Hlöðuberg Artist’s Studio

Studio Bua transforms a derelict concrete barn in rural Iceland into an elegant and modern light-filled home and artist’s studio.

Studio Bua has transformed a derelict concrete barn in rural Iceland into a light and modern home and artist’s studio. The barn at Hlöðuberg, Skarðsströnd is situated on a former farm overlooking the Breiðafjörður Nature Reserve in western Iceland. The rural site is surrounded by mountains, meadows, a fjord and the open sea beyond, making it subject to extreme weather and temperatures. For many years, the client searched for a remote place with a view before settling on this location. The once old and ruined concrete barn has become a shelter away from the harsh environment.

The land was previously occupied by a fragmented cluster of buildings, each with a specific character and in various states of disrepair. Studio Bua were approached to transform the entire farm, linking the existing spaces to create a cohesive landscape with a community of buildings that can be used by family and friends. The renovation and restoration of the concrete barn, originally built in 1937, is phase one of this project. Studio Bua assessed all the buildings on site before encouraging the client to transform the barn. The remote location and the pandemic meant that much of the discussion between the architect, client and contractors had to be done on video, with explanations made through drawings and 3D models.

The brief was to create a space that could act as both a home and a working artist’s studio for the clients, artist Gudrun Kristjansdottir, who has exhibited work across the globe over the past twenty years, and her husband Ævar Kristjánsson, a well-known Icelandic broadcaster. Finding the right balance between workspace and family home was key. The space needed to be neutral enough to exhibit artwork but also a welcoming family home and a place to entertain guests. The client’s work focuses on nature, using natural elements and forms to transform them into an abstract whole. For her, converting the barn was a similar process. The renovation has been conceived and built as a piece of art. Incorporating the natural environment surrounding the house was also important to the client, who considers it a ‘living kitchen’ filled with edible seaweed, medicinal herbs and fish.

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Studio Bua were determined to keep as much of the existing concrete structure as possible to preserve the barn’s unique character and make use of the fit-for-purpose elements. The main part of the existing structure was built from thick and sturdy mass concrete with a corrugated steel roof. The quality of the existing concrete has been retained externally, with unique lichen growth and local pebble aggregate creating the illusion that the barn is growing from the earth. A lean-to addition, which was missing its roof and in a complete state of ruin, has been left untouched and forms a sheltered courtyard. The beautifully ruined, foundation-free perimeter walls have been retained, enclosing a new walled garden where flowers, vegetables and herbs can be grown.

With no existing floor slab, the first step was to stabilise the original structure and line the barn floor with a reinforced concrete raft. The local landscape has been incorporated into the design where possible, with pebbles and volcanic sand from the beach used to fill holes in the existing structure and cover the mastic surrounding the windows. A lightweight, two-storey timber structure was inserted into the existing space. The new timber volume is clad in corrugated industrial Aluzinc, which embodies the lightness of the inserted volume. Aluzinc is one of the few materials able to withstand the site’s harsh environment and extreme weather. The corrugation references local building tradition and reflects the colour of the sky and surrounding meadow, changing with the seasons and weather. The cladding, roofing, flashing and downpipes were all locally produced.

The ground-floor has been conceived as a robust workspace containing an artist’s studio, kitchen and dining space. The small but efficient plan accommodates a double-height space at each end. To avoid compromising the unreinforced existing structure, only two new openings have been added to the ground floor. One allows light to enter the kitchen and the other acts as a separate entrance to the studio to accommodate large artworks. The existing and new openings have been diamond cut to give a smoothness that contrasts the rough external finishes and reveals, in section, the colour and texture of the irregular aggregate. Light was integral to the scheme, especially in the double-height studio which looks out onto the fjord. A roof light gives north light and ventilation in the studio while large windows provide daylight to the home. A key challenge was to frame and capture views from the expansive landscape and relate them to the scale of the domestic interior. LED lighting has been used throughout to ensure that areas with less natural light are well-lit and all the spaces stay bright during the dark winter, with special attention given to the task lighting in the artist’s studio. Despite the extreme conditions, the house is very efficient and sustainable. A ground source heat pump was installed, along with low-temperature underfloor heating and triple glazing on all the windows.

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Simplicity is at the heart of the modern interior design scheme. The detailed but calm interior has been kept neutral to ensure that it does not distract from the artwork on display. The material palette was inspired by the colours found in the surrounding nature. The neighbouring meadows turn from yellow after winter, to green in spring, and purple in late summer. There is a sophistication and control in the interior that contrasts vastly with the wild outdoors. The floors on the ground floor use polished concrete, while stained birch plywood has been used for the walls. Other bespoke fixed furniture has been built from hand-stained plywood. Studio Bua worked in collaboration with the client, who has previous artistic experience with staining, to experiment with various pigments and stains before settling on which to use. The kitchen uses a combination of bespoke steel and hand- stained plywood. At the bottom of the staircase, concrete was cast in-situ with stones from the local beach. To achieve a minimal aesthetic and minimise clutter, Studio Bua designed a storage space for the studio and plenty of wardrobes and other storage solutions throughout the house.

The first-floor is a domestic sphere containing the private areas of the house. For these, a subdued material palette inspired by local vernacular interiors has been maintained. Walls and floors are lined in white-stained pine boards. A plywood staircase leads from the ground floor dining space to a mezzanine sitting room that overlooks a double-height space. A new opening has been added for daylight and stunning views out onto the beach and the fjord beyond. The large existing opening on the end facade, which was originally used to get hay into the barn, has been fully glazed. At the top of the staircase, a hallway leading to the private bedrooms and bathroom opens onto a view of the studio from above, offering a different perspective to the emerging artworks below. A pair of picture windows, placed on the axis of the first-floor hallway, frame views along the coast and towards the mountains. A bespoke stained-plywood wardrobe was built in the master bedroom. The bathroom uses a palette of sky-blue and earthy red with chequered pale grey and white porcelain tiles.

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Windows throughout the house use robust plywood internal reveals which double as display shelves and a bench in the sitting room. The first-floor handrails and the fin balustrades in the double-height spaces are cut from the same plywood, making use of offcuts from the interior wall panelling. Given the remote location, and for economic and environmental reasons, waste has been minimised where possible. All interior room doors were reclaimed from the Reykjavik city recycling centre. A woollen curtain from the clients’ previous 1960s family business inventory has been used as a room-partition in the atelier. Outside seating and patio table legs have been created from the concrete that was discarded when new openings created.

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