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)

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