Talking with Ósbjørn Jacobsen, Architect and Partner at Henning Larsen Architects in the Faroe Islands about how traditional ways of building houses in the Faroe Islands are considered in modern projects.

Ósbjørn, you are the local partner of HL Architects in the Faroe Islands which is your home country. What does “sustainability” mean to your work — considering the fact that there is no local wood resources and most of the building materials need to be brought into the islands?

Actually this is a question I am asked frequently. First, the ambition is to build as sustainable as possible and it still seems that a lot of aspects on that path are adding cost, therefore it’s always very dependent on how many resources the client is willing to spend in addition to what current building legislation requires.

In the starting point, we at HL prefer to see sustainable construction and planning as a pyramid diagram, where everything that lies in the solid base are actions and decisions that will contribute to reducing the footprint for the entire lifetime of the project, while the more technological additions, such as solar cells, intelligent sunscreens etc., are at the top of the pyramid and typically often have a shorter lifespan and contribution.

Speaking about our situation her in the Faroes it’s very important for us to carefully learn from the traditional ways to build in the Faroe Islands and how these principles can be used as inspiration for modern projects. We have to look further than raw materials as these are indeed scarce in the Faroe Islands, with most of the building materials need to be shipped it is a strong cost factor. So to build from local sources is a bit of a challenge (except the grass roofs and ingredients in concrete, foundation etc., if used).

However, there are many other aspects to be focused on, like nature, climate, wind conditions and outline of buildings and clusters, the social environment and health issues. All these factors are extremely important for environment and humans and essential in a sustainable discussion.

Let’s picture the “pyramid” of considerations and objectives before starting to build a house — the broad basis being about all influencing factors that you can/must decide on first. Where to locate a house, what direction for it to face. How does it melt in with the surrounding nature, how do we treat landscape as a main influencing factor. I am afraid that in the past decades, knowledge and observation of traditional considerations like this have been widely ignored and forgotten about.

Look at modern local villages, houses are all lined up in straight lines — why? To minimize access (= road construction) costs. What is the result? You have tunnels of turbulent winds along the straightened streets, minimizing the ability to create successful microclimatic outdoor areas and well-being in these areas.

We at Henning Larsen make it a principle to understand and read a context in the broadest sense, history, traditions, physical context, building principals etc. — with the target, to use this understanding and translate it into the present projects.

After working on many projects in the Faroe Islands in recent years, we have explored local traditions, both in construction and planning, also how these have changed over time. We have increasingly used this knowledge to develop our concepts growing out of a local tradition, with the aim to use this platform to create and contribute to the local modern architecture.

Some years ago we won a public competition to develop ideas for new visions of housing landscapes — how to diversify them, away from building only single family houses to more flexible structures. Our idea was about creating smaller clusters of housing, like villages in the village or small clusters of houses scattered around the landscape with clear distance, but still together defining a village, just as a traditional Faroese village. In the old times a single family house complex was consisting of different volumes like stable, hay barn, living space. This principle we re-thought. So we suggested clusters of several units around a “TÚN” (Faroese for a dooryard) kind of small semi private plaza wit good micro climatic conditions to be shared as social space for 6-8 units around, to fit modern lifestyle to choose to socialize as an option. The competition was some years ago, the project has been close to being implemented several times but not until now that it really looks like we will start erection, probably in 2021.

For the city of Klaksvik (= second largest town in the Faroe Islands) we won the design for the master plan for a new city centre. It is a relatively big project which will take some time to accomplish, but which considers a lot of this traditional cluster thinking of how to best align the buildings and constructions with landscape and natural conditions, as a start out we used wind simulation and traditional local ‘village patterns’ to create and shape the new city center. There were 154 international entries from all over the world, and I think that our main point of success was to really look into a traditional way of reading the landscape and climate conditions. We wanted to close the gap that opened through getting lost in technocratic planning rather than local intuition.

What about the plans for the expansion of Hotel Tórshavn in the city centre?

Well, it seems Corona has put everything on hold for the time being. The owner of the new construction is Gist og Vist who also owns Hotel Føroyar, which had an expansion of the construction planned as well. So this was accomplished first and the first phase there is about to terminate, providing more rooms to the Hotel Føroyar.

The project is still on hold and will hopefully pick up post pandemic. The plans need to be finally accepted by the municipality in order to get a final building permission.

In recent years, a trend is visible to drill for ‘earth heat’ (Jarðhita) resources as an alternative way to heat houses in the Faroe Islands, which supports the ambitious targets of the government to have Zero Emissions by 2030.

Well, quite a few of the people who are searching to build sustainable, are drilling for such resources, typically 2-300 meters deep. (see article about hot water findings Jardfeingi).

A huge part of consumption of resources in the Faroe Islands is for heating, so it is an important alternative to look at.

I have included such a system in my own house, which I built some 2 years ago and it is works very well. It’s very stable and saves a lot of costs, but as it is a new concept to the Faroe Islands, people have all kinds of perceptions and prejudices. Also, it is an investment a bit more costly than a traditional oil-based heating system; and not every family can cover this easily, especially if they recently invested in a traditional system.

Aside of the earth heating, we put a lot of effort into optimal insulation and re-use of heating energy through ventilation systems, rather than letting the heat go out the doors and windows un-recycled.

Ósbjørn, you lived in urban environments and have looked after many big international projects before moving back to the Faroe Islands — do you have a vision for your professional targets here?

One thing I have learned is that scale is not the ultimate professional issue.

In fact it’s often easier to build large scale — the resources are better and that can in many ways make it possible to develop a lot of sub-elements, but on the other hand the close relation and rapid decision making in small scale project can very satisfying.

Another interesting fact for the future work, is that the Faroe Islands in many aspects are a virgin land in architecture. Architecture as a profession is very young compared to the rest of Europe and this is highlighting a lot of very exiting aspect for future work in the field of architecture and planning.

One vision is to develop the readings and understanding of the old structures, landscape and climate conditions and bring it to a modern interpretation. By no means just to copy the way the typical way Faroese houses look like (black wood, white window frames, grass on the roof), but understanding the true wisdom of old structures and their relation to landscape.

Thanks so much, Ósbjørn, for sharing these very inspiring views, and we hope to see many new projects based on the old knowledge!

More about the knowledge destination and the business community there on the LinkedIn showcase of Visit Faroe Islands Meetings and on