Building on the edge

When it came to designing the Rabot Tourist Cabin, in Helgeland, North Norway, Oslo-based architectural firm Jarmund/Vigsnæs  really had its work cut out. Situated on the edge of a glacier at 1,200 metres above sea level, just outside the Arctic Circle, the building is miles from the nearest road, has no mains electricity and is regularly battered by heavy winds and snow storms.

Rabot Tourist Cabin

© Steve Pretty

“It’s a place where nobody should build anything,” says Svein Arne Brygfjeld. A trustee of the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT), which looks after the Norway’s network of walking trails and tourist cabins, Brygfjeld wanted to make it easier for people to visit the beautiful Okstindbreen glacier and climb Oksskolten, Northern Norway’s highest peak. Before the Rabot cabin – which is named after the French glaciologist and geographer Charles Rabot – the only options for exploring the area were wild camping, doing it as a long and exhausting day hike, or bedding down in a tiny and very rudimentary rescue cabin half way up to the glacier.

Rabot Tourist Cabin

© Steve Pretty

“The idea for the Rabot cabin appeared halfway down a bottle,” says Brygfjeld, who has been hiking in this area for decades. It was then refined over a few more bottles, before Brygfjeld and his team set about appointing architects.

They were initially hoping for a big international firm to design the cabin, because of the press attention such an appointment would attract. In the end though, Brygfjeld was wowed by the tender from Jarmund/Vigsnæs, whose portfolio mainly comprises small homes and cabins alongside a handful of large-scale, high-profile projects such as the Norwegian Ministry of Defence building in Oslo.

Brygfjeld was struck by the fact that Jarmund/Vigsnæs were “willing to make something belonging to this place”. The shape of the chimneys, for example, mimics that of the surrounding mountains, water is pumped from a small lake next to the cabin, and the building’s cladding is made from locally cut spruce.

Rabot Tourist Cabin

© Steve Pretty

The remote location and harsh conditions were the greatest challenges in terms of the design and execution of the project. All building materials had to be airlifted to the site, clocking up around 400 helicopter trips over the course of the two-year construction period (which took place initially only in the summer months until weather proofing was complete). Given how difficult it is to get materials to the site and the limited period each summer when work is possible, the roof, cladding and windows – calibrated for gas pressure on site – needed to be maintenance-free.

Rabot Tourist Cabin

© Steve Pretty

Rabot Tourist Cabin

© Steve Pretty

Rabot Tourist Cabin

© Steve Pretty

Jarmund/Vigsnæs  also had to research the impact of snowdrift on the building, including ensuring that entrances would not be blocked by snow. Electricity for lighting (there are no other electrical appliances in the cabin) comes from solar panels on the façade and heat from two efficient wood-burning stoves. In terms of the look of the place, it needed to be visible to hikers, yet neutral in the landscape.

Rabot Tourist Cabin

© Steve Pretty

As well as the environmental and aesthetic considerations to be taken into account, the architects were tasked with creating a cabin that could accommodate the broad range of DNT members, from those hiking solo to school parties of 30 children. Seven bedrooms sleep 30 in total, but the cabin has been designed so you can close half of it off to be more energy efficient if fewer people are staying. Like most of the DNT cabins in Northern Norway, the Rabot cabin is not serviced – DNT members let themselves in with a key collected from the local office in the valley – so the building has to be intuitive and easy to use. 

Rabot Tourist Cabin

© Steve Pretty

Rabot Tourist Cabin

© Steve Pretty

Rabot Tourist Cabin

© Steve Pretty

Visiting the cabin on an overnight trip to explore the glacier and Okstindan mountains, it’s immediately clear that Jarmund/Vigsnæ have ticked all these boxes, and more. As you bed down after an evening gazing out at the mountain range on one side and down over the valley on the other, you would never guess at the level of complexity that went into the creation of this warm and welcoming place. It all just seems to work.

Words Jo Caird


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