Greetings from Montreuil: slow gentrification in Paris East


During our research project ANA goes Europe, we investigate the role of the architect in the future European housing assignment. The trip we made this autumn led to Paris and its suburbs. The French solutions for matters such as living quality, densification, transformation of the Grand Ensembles and gentrification are instructive for the Dutch practice. The third postcard comes from Montreuil, a small municipality in the eastern part of the Métropole du Grand Paris.

Montreuil lies just outside the Boulevard Périphérique. It is a municipality with about 100,000 inhabitants. The city has an industrial past and one of the last communist mayors in the region.
Montreuil is very popular with the so-called Bobos (Bohemian Bourgeois) because it has a mixed character: a diversity of social classes and activity. There are many former industrial buildings that could very well be transformed into lofts. Montreuil is small-scale, almost as a village. And not unimportant in terms of the popularity of the municipality, is that the house prices in Montreuil are on average € 5,000 per m2 lower than in Paris (€ 10,000). Since 1975, the number of high educated people in Bas Montreuil, which is closest to Paris, has increased fivefold. Montreuil wants a slow gentrification, a very gradual transformation in which space is retained for the original residents and entrepreneurs, and a mix of high and low incomes is preserved.

Here we visit Archi5. The partners of this firm (at least 4 of 5) live and work in Montreuil. Archi5 has realized several projects in Montreuil, most of which in collaboration with REI Habitat, a ‘young’ developer who prefers to build in wood.Archi5 and REI Habitat are focusing on small-scale interventions, in wood if possible, with a strong collective character. One of the employees of Archi5 shows us his property in the Le Bourg project. The compact dwellings strike deep into the block and lie around a spacious communal garden in which the existing trees are maintained.

Besides Le Bourg, the architects and developer have realized a number of small-scale implementations in the same neighbourhood. Archi5 is now being asked more often for this type of projects because they know how things work in Montreuil, and this is necessary, because certainly not all proposals for new construction projects are approved. For each project, the municipality decides if she wants to contribute to a new development. Wood seems to push all the right buttons, as does building for special groups. Next to the office of Archi5, a residential project with social housing for single male immigrants has just been realized. The project is in line with the vision of the municipality to make Montreuil an inclusive municipality.

Montreuil’s strategy of evaluating each proposal according the social significance for the municipality is perhaps somewhat unpredictable and therefore risky for developers, but it is also interesting because it allows for a slow transformation that preserves the character of Montreuil. Not making a comprehensive master plan makes it possible to only allow initiatives that add value for the neighbourhood. Such a strategy is an interesting reference for the transformation of existing industrial areas in the Netherlands such as the Hamerstraat area in Amsterdam, the Binckhorst in The Hague and the Merwe-Vierhavens in Rotterdam.


Building in concrete in the land of endless forests


On our way from Stockholm to Oslo we passed a gigantic paper factory somewhere in Sweden. Big piles of trees were waiting to be made into paper. That is what happens to most trees in the Swedish wood industry.  Sweden has however a long tradition of building in wood. Wood frame building has been the main building technique for centuries. Nowadays Sweden builds mostly in concrete. This development started already before the so called Millionprogram that the Swedish state has initiated in the 60’s to fulfill the enormous postwar housing demand.
But the Millionprogram certainly has given concrete building an enormous boost. Today the Swedish building industry is dominated by ‘the big four’, building companies who all build mainly in concrete and who take care of the majority of the total building production in Sweden.
To us it is very surprising that a country with so many trees and such high environmental aims doesn’t build more in wood.

There are however some small countermovements. The municipality of Växjö for instance promotes building in wood. They call themselves the wooden city ( Midroc Property Development has built Limnologen, an eight stories housing block, which was at  that time, in 2009, Sweden’s highest building in wood.
Växjö municipality challenged Midroc by offering them the possibility to double the building volume if Midroc would build in wood. Midroc hired Architect Bolaget, a local architect who was already experienced with building in wood. They cooperated with a manufacturer, specialized in wood construction. They succeeded in building an eight story building that fulfills all the regular technical requirements. Apart from a few extra measurements in concrete and steel that were necessary to make the building more heavy and to tackle windforces, the whole construction is made of cross laminated timber, also the elevator shafts.

Calculations of Folkhem, a municipal housing company from Stockholm, point out that building in massive wood is now around 15-20% more expensive than building in concrete, but a reduction of building time has not been taken into account. Midroc has however realized the project for a regular budget because they also operated as main contractor. The reason for this was not to cut costs but because no contractor was willing to take the risk for such an experimental project. The framework of the building was built by Martinsons Byggsystem, the manufacturer of the wooden construction elements. For the other part Midroc hired a small local contractor.
Production of wood construction is not at all optimized in Sweden. The capacity of factories is not used to its fullest potential. Building more in massive wood would definitely lead to lower costs and lower risks. On top of that, building in concrete is not at all as industrial as it used to be in the postwar era, according to Erik Stenberg, who researches the postwar housing period at the KTH. The environmental specialist from one of the big four construction companies has supposedly stated that they produce 2,5 tons of waste for each apartment.  Industrialized building methods have been replaced by low payed workers who build on the site.
We have been told that Folkhem Is going to build only in wood. That sounds like a brave and ambitious statement in the Swedish context. They have recently finished their first wooden highrise building in Stockholm after the design of Wingård Arkitektkontor in the area of Sundbyberg.
Also Anders Persson of Midroc states they are working on more buildings in wood. So there are some good signs, but still the question is if also the powerful concrete builders will seriously develop  other, more sustainable ways of building.



Limnologen – galeries


Limnologen at the lake


Limnologen Växjö

building in concrete Kvillebacken

Building in concrete Kvillebacken Gothenburg