In 2020, when BIG revealed its plans for The Plus, Vestre’s new furniture manufacturing hub just outside Oslo, it was instantly polarizing. Here was a “factory in the forest,” a seeming contradiction for a project also touted as the most sustainable of its kind in the world. Two years later, as you drive down the winding, tree-lined roads of Magnor, Norway, the anticipation builds — a flashy billboard even proclaims the arrival of what resembles a UFO, a foreign object just landed on a verdant site. The fuss seems more suited to a tourist attraction than an industrial building, but it’s also not particularly surprising: Jan Christian Vestre, then CEO, proudly declared in his initial pitch to the municipality that The Plus would be a recommended attraction on Tripadvisor.
As you pull up to the site, however, the building announces itself with a whisper. In reality, it is much more at one with its context than the renderings convey. Clad in charred wood, its facade fades into the background, disguising the structure among the rows of spindly pines. Save for the whirring of cars on the adjacent highway, the silence almost takes you by surprise. This is exactly as The Plus — an “entirely new typology,” according to the company — was meant to be: “people, production, technology, architecture and nature are completely integrated with each other.”
Though seemingly monumental in scale (7,500 square metres, to be exact), the facility was designed to occupy the minimum footprint required for the manufacture of the brand’s vibrantly hued street furniture. Developed from a logistical diagram of the production line, the building’s massing was conceived from the inside out so as not to impose on the forest that surrounds it. Four wings (a warehouse, a wood factory, a colour factory and an assembly area) all converge at a central roundabout. The project’s name is derived from the resulting cruciform.
When you step inside, the first thing you notice is the smell of freshly cut timber and fragrant linseed oil. In contrast to the stark black exterior, the interior is light and airy — a paragon of Scandinavian design replete with blond wood, natural light and vivid colour, another nod to Vestre’s bright products. There are, as Willy Wonka famously said of his chocolate factory, “surprises around every corner.” The attention-grabbing wayfinding system is as practical as it is whimsical: Lines on the ground correspond to the primary colours of the equipment — an assortment of state-of-the-art robotics and A.I.-assisted machines in red, green, blue and yellow — to guide people around the facility (and the idea of people in the factory is key, but more on that later).
The double-height spaces are lined with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer expansive views of the forest. As you walk up to the second level (where the logistics, management and planning offices are situated), the surrounding trees appear close enough to touch. The stair treads are a generous one metre deep to match the width of the windows. It’s far from the most efficient way to get upstairs, but it forces you to slow down and take in the space.
At the intersection of the building’s axes, a fully glazed circular courtyard filters light into the factory’s core. Here, Vestre’s collections will be displayed throughout the year under the shade of a single Norwegian maple. A metal spiral staircase powder-coated a vivid yellow leads up to the rooftop deck. Outfitted with 900 solar panels, the green roof raises the ground plane, replicating the forest floor. While you’re welcome to take the stairs, there’s a more exciting way back down to ground level: via Norway’s tallest slide. Construction of a wheelchair-accessible ramp dubbed the “Monkey Trail” is also underway.
As I walk through the factory, tour guides rattle off a laundry list of sustainability credentials: The architects preserved 95 per cent of the forest, and many trees felled to make way for the factory were repurposed in its construction. The Plus uses 60 per cent less energy than an equivalent factory, and an impressive 90 per cent less when accounting for the 250,000 kWh of solarpower produced on site each year. Ninety per cent of the water used in production is recycled. The building is built to Passivhaus standards, requiring heating only when the temperature drops below five degrees Celsius; the excess heat generated in the colour factory is recycled to warm the building, and geothermal wells are used for heat and storage. To promote biodiversity, seeds gathered from the forest populate the green roof. The list goes on.
Beyond the bullet points, Vestre’s commitment to sustainability is evident, down to the production and distribution of its products. In its robot-assisted manufacturing, raw materials are scanned to optimize efficiency and avoid waste. By enabling the company to do most things in-house, the new facility reduces the costs, both fiscal and environmental, of transport. And it welcomes back damaged street furniture for repair and re-use. When the pieces are ready to return to their perch, they’ll make the journey in a 100 per cent electric semi-trailer — once Vestre’s order is fulfilled by Tesla, that is. All this is to say that the building is on track to receive a BREEAM Outstanding rating — which only one per cent of all buildings achieve. It would also be the first industrial project in the Nordic region to reach this milestone.
But “the most environmentally friendly furniture factory in the world”? That’s a lofty claim. How do you quantify that? The ubiquity of greenwashing has rendered the public increasingly skeptical of sustainability claims, and for good reason. How, for instance, can a new build be considered more sustainable than a retrofit? BIG partner and lead architect David Zahle explains that the firm’s experience designing Copenhagen’s CopenHill — which began as an industrial renovation but evolved into a completely new vision for a waste-to-energy plant and public space — informed this choice: “[The original building] was a 40-year-old factory, and it was so worn down that the maintenance cost of keeping it running was more than the interest rate would be of building a new one. I think the thing about building new — if it really is a lot better, then it makes sense. But if you’re just changing your old petrol-fuelled factory to a five-year-newer factory that’s also petrol-fuelled, it doesn’t make sense from a sustainability point of view.”
Viktoria Millentrup, design lead at BIG, describes the backlash that The Plus received at the outset as uninformed. “We got some criticism for going into a forest, cutting trees and placing a factory here. Whoever comes to Norway is completely shocked by that,” she says. Yet the 25-year-old production forest that surrounds The Plus was a monocrop sorely lacking in biodiversity; BIG teamed up with ecology experts to plant additional species. And, in an effort to entice birds to repopulate the site, Vestre’s Habitats collection — which includes birdhouses and insect hotels — will be deployed throughout the park. (While these are noble strategies, their impact will likely not be seen for some time.) Also, in 2017, long before Vestre’s proposal, the 300,000-square-metre site was zoned for industrial use; it would have been levelled to make way for an entirely concrete development. BIG’s factory design is a far cry from that initial plan.
But even BIG’s approach presented its own challenges: In designing the first industrial building to strive for a BREEAM Outstanding rating, the architects had virtually no precedent to look to. This forced them to develop solutions on the fly with the help of contractors who were just as daring. And they had to do it within an incredibly ambitious timeline: Allotted just 18 months for the building to be fully operational and only 16 weeks to erect its structure, BIG set a record in assembly speed. An achievement made more impressive when factoring in that COVID-related restrictions kept the architects away from the site for a huge chunk of the project.
Completed for roughly CAD$39 million, The Plus represents the largest investment in the Norwegian furniture industry in decades. Why would a company put so much money, resources and even long-term vision into a factory? Put simply, the project is as much a cultural hub as it is an industrial one. It’s here that the brand’s Tripadvisor ambitions and inviting building design come together. Vestre wants visitors; they are even free to observe the production process first-hand through the facade’s large windows. And public interest is already evident: Even before The Plus officially opened its doors, curious passersby stopped to see the park and peek inside. This ethos of radical transparency is a refreshing departure from traditional factory design, which protects trade secrets. Asked if Vestre was concerned about losing its competitive advantage by exposing its processes, the answer was a resounding no. “Transparency is part of our mission, as is the need to inspire others to do the same,” explains CEO Stefan Tjust.
Vestre imagines the surrounding park as a public amenity in its own right — one extended by the building’s rooftop, which can accommodate over 400 people for large-scale events. The Forest Camp, currently underway, will be an accessible recreation space abounding with art installations. The first pieces — World Portal by David Adjaye, previously displayed at the Nobel Peace Center, and The Best Weapon by Snøhetta in collaboration with Vestre — are already on display. In addition to established designers, the company plans to work with up-and-comers to populate the rotating exhibitions. Elsewhere, oversized pieces of Vestre furniture will form a whimsical playground. The goal is for it to become even more accessible with time; by next year, a bridge will be erected over the nearby Vrangselva river to connect the factory with Magnor’s town centre.
At its inauguration, The Plus comes remarkably close to the vision Jan Christian Vestre (now Norway’s Minister of Trade and Industry) set out to realize when he pitched the project to Innovation Norway. While Vestre’s primary goal was to increase capacity to match demand and compete on the global stage, the company also wanted to prove that profitability and design need not be sacrificed in the name of sustainability. Turning to BIG was a no-brainer to achieve these objectives — Vestre didn’t even approach any other firms. But that didn’t mean the designers had free rein: Jan Christian was heavily involved in the process. The former CEO personally redlined drawings, correcting the forest edge from a perimeter of 10 to five metres to minimize unnecessary deforestation. And BIG’s designers referred to Vestre’s inspiration image of a factory in the forest (a little on the nose, perhaps) when drafting their initial concept sketches. But they also drew from their own well of references. As they conceptualized, they meditated on an anthology by the mid-century poet Hans Børli — a local lumberjack who exalted the forest’s wonders in his celebrated verses.
The world’s most sustainable furniture factory lands among the pines of a Norwegian forest. Could Vestre’s new plant in Oslo also exemplify how industry and community can coexist?