Norm Architects Explains the Design of the Dwell House

Partner Sofie Thorning tells us how the Danish studio created a thoroughly considered and versatile space that connects indoors with out.

How did Norm Architects approach the brief for the Dwell House?

We had been thinking about a project like this for a long time and were looking for an opportunity, so the collaboration really made sense. There were constraints to the overall size of the ADU as it needed to be able to be transported, and our approach was about optimizing that space and getting as much usability into it as possible. We wanted it to be a unit for your backyard that you could rent out, or use as a guest house, additional living space for elderly parents, or workspace—so we had to set up the spatial configuration in the best way possible to suit all these different scenarios.

The archipelago house by Norm Architects embodies the firm's sensibility. The studio’s book "Soft Minimalism" comes out later this month.

What kind of living experience did you want to create?

We wanted to create simple spaces that open up to nature, and it was important to blur the lines between inside and outside. In the living room, one of the main features is a large folding glass door that opens to the outside to create a cross-breeze through to the kitchen window and offer an unobscured view to nature. It’s about creating a space where you can have those simple moments—enjoy a coffee and the summer breeze of California.

Norm’s capabilities for product design—including the Case Study chair for Karimoku—made them perfectly suited to designing for a prefab process.

How did you make the most of the small footprint?

We created a "backbone" of utilities that runs down the house with a kitchen built into the living-dining space, a bathroom, a shoe cabinet with coat hooks and shelves, and a cabinet with built-in washer-dryer. Everything has its own place, which opens up the rest of the space to be furnished to suit any need.

More generally, we approached the project in the same way we would a typical residential project only condensed. We always aim for a very simple framework where every element is considered, and we use a lot of in-built millwork to create a clutter-free, calm, and comfortable space. In the Dwell House, for example, there is a niche in the wall of the living-dining area that can be used as a bookshelf or for displaying artwork. We also use a lot of natural materials. Here, we have charred timber flooring, oak joinery, and stone countertops in the kitchen and bathroom.

A custom bench by the firm pairs with the interior finishes at a client’s forest retreat in Sweden.

How did designing the Dwell House differ from designing a conventional home?

We had to think more broadly and imagine the Dwell House being installed in various locations, with many different types of users and use scenarios. Whether you’re sitting on the sofa reading a book and looking through the glass folding door, or cooking in the kitchen and seeing the long view above the counter, it’s all about framing and highlighting the surrounding nature.

How did the factory manufacturing process inform the design?

The Dwell House has to adhere to many technical specifications, mainly to do with how the house is transported and durability. For example, we weren’t able to use large tiles in the bathroom or a plaster finish on the walls as they could crack during transport. However, this made the process really interesting and we worked with the manufacturer to find suitable details and finishes.

Indoor/outdoor design—the basis for the Dwell House—is second nature for the firm, as evidenced in this summer home in Sweden.

What did you find most rewarding about working on the Dwell House?

We had to balance a broad reach with a unique aesthetic expression without having a specific client—and that was both a challenge and very rewarding. We looked at what generally creates a sense of wellbeing and used a simple and timeless design language to evoke feelings of comfort. It was also very rewarding to achieve such a high level of detail. Take, for example, the way the panelling is installed in the facade, or the emphasis on detailing in the kitchen and in-built millwork. The resulting space has a very relaxed feeling. If I were lucky enough to have a big plot of land with a view, I would love to sit at the dining table looking out at nature and enjoy the sunshine.

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