Everyone’s got cabin fever in Norway
“We’re seeing an explosion in the mountains. Turnover and sales of cabins and cabin plots are proceeding at a record pace,” says Bjørn Erik Øye of market researchers Prognosesenteret.
He has studied in microscopic detail how Norwegians use cabins and says that they’re using them more than ever before, and in different ways.
“On average, Norwegians spend 60 days a year in cabins. That’s a lot. I think this is a consequence of increasing urbanization, the fact that we’re living in smaller homes in more densely populated cities.
‘We dream of a cabin above the tree line, but end up building in the middle of a ski slope’
This is a reaction to all the rushing around and always-on lifestyle today. Many people have had enough of this and head to the mountains at every opportunity. Cabins represent freedom, somewhere we can be more social and spend time together doing various activities,” Øye says.
Norwegian mountain cabins used to be a symbol of the simple life – outside WC, narrow cot beds and canned stew. Today’s cabin enthusiasts, though, are more demanding.
“It shouldn’t take more than a maximum of two to three hours to drive to the cabin and they should be far more practical than before. Everyone, or almost everyone, wants mains water, a shower and a WC. Cabins have also been getting bigger – and bigger – for several years now. This is part and parcel of the general increase in the standard of living and better finances,” Øye says.
‘Nature is an additional luxury. Something sensual. Our aim is to connect the architecture to feelings and fascination’
According to Prognosesenteret surveys, people still have an image of how a “dream cabin” looks. It should look traditional, a dovetail notch log cabin with small-pane windows. However, things are changing.
“A new, younger generation is entering the market now. They pay for them by renting them out on Airbnb. This segment is an architect’s dream, because they are open to more modern designs,” Øye says.
When Norwegians are asked what their ideal cabin is, almost all say a place in majestic isolation, private, either in the forest or high above the tree line in the mountains.
Even so, most end up in a crowded area in the middle of a slalom slope. Here, there’s a certain gap between dream and reality.
Cabins are being built at record speed, often in the hundreds, with ski waxing sheds and garages, on the “one size fits all” principle.
“This type of leisure home building is a horribly misconceived development that is directly harming valuable rural areas in Norway. The developers argue that it is enterprise and the local authorities say they want to protect the countryside, but what is happening is not sustainable,” says architect Reiulf Ramstad. In recent years, his company, Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter, has won several competitions for statement architecture in the magnificent Norwegian countryside. They have also attracted plenty of attention for their private cabin projects in Buskerud and in the small community of Røldal in western Norway.
“I’d like to see a more critical debate about what’s happening in the mountains these days. Cabin plots look identical everywhere. Fantastic and beautiful nature is being remade into a kind of suburbia, seemingly modeled on how the American suburbs were developed. We need to find other, more gentle ways of doing this,” Ramstad says.
He thinks we can learn from looking at how houses in compact Alpine villages are built and by studying local building traditions in Norway, to see how homes and farms used to be built in the countryside and along the coast.
“Those boathouses and mountain farms are the forerunners of today’s cabins and cabin living. It’s about simplicity and sobriety. About city dwellers renting simple rooms to get out into nature. Not the opposite, which is what many people do nowadays, sitting in their massive cabins. We need to re-invent the good old farm buildings and mountain communities. We should concentrate on one point in the landscape, rather than spreading out,” Ramstad says.
New kind of cabin architecture
Young Norwegian firms such as Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter, Lie Øyen, Marianne Borge, Pushak, Ly/Erik Langdalen, Lars Hamran, Tuvalu, Atelier Oslo, Stiv Kuling and Kolman Boye from Sweden, who completed a beautiful project in Vega in northern Norway, are designing a new kind of cabin architecture. It has been called a new rationality or a new Nordic humanism – a return to sobriety and simplicity, with the focus on being in sympathy with the surroundings, using fewer materials and building fewer units, yet at the same time still playing with shapes and colors. This also encompasses an interest in building in timber on a tiny plot, but as close to the forest, wilderness, nature and wildlife as you can possibly get. Architecture firm Snøhetta has recently designed the attention-grabbing 7th Room for Treehotel in Harads in the north of Sweden, and there are several other companies working around the tree line in Norway – one in Engerdal, one between Risør and Kragerø in Aust Agder and one in Ringsaker in Hedmark, some 150km north of Oslo. All are very much in demand.
This new wave of architecture underlines the move away from the square-meter thinking that has been so prevalent during the oil boom.
‘You can sit inside here and still have the feeling of being outside’
“We should ask ourselves why we want to go to a cabin,” Ramstad says. “Because it’s not to live there. We can do that at home. It’s to get away and be closer to nature. Nature is an additional luxury, something sensual. So our aim is to connect the architecture to feelings and fascination, to reinforce the relationship between the outside and inside and enhance the experience of light and colors, weather, wind and temperature differences. This sensuality isn’t strengthened by how many square meters of floor space you have – it’s more the opposite,” says Ramstad, who has urged clients to build smaller cabins and to consider the shape, windows and interior layout instead to maximize the nature experience itself.
“We need to calm down and downsize our thinking,” he says.
More cabins are being built
There are over 450,000 cabins in Norway today and more are being built all the time. The property pages of Norwegian newspapers are flooded with ads for new developments, the vast majority of which are turnkey cabins ready to move into. Trendy architecture firms are also active in this market. Snøhetta has recently joined forces with Rindalshytter, while Jarmund/Vigsnes has designed a prefabricated cabin Vy for Leve Hytter. “People who spend time in the mountains become more and more fascinated by innovative architecture. We are seeing this with our overnight guests,” says Anne Mari Aamelfot Hjelle, Assistant Secretary General of the Norwegian Trekking Association – Den Norske Turistforeningen (DNT), who is also responsible for coordinating cabins. Over the past 10–15 years, the association has made strategic investments in refurbishing and upgrading cabins with highly impressive results.
“It began when the venerable Turtagrø Hotell in west Jotunheimen burned down and Jarmund/Vigsnes created something new that was a real eye opener. Then Helen & Hard Arkitekter designed the mountain lodge Preikestolen Fjellstue. Suddenly, they made the front pages of international design and architecture magazines and that really got the ball rolling. Many local DNT branches want a statement cabin, visitor numbers have doubled and architects are lining up to win commissions,” Aamelfot Hjelle says.
‘The timelessness of the mountains contrasts with the contemporary nature of the architecture’
Projects include Jarmund/Vigsnæs’ Rabothytta at Hemnes, Paal Kahrs’ Gullhorgabu in Bergsdalen, KOKO Arkitekter’s Skåpet and Ark Vest’s Kvitlen and Jonstølen in Ryfylkeheiene. Elsewhere, Eilif Bjørge designed Skålabu at Skåla in Beitostølen, while Stein Halvorsen Arkitekter is behind the Høgevardehytta at Norefjell, which is due to open in March. Meanwhile, Snøhetta is involved in a project at Vettakollen in Oslo and a spectacular development at Tungestølen in Luster. Abstract, angular and geometric, it is a radical departure from safe and traditional architecture.
“We’re not looking to build cabins in strange and unusual shapes, we’re enabling the buildings to be in tune with nature. Solidity, comfort and quality are important factors, and the window areas are far more generous than previously. You can sit inside here with a cup of good coffee and still have the feeling of being outside because we’ve brought nature into the cabin,” Aamelfot Hjelle says.
“The whole world is coming here, to see both the nature and the architecture.”
Text: Helle Benedicte Berg