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Report of the Second International Expert Seminar
on Building Non-Handicapping Environments:
Renewal of Inner Cities

Prague, October 15-17, 1987

Download the Prague proceedings as a PDF file (420 KB)

Careful Housing Renewal: Notes on Housing Renovation in Sweden with Special Respect to Old and Disabled People

Jan Paulsson, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden

Historical Notes

For several decades, housing shortage and overcrowding was the overshadowing housing problem in Sweden. People moving from sparsely populated regions to urban areas necessitated the construction of housing, mainly rental apartments in large numbers in the expanding cities. The most important target group for housing planning from the 1930’s to the 1950’s were low-income households with many children. Housing production became increasingly industrialized during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The construction boom culminated in the so-called "Million Program". One million new housing units were built over ten years during the period 1965 to 1974. Although the substantially increased building stock represented a considerable step forward, the consequence of the high pace of production, use of new building materials, and inadequate/insufficient follow-up of the results of production, etc. was a housing stock of varying quality.

Right now we are in the introductory phase of a new large national program - the National Housing Improvement Program (ROT) - which is to be implemented over a period of ten years, 1984-1993, and which will include repairs, renovations and additions to the large housing stock mentioned above which is currently referred to as the Old (up to 1930’s) and the Semi-Old (built during the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s) Building Stock. A major program goal is to provide everyone with housing that is well-maintained, has modern equipment and fulfills requirements of good accessibility. Energy-saving measures are to be intensified, the standard of living is to be equalized and integrated and better use is to be made of the existing capacity within the building sector. The program gives building owners an opportunity to correct the original deficiencies in planning, rectify deterioration and neglected maintenance, and adapt the buildings to present and future needs.

The Million Program was a quantitative program. Its objective was to produce as much housing as quickly as possible. The National Housing Improvement Program is a qualitative program. Its objective is to raise the technical and functional standard as well as to reduce energy and management costs. The overriding and long-term goals of the improvement program and the need to enact general measures to rectify deterioration and neglected maintenance are often relatively easily assessed. It is much more difficult to get a clear picture of the local conditions in terms of the positive and negative features of the particular house/building and neighborhood. What improvement measures are needed and how should they be ranked in priority?

Housing Stock and Population

Older buildings account for a large part of existing housing. In Sweden there are about 900,000 flats, and 40% of all flats are in blocks built during the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. These dwellings must be regarded as a valuable resource even though a lot of heat is lost through the walls, the balconies rust and sometimes even collapse, staircases and lack of space make them unsuitable for disabled persons, and lead to poor working conditions for refuse collectors and caretakers.

A large part of our older housing is now in need of technical and functional improvement. Old people and the physically disabled, living in Old and Semi-Old areas, are very much affected by these measures. It is therefore important to take the people concerned into consideration when choosing solutions and working methods. Research and development in this area is receiving high priority in Sweden just now.

The Old and Semi-Old neighborhoods are no longer mainly family neighborhoods. The present population consist of mainly old people in single-person households. It is important that the housing and its immediate environment is adapted to these categories of residents. The needs of old and disabled persons of accessibility and adequate standard as well as of common spaces and meeting points are entirely different today. At the same time, it is important to strive towards a population base of varying age groups and family sizes.

The Situation for Old and Disabled User Groups

The number of pensioners over 65 years of age will increase in Sweden until some time in the next century. Particularly striking, however, is the increase in the proportion of people over 80 years of age, precisely the group towards which the social services for old citizens are primarily directed. In response to that trend fairly extensive research and development work has been done during the past decade. At the same time, the objectives and forms of assistance that society provides have become matters of urgent importance.

Many old people live in old parts of towns and cities. They have often chosen to remain in the area in which they lived when they were working - perhaps in the same place where they lived as newly married and where their children grew up. Their homes are full of memories, and memories mean a lot to old people. Old people like talking about the time when they were working and about their families. The home is intimately connected with those times. The photos of their children and grandchildren and ornaments and furniture accumulated over the years constantly remind them of the past. Their memories are not just connected with their own homes but also with the whole environment - streets and shops, neighbors and familiar faces.

The Old and Semi-Old neighborhoods have functioned over several decades. A local subculture has grown, social networks have developed, people have created rules and traditions in their lifestyles. People’s - particularly the older generation’s - security and identity is strongly bound to the local environment in which they live. It is important for the housing improvement process to develop a sensitivity to and awareness of these conditions.

Basic Concepts

Buildings and the built environment in general are among man’s most important resources for activities, social life and community development. The built environment often means obstacles and limits to large groups of people. Disabilities in some respects imply that people develop new resources and abilities in other respects. Process and design in the development of the built environment can promote or reduce the possibilities for people to use their resources and potentials.

The processes in which the built environment is designed and constructed do not give people opportunities to participate or to influence and thereby improve their situation. Work methods have to be developed in pace with progress in other disciplines and changes in attitudes and assessments in the community. User-oriented studies focusing on processes and specific minority groups are a way to develop general knowledge of great importance.

The design of buildings and the built environment is today of immediate interest, in new buildings as well as in the renovation and renewal of older buildings. Several groups of people today live in unsatisfactory circumstances. The old institutions - large and segregated housing and nursing homes - are now phased out. New care forms and models for housing have to be developed in the local environment. The housing environment and housing districts can be developed to better correspond to the situation and needs of the different user groups.

More and more importance is now attached to the well-being of the tenants when buildings are designed, constructed, renovated, adapted for different uses and put to use. Interaction between planners/architects and different categories of users is a condition for good development and renewal of the environment. Methods for user participation have to developed. The experiences from different experiments have to be systematized. Design and process must be regarded as a whole.

The resource perspective implies that all people are regarded as a community resource. These resources can be found in both individuals’ capacities and experiences and in their social commitment. The majority of old people are both healthy and strong. In the past they had all kinds of positions in the community. Now they are often prevented from having an outlet for their energy and commitment. It is important to take care of and make use of the resources of old persons in every situation in which they wish to participate. Planning and design of the environment must aim at the release of people’s resources - figuratively speaking, to open doors to new possibilities and alternatives.

The activity hypothesis implies that people, not least old and disabled persons, do better if they continue to be physically and intellectually active. A lack of activities and duties can even be destructive. Almost any skill can be learned and healthy people of any age, with dedicated practice, can achieve good results. An experienced and trained 70 year old will be quicker and sharper for a given skill than an inexperienced and untrained 20 year old. Regular daily activity, both physical and intellectual, is the best method of keeping healthy for old people.

The lifestyle hypothesis is based on the assumption that most people, and again not least old and disabled persons, have developed their individual resources into habits, interests and skills - an individual lifestyle. Examples of important activity areas are living habits, social relationships, work, household, etc. The conclusion of the lifestyle hypothesis is that it is important not to inhibit people from pursuing their interests. Planning and design must promote the continuity of individual lifestyles.

Aging in place, the possibilities for old people to continue to reside in their own familiar environment, is a basic goal of community planning in Sweden today.

In housing renewal it is not always possible to achive the same conditions as new construction. It is important to respect the positive features of existing conditions and to change the negative. Thorough analysis of the current situation and detailed knowledge of the buildings and populations is basic to housing renewal. A careful approach to both people and buildings/environments is the general approach, developed in different ways in the processes and design measures in housing renewal.

In some dwellings or blocks it may be easy to implement high standards of accessibility and usability, even for persons with extensive mobility disabilities who use space-craving technical aids and/or personal assistance. In others it may not. Then, the area concept is an important approach. The housing area or district should be considered as a basic entity. Within each area there should be accessible and usable dwellings for all ’special needs’, i.e. flats for a broad cross-section of the population. Today, the municipalities in Sweden are working on area programs which form the basis for the implementation of future housing renewal programs.

Three Housing Renewal Studies

Kortedala: A Study of a Neighborhood in Gothenburg from the 1950’s
Causes of Relocation: Positive and Negative Features of Kortedala.

Aging in place - the continued residency of the old population - is a basic goal for physical and social planning in Sweden today. The basic concept of this study is that people who relocate or move often have given thorough consideration to their housing situation, have formulated opinions and are aware of the advantages and disadvantages of the area. By shedding light on the causes for moving, a clearer picture can be obtained of the housing’s and neighborhood’s positive and negative characteristics as well as which improvements are urgent and/or imperative.

This study used a mailed questionnaire and the replies have been analyzed by computer and manually. The reasons why people move are most complex. There may be "individual" reasons, the social environment, reasons of health and the bad accessibility and usability of the environment, the process of renovation.

The replies in the study gave a rich and complex picture of an urban neighborhood. Considerable space has been allotted to human problems, since we have focused on the views and experiences of the households that have moved. However, these views and experiences should also be the basis for planning the renewal. In addition, suggestions for improvements were presented to be implemented in the area from the point of view of middle-aged and old people. Most of these proposals are obvious, realistic and constitute a good basis for starting the renewal work.

Sanna - Preserved and Renewed
Housing Renewal in the Sandarna District of Gothenburg: Multi-Family Housing from the Early 1940’s.

The planning of the Sanna district in Gothenburg, situated on the heights west of Kungsladugard, started in 1936. Construction was carried out in 1939-45. The goal was to erect as much housing as possible as quickly as possible. The buildings are typical rectangular four floor slabs in functionalist style, of high standard for that time.

In 1982, a renewal and renovation project started in a part of Sanna owned by Poseidon AB, the largest municipal housing company in Gothenburg. The company was to start the renewal of its 1940’s building stock and Sanna was the first trial area. The Swedish Council for Building Research approved funds for experimental activities and the project was to take special note of the housing and living conditions of old residents. Researchers at the Department for Housing Design were charged with the responsibility for program work, participation activities and research contributions on design and process problems in housing renovation.

The Sanna project is one in a series of experimental projects; perhaps the one that has been most well-developed all round and carried out with the most consistency. It has provided a lot of experience, as well as its general academic interest. Renovation was completed at the end of 1986. A reprint of an article describing the project in English is available from the author.

Growing Old in Single-Family Housing
Problems and Potentials for Improvement: A Study of the Utby District of Gothenburg.

In general, half of the Swedish population lives in single-family, detached or semi-detached houses. The majority of these units are located in rural areas, but many are also found in villages and towns. Houses are often owned by the inhabitants. Single-family neighborhoods are mostly uniform. There are very few different house types or forms of ownership, such as cooperatively owned or rental units, integrated into these neighborhoods.

About half of the population 65 and older, lives in single-family houses. In this project we have surveyed the problems and potentials for improving the prospects of staying for old people living in single-family houses, and other important aspects of single-family housing conditions in Sweden. An extension to this project is a case study of the Utby district in Gothenburg. In this neighborhood, construction began in 1937, when the popular movement of owner-built single-family houses was strong and received support by the municipalities and the state. The area was further expanded during the 1940’s - 1960’s. The district is in many ways representative of single-family housing conditions. While the problems of old people living in single-family housing are just as important as those of old apartment tenants, they have not yet been properly examined.


What we have learned sofar is that planning and design of renovation as a whole must be based on a thorough analysis of the current situation in the area concerned. This necessitates a detailed knowledge of both buildings and populations. The analysis must include many factors, not the least the viewpoints of the people living in the area.

The planning and production routines must be sensitive and flexible. Disabled and old people often have special needs regarding the structural changes as such and how they are affected. The input of the inhabitants must be regarded as a natural feature of the planning process.

There are technical solutions to most accessibility and usability problems, even in older buildings. Certain requirements may be difficult or impossible to realize in an individual dwelling or block. In such cases, the area concept, i.e. that the area should be considered as an entity, is important. Within each area there should be flats that can be reached without having to climb stairs, that can be adapted to the special needs of particular categories of people. In the same way, each area should provide flats for a broad cross-section of the population. If a new building is to be erected in an old area of the town, it may be appropriate to apply stricter standards there. The problems are particularly great when several property owners are involved.

The fundamental problem is how to carry out improvements in older urban areas such that the residents, particularly disabled and elderly people, can go on living there and age in place, and that the improvements really serve the people who need them. We have to develop analytical methods and make programs to adapt, complete and renovate locally for future needs in old districts of our towns and cities, and to manage the alternatives and resources, human and material, which are at hand. And, as far as we can see, what is good for disabled and old persons, is good for everyone else too.


Almberg, C.and Paulsson, J., Kortedala - A Study of 1950’s Neighborhood in Gothenburg, Causes of relocation - Positive and Negative Features of Kortedala, I 2:1987, Department of Housing Design, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, 1987.

Eriksson, Grahn, Kahani, Paulsson and Pavlovic, Growing Old in Single-Family Houses, Problems and Potentials for Improvement - A Study of the Utby District in Gothenburg, I 1:1987, Department of Housing Design, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, 1987.

Housing Renewal in Sweden, Swedish Council for Building Research, D3:1983, Stockholm, 1983.

Lidmar Reinius, Karin (editor), The Elderly and Their Environment: Research in Sweden, Swedish Council for Building Research, D27:1984, Stockholm, 1984.

Sanna Preserved and Renewed - Housing Renewal in the Sandarna Area in Gothenburg, Information Brochure I 4:1987, Department of Housing Design, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, 1987.

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