This living unit, currently making waves in the international media, is likely to win you over with its sincerity. Created and polished by innovative people, the building meets all contemporary high-tech and design requirements. It is elegant inside and out. Life in Estonia magazine asked Ülar Mark, the architect of the micro-home to give an overview.
It is a recent trend (part of sustainable lifestyles) that people in the Western world like to test the limits of the space they actually need in order to live − with how little can one get by? Have you yourself tried to inhabit different spaces? A container? Or a car?
Of course, there is a piece of a container or a car in every hotel. But my most compact experience comes from sailing on a yacht. In the last decade I have sailed thousands of miles each year. For example, I spent 36 hours at sea and didn’t leave the yacht for a week. I have experienced this alone and in a group. It is a space where you need to fit all your necessary belongings into 7 square metres. Protective gear in case of a storm, dry clothes to change into and more festive clothing for occasions when you need to look your best when on shore. Not to mention two spinnakers and three front sails, safety equipment and provisions. Also, you cannot just leave when you feel like it. Or you could actually, but before that you’d have to get over the psychological barrier of abandoning your crew and the hours of looking for a harbour.
Today, of course, I have the experience of trying to live and work daily in the 28 square metres of an orbital station called Koda.
Container-like units are also produced in Estonia, but they are usually made of wood. Do you consider concrete to be a more sustainable, cheap, economical and comfortable material than wood?
The interior of Koda is made of cross-laminated timber produced in Estonia and the exterior is made of concrete. Concrete has many advantages − it is strong, resilient, washable, waterproof, malleable, cheap, fireproof and, most importantly, soundproof. It is a great material considering all those properties. The use of concrete dates back to Egypt and the Roman times. The use of modern concrete, which contains cement, has really increased since the early 19th century. Concrete is the most widely used building material in the entire world. Cement production, however, pollutes and isn’t energy-efficient. It is definitely a problem in terms of sustainability. At the same time, the entire Koda unit includes only 9 cubic meters of concrete, which is the same amount used for the foundation of a similarly sized log house. Our building does not need a foundation.
Who are the people behind the idea and its development?
The company Kodasema OÜ was founded by people from very different backgrounds including a finance specialist/school leader (Hannes Tamjärv), chemist/inventor (Marek Strandberg), builder/playwright (Kalev Ramjalg), IT specialist/writer (Taavi Jakobson), and architect (me). The team started to grow from the beginning and brought in a diverse group of people, because the task at hand was sufficiently abstract, yet concrete. We collaborated closely with educational institutions like Tallinn Technical College and the Estonian Arts Academy.
An architect is usually an artist or a tailor, not an industrialist. When did you reach the point where you thought that the house could go into mass production and distribution?
Let me first correct the question − it’s not just my project, it is our project. This means we created the initial task and developed the concept to the point where we have the building we see today. We created the initial terms of reference with mass production in mind, the aim of creating and producing it in mass volume was there at the outset.
An architect as a tailor is a very recent phenomenon. Initially the construction master was the re-user of mass techniques, indeed, with some unique handicraft touches. But still the history of building houses is a history of typology. Most buildings were constructed according to a typical project in the 20th century. The contemporary era wants to have both − something special and weird as well as something that fits the context and is similar to what already exists. Real estate developers want to have buildings that they can safely sell on the market and yet have something distinctive. I bring a combination of architecture and product design. There are many architects who also do product design and they are successful when the so-called factory and business side understands the importance of engineering and design innovation, knows how to ask for it and how to implement it.
How long did it take for the idea to become a product?
With houses there are always a lot of norms and regulations. Fortunately, we had the opportunity in the beginning to create exactly what we considered right and optimal. Subsequently, we produced a prototype and started to fit our solutions to all sorts of regulations. If we had taken products from the catalogue at the outset, we would never have created the innovative wall panel and technology in the way we have. We went into production in January 2017. Hence it took us three years from the idea’s inception to reach the production stage.
In the early days, we were often in discussion with car designer Björn Koop about the differences between the creative process in car production and house production. At first, we designed the idea house on paper, just like the idea car is normally created. Then we created the one-to-one model, just like in the car industry, in order to find the impact of the space, the form and the nuances of the proportions. Then we worked on the prototype that needed to “swallow” the technology − the technology had to be adjusted to the form. The next stage was developing the factory worktops and appliances in order to produce the real model. Another prototype. This was followed by a year of testing and more testing and changes and more changes, always in the details that are invisible to people outside the process.
I saw the first KODA in front of the entrance to Kultuurikatel (Culture Hub). When was it again?
It was September 2015. As we developed mutual interest with the organisers of the Tallinn Architectural Biennale, we decided to create and exhibit our first prototype at the biennale. Typical of a prototype, there was a lot of interest, we were able to exchange ideas with others and visitors could see and touch a homemade product.
In addition to a clear and simple form, I recall the interesting mould shape of the concrete, which reminded me of a sail. Is it true that the concrete was poured onto a sail?
After we tested the fixtures and strength of our panel under the press at the laboratory of the Tallinn Technical College, we decided on concrete. Then immediately we were faced with the question of what kind of facture the concrete would have and what kind of distribution of mould plates − the lines of the wall in other words. It was a period when all of us used to carry all kinds of materials from home and shops to the factory in order to pour concrete onto them. Concrete is a very agreeable material in the sense that it takes the exact pattern of its base surface. Of course there are nuances; for example, the fine filler of the concrete should not leak from the bottom of the mould, meaning that the surface onto which you pour the concrete must be filmy and water-resistant, etc. We had tried out several plastics and still hadn’t found the right one. I was sitting on a yacht at the Pirita Yacht Club, after a regatta, and held an old sail in my hands when I suddenly sensed that it was also a filmy surface. Competing yachts no longer use canvas and stitching but films and glue. I brought my old sails to the factory and after the first test it was clear to everyone that we had found the special something without which Koda would not be the same. The sail pattern allows the concrete to “get it wrong” with a bubble here or a wrinkle there without it hurting the eye. Each panel is a bit different from the other and the wrinkles of sails have been eternalised in concrete.
Does the product have other clever tricks you cannot see?
The list is endless. Seals, silencers for climate appliances, co2 detectors, automated LED lights, a concrete door, the door hinges and switches created by the team, frameless windows, plastic beams to connect concrete and wood, vacuum panels, etc.
KODA is a technical consumer item similar to a car. In contrast to other buildings, it is not chained to the ground and you don’t need permanent land, only communication lines (water, canalisation etc.). Does it even need building permission from the local government?
Yes, you will need permission in one form or another, whether it is for a temporary or permanent building. This is the most complicated aspect today. We build the house in a week, but formalising the documentation takes 5-8 months. In Holland it took 4 months. This sets limits for the buyer; nobody wants to buy before it is clear that they are allowed to place it somewhere. At the moment we are working on some larger villages consisting of 50 houses and in this case the length it takes to formalise paperwork is more logical. At the same time, pop-up kiosks and villages are very trendy in Europe and in America, for example trade container Boxpark in London. Those are meant for a couple of months or a few years. Why should city centre land plots only be carparks when there could be temporary buildings with accommodation for business-related purposes until the “big house” is built.