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LD Architect Abroad: Iceland

May 5, 2011

Our family has just returned from a trip to Europe and while the focus was on family vacation, I couldn’t help but notice a few architectural details and concepts while out and about.

In Iceland, I was impressed with the attention to moisture-resistant details – after seeing snow blowing in sideways, I can appreciate how the buildings in Iceland have evolved in response to the severe climate. In general, the buildings in Reykjavik are quite blocky, with few outcroppings or protruding architectural details.

The Vikin Maritime Museum is on the waterfront and has some interesting cladding details. The metal siding is designed as overlapping planks, with a rolled edge at the bottom. This not only gives an elegant pattern to the façade, but also reduces the ability of water to wick upwards between the planks.

The stone tile veneer is designed as a rainscreen wall, which means that the tiles are mounted with a space between the back of the tiles and the face of a (hidden) drainage plane. In other words, the moisture that makes it through the cracks between the tiles can drain freely down the surface of the wall behind.

Another interesting building is the Reykjavik City Hall, which has a lovely moss wall, which is kept moist by rainfall from the roof and water from the pond below. This type of green wall would be harder to maintain in a less moist climate, but it makes sense in Iceland (and maybe Seattle?).

And here is an interesting cladding detail that allows the beauty of pale wood to endure the harsh climate. Rather than try to maintain a layer of waterproof sealant over the wood, which would need constant reapplication, the wood is covered with a glass veneer. This may also be a good strategy for the chilly climate of Reykjavik (with a summer average high temperature of 57 degrees F), because the glass would also create a warm airspace when it is sunny. It is similar in concept to a Trombe wall, although I saw no evidence that the warm air was being used directly in heating the building. However, it would definitely create a warmer microclimate right at the exterior of the wall, which would reduce the amount of heating needed for the building. An interesting idea that might be adapted to be useful in the Pacific Northwest.

The landscape of Iceland is rugged – in fact, it is the world’s youngest landmass, formed entirely from volcanic activity. At Thingvellir, there are large rock formations that are moving apart from each other at the rate of an inch a year. An awe-inspiring glimpse at the volatility of the earth we live on. (But from the family vacation side of things, a snow shower there was also a great opportunity to make snowballs.)

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