As is society, so is the apartment building

YIT Corporation News, November 1, 2017 at 09:00 a.m.

1951 completed Käärmetalo in Helsinki Käpylä YIT
1951 completed Käärmetalo in Helsinki Käpylä YIT

The history of apartment buildings in independent Finland is a tale of social change. Equal rights, urbanisation, economic fluctuations and the rise of environmentalism are all visible in the buildings of their time.

The 1880s saw the rise of the first apartment buildings in the Finland´s largest cities.  The construction of apartment buildings underwent several changes in early 20th century, during the time Finland sought and claimed its independence.

In the early 1900s, reinforced concrete revolutionised the industry and accelerated construction of apartment buildings. At the same time, apartments became increasingly owned-occupied whereas, in earlier times, they had mostly housed tenants.

“The history of Finnish apartment buildings is characterised by owner-occupied living. In other countries, apartment buildings have mostly been inhabited by tenants. Finland is typified by owner-occupied apartments and the existence of small housing companies caring after their buildings,” explains Petri Neuvonen from Rakennustieto. Neuvonen has edited a book series on the history of apartment buildings.

In 1917, as Finland declared independence, the country was still entrenched in traditional notions of class division. This was also reflected in the buildings of the time.

“One of the physical manifestations of class divisions in apartment buildings was two separate sets of stairs. Many buildings from the 1910s still included a separate main staircase and a kitchen staircase,” Neuvonen points out.

In those days, apartment buildings mostly housed middle class families while the working class lived either in wooden houses at the outskirts of town or in the courtyards of apartment buildings. This made apartments of the early 20th century large and impressive residences with room layouts that strike the modern viewer as odd.

“The parlors and drawing rooms were spacious and fancy. The room layouts of these apartments still mostly followed the floor plans of country estates,” Neuvonen describes.

A change began with the arrival of Functionalism in the 1920s.

“Functionalism diluted class divisions. Its guiding principle was that all people should have equal living conditions,” says Petri Neuvonen.

Mass production

Another major turning point in Finnish apartment building construction took place during the 1960s. Up until then, the industrialisation of building construction had not quite reached Finland. However, it picked up speed once the post-war slump and rationing came to an end and the growing urbanisation began to cause housing shortages.

“The first practical tests were carried out as early as in the 1950s, but the following decade saw the boom and golden age of prefabricated construction.  Apartment production was faced with the challenge of meeting enormous demand, and mass production became the answer to the housing shortage. The old style of construction was no longer feasible. At the same time, buildings were standardised to fit the same mould,” says Neuvonen.

The peak year of construction in Finland was 1974. In the 1980s, new ideas came to dominate apartment building construction and the familiar grey boxes we no longer good enough. Since the 1980s, environmental concerns have had a significant effect on construction.

Global trends are now visible

The current changes in construction appear to be controlled by global trends. Marko Oinas, Senior Vice President of Business Development at YIT, lists urbanisation, digitalisation and sustainable development as the megatrends that extend their influence to construction.

“Urbanization means that people want to live in the bustling surroundings where they can find services. The trend has been more rapid than anticipated and affects everyone from families to active senior citizens and single households,” he explains.

In zoning, the effects of digitalization are already visible.

“For example, when transportation is in the future purchased as a service, a personal car is no longer a necessity. This means that parking spaces are no longer needed to the same extent as before or, at the very least, not everyone requires their personal parking space.”

According to Oinas, changes in people’s motives for their living arrangements happen fast in today's world.

“People do tend to vote with their feet these days. If the location or apartment does not fit their motives of living, they simply move. So developers should be able to pay attention to people’s wishes, and to anticipate them. As the schedules of construction, and zoning in particular can take years. But changes in people’s preferences happen almost overnight, so the industry must always be a bit ahead of the game.”

Into the heights

According to Neuvonen, the current trend appears to be fixated on high-rise buildings.

“The focus now is on building upwards. This trend is certainly suitable to some cases but it should not be copied and used everywhere,” he says.

In his opinion, the history of Finnish apartment buildings reveals a country where a single truth dominates.

“It’s very typical in Finland for mainstream solutions to be used throughout the whole country. For this reason, the buildings of any era are closely resemble each other in all Finnish cities.”

The decades of Finnish apartment buildings  

1910 Art Nouveau – architects join urban planning 

1920 Classicism – focusing on a uniform cityscape and façades 

1930 Functionalism – the motto “form follows function” guides building design 

1940 Romanticism – fast-paced construction due to post-war rebuilding efforts 

1950 Realism – urbanisation becomes more rapid 

1960 Suburbs of concrete – the golden age of prefabricated construction 

1970 Mass production – construction favours simplicity and ease 

1980 Post-modernism – toying with colours and shapes 

1990–2000 old industrial areas turned residential, glass and steel introduced to apartment building construction 

YIT’s role in the growth of Finland over the past century 

YIT’s history in Finland dates back to 1912. It was then that the Swedish Ab Allmänna Ingeniörsbyrån established a branch office in Helsinki. The first decade in the new market was somewhat difficult, but in 1920 Finnish entrepreneurs took over and continued business operations under the name Ab Allmänna Ingeniörsbyrån – Yleinen Insinööritoimisto Oy. The new name, new owners and new decade helped put the company on a growth track and shifted its focus to the construction of waterworks. 

YIT took its present form in the 1960s, when Yleinen Insinööritoimisto Oy, Pellonraivaus Oy and Insinööritoimisto Vesto Oy merged. 

Construction exports to the Soviet Union began in the 1970s. In Finland, the company began constructing residential buildings in the 1980s. 

In the 2000s, YIT grew as a result of several business acquisitions. In 2013, YIT demerged into two listed companies: Caverion, which focuses on building and industrial services, and YIT, which offers construction services. 

Read more:
Finns used to want a sauna, now they want a balcony – changes in Finnish housing

Further information:

Marko Oinas, Senior Vice President, Business Development, Housing Finland and CEE, YIT Corporation, tel. +358 40 506 7430,

Hanna Malmivaara, Vice President, Communications, YIT Corporation, tel. +358 40 561 6568,

YIT creates a better living environment by developing and constructing housing, business premises, infrastructure and entire areas. Our vision is to bring more life into sustainable cities. We want to focus on caring for customers, visionary urban development, passionate execution and inspiring leadership. Our growth engine is urban development involving partners. Our operating area covers Finland, Russia, the Baltic countries, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. In 2016, our revenue amounted to nearly EUR 1.8 billion, and we employ about 5,300 employees. Our share is listed on Nasdaq Helsinki.