Back in spring, we met at Timbeco factory near Tallinn to discuss how the collaboration between the client, architect, manufacturer, and constructor contributes to the establishment of modern houses. Our panel discussion was attended by architect Tiit Sild, Madis Lobjakas and Marek Roostar from the factory, and the undersigned. The main focus was on the question how to involve all the partners right at the beginning of the process so that designing, producing and building would be more reasonable and economical.
Meeting with the client and visiting the first built house purchased at katus.eu took place a bit later, at the beginning of the summer.
How did you meet?
Madis: We had met with Tiit already before this private residence project - a year ago at the Ajujaht competition. He introduced us his idea of the architecture portal katus.eu, and then we had a common client who came to us via katus.eu.
Tiit: katus.eu is a sales environment and I was interested in how the process of selling houses to the clients actually works.
The terrace opens to the evening sun, complemented with trees of the existing fruit grove
Architecture can be as innovative as is the client. Do you find those somewhat "bothersome" clients who make you search for new solutions motivating?
Madis: In the perfect case it would be nice to be able to combine interesting ideas with available budget, and then things will get interesting. Yet it would be also wrong to say that good architecture is always expensive. It is important to collaborate.
"Tube" has adaptable design. Master bedroom (on right from living room) could be an autonomous unit, for grandma, teenage child or just to rent out in Airbnb.
One story prefab home looks modest from the street, only the dining room has bigger windows.
We know several emancipated women from the past who, as clients, helped to improve architecture (f.e. the clients of the most well-known houses by F.L. Wright and M. van der Rohe have been women). What is the role of women as clients for private residence in Estonia?
Madis: Usually it is the man who attends the meetings and the woman is the one who makes the decisions. Women are also the ones who make the research beforehand. During the project, we might not even meet the woman, but actually it is her who makes the choices.
Tiit: When speaking of private residences, then everything depends on what the family is looking for. And this in turn relies on (the roles of) the family members.
What would be an ideal employment relationship between the manufacturer and the architect?
Madis: It must be possible to (actually) build the house. At the same time we would not like to set up numerous restrictions to the architect. We would like to start with the completed version of the architectural design documentation and not deal with the modifications. After all, there will be changes in the construction for sure, and those solutions will be found together with the architect.
Tiit: As an architect, first of all I try to find something (interesting) for myself as an architect and as an individual - I seek to evolve and learn new things through the process. At the same time it is important for me to create good experience for the client so that in the future he / she would also dare to collaborate with architects and developers.
Marek: The clients are always ready to make the decisions when they know the price - how much it all would cost them. But when the factory seeks for ready-made architecture as the base for their calculations, then the client is clearly left aside. In an ideal world all the three partners would sit at the same table from the very beginning and discuss all the details - what and how - from scratch.
When thinking of prefab houses, then one almost has to think of the mass-produced standard design houses. But your approach is more like tailoring instead of mere production?
Madis: It is true that we have not made two buildings that are identical. Even when they might look very similar from outside, the interior has always its own personal touch. Which means that every building has its own design. Our clients are not looking for standard solutions to adjust themselves with. Those kind of people will look into the catalogues.
Tiit: I have understood that for you producing private residences is a refreshing change from the factory's main work process which is to produce prefabricated wall and floor panels for apartment buildings.
Madis: To be true - producing custom-design architectural solutions is actually just a part of our activities - to ensure stability. And it is also useful for developing new solutions for Estonian market. We export mainly prefabricated details. Estonian market makes up around 5-10% of our total output. And still we are just one of the few who contribute to Estonian market. In addition to different development projects, we produce around 10 private residences per year. When looking at the participants of the Estbuild international building fair, then there are not many Estonian factories of prefabricated houses represented.
Why build with timber?
Madis: Timber has been used for building from the beginning of time. Stone as a building material in Estonia was introduced much later. Today the market between timber and stone as building materials is divided almost equally. Timber as building material bears much more possibilities than stone. But of course, it has its restrictions too. The main restrictions lie in the legislation. For example - it is possible to build with timber just up to certain heights. What makes timber specific is its lamination - timber constructions by their nature are very technical, especially when it comes into details.
Tiit: When the choice has already been made between timber and stone, then I highly recommend to decide upon prefabricated houses, as the production methods in the factory allow higher precision that it would be possible on the construction site. And even though at first the price for prefab solutions seems higher, then in the end there is no real difference - provided that the builder on the site has a legal contract.
Marek: With the legal settlement the end price for the prefabricated house might be even lower. When to follow the modern standards for energy efficiency, then the quality difference is obvious. Not to mention the interior climate. Also, there is the question about historical preferences - Timbeco is one of the oldest manufacturers of pre-fabricated timber houses, 25 years ago we started with log houses. The growth of Timbeco resembles the section of the development of Estonian lumber industry: starting with manually crafted logs, then continuing with machine-crafted logs and modular houses to achieve higher energy efficiency. Timber has been valued more and more, and it has brought about the involvement of more labour as well.
All panels of the walls and ceilings are fabricated and insulated in the factory to ensure high quality. After that they are carefully packaged until set up in construction site.
The same question goes to the architect. You could use all the materials, but you prefer timber?
Tiit: Because of its strength it has been quite a conscious decision to start offering timber to my clients. Partially also because I myself wanted to learn more about timber and to develop what we have here in Estonia - using timber in construction and contribute to innovative solutions. At the same time, using local and renewable resources helps to reduce the ecological footprint. A couple of times I have succeeded in my convincing.
It seems that the new generation of architects is more interested in new technologies. There have been experiments to use robots to build timber constructions and several results may be seen in public urban space.
Marek: Architect has quite an important role when choosing the material(s). The clients often tend to be confident in their vision that at times may go back to their childhood, but architects are the ones we can collaborate with by introducing our production facilities.
Madis: Awakening is a long-term process, the results cannot be seen at once. One of the smart moves we made is offering the possibility to come and see how the large "lego" pieces of your house are being made. Also the clients of this house came to see the process and tried to guess where the pieces would fit. Approximately half of our clients use the possibility to come and visit us during the working process.
Tiit: Another issue is the speed of producing the details - the elements for one building may be ready just within couple of days. The complication lies in finding that free time to produce these details in-between the process of manufacturing main products.
In which direction the producing of prefab houses is currently moving?
Madis: Our goal is to deliver as ready-made products as possible which means enlarging our completeness. The change on the construction site should lie in the amount of necessary workload that would be replaced with prefabricated details. In Norway we are currently involved in a project for 18-story building where all the exterior walls have been prefabricated. When these details are mounted, the result is already airtight and with finished surface. This means remarkable saving in terms of the budget. In addition it also guarantees good energy efficiency. The goal is not to build all the houses from timber. It is reasonable to use proper materials where necessary, for example to combine timber with concrete frames.
Marek: This is where the design gets complicated - the designers need to know all the materials and how to combine them. Sales teams need to bring in people with engineering backgrounds to be able to explain the solutions to the clients. And the production has to be flexible in order to be able to fit together all the different materials. All the departments have their challenges.
We just visited the construction site and we were wondering how well the building that you have chosen from the website (katus.eu) fits exactly to this site. This brought us to the question - which was first - the site or the design?
Owner: our neighbor has also told me how grateful he is for our house that fits in so well into the surrounding environment. In our case, it all happened at the same time - we were looking for the site near Tallinn and also followed katus.eu website. This design was the only one that both of us - me and my husband - liked. Then we brought the site and got in touch with Tiit. At the same time, we were also looking for possible manufacturers.
How long was the whole process?
Owner: two years - it took us one year to sell our previous house and find the new site. When we had found the site, it took exactly one year until the house was finished. We did spend quite some time at the municipality with all the required paperwork.
How did this happen that the house fits so well to the site?
Owner: initially we intended to place the house to the site at another angle - 90 degrees shifted from what it is now. But then we understood that the present position is logistically better. From the street, the house looks nothing special and one could even say it is just another box. It does not raise any interest in passers-by. But on the other side, it offers extensive views into the garden. We have been told that it is an interesting house because it is not easy to comprehend its real size. The sections of the building are so different. We like that when sitting in the living-room it is possible to see the sky, moon and the stars.
It is very nice that the beautiful old garden with all its apple-trees and flowerbeds has been preserved and that the house was inserted into the existing environment. It seems that also the construction team has shown respect to this and almost tip-toed around the building. How was the collaboration with the architect?
Everything went very well. During the design phase our collaboration was pretty intense, but later, during the construction phase, we did not meet so much. At the beginning, we positioned the modules in many different ways to see which is the best configuration. We positioned the bedroom under the lime, which turned out to be very good decision - this is the sheltered side of the site. One familiar person with pendulum came for a visit and was also commenting the good placement of the house. He/she even asked who helped us and we had to reveal that it was because of the "requirements".
House faces west, and greenery of the pre-existing garden creates safe and cosy atmosphere.
Tiit: When Katriin sent in the inquiry I looked up the site on the map and placed the house on it in scale and I instantly saw that it was a perfect fit. The first version of the design had a garage at one end, but we replaced it with the bedroom.
When did the producer got involved and which were their conditions?
Tiit: they were involved right from the beginning. The first thing they proposed was to make the living-room narrower by half a meter in order to avoid the need for glue-laminated beams and thus optimize the production.
Did you have previous experiences with building your own house and if so, how does the current experience differs from the last one?
Owner: we bought our previous house when it was already half-built, we did not have much money and the construction team was made up pretty randomly. I myself had to lead the whole project. Compared to that the present situation is more than perfect - the producer and the construction team is the same, they settled everything for me and I only had to pick the colors.
Interview by Katrin Koov, president of Estonian Association of Architects.
Photos by Martin Siplane.
Photos from the factory by Katriin Hõim.
Drone photo by Tiit Sild.
Original article in Estonian was published in "Maja" architectural magazine.