Building Design for Sustainability Master´s Thesis 2021

Elin Lidén & Martin Lindholm

vernacular: reinterpreted

| Low-tech dwelling in Johanneberg |

During the 20th century, dwelling architecture in Sweden has changed from being a product of a local building tradition, local materials and a local climate, to become a complex machinery of high-tech, high processed components, standardized for a globalized world.

In this transition, the professions of architects and engineers have developed and become increasingly divided, resulting in a separation between building systems, building materials and the architectural space. At the same time, the indoors has become the dominating human environment, greatly affecting our health and our relation to the outdoors.

This thesis is questioning this high-tech development, and instead seeks sustainable solutions in the low-tech, that today is largely overlooked. As a time before high technology, vernacular architecture can today be viewed as a rich resource of sustainable and low-tech principles.

This thesis aims to take critical inspiration from and reinterpret vernacular principles in a low-tech design proposal for a multi-family dwelling in the area of Johanneberg in Gothenburg. The aim is a design where the composition of material and space in relation to the local situation and climate, can provide comfort and well-being for its inhabitants, with a minimal environmental impact.

This thesis also explores how architecture can not only protect but also connect human dwellers to the outdoor climate, linking seasonal change to the everyday life. We believe that with a low-tech approach, sustainability can be addressed in a more holistic view.


learning from the vernacular

Vernacular Swedish Ryggåsstuga (Photography by Falbygdens Museum, 2018)

Three vernacular dwelling typologies in Västra Götaland were studied, in search of relevant principles to reinterpret in this thesis. The main aspects we found interesting are the following:

Seasonal use of space – Large differences in way of life between summer and winter, lead to very different use of spaces. A minimal area was heated in the cold months to conserve energy, whilst summer meant an expansion of the living and working space to unheated rooms and the outdoors.

Heat conservation – Buffer rooms towards the outdoors, double windows and small openings were strategies used to make sure the heat did not escape the dwelling.

Spatial organization around heat – Organizing spaces around a heated core gave a clear social gathering place. Radiant heat from the wood stove gave comfort in the otherwise unheated building.

Materiality – The tradition of massive constructions with timber, can be continued with today’s tools and knowledge. Clay is a material that today is viewed as waste, but that holds many qualities of both indoor climate aspects and tactility.

Economization – The close connection of farming and dwelling can be translated into modern concepts of urban farming, to strengthen the connection between neighbours and to place. Although the vernacular typologies would be seen as an unacceptably small by todays standard, todays living space/person can be heavily questioned. Economizing the heated space can be done today with sharing and co-living concepts.

the site

The site is located in Gothenburg, a region exposed to rain and moisture with mild winters and rainy summers.

The site is situated in the area of Johanneberg, just south of Gothenburg’s city centre. Today, it is an overgrown gravel area, where two previous building were demolished a few years ago.

Site analysis

volume studies


The block is organized around a common yard in the south. The buildings are connected by an access balcony, while the vertical access is placed inbetween the volumes.

vernacular translations

Seasonal living

A quality of a detached house in a vernacular typology, as well as in the villa typologies south of the site, is a close relation to the outdoors, and the possibility to extend the living space in the warmer months into a garden.

In our sketches, we intended to create the same relation to the outdoors but in an apartment typology. The access balcony in the south gives the possibility for each apartment to extend or decrease their living space depending on season.

Outdoor expansion of living space depending on season


In vernacular typologies, unheated spaces are used to increase the living space in the warmer months. In our translation, an entrance veranda in the south and a winter garden in the north has remained unheated, and can be added to the living space in the summer and used to prolong the warm season in the spring and autumn.

These unheated additions also buffer heat losses and noise from the street in the north, and can be used as cool storage space in the cold times of the year.

Unheated winter garden towards the north

Unheated access veranda towards the south


The vernacular logic of heating has a strong spatial presence, not only for the radiating warmth from the wood stove, but also for the way the heat source is a spatial element you move around, and as a social gathering spot.

The most appreciated heat source by human experience is radiant heat, coming from a large low temperature surface. In the design process, the concept of mass as a radiant heat source was explored.

Heat walls gives warmth, thermal inertia and works as a spatial divider of the apartment.

design proposal

1:500 model, view from south

1:500 model, view from above

1:200 model, view from northwest

Apartment typologies

The proposal contains a mix of typologies to offer dwellings for varied households. The apartments follow the same logics of wall heating, natural ventilation, as well as having unheated spaces.

Ground floor

First floor

Cross section

Southern facade visualization

View along southern access balcony

By the staircases, the balcony stretches out to the yard to give space for neighbour interactions.

Zoom in on 4 room co-living apartment

1:25 model pictures

1:25 model picture, a warm wall as a social gathering space