Sara Kulturhus by White Arkitekter Is a Wooden Wonder

The entire project is a model of thoughtful, sustainable design.

Interior of Theater

Patrick Degerman

In a recent report on embodied carbon from the Rocky Mountain Institute, the authors noted that "considering wood as a carbon-sequestering material is a point of contention among industry experts." In Sweden, they say, "Hold my öl (beer)," as they build tall, gorgeous buildings with the most sophisticated wood technologies, and say that "timber is a cornerstone in the transition to net zero."

exterior of Sara kulturhaus

Patrick Degerman

One such building is the Sara Kulturhus cultural center, pictured above. The architects, White Arkitekter, describe it:

"Standing almost 80 meters [262 feet] tall, Sara Kulturhus is one of the world’s tallest timber buildings at inauguration in September 2021. It houses six theatre stages, the City Library, two art galleries, and a 200-room hotel with conference centre, restaurants, and spa. The 20-storey hotel offers dramatic views that stretch for miles over Skellefteå, located just below the Arctic Circle in Sweden."

Skellefteå is a mining town, but also had a traditional timber industry and a history of wooden buildings, most of which were demolished and replaced with brick.

"With Sara Kulturhus, this tradition has been revived. Combining the timber tradition with modern technology and the local heritage, the project is realized with a structure entirely made of timber. Timber from the region’s sustainable forests located approximately 200 km [124 miles] from the building and processed in a sawmill 50 km [31 miles] from it."
roof trusses out of wood

Patrick Degerman

Modern technology, indeed. The building is a demonstration project of what you can do with wood. These roof trusses are so dramatic, with big chunky compression members sticking down.

wood panels for acoustics

Patrick Degerman

Wood panels on the walls both absorb sound and bounce it in different directions; the acoustics are probably wonderful. "The project aims to broaden the possible applications of timber as a structure material for complex and high-rise buildings, sparking advancement in sustainable construction. The very diverse programme has called for a range of innovative solutions in mass timber construction to handle spans, flexibility, acoustics, and overall statics."

Hotel tower and base

Patrick Degerman

The hotel tower is built of prefabricated modules made of Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) stacked high between elevator and stair cores made of CLT. "Integrated structural design has eliminated the need for concrete entirely from the load-bearing structure, speeding up construction and drastically reducing the carbon footprint."

Road Map

White Arkitekter

Digging into White's Road Map for 2030: Our strategy for a climate-positive future, one realizes that green sustainable building is about a lot more than just building with wood; they get the principles that have been discussed by the World Green Building Council and are mentioned in the RMI report. Here's a long quote from a document that is worth reading:

"The starting point is to use what has already been built or produced and, based on what already exists, to create new designs, functions, and attractive environments. Materials are used efficiently in nontoxic circular flows and construction can be dismantled so that the material can be returned to the material flow. 
The architecture we create must stand the test of time and be timeless. Environments and buildings are designed so that they evolve over time with general and flexible floor plans and construction that make efficient use of the area. Offices can be converted into homes, streets can become parks, and ground floors can become social meeting places.
Buildings are climate-neutral or climate-positive, which means they do not contribute to negative greenhouse gas emissions during their lifecycle, and they may even capture carbon dioxide. New construction is carried out largely using timber and bio-based materials or using recycled raw materials with a low carbon footprint."
stairway all in wood

Patrick Degerman

As the road map notes, building with timber is only one part of a larger picture of sustainable design. The issue of the carbon footprint of mass timber construction is controversial on both sides of the Atlantic, although the issue of its beauty isn't, nor its contribution to the gorgeousness of the Sara Kulturhus and the warmth of the wood—so much biophilia that I feel more relaxed just looking at it. It's truly "a showcase for sustainable design and construction where all forms of culture live side-by-side."

trusses at corners

Patrick Degerman

As White Architekter concludes, everyone in the industry should be doing this.

"In the climate-positive future, the construction industry considers the long-term lifecycle perspective and investments in quality, sustainability, and timeless architecture to be a matter of course in order to be financially profitable."

And the time to start building that climate-positive future is now.