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NATURE'S WAY

building study - When 24H Architecture wanted to build a summer house in Sweden, it added a retractable extension to an old cabin, creating a variable organic form that blends into the woods

Among tall birch and pine trees, and rock-filled streams, just steps from the shore of Lake Ívre Gla in the Glaskogen nature reserve in Sweden, lies the summer retreat of Maartje Lammers and Boris Zeisser. They are two architects from the Netherlands, principals of 24H Architecture. They purchased the land in +rjõngs Commun, Võrmland, in 2000, on which stood an 19th-century fisherman's cabin. But there are restrictions on building in this beautiful nature reserve - most relevant in this case being that they could not extend the cabin by more than 30m 2. These particular ordinances were brought in about 10 years ago to prevent such rural sites becoming overdeveloped; they were becoming very popular, especially with the Dutch and Germans, for second homes.

Zeisser had come to Sweden as a child for several summers and was drawn back to it.

'The cabin was in poor condition when we found it, ' says Lammers, 'We did keep much of it in its original state, but removed the tacky details, like the awkward little kitchen you couldn't even stand up straight in.' Keeping the basic structure of the old cottage, they insulated it to provide sleeping quarters for the family. They painted the walls dark blue because, says Lammers, 'during the long summer nights in Sweden it hardly ever gets dark and when you travel with a little girl she uses the light as an excuse to stay up'.

Like many an architect's own projects, the work was done gradually, in this case in oneweek and two-week increments over a period of three years, building by hand, sometimes with the help of friends. Lammers estimates the actual build time was 12-13 weeks.

During the spring of 2001, they placed the foundation and built the floor for what would become the expandable part of the house, which would cantilever over a stream when extended. They also built an utedas some 50m away - a Swedish toilet house; a basic privy without modern plumbing or septic tank. In 2002 they built the extended shell of the cabin, the moving part of the house, windows and chimney, as well as insulating the walls and ceiling of the extendable section using reindeer pelts. This is an idea they picked up at the Ice Hotel in Sweden's Arctic Circle (AJ 19.12.02).

In 2003 the interior was completed. The total living area can now expand from 54 to 72m 2. So they have called the house Dragspelhuset - 'accordion house' in Swedish. It is retracted in winter and extended during the summer by hand, using pulleys.

The whole structural frame and the floor are built from decay-resistant local timber.

But the red cedar shingles came from Canada as the local Swedish shingles were too soft to be left unpainted. (Some Swedes are happy to repaint annually. ) The shingles are placed in irregular courses that evoke fish scales - an idea influenced by Gehry.

The floor plan is elongated yet functional. It consists of three sections. The original cabin provides the sleeping quarters for the family.

The permanent extension provides the main living section containing the kitchen and dining area, with cooking (by propane gas) and storage facilities contained efficiently in a single unit; a long counter top extends to create a table for dining. Its walls, finished in birch plastering-laths, resemble the skin of a large reptile.

The expandable section can be used as a sitting room (with chairs that attach to the floor) or as a space for visitors. A wood stove is used on cool summer evenings. So far, the family have only used Dragspelhuset in summer, but they may try it for a few days this winter.

This reptilian abstraction blends into its natural setting. During the winter months it is barely visible to those who are not looking for it and quietly conforms to the rhythm of nature. 'Our consideration was to make something that would blend into the landscape when we were not there, and that's where the organic shape comes from, ' says Lammers. 'It looks like a great granite rock from a distance.

It just blends in naturally. It disappears. That was our goal for these surroundings.' There is also a bigger architectural picture here, as might be expected of architects whose past employment includes Mecanoo and Koolhaas. Our usual approach to thinking about changing the function of a building, say from offices to flats, is a conversion on a timescale of years. 'But what about shorter intervals?' asks Zeisser rhetorically. He asks why a building should not be both an office by day and a hotel by night. To change a building almost instantly, and back again, would allow densification, an approach he finds appropriate particularly because, as he says, 'there is so little space in Holland'. While the small project of Dragspelhuset only reflects this thinking, one of 24H Architecture's next projects aims to take it further (assuming the client gets the funding).

It is a project for a private client, based in a redundant church. Not uncommonly, the client has a more extensive programme in mind than the building can permanently allow. So 24H's current idea is to accommodate the principal functions that could be a doctor's practice and design workshop by day, turning the spaces into a restaurant and seminar venue in the evening. Like hot-desking writ large, the building will move up a scale to hot-functioning. After Dragspelhuset, it all looks feasible.

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