One of the many perks of living in Sweden: free college tuition at state universities. Even so, 85% of students graduate with debt, according to reports. What gives? Well, while college is free for Swedes, everything that goes along with it is not. Years of buying books and beer add up, as do clothing and other articles of collegiate life. And these are nothing compared to the cost of living in Sweden, whose cities boast some of the highest rents in the world.
Nearly all Swedes begin living independently as early as 18, but student housing is both costly and can't keep up with demand. Quality varies wildly. Native Swedes Tengbom Architects felt compelled to tackle the issue, and their efforts are currently on display at the Virserum Art Museum. The office, which has posts all over Sweden, recently unveiled an eco-friendly prototype that paradoxically improves the student flat by shrinking it.
"There is a lack of thousands of student units in Sweden today, and the conventional flats are too expensive to build," says Linda Camara, the project’s lead architect. Tengbom's solution, she tells Co.Design, was to downsize the average student unit (25 square meters) while packing it with all the amenities of a much larger, more expensive apartment. Clad in sustainably sourced wood, the installation envisions an alternative model for university housing that the architects hope will catch on.
The Smart Student Flat is not the pod-like enclosure you may expect from such a small living space. Make no mistake, the flat is small—in fact, Camara says that special permission was sought and granted to reduce the standard dimensions of a student apartment by 60%. To compensate for the minimization, the architects arrayed the walls of the unit with several openings that admit daylight at different heights; when opened, some of the ovoidal-shaped wooden panels double as desktops and even a dining table. The inclined ceiling, which rises to a height of 4 meters (13+ feet), also works to open up the apartment and produces an airy feeling that belies the meager 10 square meter (108 square foot) floor area.
Its interiors benefit from modular-like proportions. The sleeping area, for instance, is suspended above eyeline, leaving more floor space to accommodate a study nook complete with hammock, bathroom, basic storage, and a decent kitchen and dining zone. These features, Camara points out, were configured with the help of students who the architects brought in to evaluate the project’s various iterations. "In general you can say that when designing such a small space, you have to plan everything in detail. You cannot afford the wrong use of the space," Camara explains. In the case of the kitchen, the students told her they wanted friends to be able to gather and cook together, so the room ended up becoming the unit’s central space.
As for the unit's ubiquitous wood furnishings, the cross-laminated timber was integral to reducing costs. The architects handle the material with much grace, elevating what could have easily suffered from Ikea levels of cheap into a sculptural whole. The interiors are injected with pockets of color, in the form of lime green fixtures and furniture, while the walls are animated with splotches of light.
It’s important, Camara suggests, to see the project not as a stand-alone shed, but as a single unit among many. The architects collaborated with AF Bostäder, a student housing company in Lund where the prototype was constructed and currently being exhibited, to ensure that the new unit complied with living standards while being able to be replicated en masse. To that end, Tengbom will construct a cluster of 22 smart flats in Lund by 2014, and the office is currently working on different configurations that will preserve many if not all of the features built into the prototype. They are also planning to market the unit as a summer cabin and even as an industrial product. It would make the perfect treehouse too.