exterior view of sara kulturhaus. glass hotel tower rises from wood clad volumes

In Sweden, the Sara Kulturhus Expands the Possibilities of Mass Timber

Made almost entirely of timber, without steel or cement reinforcement, the cultural complex signals a renaissance for the town of Skellefteå.

Skellefteå is an idyllic town in Northern Sweden that’s home to about 70,000 people, but with a new battery plant for the electric car industry on the way, it is about to hit a growth spurt. 

From the beginning, the Sara Kulturhus—a cultural center-cum-hotel named after the popular Swedish author Sara Lidman (1923–2004)—was to be a glowing icon for the future of Skellefteå. In 2016, Stockholm-based White Arkitekter won an international design competition by proposing a building using almost exclusively timber, and in September 2021, Sara Kulturhus officially opened to the public.

The 323,000-square-foot complex comprises four rectangular volumes that contain six stages for performing arts, two exhibition halls, and the hotel’s foyer and restaurant, as well as a public library. From this base rises a 20-story tower housing the Wood Hotel. The complex is made entirely of wood except for the underground levels, which are built of concrete, and the spacious foyer, which was made possible by extra-wide load bearing steel girders. 

The rest of Sara’s columns, beams, slabs, and walls are either of massive wood or cross-laminated timber elements. The 431,000-cubic-feet of wood store about 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Most of the wood was harvested locally and sawed in a mill just 30 miles from Skellefteå. 

external evening view of sarakulturhaus. glass atrium on ground floor is illuminated.
Building with wood is not exactly new in Scandinavia, where timber buildings were the norm before the Second World War. Today, with the Clad in glass, the hotel tower rises out of a lower massing of four rectangular volumes. carbon costs of concrete and steel apparent, it’s high time to end the wasteful construction practices of the last century and embrace a more responsible way of building. COURTESY JONAS WESTLING

“To make use of wood in this place was a logical choice to us,” says Oskar Norelius, partner at White Arkitekter. “But once we decided, we also wanted to go all the way and see what’s possible.” They had to be inventive: Hotel rooms were prefabricated as self-supporting boxes, including bathrooms, installations, and facade. On-site, these boxes were stacked between the two elevator cores (also wooden) at either end of the building. From the pillars on the ground floor to the doorknobs, railings, ceilings, and acoustic wall panels of the various auditoriums, the material is omnipresent. This wood core is sheltered from wind and weather within a glass shell that acts as a sort of display cabinet.

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Illuminated in the long night of the far north, a place that stays in darkness almost half the year and boasts annual average temperatures of 38 degrees Fahrenheit, Sara glows softly inside its vitreous case, an icon of wood renaissance.

visitors browse crafts on sale on wooden staircase.
A main stairway serves as a gathering place and plays host to a crafts fair. COURTESY JONAS WESTLING
traditional dancers inside a wood-clad auditorium
Traditional dancers perform in one of the facility’s six venues. A public library is also a major component of the cultural center. COURTESY JONAS WESTLING

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