even dine and stay overnight in a beautiful old farm house that has been carefully restored. Many of them have grass and even small trees growing on the roof! Torvtak, roofs made of birchbark and peat, were common up to the 18th century. Birchbark was actually commonly sold for roofing in Norway right up until the 1930s.

Today, grass roofs have made a comeback and can be seen on modern cabins and, surprisingly, in far more urban settings. Why? Insects love it, and it's good for the environment!

You can also sleep well in a rorbu or a sjøbu, a traditional fisherman's cottage, in unique wooden fiskevær, or fishing villages, in Northern Norway or Fjord Norway.

The Dutch town of Flekkefjord

Flekkefjord had an active timber and fish trade with Holland in the 16th and 17th centuries, and a small Dutch settlement was established there.

The Dutch Quarter one sees today was built as a result of the herring fisheries in the1800s, where large catches made many fishermen wealthy, and they built houses with the profits.

Timber town bonanza

After the glorious (but also quite bloody) Viking Era, Norway entered a darker and less prosperous chapter in the Middle Ages.

Once again, wood proved its power to us. Stronger boats were built of wood to be able to fish further from shore, and to transport Norway's new 'gold' — Timber — all the way to Europe; to the Netherlands, Denmark and, later, the UK in particular.

In the17th and18th centuries, the Netherlands was the world's wealthiest country and a leader in shipbuilding, generating great demand for strong wood. Did you know that big parts of Amsterdam actually rest on piles made from Norwegian trees?

You can still visit many of the idyllic, white wooden testaments to the timber trade period. In Southern Norway, cities like 'The Dutch Town' of Flekkefjord, Mandal, and Risør, 'the wooden house town', to name a few, grew forth as shipping harbours for the timber and fisheries trades.

Unfortunately, unregulated timber trading threatened to completely deforest large parts of Norway's west coast.

Several huge canals were built to transport timber from more distant, forested inland valleys to coastal ports. Today, you can cruise through impressive timber-walled lock chambers on both the 105-kilometre-long Telemark Canal and the Halden Canal on historical wooden vessels.

A new era for wood

As we have seen, our wood architecture also reveals much about how the present interacts with the past.

Changing times have successively introduced new trends. You can see traces of all the popular European art styles in Norwegian wood architecture: everything from renaissance, classicism, and baroque to Jugend, functionalism, and modernism.

Especially noteworthy are the old patrician style houses, and houses built in the romantic, Norwegian 'Swiss style', of which you can find many examples throughout Norway. Take note when you travel by train; many of the older stations are wonderful examples of this style!

Several devastating city fires, such as the one in Ålesund in 1904, paved the way for a policy of building more concrete buildings in urban areas.

But after the Second World War, when materials were scarce, wood helped us reconstruct our homes again, and the first ferdighus, cheap, pre-fabricated houses, began to flood the country.

But it was not until later that wood really had its renaissance....

Prominent Norwegian architects that often use wood as a main material:

Wood for the future

Norwegian engineers, designers and architects are now rediscovering and inventing new ways of using this versatile, renewable and extremely flexible material, which even can withstand hurricanes and drastic changes in climate.

"We think that timber is the right material for the green transition in the building industry. It's beautiful, and it's a very sustainable and environmentally friendly solution," says Siv Helene Stangeland, partner and creative director at Helen & Hard architects.

Their firm has designed both the award-winning Vennesla library and the stunning Finansparken office building, to mention just a few of their commissions.

"Timber is also an organic material that connects us to nature and has a tactile quality. It smells good, it provides very good acoustics in the room, and it has a certain effect on us – it calms us down. Wood architecture therefore has the potential to give us a better life," adds Stangeland.

Since 2000, Innovation Norway has spearheaded initiatives and played an important role in supporting the development of new and innovative ways of using wood in construction.

And the results are beautiful. Projects from bridges, shopping centres, and airports to sports halls, office buildings, and student housing, to bird watching huts, and some truly amazing residences and cabins have been built in wood. Not to mention some spectacular viewpoints and rest areas along the Norwegian Scenic Routes.

There is now a boom in new wooden construction plans.

A sustainable hope

As much as 75 per cent of Norway is covered by forest land. The Forest Act obliges the landowners to plant new trees to replace old ones that are cut down, assuring a 100 % renewable cycle. Strict environmental standards and programs have also been implemented to secure biodiversity and reforestation.

"In Norway, we actually only cut down two-thirds of the annual growth in our forests," says Krister Moen, head of Innovation Norway's innovative wood programs.

Although great progress has already been made already in the industry, the best may be yet to come. Wood is an extremely versatile material, and can contribute to our future in new and unexpected ways.

"Everything that can be made from oil, can also be made from trees. Many parts of trees can actually be eaten. Norway Spruce can make the only natural taste replacement for vanilla," says Moen.

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