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Kiruna Church

Kiruna Sweden: A town on the move - literally

To what lengths will a community go to stay alive? Kiruna, in Sweden, is answering that question by relocating the whole town rather than see it slowly disappear into sinkholes.

Within the Arctic Circle in the northernmost part of Sweden lies the mining town of Kiruna, where a $2bn project is currently under way to save no fewer than 3000 buildings. As extractions of iron ore have moved increasingly closer to Kiruna, the ground beneath the town grows unstable and will eventually cause its foundations to collapse. In efforts to prevent the town from sinking, it will be moved two miles (3km) to the east. June 2016 marks the two-year anniversary of the commencement of Phase One of the relocation, which will take place over three phases and span 20 years. During the relocation, buildings will be moved whole, or disassembled and reconstructed to sit beside new ones.

A mining town

In 1736, iron ore was discovered in Kirunavaara, a mountain lying just outside Kiruna. For a long time, getting to this ore was unfeasible due to the extreme climate and remoteness of the location. In the late 19th century, the railway finally made its way to the region, and with greater access to the town, the government-owned mining corporation, Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB), began mining operations in 1902. This was the beginning of Kiruna, a town that grew with the express aim of housing the employees mining the iron deposits nearby.

People flocked to the remote mining town, the population rising from 18 in 1899 to almost 13,000 in 1930. The mining company paid for a fire station, sewerage, roads, hospital, church and the priest’s home to be built. Kiruna became a thriving community with its own cultural identity and historical landmarks.

However, this mining activity has caused ground deformations and nearby sinkholes that first became evident in 2003. In 2004, the municipal council voted to begin the move, starting with the town centre and several of the buildings at greatest risk. “Mining operations are the backbone of Kiruna’s industry, and Kiruna Municipality is therefore prepared to move parts of the city,” says Marianne Nordmark, information officer for the council.

Preliminary stages

Moving a town is a pricey endeavour, the cost of which will largely be borne by LKAB. The mining company will compensate residents 125 per cent of their property values, but with its high quality iron ore making up 90 per cent of all the iron ore produced in Europe, it is confident that the investment will be worthwhile.

The project drew interest from 57 architectural firms from around the globe. Stockholm-based White Arkitekter’s ‘Kiruna 4-ever’ plan was the eventual winner with its focus on sustainability.

The lead architect for the Kiruna project, Krister Lindstedt, says: “Our winning proposal went beyond the Municipality’s brief and presented a 100-year master plan that not only planned for the move, but also how that process would help to create a sustainable model city whose economy is more diversified and less dependent on iron ore mining, which was the decisive factor of why the city had to move in the first place.”

The plan includes more meeting areas and cultural and social amenities. This is intended to effect a social change by attracting more women to the town, where they are significantly underrepresented at the moment. Young women tend to move away due to a lack of economic and social opportunities. It is expected that with more females making decisions in the town, Kiruna can move a section of its economy away from mining. Currently, the town is male-dominated, making it unsustainable.

The number of people involved in the project is astounding; along with the architecture firms of White Arkitekter and Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter, who will be working together to create the master plan, there are a whole host of city planners, engineers, landscape designers, biologists and sociologists involved in the project.

“It was important to involve all the stakeholders so as to minimise understandable feelings of dismay and uncertainty, especially among residents,” explains Lindstedt. “Their expectations, desires and attachment to their place of residence were captured by White’s in-house social anthropologists. The goal of this dialogue-based city planning is to keep everyone involved for best results.”

A sustainable new town

While moving a town is challenging, it brings with it the opportunity to create an energy efficient and sustainable centre. A unique aim of the design is to achieve carbon neutrality by supplying district heating using the residual heat generated when magnetite ore is converted into pellets. Residual heat from mining operations is expected to make up 90 per cent of New Kiruna’s heat production, with only a 10 per cent dependency on biofuels. Wind power generation will also be placed at the site to take advantage of the favourable conditions in this remote region. The town already uses a large amount of hydroelectric power supplied by a dam at the Stora Sjöfallet Lake nearby.

Already built in New Kiruna is the first subarctic ‘passive house’, the Seventh House. This project is a collaboration between NCC (Nordic Construction Company), the city of Kiruna, and Luleå University. Passive houses are highly insulated, environmentally friendly and energy-efficient homes that maintain a liveable internal temperature using passive heat sources such as body heat and electronics, along with solar panels and district heating. Heat within the house is retained and circulated, making the heating 80 per cent more efficient. The overall estimated energy consumption of the passive house is 7,000kWh/year.

At the heart of the design is the aim of bringing people closer to nature. Initiatives like green corridors running through the city keep nature as an integral part of the city and help efficient drainage of snow and water. The city will also be denser and more compact, so residents will be able to walk between destinations, and public transport routes such as cable cars can be planned more effectively.

A new recycling infrastructure will be built to help reduce waste and freight. The main sewage system has been overhauled and the electricity supply system relocated. According to Lindstedt, “this is an opportunity for this small city to concentrate its settlement and improve its relationship with, and responsibility towards, nature.”

Moving the buildings

One of the biggest challenges of the project is retaining the character of the town. “We aim to retain the character of Kiruna through the re-use of materials from demolished buildings. Even some other buildings - important to Kiruna’s collective memory and cultural identity - will be moved,” says Lindstedt.

The church, originally designed by Gustav Wickman and built by LKAB, was voted the most beautiful public building in Sweden in 2001. The famous altar was built by Prince Eugen, the Duke of Närke, a renowned artist and patron of the arts. Today, this beautiful church is one of about 20 buildings that will be pulled down and rebuilt from pieces. However, the church altar will be moved whole to avoid any damage to it.

The way the church was built is fortuitous since it was designed in a log-and-notch style - fairly easy to take apart and reassemble. As long as the pieces go back together in the same way, rebuilding the church will not pose an engineering challenge. The Kiruna Church relocation is expected to be completed towards the end of Phase One, in 2021. The iron clock tower will also be disassembled and will form a centrepiece at the new town hall.

The former home of the first LKAB director, Hjalmar Lundbohm, will be moved in one piece by separating it from the foundation and transporting it on the back of a truck. Buildings moved in this way will then be placed on a newly built foundation at the new site. Only houses in good condition will be eligible to be moved in this manner.

A recycling depot, Portal, has been set up where materials from demolished buildings, such as wood, glass and metal will be stored for use in the building of new houses. Construction companies and residents can purchase materials from this depot.

Less historic buildings like newer apartment complexes are being completely demolished and replaced with better designed buildings. This started with residential areas like the Ullspiran neighbourhood, from where tenants were relocated in 2015.

New and improved buildings

There was some disappointment when the historic town hall could not be relocated. The dimensions, at 50m by 50m, would have required a new 70-metre-wide road to be built to move the entire building. In its place, a new town hall, called the Crystal, will be completed in 2016.

Designed by Henning Larsen Architects, the Crystal will have a circular outer building that will float around the inner one, which will be shaped like a crystal. This design ensures that wind moves around the building and there is no opportunity for snow to settle against its sides. The ribbon windows, covering the surface of the outer structure, are designed to reflect light into the offices as part of the ‘daylight strategy’, which aims to optimise the daylight hours of summer for passive and natural lighting.

The Crystal will be connected to the old town hall through an urban corridor that will include the relocated clock tower and a new travel centre that serves to increase tourism. These buildings will be finished in 2018. At the completion of Phase One, the new town centre will also have a library and a swimming pool.

A long-term project

Of the 100-year masterplan for a sustainable city, the relocation project spans the first 20 years from beginning to end. “The old Kiruna will be gradually phased out and, once the town becomes more vibrant further to the east, the residents will relocate,” explains Lindstedt. The new town centre will be built first and an organic movement of residents will follow.

The Swedish Transport Administration has completed a new stretch of road, opened in September 2015, that is the first directly linking Kiruna to the town of Nikkaluokta, some 70km away. It is also an important route to enter the LKAB industrial park. Plans for the E10 north-south road are in hand, and the railway has been rerouted, with a temporary station in use until the new town is built.

More tourists are expected to be attracted by the changes in the layout of shopping spaces. Like all towns that grow quickly, Kiruna’s urban sprawl has led to new retail spaces being located inconveniently on the outskirts. White Arkitekter plans to change this by centralising shopping destinations. “We came to the conclusion that combining smaller shops and larger retail will make for a more interesting shopping destination and a more vibrant centre,” the firm says.

The full spectrum of this project has only just begun to be realised and there are sure to be many unexpected challenges encountered over the 100 years of change. However, Kiruna’s residents have proved their dedication and resilience over the centuries of living and, indeed, thriving in the harsh and unforgiving Arctic Circle.

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