Sustainable BuildingsConstructionNotable City Skellefteå: The Sky’s the Limit… in Wood

Notable City Skellefteå: The Sky’s the Limit… in Wood

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

One city in Sweden has been getting a lot of attention. The 20-storey plyscraper Sara kulturhus is one example of how notable city Skellefteå is pioneering the realms of wooden construction, but there’s a lot more going on. Significant inward investment has turned this modest-sized municipality from declining urban centre to the country’s hottest hub for technological advancement. Just how has Skellefteå made timber its mainstay? And how is the city drawing on its sustainability credentials to become Sweden’s most desirable destination for people and businesses alike?

Maybe it’s inevitable that so much of Skellefteå’s built environment is constructed from wood. After all, it is surrounded by forest. Getting it right, however, takes careful planning, a robust strategy, and visionaries to enact it. This brings us to Councillor Evelina Fahlesson. In a political career that spans back to 2006, she has been Head of the Board for the Building and Environment department and in 2020 became Vice Chairperson of the Municipal Board. We sat down with Evelina to find out how Skellefteå has tamed timber, and, in the process, we learnt the surprising story of a city accelerating sustainable innovation powered entirely by renewables.

The Long and Wooden Road

Sweden has a long history of constructing from wood. Fire, Evelina tells us, was little understood for a long time. It posed enough of a threat for European legislation to restrict building to just two storeys. As knowledge improved, attitudes eased and the country relaxed regulations. Since 1994, Skellefteå has been free to build, build, build.

“Today, we have car parks, we have the Sara kulturhus, wooden houses, and wooden offices,” Evelina told us. There are also schools, airport buildings, and bridges all made from wood.

The kulturhus is the crowning glory: opened in 2021, it is an 80-metre-high plyscraper. The tower contains 205 modular hotel rooms that command views over the city, while the base is a collective space for performances, meetings, and leisure. It houses a restaurant, spa, library, and an auditorium that seats 1,200 people.

Sara kulturhus Skellefteå -
Image credit: Sara kulturhus / Jonas Westling

A Local Industry

Evelina likes to think building in wood comes naturally to our notable city Skellefteå: “We say that it’s almost in our DNA.” With good reason. There are around 480,000 hectares of forest in the municipality, so the material is convenient to source and process. “It’s produced very near to where it’s actually going to stand,” Evelina continues. In fact, all the city’s wood comes from sustainably managed spruce and fir forests within a 200 km radius. The sawmill is just 50 km away. Keeping the entire process close reduced deliveries for the kulturhus construction by 90% compared to other projects of that size. And it created local jobs.

As you may expect from a city with such an intrinsic relationship with timber, a whole economy has grown up around it. “We have the wood industries, and also the Research Institute in our area,” Evelina explains. When it comes to investing in timber-based businesses, it’s not just the public administration but “the entrepreneurs that have been very good”.

This has driven innovation, the kind that grabs the attention of big names like Northvolt. This is one of the reasons the former Tesla executives who founded the company decided to base their gigafactory in the city.

Northvolt Gigafactory Skellefteå -
Northvolt’s Gigafactory. Image credit: Skellefteå kommun

Looking for the perfect site, Northvolt had an extensive checklist of requirements. Skellefteå’s credentials met them all: 200 hectares of available land; an existing ecosystem of diverse stakeholders; a cooperative municipal authority; a local power supply; robust logistical and transport links; plentiful water; and a university that provides research opportunities and a skilled and educated workforce.

Added to this, Skellefteå promises a great quality of life.

Why Wood? The Benefits

If you’ve ever used air freshener, chances are it was scented with the types of trees that grow around Skellefteå. Naturally, living in a home made of this wood is a sensorily pleasant experience.

Evelina elaborates: “There has been some research about how you feel when you’re in a wooden building. You feel it’s warmer and it feels healthier.”

In fact, the local hospital is researching the effects of recuperating in a wooden room, to see if it helps patients recover from operations faster than when surrounded by white walls.

Evelina is clearly proud of her city’s achievements. There are many advantages to building in wood. For a start, “it’s the right material for climate change”.

“It’s also a good material for the builders,” Evelina reports, adding there are “no hard sounds” when working with wood. Structurally, “it’s a very strong and light material,” flexible, and reusable.

It also lends itself to modern methods of construction. This can curb costs – very important for tight public authority budgets. By creating modular components in a factory before transporting ready-made sections to the building site, Sara kulturhus was built a full year faster than is possible by traditional methods, Evelina points out.

We Cannot Build from Wood Alone

Evelina Fahleson Skellefteå -
Evelina Fahlesson. Image credit: Patrick Degerman

As advanced as the wood-building industry in Skellefteå is, materials such as steel and glass are still required in construction. For foundational pins and windows, for example. Practitioners in Skellefteå have been able to adapt construction methods to use these more efficiently with wood. It’s about complementary expertise and establishing new, better, cleaner ways of building.

“We don’t say that we only build in wood in Skellefteå. We say that we use the right material at the right place in the building.”

Due to wood’s diminutive weight, high-rises need some concrete to add stability. Rather than being viewed as a failure in shifting fully to renewable natural materials, the sector has learnt to handle resources in the most efficient and low-impact way. It means, locally, “the concrete industry has also been able to move towards becoming fossil-free”.

Competition & Collaboration

Sweden has adopted a national strategy for building in wood. Some cities made further commitments. Växjö – also held up as an example of best practice – will now make 50% of all buildings from wood. This isn’t Skellefteå’s approach.

Unlike Växjö, “we haven’t said that you have to build in wood,” our CityChanger explains. “We have just told the story about the forest and the industry and local jobs,” which seems to have created a shared identity that underpins the prominence of timber-based projects.

The design for Sara kulturhus was decided by an architecture competition. Wood elements were not in the brief, but out of more than 50 ideas submitted, “it was just two or three of these proposals that weren’t a wooden construction”.

Sara kulturhus Skellefteå - CityChangers.orgling
Interior of the Sara kulturhus. Image credit: Jonas Westling

Evelina sits on the board of Wood City Sweden. Maybe it’s because wood is so ingrained in the city’s collective psyche that the government has funded the organisation to share Skellefteå’s knowledge with other municipalities.

Demographic Dilemma

The kind of progressive thinking demonstrated in this influential municipality has helped the city completely reverse its fortunes.

Not long ago, Skellefteå’s population was in freefall. Outwards migration and an ageing demographic undermined tax revenue, threatening to send the city into hardship. Positive action turned it around.

In 2014, the municipality formed a new city strategy. The first agenda was to get people to stay, return, or move in by improving the quality of life:

“The aim was to get healthy, to offer the social services and the welfare our residents need.”

From an economic standpoint, local leadership, as Evelina recalls, asked themselves three questions:

  • What are we already doing well enough?
  • What do we have to do to make the municipality a place where people want to live and work?
  • How do we create an environment where industries and intrapreneurs want to place their businesses and factories?

Opening a dialogue with residents and the business community, Evelina and her colleagues began to collect answers. The consultation process not only gathered information but also showed citizens why development was needed. This ensured the public was supportive of measures when they were eventually enacted. The way to make it work, Evelina notes, was for stakeholders to do it together.

Inward Investment

Evelina told us the city’s new motto: “A sustainable city for a better daily life.” The accompanying action plan targets buildings, mobility, and industry.

The idea behind it is to use sustainability to attract new blood and brains to the city. A place of 73,000 inhabitants in 2021 hopes to swell to 90,000 by 2030 and to 100,000 ten years later. Green living and a rise in sustainable industries are making it happen. Northvolt’s presence demonstrates a shift in attitudes to what is no longer a declining city.

By 2025, their monster-sized plant will employ 3,500 people to make EV batteries and recycle them with their Revolt venture. This is a bigger league than the city had even hoped for. “It’s so fun and exciting to be on this journey,” Evelina reflects. And it continues to grow.

“We have, for example, an all-electric new port that is being built here, fossil-free, and then we have electric airplanes at our airport, and the airport itself is totally fossil-free today.”

The municipality is 100% powered by “green energy from the air and water” from local power producer Skellefteå Kraft, Evelina explains. The company is owned by the municipality, generating a chunk of the revenue needed to invest in enrichment projects.

“Skellefteå today is one of the richest municipalities in Sweden,” points out our CityChanger, and they invest it in capital that attracts and supports a growing population, such as schools. Witnessing this potential, government backing has bankrolled mobility infrastructure such as the new Norrbotniabanan coastal railway, which promises to open up the city to tourism and further investment.

Floraskolan school Skellefteå -
Floraskolan school in Skellefteå. Image credit: Patrick Degerman

The Challenges of Success

It’s all happening so fast.

Evelina acknowledges the unique position that our notable city Skellefteå finds itself in. The growth is unprecedented for a Swedish city, and that presents problems. Namely, little practical know-how for how to manage the situation. How will they approach this issue?

“I would say that we have to do short-term things but think long-term,” mulls Evelina. That involves building homes for the influx of people but also feed-in projects that reflect a long-term vision for the municipality, with precision planning.

This includes investment in infrastructure. New transport links are needed to connect homes and workplaces. The railway will bisect the city.

It sounds disruptive, but a survey of about 1,600 locals found overwhelming support for the changes: 93% in favour of development.

“I think that’s really important,” Evelina tells us, “That we have the inhabitants with us on this journey, and that they feel that good things are happening.” The Municipal Board has achieved this with a focus on communication. Signs, campaigns, dialogues, public meetings – they all help inhabitants understand why their daily routines are affected.

Make the Leap

What advice does Evelina have for other cities wondering how they too can become a leader in sustainability?

“Be brave.”

Fundamentals like schools and houses are standard in a city. Building a wooden skyscraper in the city centre “was a brave decision” and led to an incredible amount of learning. Now the planners, architects, and builders are well versed in wood module high-rises. This knowledge will be a valuable asset to an expanding Skellefteå, and a world hungry for sustainable construction. The gamble – or, more appropriately, the investment – paid off.

“So be a little bit brave because the business community and the entrepreneurs and the private sector, they will follow.” And with them, so will the people.

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