Nature Conservation Society of the Waddensea on the island of Sylt (Masterthesis)

Christoph Kirch
Technische Universität Braunschweig

Project idea

The primary objective of this master's thesis is to design a central community-building space for the employees of the Nature Conservation Society of Hörnum on the island Sylt in Germany. This space should effectively cater to various functions such as living, working, researching, teaching, and exhibiting. Simultaneously, it should serve the community of Hörnum as an attractive public space.

With a self-recorded 4.1 million tourist overnight stays during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, the island of Sylt stands as the epitome of a tourist haven in northern Germany. The reasons for Sylt's popularity are diverse. On one hand, the approachable nature, white sandy beaches, and the sea contribute to its allure; on the other hand, the town of Kampen boasts the highest density of celebrities in Germany.

The existing church building marks the entrance to the settlement of Hörnum in the southern part of the island of Sylt. The Rantumer Straße runs directly past the property, connecting the Hörnum settlement, which marks the southernmost part of the island, to the infrastructure. It is approximately 17 km from the Westerland train station, accessible by an hourly bus service. The property can only be reached on foot from the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street.

Deconsecrated in 2013, the church has since served the Nature Conservation Society "Schutzstation Wattenmeer e.V." for exhibition purposes. The annex building includes a small office, accommodations, and a communal space with a kitchen. Additional accommodations for staff are located in the "Norwegian House," a weathered wooden barracks in the dune landscape, reachable on foot in 5 minutes.

Project description

Architecturally, the hallmark of Sylt is the thatched roof. While thatch may be expensive in terms of financing, the production of a locally sourced thatched roof is not only sustainable but also advantageous in terms of building technology, providing insulation against both heat and cold. Moreover, due to the texture of thatch, it seamlessly integrates into the surrounding landscape. Thatched roofs on Sylt nearly blend with their environment when viewed from a distance.

For the design process, it was crucial to find an urban solution for the property located directly on the main road, transforming the existing structure in a way that harmonizes architecturally and aesthetically with the landscape. It was also important that the landscape could be perceived from within the building and that the structures could adapt to the changing needs of the community through simple, low-effort dismantling, modifications, and expansions.

Technical information

The church is an inward-oriented structure. From the outside, it resembles more an industrial building than a church, especially without religious adornments. While the location of the property allows for a beautiful view of the dunes and the sea, this is hardly perceptible from inside the building.

The core of the project is the wooden construction. Wood has been used as a building material for thousands of years due to its strength, durability, and flexibility when properly processed. Thatched roofs are lightweight but require a robust structure to withstand strong southwest winds.

Two new buildings complement the existing structure, forming an open courtyard protected from the impact of road traffic.

While the roof and non-load-bearing exterior walls of the church are removed, exposing the reinforced concrete structure, the internal walls of the annex building are removed, leaving only the outer shell.

A wooden structure is placed on the reinforced concrete beams of the church, inspired by the framework of the historical "Haubarg" - a thatched roof construction with a stable, barn, and living area, reaching up to 20 meters in height.

"A Haubarg (...) is the typical farmhouse of the Eiderstedt Peninsula. It emerged in the late 16th century along with West Frisian immigrants who brought the architectural type of the Gulf house, and it proved itself as a farmhouse until the late 19th century. The word 'Haubarg' refers to a place for storing (stacking) hay. For centuries, humans and animals lived under one roof in Haubargs, albeit in separate rooms. Haubargs have a rectangular, only in the case of the four-post Haubarg, a square floor plan. They are post buildings, with the house mainly supported by four, six, or eight, in rare, no longer preserved cases, ten posts, connected by longitudinal and transverse beams (rafters). This construction method helps make the house resistant to natural forces, especially storms and resulting storm surges. Even if a storm surge presses against the walls, the posts still support the roof. The basic structure of the house remains undamaged."
(Source Wikipedia: - 02.01.2022)

For the other buildings, a triangular, braced construction is used, supported on wooden posts on the ground floor. The wooden construction allows for meeting future requirements by enabling the interior walls to be modified independently of the supporting structure. The wooden posts on the ground floor allow for a free, translucent zoning and expansion of the spaces under the thatched roof. The timber frame construction of the roof can be opened and closed for the installation of new windows at almost any location, meeting the needs of the users.


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