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Staffan Carenholm: Why design-build?


The need for housing and what is being built today is widely discussed and many have opinions. Various arguments are raised in the debate: it is built too expensively, it is built too rectified, it is not built sustainably enough and it is not built according to people's needs. However, knowledge about the conditions of housing construction is highly variable and sometimes quite absent from the debate.

It is the municipalities that have responsibility for the housing supply, but it is private actors who build and private actors do not put the shovel in the ground unless there is a calculation that says that the project has good conditions to be profitable. It is now over 20 years since there was something that could be called a social housing policy in Sweden. Many years ago, housing could be built according to need, but for a quarter of a century, housing construction is done according to strict profitability calculations and according to people's ability to pay.

There is a housing minister. But it is a ministerial post where the holder does not have access to any real toolbox. A housing minister in Sweden can talk and think, but not achieve very much. And it is obvious right now, in the middle of an election campaign, that neither of the two main political alternatives that have emerged wants to change the game plan for Swedish housing construction. Today, housing policy is far down on the tone-setting political agendas. No change is in sight.

Even though the municipalities have a housing supply responsibility and their planning monopoly, it is the private market that decides what should be built, where it should be built, with what quality it should be built and how new housing should be designed. How about municipal housing companies then, someone objects. Yes, they build, but they essentially have the same market conditions to deal with as the private property developers and construction companies, even if the profitability requirements do not always have to be as prominent.

So where are the architects on this playing field? What influence do architects have on housing construction? What can the architects influence?

There is a fairly widespread notion that architects have great influence and power over the processes of housing construction. These notions have very little to do with reality. If you go back a generation, the architect was hired with the trust of his developer. Today, the architect is largely procured in price competition.

In his traditional role, the architect plans and projects, but today the influence is not the same and at the helm sits the client, the property developer and often also the construction contractor. The Swedish construction process is also highly fragmented, where many players are more interested in optimizing their own effort than seeing the overall good end result. The roles are mentally predetermined, and the various actors have their own perceptions of what other players should relate to and which role they should settle for.

The divided picture of responsibility, the political lack of interest in the housing policy challenges and the dominant housing builders' pursuit of profitability and efficiency is what both architects and critics of Swedish housing construction today have to deal with.

Today, it is someone other than the architect who sets the course and the agenda. In today's housing construction process, the architect is one of several suppliers in a complex and intricate collaboration with several other actors. Sure, there are good processes where the architect can have significant influence, but normally the architect lacks real power over the process through which housing is added.

The architects are faced with a choice. Either you try, based on an essentially unchanged position in the process, to fight for better quality and a slightly greater influence, or you decide to take a different place in the process, take on greater responsibility, a new role, a greater risk but also gain greater influence. You can become a construction architect. You step out of your shell, in whole or in part, and create and implement your own projects. You don't wait for the question if you want to draw something, you take the initiative yourself, assume the role of the developer and seek a land reference or find in another way a project opportunity that allows holding the whole process together. You can walk the tightrope and decide on this as your main track, but you can also combine your traditional role with a completely new one based on self-directed projects. An interesting observation in this context is that the person who shows his ability as a building architect also grows in the eyes of other developers and is regarded as a possible and interesting partner in other projects.

Today, more and more architectural firms want to go all the way and show that they have the capacity and ability to take a comprehensive approach. The driving forces are many:

Show that, with overall responsibility, it is possible to achieve more interesting and well-planned housing qualities with genuine quality without cost increases for the residents.
Contribute to more varied and sustainable housing production and get the opportunity to fully implement the intentions for the project without other actors haggling over quality and demanding their own standard solutions.
Show that the architect can take on a different role and greater responsibility, that the architect can manage the costs of their project and be the practical implementer, not just the giver of ideas. There are challenges. In their traditional role, the architect does not take such great risks but consequently does not have a decisive influence either. As a building architect, you step into a completely new process with higher stakes, bigger money, longer times and increased uncertainty.

The fact that today we have more and more architectural companies choosing this positional transfer is gratifying and also the biggest change in the architect's role in the last quarter of a century.

Today there is the association Byggande Arkitekter which brings together these architectural firms and forms a forum for common knowledge and information exchange. Today, these architectural firms are housing construction microbreweries that complement and challenge the dominant housing builders' all-too-well-known and not always so interesting products.

This exhibition shows several examples that deserve attention. Today, the building architect companies have design-built well over 2,500 homes. It is not a very large volume, but what has been built is among the most interesting produced in the last two decades.