- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by Jacob Nordström
In Sweden there’s a wonderful law called the ‘Right to Roam’ – or, more accurately translated, the ‘right of public access to wilderness’. It means anyone in Sweden has the human right to walk anywhere in the woods, camp or even tie a boat to a rock for the night, as long as they’re actually ‘roaming’ and eventually moving on. There’s basically no such thing as trespassing in the northern Swedish countryside. You’re also allowed to pick flowers, mushrooms and berries anywhere. Of the many inspirational factors that compelled Mats Edlund and Henrietta Palmer to create a new breed of country house/ cabin in the shore-side wilderness surrounding Holick, a fishing village just north of Stockholm, this law became the most inspiring of all. In theory, this clever piece of legislation encapsulates the Swedish way: a sensibility that marries human-centric social values with respect for nature. According to Edlund, ‘It is an understanding that is well embedded in the Swedish relationship to the natural environment that surrounds us and how to socially respect your neighbour.’ This live-and-let-be mentality has also called many Swedes back into the countryside, to build small, sustainable homes in the more remote regions of the country. It’s also an ideal clearly reflected in the more recent designs of Swedish summer homes.
Back in 2005, David Backstrom, a landlord and developer, contacted Edlund who was living in Paris at the time. He wanted to transform an old traditional camping site into something more modern and asked whether Edlund was interested in taking this journey with him – to design a series of summer homes in Holick. Palmer and Edlund had previously worked together on a few different projects in various regions throughout Sweden, yielding some exciting results, so it was natural for Edlund to invite her to join him on this new design project. While Edlund was in Paris, Palmer had just started her professorship at the Royal Institute of Art (KKH) in Stockholm. Regardless of the distance between them, they started the design process by mailing each other their thoughts, ideas and sketches of what this project could possibly become. ‘Early on we visited the site together – both of us for the very first time,’ says Edlund.’The wilderness and beauty of the landscape, including an old fishing village and beautiful sandy beaches, really struck us. We then understood that we would have to be extremely careful in placing houses on this site.’
To put the houses on plinths was an early decision, as well as the banning of cars. They also decided to build raised walkways to let the blueberry bushes, prevalent in the region, continue to grow as before. As the site was already a functioning campground, the designs took inspiration from what they saw – a simple and understated sense of remote life in the Swedish wilderness. Taking a few cues from an old-fashioned army tent, Edlund and Palmer designed two different house types, plus a small grocery store for the community to be. The first (larger) design was completed at the end of 2010, while the first of the smaller designs is due to be finished later this year. The original plan was to build 10 summer cottages that would then be rented out on a short-term basis by Backstrom’s Holick Sea Resort company, but it took him nearly three years to get the permission and approval to start building. By the time he finally received it, Backstrom had changed his mind and instead wanted to sell the houses off as condominiums that the owners could then sublet through Holick Sea Resort. This somehow changed the design conditions for Edlund and Palmer, so they rethought the summer cottage idea, deciding instead to turn them into year-round functioning homes.
‘Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see how much of the first design is still there,’ says Edlund. ‘One early idea was to make one of the facades somewhat invisible by using a mirror cladding on the exterior. Today it’s not so unusual to see, but at that time we had not seen it yet. By the time their approval was granted to break ground, they had dropped the fancy schemes and opted to work with only locally sourced wood (in various dimensions). Edlund says this allowed them to blend the houses into the shadows of the Holick forest in a much more natural and traditional way.
By the end of 2011, Edlund says there will be a total of 23 houses on two different sites – all concealed from the old camping site, which is still fully functioning and quite busy during the summertime.
Edlund describes the complexity of the project as more conceptual and pragmatic than anything else; the balancing of traditional versus modern, wild nature versus contractual planning, shared space versus privately owned land. The idea of understanding the place was, of course, essential to the overall design process, as Edlund clearly recalls. ‘In the early stages, we would spend two long summer days at a time, on-site, together with the clients, who are both locals,’ he says. ‘They know the place from the depth of their hearts. We wandered through the woods and beaches, talked and talked, and criss-crossed through the blueberries. That’s what it was all about.’
As for the design priorities, comfort was always the ultimate goal. ‘Being able to live simply on-site with no grand gestures was the main objective, offering the basics and not much more,’ says Edlund. Beyond that, the homes were to provide easy access to the outside, creating light and peaceful spaces both inside and out, while making as little impact as possible on the site. As always, the idea was anchored by the natural surroundings and environment offered in this particular region.
Palmer says the smaller homes in the area will probably see more off-grid solutions, with a higher degree of self-sufficiency in energy provision: water treatment as well as waste management and recycling systems. ‘We will probably see more highly insulated small houses here as well,’ says Edlund. ‘Now elegance can be achieved through slim walls and detailing, with another form of architectural expression as a result.’ In Sweden, the small, remote house or summer home has come a long way, but it’s usually been considered the ‘retreat’. Surprisingly, he says, many people in Sweden and elsewhere are now transforming these houses into more permanent living solutions. Due to the possibilities of work through the internet and stronger networking capacities, the singular, remote house in Sweden is offering a new opportunity to build intelligently – with green technology and strategies that enable a small home to practically take care of itself, completely off-grid. Edlund also notes the Swedish government is providing a way to meet this kind of small-scale solution halfway. ‘In terms of tax relief and government help, the nearby municipalities of Stockholm have already provided great incentives to build more of this “natural”, residential living,’ he says.
The natural environment that surrounds Stockholm (and the great majority of Sweden) has always been well considered and respected in Sweden, but is now becoming a much closer part of day-to-day existence. Combined with the freedom to roam, the beauty of this lifestyle is self-evident. If the success of Edlund and Palmer’s cabins is anything to go by, nature, it seems, is where we were always meant to be.