The importance of architecture for the growing city

“Good housing is what really counts,” notes architect Thomas Sandell. “And to build so there is never the need to tear down buildings. With greater density in the city center and a higher degree of closeness, Skellefteå will be very interesting for investors.” Hear out Thomas Sandell’s thoughts on Skellefteå’s potential, the 10-minute town, and trends in economic and social sustainability.

Skellefteå is in the midst of a major urban development effort in terms of infrastructure projects and the construction of housing units. Skellefteå son Thomas Sandell, one of Sweden’s most famous architects, has long kept an eye on developments in his old hometown. His perspective is that Skellefteå has gone from a small town in decline to a successful medium-sized city with expansion in full force, with exceptional potential for investors.

“What now remains is to develop the density of the city center and increase the proximity of everything to each other. Then things will really take off,” notes Thomas Sandell, Chief Architect at Afry.

Thomas Sandell founded the architectural office Sandellsandberg in 1995, which today develops everything from products to cities. Since 2016 Sandellsandberg has been a part of Afry (formerly the ÅF Group), a Swedish engineering, consulting and with business operations in the fields of energy, industry, infrastructure and information technology.

Medium-sized cities are winners

Afry recently conducted a large-scale study with people in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland in the 18-35 age range, which showed that in the future young people will prefer to live in either medium-sized or small cities. The survey concludes that the primary demand of the target group is proximity and sustainability.

“The most important thing is to be reasonably close to preschools, one’s workplace, friends, parents, shops, nature and culture. We are talking about the sustainable 10-minute town, a trend that continues to find its foothold and which gained even more momentum during the pandemic.

The Coronavirus pandemic seems to be able to contribute to ensuring that mid-sized cities – such as Skellefteå – can be real winners in the future.

Thomas Sandell calls our time the “Green Journey 2.0,” a return to a more small-scale life, but with all the features and attractions of urban living. He assets that attractive and high quality housing is what really matters most in the effort to attract returnees to return to Skellefteå, as well as other residents – plus an attractive range of activities and diverse cultural life.

“I would say that the returnees are the most important target group for Skellefteå. They go out get an education and start a family somewhere else, and then they move back home and start contributing. And it is at this point the Municipality must also contribute, especially with high-quality residential housing. Skellefteå has many qualities that can be utilized to an even extent, such as its panoramic views and that it is situated close to bodies of water.”

Closeness and density in the city center

Thomas Sandell believes in creating densification in the city center. High density entails friction between people, creating a mass that generates the foundation to support convenience stores, restaurants and other services. He mentions in this regard Södermalm in Stockholm, the district with the highest density in Sweden.

“Actually it would be possible to create a similar density in the most of the central neighborhoods of Skellefteå.

The new Art & Culture Centre has changed the urban landscape, something one has to relate to as the construction and further development progresses.

“Right now it looks a bit strange, because the scale of the Art & Culture Centre’s building is quite different from all the other buildings.”

Thomas Sandell proposes a densified development on existing courtyards in central Skellefteå, and via building on the many two- and three-story buildings with two or three stories.

“The old buildings have to keep up, it needs to grow up a bit now, I think, otherwise it will be too silly. My advice is to adapt the density of the city center and develop the closeness.”

Social sustainability

According to Svensk Mäklarstatistik, a newly constructed condominium in Skellefteå costs around SEK 20,000 per square meter. Thomas Sandell believes that price developments will continue as demand grows, not least thanks to Northvolt’s establishment.

”Yes, it’s the influx of people that promotes ambitious expansion. However social sustainability, from the outside perspective, also creates development, with new residents contributing with new ideas and new perspectives.”

He also believes in different forms of conditions under which land or buildings are owned or occupied, referring to having full legal title to the property or occupying a rental apartment, so as establish the preconditions for a flexible community and attract new residents.

“Social sustainability is all about creating preconditions for all kinds of people, a diversity. Meeting and spending time with a diverse group of people from different backgrounds enriches our lives.”

One of the challenges for the growing city is to grow sustainably. To plan long-term with future needs in mind and construct buildings that last a long time, and that can get different functions over time.

“The most sustainable buildings are the ones that are never demolished. When a city expands rapidly, it is important to think long-term and make sure that the buildings that are being built today can be used for other things tomorrow.”

Trends in economic sustainability

Building well pays off in the long run, according to Thomas Sandell. The real estate prices are rising, it has proven to be a good investment. But quality also pays off in a shorter perspective.

“Then you avoid costly finishing work after the project’s finished, which eats up any profits. Mistakes, problems, and orders for corrective work can destroy most calculations.

As an architect, he sees a change in demand.

“Our everyday lives have been changed by the pandemic, the home is becoming more and more important. Demand is now growing for larger apartments.

He urges the Municipality to be prepared with zoning, detailed master plans and to continue to build in wood; “it is a winning concept that puts Skellefteå on the map with the help of its architecture.”

Previously. large pension funds that invest in Swedish real estate have only been interested in Stockholm’s inner city. Now they have started investing in mid-sized cities, such as Linköping and Jönköping.

“This is an interesting trend. The difference between the cities relating to what a property owner gets out of its end-customer is no longer so much. So it will naturally occur that investors will begin looking at Skellefteå in that way. Demand is rapidly growing, and investing in Skellefteå will soon become a ‘no brainer.’”

In brief: Thomas Sandell on Skellefteå

  • “Skellefteå has gone from a small town in decline to a successful city with expansion in full force, with exceptional potential for investors. Developing the density of the city center and densifying will make the interest even greater,” observes Thomas Sandell.
  • “Constructing with quality and proper planning pays off in the long run,” according to Thomas Sandell. He urges the Municipality to be prepared with zoning, detailed master plans, and continue to build in wood. “It’s a winning concept that puts Skellefteå on the map with the help of its architecture.”
  • Thomas holds the view that the returnees are the most important target group for Skellefteå. “Nothing is of greater importance to attract returnees and new residents, as well as to establish an attractive range of activities and diverse cultural life, than attractive and high quality housing.” He points out that the younger target group is increasingly demanding close proximity and sustainability when choosing their place of residence.

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