#1 The Untouchables – Scandinavia


In September 2014 ANA has been travelling and researching through Denmark, Sweden and Norway We have talked to various stakeholders in housing architecture; architects, municipalities, projectdevelopers, housing corporations, private clients, architecture schools, builders etcetera.
In 2,5 weeks we had 40 meetings, visited 8 cities and saw numerous projects. This first pilot trip was very inspiring in many different ways.


A different context generates new perspectives.

In recent years, the housing debate in the Netherlands has been strongly determined by de financial crisis. This crisis has not affected Denmark, Sweden and Norway as much as it did the Netherlands. In these Scandinavian countries, the debate on housing architecture has focused on other issues. For instance, the high pressure on the housing market has both in Sweden and Norway strongly  dominated the debate. Also in these countries (architectural) quality is under pressure, but for other reasons and with other outcomes.

ANA at Dutch Ambassy in Stockholm

ANA at Dutch Ambassy in Stockholm

The Dutch have a good reputation for innovative architecture. One of our research questions is what will happen with innovation under the new more restrained circumstances. If you look at the Dutch situation from abroad there is still much innovation. The new circumstances have caused a vacuum that has generated innovative solutions. To name one example, the introduction of the smaller scale in developments, that is clearly visible in Amsterdam (Houthavens, Buiksloterham, Zeeburgereiland), is something that the Danes also want very much, but are unable to develop due to high market pressure.


Architects reclaiming their role

During our first trip to Scandinavia we have met many passionate architects that have the ambition to make good housing projects. The role of architects in housing is under pressure in all countries we have visited, but in some more then in others. Some of the architects we met are developing interesting strategies to reclaim their role.
Especially in Sweden architects involved in housing complain very much about their limited role. In Sweden builders have a very dominant role and determine construction methods up to a detailed level. Architects are often not commissioned for the later stages of the design and the building process. For instance Tengbom, a firm with around 500 employees and offices in twelve cities, is focusing on how they can add value for the client. They offer performance instead of hours, in order to reclaim and strengthen their role. White architects, an even bigger firm with over 700 employees  and offices in thirteen cities, has shown us another way in which they are able to make high quality housing. In Äppelträdgården they have taken over the role of the client and worked together with a building company to design, build and sell innovative housing types in a poor neighborhood.


The new housing assignments

During the meetings we have focused on the future housing assignment. We found several issues that overlap with the Dutch situation, but also many differences in the way these issues are addressed.
Making livable and divers cities that provide housing for all social groups is an important issue in all the places we have visited. Building affordable housing is a recurrent topic, but the solutions differ very much, going from building small & clever, new financial strategies to using prefab building systems. Related themes are keeping families in the city, creating housing for the new generation elderly Europeans and providing affordable student housing.

Taking care of environmental issues is also a returning topic that has different emphasis in the different countries; the Swedes are taking good care of waste, whereas the Danes focus more on mobility issues.
Quality under pressure was in every meeting we had a recurring topic. Even in good economic circumstances that all three Scandinavia countries are blessed with, quality is not taken for granted. Quality has numerous definitions, defined very much by what is missed. For instance in Norway quality is defined as space, in Sweden it’s experiment and in Denmark quality is defined as creating good public/private relations.

Striking was also that we missed some themes that are part of the Dutch debate: the participation of citizens,  populism in housing architecture, private plot development, dealing with the existing housing stock. These themes are not necessarily not relevant, but they are not being debated.




Affordable housing, added value of architects


During our visit to Copenhagen it became clear that good architecture is perceived as an undeniable value, also in regard of the non-profit housing assignment in the capital.  By all parties involved in the building industry, architects are considered well respected professionals and their contribution to the building assignment is, also in these times of financial crises, not in question. The non-profit housing assignment is probably the best example of this fact.

Housing in Copenhagen is, as in probably most other countries in Europe, very much influenced by the economic situation. In prosperous times housing prizes rise, developers build and the municipality can try to convince the developers to add quality to the surroundings by realizing their projects. But under these circumstances, non-profit housing organizations can’t afford to build on the central locations, because they cannot afford the land. On top of this, housing is mostly market driven. As a result, only products that do well on the market are being developed. Under these circumstances it is almost impossible to build for the lower incomes. In periods of economic decline however, the non-profit housing organizations can buy land and build housing for the lower income groups.

Still, there are numerous parties that put an effort in realizing affordable housing for starters and young urban inhabitants, also in prosperous times. Remarkably, it’s architects that come up with innovative, smart concepts. Besides, architects know how to integrate optimized building logistics in the design of good dwellings and agreeable living environments. This makes that architects are seen as an important party in the development of low-income housing.

An interesting development is the Armenbolig+ concept of non-profit housing organization KAB, the biggest non-profit housing organization in the Copenhagen region. Stine Kofod explained the concept of prefabricated lowrise casco houses that was first developed by a coalition of an architect and a builder in order to offer affordable but spacious and architectural attractive housing for a low prize.  Tenant’s take care of maintenance of their homes and outdoor space.The dwellings are delivered as a casco+, tenants can eassily change the interiorwalls, bathrooms, kitchens etc.. In return they pay low rents. The projects are up to 20% cheaper than other non-profit housing estates, 10% through the use of prefab solutions. The other 5-10% follows the new model for running it, where people take care of some maintenance themselves.

This principle was also used in the project Signalgarden in Copenhagen, by Lejerbo, where they built several blocks with different housing typologies. We have visited a maisonette of three stories accessed from a gallery. This is a uncommon typology for Denmark, even for Copenhagen. The inhabitants, a family with three children and a dog, are very happy with their house. They pay a relatively low rent for their 120 m2 flat, 1000 DK per month (ca. 1300 euro), this includes energy. In return the inhabitants of the block have to maintain their own collective garden and do some other maintenance jobs. The housing at Signalgarden looks well designed, the floor plans are clever, the facades smooth with expressive balconies, aluminum cladding and careful detailing of the common spaces.

We have also met Flemming Frost of JuulFrost arkitekter who initiated and build the concept of Bedre Billigere Boliger (Better Cheaper Housing) in Ølby. They designed apartments that were built for half the prize of normal non-profit housing. The quality they achieved is, considering this reduction of the building costs, very remarkable. The main significance is, however, that they showed that affordable housing does not necessarily means a cheap, worn down at forehand and stigmatic architecture.

These examples from Copenhagen show that in order to develop attractive and cheap housing solutions the architect can play a crucial role. A role that improves all aspects of the project: better, cheaper housing.


Bedre billigere boliger (beeld JuulFrost)


Bedre Billigere Boliger 07

Bedre Billigere Boliger (beeld JuulFrost)

Senior co housing in Egebakken


We met Hanne, who lives with her dog in the senior cohousing project Egebakken in Nødebo. This project was initiated in 2000 by five elderly couples. They didn’t want to stay in their big villa’s and decided they wanted to be good neighbors and take a bit more care of each other.

In the project 29 individual houses and one community house were built on a site of 23.000 m2. The houses have three sizes:  small (105 m2) , medium (125m2) and large (150m2). To be able to live here one has to be over 55 years old and is not allowed to have kids living at home . Egebakken is a well-organized small society. An activity group, a technical group and  a care group organize a lot of things ranging from theater visits to snow cleaning the streets.

The houses were designed by Vandkunsten, an architectural firm that is very experienced in (co) housing projects. The house are very spacious. The living rooms have high ceilings and some high windows that bring in light into the living area. The inhabitants were able to design their own flour plan.

Hanne’s house is on the edge, she overlooks the woods. She is very happy in Egebakken. She moved in with her husband.  It took some time for her to get used to this way of living in which privacy is guaranteed, but in which she also feels a bit obliged to take part in communal life. Now her husband has died and she is much more involved.

The inhabitants of Egebakken are all well educated and prosperous. The interesting question is if a concept like this could also work for lower income groups or even mixed groups. Hanne thinks mixing social groups wouldn’t work. The difference in income would make it very hard to agree on the communal expenses and to organize activities that fit all inhabitants.

This project is part of our research ‘Grijstinten in de tussenmaat’.

After bigness?


The years 2000-2010 were a period of making big money on big  projects in Copenhagen. A time in which also Ørestad started to be developed. Everything in Ørestad is big! The blocks, the roads, the spaces. Far too big according to the general opinion of people in Copenhagen, both professionals and citizens.  Too big, both in terms of size and in terms of architectural attitude, in which the main focus seemed to have been on creating architectural icons instead of making a dynamic, vibrant city.

From this point of view, an interesting shift is now taking place. The attention in urban development  is now changing. The city architect of Copenhagen, Tina Saaby, told us that in the booming period her department used to focus on the quality of architecture. These days however, the attention is being directed to the interaction of buildings with its surroundings. The objective is much more than before to create more livable areas with dynamic ground floors.

This ambition now becomes visible in a few small-scale developments in some of the new areas. In Islandsbrygge for example we observed some low rise semidetached housing immediately next to few big towers. These row houses appeared to be still a bit lost, they didn’t really create a lively, dynamic new urban fabric. Also in Amager, along the newly made Amager beach, lowrise is being built among highrise towers. Apart from the poor architectonical quality (the attention seemed to have gone to other issues indeed) also here it is hard to imagine  a dynamic, vibrant neighborhood where interaction takes place on ground level.

KAB, the main housing-association in the Copenhagen area, state that projects should not be too big. They have a lot experiences with large estates, such as Farum Midpunkt, that were built in de sixties and seventies. Both from a cost-efficiency and socio-democratic point of view, these estates exist of hundreds of dwellings of the same typology and size. Now times have changed, it appears that with the big scale of the projects, also the problems in the areas are blown up. And the large scale makes it hard to get proposals for improvement through the tenants democracy procedures. Therefore, KAB now aims to build smaller scale projects.

With the projects, also the architectural offices have become bigger in the last decades. Due to the central and important position of the architect in building processes, for an architectural office it is fairly impossible to obtain new projects when the size of the office is under a certain minimum size. The architect is involved in the whole process, up to the controlling during the execution of the building. As a result, offices have to be able to offer a wide range of advice, varying from urban planning, design, to projecting and controlling. According to Jens Kvorning, professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture in Copenhagen and specialized in the history and culture of the city planning in Copenhagen, this is why only a few big firms execute the far biggest part of the architectural assignment in Denmark. In Copenhagen, few firms with more than 350 employees are involved in the main part of the projects being build. But also midsize firms, such as Vandkunsten, founded in the seventies, has for a long time been a midsize firm with app. 20 employees, but recently grew to app. 55 persons. Also young offices will only survive when they grow big. For instance COBE has grown to 65 people within 5 years.

The question is if and how Copenhagen can organize smaller scale developments and a better interaction between buildings and urban context. In this respect, planners, architects, the municipality and clients are very interested in the developments that take place in Amsterdam, where  new developments have a smaller scale and where new players in new roles get possibilities to develop new, specific living concepts. This is very appealing to all the people we spoke to in Copenhagen. But at the same time they stated that such a development would be very hard to achieve since the city doesn’t own any of the land and therefor has limited say in the way new areas are developed. Maybe we can organize an exchange of experience between the Danes and the Dutch to inspire the Danes to strengthen small scale developments and the interaction between buildings and public life. In exchange we think the Dutch will be inspired by the way Danish housing associations and architects manage to achieve high quality housing while reducing the costs up to 20%!

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Islandsbrygge large (left) and small (right) developments

Islandsbrygge large (left) and small (right) developments



Amager strandpark highrise seen from the new Amager beach

Amager strandpark highrise seen from the new Amager beach

Amager strandpark - lowrise between the towers

Amager strandpark – lowrise between the towers