How ARCO used Forma’s data-driven insights to transform a challenging urban site into valuable student housing

Jeanne Tan Jeanne Tan May 8, 2023

8 min read

Executive summary

How can data give architects deeper insights, and help them transform even the most challenging urban sites into something valuable for the city and its residents? This was the case for the Malmi student housing project in Helsinki designed by ARCO Architecture Company, Finland’s largest architecture practice. Part of a series of new urban developments in Malmi, the eight-story building (8400m2) houses 150 to 170 student apartments of approximately 22 to 25m2 and several larger family apartments. Prioritising sustainability from the outset, the design aims to utilize low carbon solutions including a modular prefabricated timber construction, solar panels on the roof and diverse green spaces.  

Like many districts in the Finnish capital, Malmi is expanding rapidly, especially to accommodate the need for more housing. Strategically, it’s well positioned with a major railway station and direct airport connection, and major roads. This means students have easy access to different tertiary education institutes throughout the city. Historically Malmi is also home to Finland’s first airport which was built in 1932.    

The location of this site makes it convenient in terms of mobility and public transport but also challenging when it comes to noise conditions and urban context, which explains why it has remained underused. The site faces the rail tracks and a major road to the south, and is encircled by a ramp that leads to an overpass, with car parking underneath.

Urban situation showing the building in the top right. Background map by LOCI – Landscape Architecture, Helsinki
The courtyard with landscaped stair and elevated deck is intended as the main social space for the students.

Optimising the volume
The main task for team was to address was noise – Finnish regulations specify that for housing, noise levels during the day must not exceed 55dB. The ambition was to devise a solution that would block out noise on the outside to create a protected environment on the inside. From the different volumes and configurations that were tested, a cylindrical volume with a closed facade of outer corridors as a noise buffer was the most optimal. All the apartments would then open into a quieter inner courtyard where noise levels would be well within regulations.  

Forma noise analysis showing how the cylindrical volume creates a sheltered interior

To take advantage of the good building orientation, two extra stories were placed on the sunny, south-facing half of the building. This adds more apartments higher up on the 7th and 8th floors with better day- and sunlight conditions and better city views – they’re not impacted by traffic noise thanks to the noise buffering of the circular volume. It was essential to check that the extra stories would not reduce sun and light into the courtyard. To do this, the team was able to easily import the existing 3D model into Forma to conduct a sun analysis. “The fact that you can import the building volume, including the individual apartment units, from other drafting software directly and so easily into Forma is really powerful,” says architect Stefan Ochsner. “All we needed to do was to position it in the right location, and push the button to start the analysis with very little preparation from our end.” Importantly this meant more building area could be added i.e. 20 more apartments without compromising conditions in the courtyard.

At the same time, the sloped cylindrical volume works well architecturally as the building is intended as a landmark along the train line, visually marking the entrance into Malmi. For this reason, the municipality allowed the building to be higher. The sloped, south-facing roof also creates the best conditions for solar panels, and bounces light into the courtyard and lower apartments to help improve conditions there.  

Section showing the optimized building volume and south-facing orientation

Easily testing building performance
The benefit of a cylindrical volume is that it avoids corners which often cause issues for daylight. However the lower apartments, which would receive less favourable conditions, would need to be analysed. Normally daylight calculations consider direct sunlight and rarely diffuse light which gives an incomplete picture of the light conditions. However using Forma’s daylight potential analysis which also uses the Vertical Sky component – a measure of the amount of sky visible from a point on the facade –  the team could see that the units they were most concerned about scored comparatively well. Overall, 71% of units had a VSC of above 27% for good daylight.

“Daylight challenges are often addressed too late in the design process. But with Forma, you can point this out from day one.”
Stefan Ochsner, architect at ARCO

Sun hour analysis
The Vertical Sky Component in Forma‘s daylight potential analysis shows that the lower apartments perform considerably well by receiving diffuse light.

Being able to see the exact performance of each individual unit, the team used these insights to identify specific units with less optimal conditions that could be better allocated to service spaces, and keep those with good conditions for apartments. For example, technical spaces that would have been located on the 7th and 8th floors were moved to the 6th floor, and the ground floor spaces will house a laundry, sauna, community space and storage.

“Daylight challenges are often addressed too late in the design process – for example when the apartments are being sold and certain units are maybe not so easy to sell. But with Forma, you can point this out from day one,” explains Stefan. “I think it also makes everyone in the team more aware of critical aspects, which you sometimes don’t see because a project is so complex, and be able to improve the designs. I think Forma is a very fast and easy-to-use tool that can be applied to any project.”

More sun in the courtyard
When it came to designing the landscape for the courtyard, which is intended as the main social space for the students, the team used the sun analysis to check the sun conditions overall and pinpoint the sunniest areas. The courtyard was raised partially by one floor, creating a deck with better sunlight and a natural landscape stair – these improved outdoor conditions allowed the courtyard to be accommodate more functions. While testing the options for elevating the deck, the team was able to see in the analysis exactly how many more sun was gained, which was crucial to improving the quality of the courtyard. Furthermore, the noise analysis in the courtyard showed good conditions meaning it won’t be affected by rail and traffic noise.  

“The simple and high-level graphic visualization of the data allows for straightforward comparisons between various design options.” Stefan Ochsner

The top image shows a flat courtyard. The raised courtyard (bottom image) improves conditions meaning it can be used for more functions and it allows the students to enjoy more sun.

Stefan: “Forma’s new data-driven workflow allows for real-time design verification of different environmental aspects like sun, daylight, wind, thermal comfort, noise in one software. Having the chance to see, visualize and understand the impact of the optimizations directly e.g. adding a floor or removing part of the building is very valuable. Furthermore, the simple and high-level graphic visualization of the data allows for straightforward comparisons between various design options.”

“This process makes it very easy to have good discussions with the client. You don’t even need to prepare a presentation – you can just use Forma in the meeting,” adds Stefan. “Plus you don’t need a separate model for urban context because it’s already in there. It’s very powerful because we can combine all this to discuss many things at once with the client and consultants and strengthen our arguments.”

This data-driven approach gave the team new insights and a deeper understanding of the potential of the site which was previously considered unbuildable. Stefan: “I think it’s beneficial to find and develop these types of challenging sites in the city. By bringing some good qualities to them, this will help avoid leaving a patchwork of underused areas because they always have a negative impact on the neighborhood.”

Project credits
Architecture: ARCO Architecture Company
Landscape architecture: ARCO Architecture Company
Fire consultants: Paloässät/Sitowise
Acoustic engineer: Promethor
Builder: Hoas

Image credits
All images courtesy of Arkkitehdit Soini & Horto/ ARCO Architecture Company
Background map of urban situation by LOCI – Landscape Architecture, Helsinki

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