Inside Gothenburg’s $100 Billion Sustainable Building Spree

The Swedish city’s ongoing megaprojects are a transformation built with innovative construction technology

Gothenburg is a city of contradictions. It’s Sweden’s second largest city and the country’s economic and industrial powerhouse, home to household names like Volvo and AstraZeneca. Nearly $100 billion is being invested into a multi-decade plan to grow the city even more and make it Northern Europe’s commercial and logistics hub by 2035.

To cap it all off, it’s getting a sleek new skyscraper, the CityGate tower, which, when it’s completed later this year, will be the Nordic region’s tallest office building.

But spend any time Googling and you’ll be bombarded with articles about what a green, sustainable and all around great place it is to live in.

So what exactly is going on here, and how has this Swedish city managed to match blockbuster development with sustainable growth?

To really understand what’s happening, we need to rewind a bit. Around 40 years ago Gothenburg went through a big change. In the 1980s, the shipbuilding industry that had been vital to its economy since the 16th century was in terminal decline.

But that was far from the death knell for the city. Throughout the 1990s, the huge empty shipyards were transformed into a high-tech research and development hub, and the city’s maritime connections helped it grow into a major trading port.

Then, in 2014, the Gothenburg Development Strategy was announced—a comprehensive plan that would shape the development of the city for the next two decades. From 2016 to 2035 more than $100 billion is being spent on expanding infrastructure like the city’s port and metro system as well as building some 55,000 new homes.

Still, despite the huge surge in construction, Gothenburg is not compromising on its green credentials. That’s certainly easier said than done, but the new CityGate tower is a great example of how it’s being achieved. Despite being the biggest office building in the Nordic region, it’s expected to be awarded the highest LEED certification.

LEED was set up in the 1990s to recognize buildings constructed to a high environmental standard. Reaching the coveted Platinum status is so tough that only around a few thousand buildings in the world have ever achieved it.

With CityGate, those environmental credentials started right from the design and construction stages. Recycled aluminum was chosen to create the facade and a high-tech solution was used for one of the most polluting aspects of the build: concrete.

Concrete production accounts for about 8% of all global CO2 emissions, but the concrete used at CityGate replaced carbon-intensive cement with fly ash, a byproduct of the coal industry, which has very similar properties.

Perhaps one of the most impressive feats is that the entire building will be powered by a new solar park that it’s connected to just outside Gothenburg. That’s right: the largest office building in Sweden will be 100% powered by renewable, solar energy.

But it’s not just the sustainability of this project that is distinctly Swedish. Almost all of the 144-meter tower was prefabricated.

Sweden has long pioneered prefabricated construction, and up to 80% of its housing stock has been built in this way.

The concrete core was the only element of this building to be cast on site—all the other floor slabs, steel work and paneling were delivered and the building was put together like a giant LEGO set. That’s ideal for a small site that’s a bit hemmed in by a stadium, fire station and another site just next door.

It also meant the structure could be built incredibly quickly. When construction began in earnest the whole tower shot up in just 14 months. To put that into context, that’s the same length of time it took to dig into the tough Gothenburg clay to create room for the building’s foundations.

CityGate also set a new nationwide standard for using digital construction tools like Bluebeam.

Projects of this size take some serious organizing, and with so many digital files and messages flying around, it’s really important that people can coordinate with their teams and be sure they’re looking at the right information.

“We have 3,000 to 4,000 technical drawings and everything has to go through design reviews,” site manager Jimmy Hemmingsson said. “When we have all these documents linked together digitally, it’s much easier for everyone in the project to find what they are searching for.” 

As well as speeding up workflows, reducing stress and making sure things get built the right way, there’s also the sustainability benefit of doing away with paper.

“It also saves a lot of trees being cut down because we don’t need to print out all these drawings,” Hemmingsson said.

As impressive as CityGate is, Gothenburg still has a pretty enviable reputation to keep up. But as we’ve seen elsewhere, big money and major developments don’t always turn out the best for the locals, so what is Gothenburg doing differently?

Well, right from the start the Gothenburg development strategy sought to encourage business growth while also keeping livability at the top of the agenda.

To preserve this way of life, city planners wanted to preserve Gothenburg’s small and local feel. Rather than allowing growth into large suburbs with long commute times, the city plan calls for key inner city areas to be developed and made denser.

At the moment, about one in 10 Gothenburgers live around the city center, which is also where 90% of the jobs are. Dag Hammarskjöldsleden, one of the main entrances to the city, will be transformed from an impassable motorway into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, with green space and new public transport.

Housing in Sweden’s major cities, however, has been a controversial subject for decades. Renting is common in Sweden and generous protections for tenants keep rents low while helping to provide stable long-term contracts.

Some have argued that these generous provisions have actually disincentivized home builders to construct new homes.

While housing is an issue, it’s nowhere near the chronic levels found elsewhere. Gothenburg is facing pressures similar to many other cities around the world, but it seems to be doing a good job at dealing with them before they get too out of hand.

This massive, holistic plan was partly triggered when the Gothenburg city council realized it was expecting a rise in population of 150,000 over two decades. Compare that to somewhere like Toronto, which is expecting more than 2 million people to come to the city in the next 10 years but doesn’t really have a plan to house its existing citizens.

While this may not be a complete case of a city having its cake and eating it too, it’s certainly setting a high bar for others to follow. And it looks like it might remain at the top of those lists for some time to come.

This video and article are an original production of The B1M in partnership with Bluebeam. Click here to view the original version.

Here’s how an Atlanta highway expansion is transforming civil construction with technology.