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The story behind a 1960s high-rise turned ‘passive house’ in Gothenburg

Residents of a so-called 'million programme' apartment complex from the 1960s in Gothenburg have collectively turned the building into an energy-efficient home, where energy needed to heat the building has decreased by 90 percent.

The story behind a 1960s high-rise turned 'passive house' in Gothenburg
The solar panel covered facade of Stacken. Photo: Annika Söderlund

In the north-eastern tracts of Gothenburg, near the terminus of tramline 11, stands a row of near-identical apartment buildings against the backdrop of the forest. Nine high-rises of eight floors each, in an unmistakable 1960s style.

Yet one of the buildings seems out of place.

The last in line, at Teleskopgatan 2: in contrast to the cream-white and beige façades of the other buildings, this one is a mirrored black. Come closer and you’ll see that the entire facade — all sides of the star-shaped building, plus the flat roof — is covered with what looks like a wallpaper of solar panels.

The solar cell house is not the brainchild of a visionary 1960s architect who had grown tired of the era’s pragmatic designs. The property has recently undergone a transformation, initiated by its residents, having grown tired of their shell.

The multitude of 1960s flats arose as part of the Swedish Miljonprogrammet or 'Million Programme', when the influx of migrant workers some half a century ago led to a pressing housing shortage.

The government set out to build a million affordable apartments within a decade, a decision that led to the creation of completely new neighbourhoods, usually on the outskirts of cities, with the dime a dozen high-rises like the one in this neighbourhood, Bergsjön.

But the construction fever turned out to be more extensive than housing demand. In the mid-1970s, a large number of the newly created apartments stood vacant.

The then-owner of Teleskopgatan 2, the housing association Göteborgshem, thought it a good opportunity for an experiment. What would happen if the apartments on the fifth flour were replaced by a communal kitchen, dining room and daycare? Then they could turn this entire building into a collective.

And so it happened. In 1980, the first tenants moved into Kollektivhus Stacken (The Stack) and soon all 35 apartments in the collective were occupied.

When, around the turn of the century, Göteborgshem wanted to sell the complex, the residents decided to create a 'cooperative tenants' rights association'. The association took over the ownership of the property and the approximately 60 residents all became members in the cooperative. From now on they would collectively manage the future of their Stacken.

The building before the transformation. Photo: Annika Söderlund

They established a democratically elected residents' council that would concern itself with major decisions and plans for the future. Various working groups were set up to promote solidarity and to reduce the recurrent, monthly costs. Each adult member of the collective was expected to do three hours of communal work a week: in the garden team, for example, the cleaning team, the café team, the communication team, the babysitting team.

Several residents founded the ‘electricity group’. Its members would review the collective’s energy usage and potential energy savings, hoping to cut bills — and in the same breath make environmental gains.

With the approval of the board, the working group hired an energy consultant who produced a modest report on options for energy conservation: better insulation of the attic and a so-called ‘heat recovery ventilation’ (HRV), a ventilation system which, well, recovers heat. The heat produced by the residents — through their body temperatures and by cooking, for example — is captured and used to heat the fresh air in the ventilation system.

“When I moved to Stacken about ten years ago, the HRV system had just been installed and a company was busy insulating the top floor,” remembers former resident Dan-Eric Archer. Archer, who himself was schooled in energy system engineering, naturally joined the collective’s energy team.

But the group wanted more. Soon after the moderate energy saving interventions, they conceived a plan for a larger-scale project, which would change the whole face of Stacken and transform the sixties building into a passivhus, a so-called 'passive house' or ultra low-energy building. The project was unprecedented, not only due to Stacken's age — the term 'passive house' usually refers to new buildings — but also because the transformation was initiated and orchestrated by its residents.

The regulations for a 'passive building' include energy savings of 90 percent compared to the original design (or 75 percent of regular, new constructions), the use of internal heat sources such as an HRV system, the insulation of all external walls and the replacement of the windows.

All in all a major job, and without any example to follow. Every decision, moreover, had to be taken democratically.

Ultimately it was Archer who came up with the idea to cover the entire exterior with solar cells. “We had to cover the new insulation layer with something. I found a dirt cheap load of solar cells at a German broker who sells second-hand panels. They were from a company that had recently declared bankruptcy. The panels were unused and cost more or less the same as conventional covering material.”

The collective house after the transformation. Photo: Annika Söderlund

Financing the project was not even the hardest part. The collective received a loan from a Swedish bank and were granted about a third of the total amount of 12.5 million kronor in subsidies. The region, the national energy authority, environmental conservation groups all wanted to be part of this ground-breaking project.

Finding a contractor turned out to be a far greater hurdle. “We asked over thirty companies,” says Archer. “But there are so many construction projects going on. Most of them were fully booked.” Others deemed the job too risky; no one, after all, had done this before.

Finally, they found a company willing to help. The contract was signed in May 2016. “It was supposed to take five months. It turned out to be a year and a half.” And not without conflict: the collective was dissatisfied with the quality and had to redo part of the work itself. They refused to pay the entire bill, which resulted in a lawsuit. Archer shrugs: that’s what happens with projects of this scope and nature.

But the result is impressive: the energy needed to heat the building has decreased by 90 percent since the installations of the new windows, insulation and the HRV system. The generated solar power equals 90 percent of the annual energy consumption.

“Even the minority of residents who have always voted against the passive house project are proud now,” says Archer.

And can Stacken's example be replicated? “Certainly,” he says. “Everyone should do this.”

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For members


How do I prep my apartment for sale in Sweden?

Here's the first part of The Local's new property series from reporter Becky Waterton, who is currently going through the process of selling her apartment: how do I prep my property for sale?

How do I prep my apartment for sale in Sweden?

Choosing to sell your house or apartment is a big step – when is the best time to sell? What should the asking price be? How do I choose an estate agent?

You’ve done all that, so what’s next? It’s time to prepare yourself – and your apartment – for the upcoming move. But how do you make sure your apartment stands out?

Your estate agent will want to take photos of your apartment as soon as possible for property sites Hemnet and Booli, as well as their own website. However, this isn’t just a case of a photographer coming round to your apartment the next day – you will need to carefully style your apartment beyond recognition first.

Some estate agents offer a styling service as part of their fee (arvode). Some include it as an add-on, which can cost anywhere from 1,500 kronor to 5,000 depending on the estate agent. If you don’t fancy paying that amount, you may be able to get your estate agent to give you some tips on what to do, or you can do it yourself. Here’s a rough guide if you choose the latter route.

Light and airy

Swedes love light. Therefore, you want your apartment to look as light and airy as possible. Nothing on your kitchen or bathroom countertops is allowed to stay – apart from a small (expensive) bottle of hand soap.

The one exception to this rule appears to be if you have a colourful mixer – like a KitchenAid, or a bowl filled with a random selection of fruits and vegetables.

You should also, if possible, make sure photos of your property are taken in summertime (even if you’re not planning on selling for months). This is so your apartment is bright and sunny in photos, rather than dark and grey like the Swedish weather for most of the year.

If in doubt, get a plant. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

If you get kvällssol (evening sun), try to time the photos so they’re taken at the same time. If possible, time your flat viewings for a sunny evening, too, to show off the opportunities your apartment offers.

Avoid anything which could give away the date at which pictures were taken, though. If a keen-eyed potential buyer looking at your flat in October spots that your calendar is from July in your photos, it will just make them suspicious as to why your flat has been on the market for so long.

If possible, you want to get rid of as much furniture as possible without the room feeling empty. If that means getting rid of your work-from-home setup to dedicate half of your living room to a large monstera plant until the flat is sold, so be it. (I may be speaking from personal experience here.)

Spots of colour

Swedes love neutral colours. Most apartments have white walls, wooden floors, and furniture in varying shades of grey, white, brown or black. However, too many neutral colours together looks boring, so you need to break up the neutral palette with pictures, blankets, pillows and plants in varying colours.

For some reason, no one is allowed to see your bedding. I presume this is seen as incredibly private to Swedes, who will do everything they can not to intrude on your personal space (which admittedly, is quite difficult when they are touring your house full of all your personal belongings and deciding whether it’s nice enough for them to buy).

Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

This means that you need to put a throw on your bed, which goes all the way down to the floor. While you’re at it, scatter some colourful cushions on your bed, too, as the throw is probably white, like your walls, and you don’t want it to look boring.

If you have plants, use them. Put them on your bedside table, your windowsills, even in your bathroom (yes, this also applies if your bathroom has no windows, meaning the plants would die if left there for too long – it’s just for photos and flat viewings). 

Assume people have no imagination

It may seem obvious to you that people will be able to imagine themselves living in your apartment, but this doesn’t mean it is. You need to make your flat feel luxurious, even if it seems borderline ridiculous that you would ever have nothing but a bowl of lemons and a perfectly-dishevelled dishtowel on your kitchen countertops.

Similarly, if you live in one of Sweden’s big cities and are lucky enough to have a balcony, you must decorate it with some sort of attractive blanket (in, you guessed it, a neutral colour), a bowl of berries, a bottle of champagne and two glasses. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never used your balcony for anything other than storing drinks in winter, people must be shown the opportunities your balcony can bring. Swedes love to spend time in the open air, so show them that this is possible.

In a similar vein, if you have a garden, it must contain a barbecue. Barbecuing is a favourite Swedish pastime in summer, so show prospective buyers that yes, they can also have the pleasure of barbecuing in the garden, if they buy your property.

Get rid of everything which suggests someone lives there

Okay, almost everything. Leave nothing but a pair of shoes and two jackets on your clothes rack in the hallway. People need to be shown that someone lives there, in a way which is generic enough that they can imagine living there themselves.

Remove everything from your bathroom which isn’t attached to the wall. Don’t even show prospective buyers that you use soap.

Take down any family photos or photos of people. Privacy-focussed Swedes don’t want to be rudely reminded of the fact that someone actually lives in this apartment they are considering purchasing.

Oil, vinegar, salt and pepper are only allowed in your kitchen if they are expensive brands which you have never opened and bought specifically for photos. Your desk must have nothing but a computer on it.

Books are no longer for reading, they’re for putting plants on top of. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Your books are no longer for reading, they are decorative items. This means removing the vast majority and instead displaying them in a few carefully-composed piles on your bookshelves, preferably colour-coordinated.

Your coffee table is nothing but a surface on which to display a lit candle and a bunch of flowers. 

The one exception to this rule is your kitchen table. Cover it with a tablecloth, set out a couple of attractive mugs or champagne glasses, a candle and a bunch of flowers to make it look like you regularly have romantic candlelit dates in your kitchen. Like I said, it needs to feel luxurious.

By the end of this process, the goal is to make you feel like you live in an IKEA catalogue.

There’s a bonus, too. By the time you’re finished, so many of your personal belongings will be hidden away in boxes that it will take you half the time to pack when it’s finally time for you to move house.

One final tip…

If you’re not sure how to style your apartment, have a look at what others have done. Look at estate agents’ websites, as well as Hemnet and Booli for inspiration.

And if you want some ideas on what not to do, have a look at Instagram account @hemnetknarkarna for a collection of some of Sweden’s weirdest property ads.