Magnus Månsson - An architect with a head for figures

Architect, property developer and landlord Magnus Månsson likes to have many strings on his lyre. To prove that it can be done. His dream is to restore the traditional role of architects as comprehensive players in the housing market.
It’s chaotic at the office. Architect firm Semrén & Månsson is about to relocate its Gothenburg office from Wernerska Villan next to the central shopping boulevard, Avenyn, to larger premises on Polhemsplatsen square. They’re going to occupy the entire top floor of the building that’s the headquarters of the Göteborgs-Posten newspaper – GP-huset. Wasn’t it there, on the sixth floor, that the newspaper’s top-ranking cultural news desk used to be once upon a time, I ask. CEO Magnus Månsson has no idea, but I get the impression that it’s a fitting place for the firm, given the way Månsson enthuses about how the architect’s role needs to change. But unlike a culture journalist, Månsson can put his thoughts and opinions into practice. And he already has.
   – “The power of the good example – that’s the strongest thing we have,” he says.
That’s why he jumped at the chance when the City of Gothenburg offered him leasing rights on a land allocation on Danska Vägen in the Lunden district. He wanted to prove that it is possible to build rental flats more cheaply and at a profit, and also with an architect in charge of the entire project.
   – “Giving the architect greater responsibility benefits everyone: property developers, municipalities in their planning, building contractors... Architects who understand financial and property issues are much more attractive to discuss projects with, and this puts them in higher demand.”

But in Sweden, architects aren’t expected to manage calculations, he says. Instead, they seem to be viewed as a kind of designers, especially in the media. That’s not the case abroad. In other European countries, Månsson says, architects are trained in real estate economics and are also involved in the construction process in a completely different way.
   – “You don’t have to go further afield than to Denmark to see how much more architects are tasked with. Even more so in Germany, the UK, France, Spain and Italy. It’s here in Sweden that the traditional role of an architect as a comprehensive player has shrunk.”

So, why has this happened? Månsson thinks that it all started with the Million Programme – a Swedish government initiative in the 1960s and 1970s aiming to build a million new homes to resolve an acute housing shortage. For various reasons, architects relinquished a great deal of their influence in this project. Another complicating factor is that we have a market dominated by a small number of extremely large construction companies.
   – ​“The result is that the traditional relationship of property developer, architect and building contractor as equal pillars of the housing market has become skewed.”

It has also led to a dearth of rental flats being built, especially by small players, who find it difficult to gain an allocation of land in the attractive locations in our big cities. Flats in tenant-owned housing associations are thought to be more profitable. Månsson doesn’t really understand why.
   – “Second to hotels, rental flats are the most exclusive form of accommodation. They really offer extreme convenience. If you compare the economic risk and amount of service provided, rental flats are without a doubt better than tenant-owned apartments in housing associations.”

He remembers explaining to people who don’t live in Sweden how a tenant-owned housing association works.
“Have you Swedes totally lost your minds?” they think. And then the inevitable follow-up question: “So you put four million into an association and you don’t own anything?” “No, but I have the right of use of the flat.”

The rental flats on Danska Vägen won third prize in the prestigious contest: Construction Work of the Year 2014, arranged by the construction industry magazine Byggindustrin and the construction and property management knowledge company Svensk Byggtjänst. The citation stated: “Magnus Månsson has made the impossible possible: as an architect running his own firm, he designed, built and managed a rental block of flats and made it a financial success.” Of course Månsson is pleased; he explains that the property was built according to the principle of “expensive today, cheap tomorrow” – a wise old builder’s motto that has become a rarity in today’s cost-optimised housing market.
   – “Despite higher material costs, the production costs were well below average, proving that you can build more cheaply.”

By the young age of nine, playing about his country home in his native province of Småland, Månsson already knew that he wanted to be an architect. But he didn’t get to sink his teeth into a real project until the age of 13. His family had moved to the city of Växjö and his parents thought that their home needed a fireplace. Young Magnus was given the task of designing it.
   – “I went to the library and learnt everything about fireplaces. The agreement included applying for a building permit, getting it approved and contracting the bricklayer to build it. It was a useful experience. I got to see how my line drawings turned into materials and concrete substance, and that the skill of a bricklayer was necessary to make it happen. I tried doing a bit of brickwork myself, and it didn’t work out at all. I remember trying to split a brick with a hammer while holding it against my thigh. I nearly knocked my leg off,” he said, laughing.

But his future path was clear. The rest of his school days were nothing but a wait to be able to apply for his architect training. After graduating from upper secondary school and doing national military service, he applied to institutions in both Lund and Gothenburg in 1975, finally ending up at Chalmers. He graduated in 1979 and started working for an architect named Per Rune Semrén. 
   – “He was extremely practical – started off as a trained bricklayer and had lived quite an eventful life before turning to architecture studies in his thirties. He became my friend, advisor and mentor, and the business became my life.”

In 1992 he bought out Semrén and became sole owner of the firm, which had about 10 employees at the time. From then on, he says, business has been booming. Today the firm has 140 employees and four offices in three countries.
   – “I’m still wondering how it all happened,” he says and laughs again.
But he does know, of course! Månsson has not only designed two of Gothenburg’s most talked-about hotels – Avalon by Kungsportsplatsen square (his “breakthrough”, which was nominated for several national and international awards) and Posthotellet by Drottningtorget Square – he has also made sure that he was not dependent on the local market.
When Sweden sank into financial crisis in the early 1990s, Månsson wondered where he could find new projects. The answer was in Germany, where the wall had just fallen, and he managed to get elected to the German Federal Chamber of Architects.
   – “This allowed me to operate there without a German partner. And that’s one reason why I got interested in shouldering greater responsibility as an architect. Because that’s how things work there. It was slightly daunting at first, but then I got used to it.”

For a few years Semrén & Månsson had a “tiny office” in Berlin and carried out a few projects in the former East Germany. But the German market started to decline as early as about 1994. “But if you can get a building permit in Leipzig, you can probably get it in St Petersburg, too,” said a client, who had moved parts of his business there from Berlin. Månsson accepted the challenge. Meanwhile, the City of Gothenburg started to get interested in developing links with St Petersburg, where one of the deputy chairmen of the city administration was called Vladimir Putin.
   – “We made connections at an extremely high political level and were involved in a gigantic project for several years. It was a mix of residential properties, offices and university buildings in a central location.”

In 1998 a financial crisis hit Russia. Månsson went home, but maintained his contacts and returned five or six years later. He started working with Russian partners and architects again, with mixed results, he says. In 2011, when he had enough projects of his own, he opened an office.
   – “Today we have 25 architects and can run any type of project. We do all kinds of work – major hospitals, city plans, residential properties and one or two arenas.”
An architect in Russia needs to know more than one in Sweden. Do you also need to learn about the culture of bribes?
   – “We decided from day one never to bribe anyone. This is for reasons of principle on my part – I just think it’s wrong. What’s more, it’s not something a foreigner can really manage. We have definitely lost projects because of this, but also won several. When senior managers learn that we have resisted the machinations of lower employees, they’re very pleased.”

Semrén & Månsson also has a small office, staffed with five architects in the start-up phase, in Szczecin in Poland. It’s in the EU: more structure, yet still a completely different world, just 200 kilometres from Berlin,” Månsson explains. “It’s an interesting market. They haven’t come as far in the industrialisation of construction, and there is still scope for more work to be done by skilled tradespeople. You can get a huge amount of work done, solutions that are impossible in Sweden due to our high salaries and inexperience with certain skills.”

In recent years Månsson has designed some of Gothenburg’s most talked-about construction projects, of which the Avalon hotel with its pool that protrudes from the rooftop is the project that he is most satisfied with, or at least the one that means the most to him.
   – “I worked on it for 23 years! Not full time, but for various reasons it took that long before it could be realised. Of course it left its mark on me. And the nice feedback we got about the hotel as a meeting place naturally also means a great deal. We designed the project with an incredibly involved developer and operator, and really had the chance to express ourselves in depth.”
Semrén & Månsson is also involved in the construction of, if not the highest landmark, at least the tallest building in Gothenburg – and in fact in the whole of Europe. Due to be completed in about 2020 in the borough of Hisingen, the 230-metre high tower Karlavagnstornet was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merril. The US firm, which has designed no fewer than six of the world’s 15 tallest buildings, has appointed Semrén & Månsson as its Swedish partner. 
   – “We’re helping them to find their way here, both in municipal planning work and in navigating Swedish construction regulations. I’m used to considering who to work with in my Russian project. That’s one of the reasons why I think they chose us.”

Magnus Månsson says he can’t claim to have any hobbies. He reads and plays a bit of tennis. Otherwise, it’s mostly architecture. He can have a new idea at any time, and then he’s quick to whip out his sketch pad. “Some people do sudokus; I draw floorplans,” he says. And he teaches – at Chalmers. Månsson simply wants to give something back that he himself gained from his teachers. In the 1980s and 1990s he was a supervisor for architecture students, and when he was offered a three-year adjunct professorship in 2008, he didn’t hesitate. The professorship has been extended every year since, which pleases Månsson.
   – ​“They’ve been fantastic years in a stimulating environment with many great encounters with both students and colleagues.” His plan is for Semrén & Månsson to keep on contributing to future Swedish architecture through teaching. There is an idea of funding a professorship at Chalmers focused on design, technology and – you guessed it – economics. As he said, Magnus Månsson believes in the power of the good example.

Text: Lasse Nicklasson
Photo: Anna-Lena Lundqvist

Published: Wed 01 Jun 2016. Modified: Thu 02 Jun 2016