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05 Jan 2022

An Icelandic Work of Art

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Studio Bua has transformed a derelict concrete barn in rural Iceland into a light and modern home and artist’s studio. The barn at Hlöðuberg, Skarðsströnd, is situated on a former farm overlooking the Breiðafjörður Nature Reserve in western Iceland. The beautiful rural site is surrounded by mountains, meadows, a fjord and the open sea beyond, making it subject to extreme weather and temperatures. Here, i-Build explores the newly-renovated property and talks to the Architect in charge of the project.

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For years, Artist Gudrun Kristjansdottir, who has exhibited work across the globe over the past 20 years, and her husband Ævar Kristjánsson, a well-known Icelandic Broadcaster, searched for a remote spot with a view before settling on this location. The land was previously occupied by a fragmented cluster of buildings, each with a specific character and in various states of disrepair. To kickstart the project, the pair enlisted the help of architecture firm Studio Bua to transform the entire farm, linking the existing spaces to create a cohesive landscape with a community of buildings that Gudrun and Ævar’s family and friends can use.

A phased transformation

The renovation and restoration of the concrete barn, originally built in 1937, is phase one of this project. After assessing all structures on the site, Studio Bua encouraged the Kristjánssons to transform the barn. However, due to the build’s remote location and the pandemic, many discussions had to be conducted via video, with explanations made through drawings and 3D models.

Following these virtual meetings, the team generated a brief to create a space for both a home and a working artist’s studio. Here, finding the right balance between workspace and family home became vital. The space needed to be neutral enough to exhibit artwork and become a welcoming family home and a place to entertain guests. Gudrun’s work focuses on nature, using organic elements and forms to transform them into an abstract whole. For her, converting the barn was a similar process.

Settling into the neighbourhood

The local landscape has been incorporated into the design where possible, with pebbles and volcanic sand from the beach used to fill holes in the existing structure and cover the mastic surrounding the windows. The new timber volume is clad in corrugated industrial Aluzinc, which embodies the lightness of the inserted volume. Aluzinc is one of the few materials that can withstand the site’s harsh environment and extreme weather. The corrugation references local building tradition and reflects the colour of the sky and surrounding meadow, changing with the seasons and weather. The cladding, roofing, flashing and downpipes were all locally produced.

A healthy work-life balance

The ground floor has been conceived as a robust workspace containing an artist’s studio, kitchen and dining space. The small but efficient plan accommodates a double-height area at each end. To avoid compromising the existing unreinforced structure, only two new openings have been added to the ground floor. One allows light to enter the kitchen, and the other acts as a separate entrance to the studio to accommodate large artworks. The existing and new openings have been diamond cut to give a smoothness that contrasts the rough external finishes and reveals, in section, the colour and texture of the irregular aggregate.

Light was integral to the scheme, especially in the double-height studio, which looks out onto the fjord. A rooflight allows for northern daylight and ventilation in the studio, while large windows provide further light to the home. A key challenge was to frame and capture views from the expansive landscape and relate them to the scale of the domestic interior. LED lighting has been used throughout to ensure that areas with less natural light are well-lit and all the spaces stay bright during the dark winter, with particular attention given to the task lighting in the artist’s studio.

Sustainable, simple and serene

Despite the extreme conditions, the house is very efficient and sustainable. A ground source heat pump was installed, along with low-temperature underfloor heating and triple glazing on all the windows.

Simplicity is at the heart of the modern interior design scheme. The detailed but calm interior has been kept neutral to ensure that it does not distract from the displayed artwork. The material palette was inspired by the colours found in the surrounding wilderness. The neighbouring meadows turn from yellow after winter, to green in spring, and purple in late summer. The interior has sophistication and control that contrasts vastly with the wild outdoors. The floors on the ground floor use polished concrete, while stained birch plywood has been used for the walls.

Artistic details

Additional bespoke fixed furniture has been built from hand-stained plywood. Studio Bua collaborated with Gudrun, who has previous artistic experience with staining, to experiment with various pigments and stains before deciding which to use. The kitchen uses a combination of bespoke steel and hand-stained plywood. At the bottom of the staircase, concrete was cast in situ with stones from the local beach. To achieve a minimal aesthetic and minimise clutter, the architect firm designed a storage space for the studio and plenty of wardrobes and other storage solutions throughout the house.

The first floor is a domestic sphere containing the private areas of the house. For these, a subdued material palette inspired by local vernacular interiors has been maintained. Walls and floors are lined in white-stained pine boards. While a plywood staircase leads from the ground-floor dining space to a mezzanine sitting room that overlooks a double-height area. A new opening has been added for daylight and stunning views out onto the beach and the fjord beyond. The sizeable existing aperture on the end facade, initially used to bring hay into the barn, has been fully glazed.

The perfect picture

At the top of the staircase, a hallway leading to the private bedrooms and bathroom opens onto a view of the studio from above, offering a different perspective to the emerging artworks below. A pair of picture windows, placed on the axis of the first-floor hallway, frame views along the coast and towards the mountains. Meanwhile, the bathroom uses a palette of sky-blue and earthy red with chequered pale grey and white porcelain tiles.

Windows throughout the house use robust plywood internal reveals, which double as display shelves and a bench in the sitting room. The first-floor handrails and the fin balustrades in the double-height spaces are cut from the same plywood, using offcuts from the interior wall panelling.

Using reclaimed materials

Given the remote location, and for economic and environmental reasons, waste has been minimised where possible. All interior doors were reclaimed from the Reykjavik city recycling centre. While, a woollen curtain from Gudrun and Ævar’s previous 1960s family business inventory has been used as a room-partition in the atelier. Moving outside, the seating and patio table legs have been created from the concrete that was discarded when new openings were created.

The mastermind behind the project

Here, i-Build’s Editor, Rebecca Kemp, talks to Sigrún Sumarliðadóttir, Co-Founder of Studio Bua, about the project.

RK: What inspired you to take on this project?
SS: We were contacted by Gudrun and Ævar after they had visited another project that we did. The couple liked our work, and we quickly developed a good and productive relationship with them. The site’s location was beautiful, and the brief was great, so we were eager to work with them.

RK: How did you combine the original building’s style with the extension?
SS: We were determined to keep as much of the existing concrete structure as possible to preserve the barn’s unique character and make use of the fit-for-purpose elements. The central part of the existing structure was built from thick and sturdy mass concrete with a corrugated steel roof. The quality of the existing concrete has been retained externally, with unusual lichen growth and local pebble aggregate creating the illusion that the barn is growing from the earth.

A roofless lean-to addition, which was completely ruined, has been left untouched and forms a sheltered courtyard. The beautifully-ruined, foundation-free perimeter walls have been retained, enclosing a new walled garden where flowers, vegetables and herbs can be grown.

RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind the home?
SS: The initial idea was to insert a lightweight, two-storey timber structure into the existing space to add value to the barn yet keep its character. The renovation has been conceived and built as a piece of art. Incorporating the property’s natural environment was also important to Gudrun, who considers it a ‘living kitchen’ filled with edible seaweed, medicinal herbs, and fish.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
SS: We worked closely with the couple to finalise the brief to fit everything they required within the, somewhat limited, border of the existing structure. The result is a small and very efficient plan.

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?
SS: The building inspector and authorities are in a town about 60km away. They had regular committee meetings, but they were in agreement, and we achieved permission after only a few months of procedures.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
SS: The building is very remote. We had several hold-ups in getting materials to the site. We also had some delays because of extreme weather conditions, where the building team couldn’t get on site. What’s more, we were also subjected to the pandemic in the middle of the building process, which meant both shortage of materials arriving in Iceland and limited site visits.

RK: Did you project manage the build?
SS: In Iceland, we must have a building manager, who is usually the main contractor or a subcontractor. In this case, the main contractor was also the building manager.

RK: Are there any particular materials that you would recommend to others looking to renovate or self-build?
SS: This really depends on where you are building. We do, however, suggest using locally-sourced materials as much as possible. We also strongly advise only using sustainable materials and recirculating whenever possible.

RK: How long did the project take?
SS: The design process and permits took approximately nine months, and the build took over a year – primarily due to delays because of the pandemic. It was completed in spring 2021. Gudrun and Ævar were intimately involved, especially after the shell was finished. They stayed in a nearby house while works were underway, and they moved in right after it was finished.

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
SS: Overall costs were £195K, slightly over the original budget. The unexpected expenses were caused by delays in labour and higher material costs because of the pandemic.

RK: How does the building respond to its surrounding landscape?
SS: One example is the interior colour scheme which is inspired by the outdoors; reds and greens of the seaweed, the ever-changing colour of the sky etc. We also used the pebbles from the beach to cast into the interior concrete stairs and as a way to finish the damage of the old exterior concrete wall.

RK: What does the local community think of the refurbishment?
SS: Everyone seems to be rather positive about it. A few of them have reposted some of the press we have gained. The building team consisted of a few local farmers too, and they are proud of the building.

RK: Is the finished space everything that you hoped it would be?
SS: Yes, we are proud of it too. Now that we have had some distance from the onsite work, we can stop focusing on the details and start to see the work as a whole.

RK: Is there anything that you would have done differently?
SS: We took a long time to develop this scheme. We changed the design several times to find the perfect balance for the clients and us. Therefore, in hindsight, I don’t think there’s anything we would have done differently.

RK: What advice would you offer to anyone looking to renovate?
SS: Find an architect who is willing to listen and that you have a good connection with.

When asked what they like most about their brand-new home, Gudrun responded: “Combining family life and work is very important to us. The place is popular, not only for us but for the rest of the family too. It is particularly significant to have a home where you find peace to work and develop new methods in your artwork. And growing your own vegetables is another key benefit. There is a feeling of freedom and a natural flow of time in the house. My favourite spot is in the studio with the view of the fjord.”

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