The redesigned forest station is now investigating the impact of the built environment on wellbeing

How do timber-framed buildings affect the wellbeing and stress levels of their residents? Such internationally groundbreaking and cross-disciplinary research is currently being initiated at the University of Helsinki’s Hyytiälä Forest Station, following the deployment of its newly constructed modern wooden building.

The Living Lab research environment, established in the new building completed in summer 2023 at the Hyytiälä Forest Station, enables multidisciplinary research from the perspectives of the sustainability of the built environment, the effects of climate change and wellbeing. The building serves as a living laboratory that enables research on wood and materials science, indoor air as well as human wellbeing and how it is experienced. The Living Lab can also serve as a testing platform for new innovations.

According to Dean Ritva Toivonen of the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki, the new sustainable timber buildings will expand Hyytiälä into an increasingly multidisciplinary platform for research and teaching. Forest research is broadening its potential towards the study of forestry-based timber construction and wood materials that yield added value. Such efforts can also be combined with atmospheric and environmental research.

“Even globally, we get to pave the way for research on human wellbeing and timber construction in real living conditions. We hope that the platform will be of broad interest to researchers in Finland and abroad,” Toivonen adds.

One of the many research functions of the new building in Hyytiälä is the study of interaction between timber-framed buildings, their users, and the environment. According to Associate Professor Tuula Jyske, the new building is equipped with a multidisciplinary research infrastructure to investigate the features of its cross-laminated timber (CLT) frame in everyday life.

“This provides an excellent setting for, for example, a long-term follow-up study on the effects of user experiences in modern timber buildings on wellbeing,” Jyske notes.

Already now, the new building is equipped with sensors to produce 108 different measurements, including wood moisture content and temperature. However, they represent only a fraction of what the sensor system will cover in the future. Once the system is completed according to plan, it will include almost a dozen different sensor types and several hundred sensors.

The station is also home to SMEAR II, a globally leading measuring station in atmospheric research. As part of the operations of the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research (INAR), it takes more than a thousand measurements from the atmosphere and the ecosystem. The station measures the concentration of gases and fine particles, or aerosols, in the air, as well as their formation and routes from the soil, nearby lake, peatland and trees. Henceforth, aerosols will be measured at Hyytiälä, including in the new building and its various rooms. As people spend most of their time indoors, indoor air quality has a significant impact on health.

Hyytiälä’s Living Lab is part of an international research and measurement network that also includes Oregon State University in the United States and InnoRenew CoE, a research institute focusing on wood product research in Slovenia. The partner organisations have built similar timber-framed buildings that serve as research platforms. The new network makes it possible to conduct interesting comparative studies by combining the extensive datasets generated by measurements in the buildings located in different countries and continents. Opportunities for collaborative teaching are also possible.

The forest station is open to researchers from various universities and organisations in Finland and abroad. The geographically central location of the station makes it possible to conduct research all year round.

Sustainable redesign of University of Helsinki research stations

The deterioration of the buildings dating back to the 1970s at the Hyytiälä Forest Station opened the door for the construction of a new building. The design of the new building was based on sustainability. Thanks to solid CLT elements, the building has a long lifespan and a small carbon footprint. The useful life of the building designed by Architects Rudanko + Kankkunen Ltd will be at least 150 years.

The new buildings also facilitated the switch from oil heating to geothermal heat in Hyytiälä. The floor area of the building is considerably smaller than that of the demolished buildings, which reduces overall energy consumption compared with before.

Other research stations of the University of Helsinki have also abandoned oil heating and carried out reforms that support sustainability. The Lammi Biological Station has transitioned to wood chip heating, while the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station is now heated with an air-water heat pump. In the renovated buildings of the Tvärminne Zoological Station, a switch has been made to geothermal heat, and solar energy too is used.