Inspector’s Page: Sweden’s accomodation problem

All estimations indicate that Sweden is about to embark on a journey of sustained periods of investments in residential housing. Sweden is about to become a state of 10 million inhabitants by 2017, and continues to grow; the number of 20-24 year olds is increasing. But while the investment in construction has been hovering around 3-3.5 per cent of GDP for the last 20 years, 2014 indicated a sharp interruption, with investments equalling well above 4 per cent. Swedish authorities estimate the need for new residences to approximately 600,000 from now until 2025, which might seem modest in light of for instance the so-called “miljonprogrammet” (a million new residences) 50 years ago, when we built more than 100,000 apartments a year. But, given that we have been producing around 20-30,000 residences a year the last decade, we can double that in the next decade.

This is probably all good for Sweden. But there are certain challenges connected, such as, among other things, the importance of not just raising houses but sustainable houses, and dwellings that are socially sustainable (we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of “miljonprogrammet”). So please welcome back the architect. If we want more sustainable residences, the architecture industry has a big job to do.

The way architects deal with this is something that we have looked into in one of the research groups I am in. And it is quite clear that there is plenty to do. The transition to sustainable construction is driven more or less entirely by market forces and whether change is a threat or an opportunity, depends on the business model of the firm in question. Architects need to work out whether they are artists or engineers. They need to be able to calculate. They also need to consider acting more low-cost than differentiative if they want to sell sustainable yet expensive solutions. They need to develop their competence-base and they need to educate their customers. Despite these strategic challenges there are already several examples of successful firms.

In general, however, this is currently a slow process, and the irony is that the inertia is not so much down to resistant architect artists but a market that is unable, unwilling or uneducated to make decisions about sustainable construction. One may assume that given the exaggerated buzz of sustainability, there would be a propensity among clients to choose the sustainable and be prepared to pay a premium for it. But this goes for only a small segment of the market. Estate tycoons see limited returns in the short run, and municipal housing firms face political resistance as it will impact on other services or on tax levels. In both cases the root problem is the unwillingness of the tenants – you and I – to pay rent premiums for sustainability. So, if we’re going to double our production of residences, any politician involved must address this issue with force, and any plan must be accompanied by an idea of how to make residents willing and able to pay.

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