Sustainable, affordable homes - learning lessons from Sweden

Monday 16 September 2019

© White Arkitekter

What can London and Stockholm teach each other in terms of creating and delivering sustainable, affordable housing?

A special – and sustainable – live link-up between the two cities, held at NLA yesterday, sought to find out, against the backdrop of London committing to net zero emissions by 2050.

The International Dialogue event, created to allow the two cities to discuss housing, new delivery mechanisms and affordability, was kicked off by Monica von Schmalensee, Partner and Senior Consultant, White Arkitekter, and London Mayor’s Design Advocate. Von Schmalensee said Stockholm was the first green capital, in 2010, with Malmo another ‘showcase’ in this area with Stockholm aiming to be fossil free by 2040 and to use renewable energy to support that. But lessons learnt from other cities were vitally important in moving towards a common goal across the world, she said. 

Torleif Falk, City Architect, City of Stockholm, spoke about the challenge of building 140,000 homes in the ‘small big town’ he works in, by 2030. The city is growing rapidly – in fact it is the fastest growing in the whole of Europe - with an open attitude to refugees but a ‘big problem’; a queue for housing of some 653,000 people. The economy is still strong in Sweden, but financial restrictions are causing a slowdown, said Falk, with builders finding problems in financing and experiencing high costs of production. ‘We’re in quite a difficult situation, actually’, he said. But public buildings are also on the agenda, including 84 elementary schools, 24 high schools, 530 restaurants, cafés and bars and 21 museums planned alongside the development of eco-districts begun in 1990 and a focus on wooden architecture.

Responding from London, Andy von Bradsky, Head of Architecture, Housing Supply and Planning Directorate, MHCLG (‘the nearest thing we have to a state architect’, according to NLA chairman Peter Murray’) said he had been inspired by early visits to Hammerby. Now was an ‘interesting’ time in Government, he said, but it had been consistent since 2016 in its approach to housing. London’s policies overlap and are similar, and the housing white paper set out in 2017 ‘places great emphasis on more homes in the right places and delivered faster’.  The aim is to produce 66,000 per annum in the capital, with the government’s broader aim of producing 300,000 houses per annum by 2025. ‘So there is a real ambition to deliver the shortfall of housing that we have’, he said. 

The government assumes that mixed tenure is the way to reach those numbers, with councils doing more of this and Build-to-Rent underpinned by government policy. All while retaining the capital’s Green Belt, and maintaining ‘a real focus on the quality of what is being built’, strengthening the planning system, and with new guidance on design about to be published. There is also a growing emphasis on environmental challenges ‘to do with character of place’ and building sustainable communities. The challenge to government will be rolling out quality in lower value areas than London, von Bradsky suggested. Greta Thunberg’s work has impacted on policymaking and a 25 year environmental plan refers to encouraging biodiversity in cities in new development generally, he added. ‘We learn an awful lot from London in the way it innovates and generates ideas’, von Bradsky said.

Back in Sweden, Per Magnius, Head of Real Estate Development at family-owned Olov Lindgren showed some of its 3,400 private rented homes as proof that it is possible to design high quality at prices people can afford. ‘It’s no secret at all. It’s just common sense.’, he said. ‘We design and construct our buildings so that they can stand the wear of time’, said Magnius, within a market that is ‘socially orientated’. Affordability, he added, is one of the key ingredients in sustainability. 

Robbie Erbmann, Head of Housing Strategy, Transport for London said TfL owns land the size of Camden and is thus a property company, partially enforced by its lack of subsidy. ‘Also we have a massive housing crisis in the capital’, he added. ‘So we need to do what we can with our landholdings to deliver what this city needs’. TfL will deliver 10 million square feet of new residential and commercial space, with 10,000 new homes started by 2021; around a third of them forecast as build to rent and 50 per centaffordable across its portfolio. But an estimated 9,000 Londoners are dying prematurely each year due to air toxicity, with 50 per centof pollution coming from street level transport. TfL is ensuring it builds homes at the highest quality of air-tightness withthe newest forms of technology in heating to keep fuel bills down, and is moving its entire fleet to electric buses, said Erbmann. But it also aims to be a leader in going way beyond policy, he concluded, with people at the centre of all of this ‘to allow great quality development’.

London needs to also go beyond targets for carbon, said Miles Attenborough, technical director, sustainability design group, AECOM, with housing produced by those who have long-term interests in those assets. The trick will be in doing this – creating high-performing homes – whilst keeping costs down. ‘The solution is probably around modern methods of construction’, he said.  But it is also in creating true affordable housing through making lively urban environments and income for residents rather than simply shaving costs, said Kristoffer Roxbergh, Architect and Partner, White Architecture. Sustainability, agreed von Bradsky, is a wider issue. ‘It’s not just about the performance of a home; it’s about the performance of an area, the performance of a region, how it can adapt to climate change...It’s not becoming an option; it’s becoming a necessity’. 

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ


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NLA’s International programme facilitates global discussion, connecting London with other cities in order to exchange information, discuss and debate shared urban issues, and compare approaches.