Housing on Lisbjerg Hill


Tegnestuen Vandkunsten

Denmark has been at the forefront of ambitious social housing design for the past century, and Housing on Lisbjerg Hill by Vandkunsten Architects is no exception.

Af Henry Stephens

Combining innovative prefab construction processes with strong material and tectonic sensibilities, Lisbjerg sets a new precedent for timber construction in social housing.

In 2014, Tegnestuen Vandkunsten won an open competition for ‘Sustainable Non-Profit Housing of the Future’. Launched via Denmark’s Ministry for Cities, Housing and Rural Areas, the city of Aarhus, and housing non-profit AL2Bolig, the brief outlined a competition for a prototype housing scheme in Lisbjerg, a small suburb north of Aarhus. Ambitiously, Vandkunsten set out to develop the scheme as the result of a better building practice rather than a singular design form or aesthetic. The five points of this praxis-based manifesto range from timber-based and reversible construction to an emphasis on a sense of ownership and community.

In terms of its overall organization, the scheme continues to develop many of the ideas from Vandkunsten’s impressive portfolio of social housing, with a strong emphasis on the human scale, pedestrian axes, and communal spaces. Rather than a monolithic block, the housing complex is designed as a small cluster of six discreet buildings arranged along a single pedestrian street. At each end of the street are two communal ‘squares’: open spaces that tie the buildings together whilst also allowing for a clear entrance sequence to each individual building. 

The buildings themselves are compact timber-clad units of two to four stories, consisting of 40 housing units in total. The facades are made of untreated timber, which will weather naturally over time. A defining characteristic of the buildings is the over-dimensioned eaves protecting the facades — sturdy detailing is paramount here. Interestingly, the buildings are also linked by a series of mid-height terraces and catwalks, allowing for a more vertical approach to public space, and enhancing the sense of community within the housing complex. The interiors are a typically Scandinavian affair with natural timber finishes, generous ceiling heights, and ample provision of daylight. 

However, the scheme really starts to break new ground with its emphasis on innovative, prefabricated timber-construction methods. The project is based around ‘wood stock’, a laminated timber structural system developed in collaboration between Vandkunsten and MOE, a Danish engineering firm. Concrete and steel are also used where it makes sense for the construction, to meet acoustic insulation requirements between floors, for stair and elevator cores, and to enable structural spans not yet possible with timber. 

This hybrid construction technology provides a high degree of flexibility, both for the present and future of the building. In the finished buildings at Lisbjerg Bakke, the structural system allows for a non-load-bearing façade, giving complete freedom in façade design and in the placement of openings. The construction system has been detailed with an eye to the future, for ease of dismantlement and reuse of building components. More broadly speaking, a construction system like this has the potential to be used for an almost unlimited range of different applications in the future — from housing units to office buildings, and from kindergartens to bus stations.