​Affordable, Sustainable, Local: Can timber replace concrete?

Russia is a country where Soviet mass housing abounds, but that's not stopping one architect from pushing for change. That change comes in the form of replacing concrete with timber – a resource which the country happens to have in abundance.

Image: BOLD
Maxime Cunin (left) / by Gleb Leonov
Image: BOLD

Maxime Cunin, Associate at Rotterdam-based BOLD, is one of several finalists of the  Open International Competition for Standard Housing and Residential Development Concept Design. Cunin spoke to Strelka Magazine about his vision to transform living conditions in Russia by utilizing good, old wood.

Russia's cement production is "staggering a bit," which means the construction sector is relying more heavily on imports, Cunin explained, adding that such dependency makes construction rates not as controllable as before and not as affordable as before.

The answer, according to Cunin, is to replace concrete with timber. "If you take a look on the map and you look at Russia from space, then you see this massive area of green. Forty-five percent of the country is covered with forest area. This is something that's unprecedented – it's one-fifth of the world's resource of wood."

However, he explained that Russia currently represents only 4 percent of the wood industry in the world. "So you can see there is a huge potential for the country in terms of economic development, in terms of jobs, and also to provide truly affordable housing for Russians."

Russia's small role on the world timber stage is, according to Cunin, partly due to a “lack of comprehensive and holistic approach to the timber industry, from import strategies to infrastructure investments, from the tree in the forest to the timber column in the building.”

However, it’s possible for changes to be made that will incentivize companies to invest, Cunin said, adding that a shift can already be seen. He noted that Russia is already “trying to [implement] conditions to incentivize the forest industry to grow bigger.”

Image: BOLD
Image: BOLD
Image: BOLD
Image: BOLD
Image: BOLD
Image: BOLD
Image: BOLD

When it comes to sustainability, Cunin acknowledged that the timber industry isn’t currently as environmentally friendly as it could be, but said he is confident that positive changes can be made in the area. “Deforestation is responsible for 18 percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions of the world...but it doesn’t have to be like this,” he said, citing Canada’s practice of maintaining certified, sustainable forests.

Timber construction also isn’t an oil-based resource, which means it’s renewable, Cunin explained. “Timber is much lighter than concrete or steel...and it’s also lighter to transport, which means you can transport more wood on a truck or on a railway by consuming less fuel.”

The fact that timber is in abundance in Russia also helps when it comes to being eco-friendly. “If you transport timber from the forecast to a construction area, the path is going to be shorter than the path for steel because you are not relying on the importation of goods to make [the construction] happen.”

In addition to advocating for the use of timber, Cunin and his colleagues have also focused on the concept of community in their proposal, which is in the running for the best mass housing structure in a downtown area. One of their ideas is a workshop where people can go to make repairs – or to ask a fellow resident to help them do so.

Cunin said it was a priority that he and his colleagues asked themselves how an area could be centered on the humans who inhabit it, as well as be safe, livable, and walkable. “If you provide people with the ability to meet and share moments, this is where people are feeling comfortable,” he said, adding that such an environment brings a whole new sense to the concept of “home.”

Image: BOLD
Image: BOLD
Image: BOLD

He said that he and his colleagues drew inspiration from the Soviet communal apartment concept known as kommunalka. “Russians we spoke to were talking of the kommunalka with a certain sense of romanticism, but the problem was that it was a forced social arrangement.”

Semi-public spaces will be created within the building block, Cunin said. Each apartment will have access to additional spaces that improve quality of life and foster social exchanges.

When asked about particular challenges posed by Russia, the architect said that challenges aren’t actually important. “The most important thing is the specificities of Russia – what is different about it, and how do you take advantage of this huge potential.”

Cunin said that Russia’s heritage of prefabricated concrete structures can be used as an opportunity, since building similar housing with timber isn’t such a foreign concept. “Russia is used to this whole process,” he said.

He also noted that Russia’s varied climate can be seen as an advantage. “What makes this interesting is that you can have a proposal that is flexible enough to be applied anywhere, but not in a very generic way that they will all look the exact same throughout the country...they can have their own specificites.”

The architect also stressed that Russia has a large advantage over Europe. “Russia has a really interesting past of experimental housing. That’s something that no one has really used in Europe, for example. To do a project in Europe, it’s a one-shot. You do it, you design it, you build it, and then you do another one that is going to be different than the first one. There’s no real learning from the previous experience…

“...Here it is different because you have the first prototype that you build and based on the experience of people, of the construction, of the architects, you can build on the next generation of building. And it’s this kind of mix between being a truly flexible proposal that is going to evolve but that is still on a massive scale. That’s something that is a huge potential for Russia to trigger some change.”

Cunin and his colleagues at BOLD are awaiting the competition’s results, with winners set to be announced at a forum in Kaliningrad May 18-20.

Text: Lynsey Free