Buildings For The 21st Century; Ikea Housing, Helsingborg, Sweden
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The Independent Culture
This Weekend, on a new housing estate in Helsingborg, a small city in the south of Sweden, the first residents will be unpacking, putting books on shelves and plants on windowsills. It all sounds very ordinary. But these people are taking part in an architectural experiment: their new homes, and those on three other housing estates in Sweden, are likely to affect the way all housing in the 21st century is designed.

The project is being led by Ikea, in partnership with a firm of building contractors. Having furnished millions of homes across the world, the Swedish furniture manufacturer is now building its own. The first 108 homes are ready for occupation: 36 in Helsingborg and Orebro, 18 each in Stockholm and Sundsvall. All are within walking distance of their city's centre, cutting dependence on cars. Work is already underway on a further eight developments, and next year, the company turns its sights on the rest of the world, with Denmark and Finland likely first targets.

Ikea is ambitious for the project. As the company's interior designer, Madeleine Nobs, says: "We know that there are a lot of countries that want these houses." And she may well be right. For Ikea's design (known as the Bo Klok, or "Live Smart", house) represents a serious attempt to sort out the major housing crisis most developed countries now face.

Yet the six clapboard houses on the Helsingborg estate look less like an up-to-the-minute social solution than an interpretation of the turn- of-the-century style of Carl and Karin Larsson. They are painted the cheery yellow of traditional southern-Swedish architecture (in the north, Ikea houses will be red, and in the centre of the country, grey, in keeping with the vernacular). With their chunky, crude materials and tile-covered pitched roofs, the buildings have a rustic charm.

But the houses are more sophisticated than they look. And they aren't houses: each building contains six self-contained apartments. Available in two sizes - one- or two-bedroom, 48 or 59 sqm (the larger flat has the option of a small third bedroom carved off the living room), their design has compact living down to an art. Just inside the front door, a door on the right takes you immediately into a double bedroom. Go down the passage, and you come to an all-in-one kitchen/dining/living room. This leads straight through to the bathroom and, in the larger flats, the second bedroom. Add a cupboard in the hallway plus a shed in the yard, and that's it.

Who wants to live here? Childless professionals, single parents and the retired - the Bo Klok home is aimed at the increasing number of people who don't live with a spouse and 2.2 kids. By chucking out the suburban semi with the chintz, Ikea is offering renters and buyers a small, manageable, light-filled, city-centre pad that won't ruin them. The first 108 were snapped up in 10 minutes.

In the true Ikea spirit, the flats represent good value for money. Prices set so far are 30 per cent cheaper than the going rate in Sweden. This is possible because of the scale on which Ikea is building, and on fast- track construction methods. Arriving on site flat-packed, each six- flat unit is assembled by two men and a crane in just one week. And, though the flats are not luxurious, money has been spent where it matters. Ceilings are 20cm higher than is normal in Sweden; each room has at least two large windows; the floorboards are real wood.

Don't think that Ikea isn't making a tidy profit, though. It is. In addition, the flats are a ready-made opportunity to sell ever more sofas, pots and pans. Each flat comes with a fitted Ikea kitchen. Residents get to choose between six decoration schemes, all of them from Ikea. The megastore provides two hours with one of its interior designers and hands over a voucher for pounds 300, redeemable only at Ikea. Anything bought is delivered free, and two hours' use of a carpenter is thrown in too. So everyone gets the showhouse.

Visions of the 21st-century house have historically focused on futuristic pods, hi-tech glass houses, space capsules galore. Yet no one seems to want to live in buildings like these. Ikea recognises that, while we no longer lead traditional lives, we still go for traditional looks. And what is true for Sweden is even more so over here.

By 2020, it is projected that more than a third of us will live alone. Britain will need 4.4 m new homes. We won't all inhabit Bo Kloks but, just as Ikea furniture has already revolutionised the interior-design market, so the construction and sales techniques of their flats will affect all new homes. Welcome to the real house of the future.

Naomi Stungo is Deputy Editor of 'Blueprint'.