Published on November 29, 2022.

Swedish Model

A systems-based assessment prompts Sweden to consider changes to its building regulations.


Sweden has long been an innovator in building regulations, implementing its first performance-based code for buildings and housing in the 1990s. In 2017, the government established the Committee on Modern Building Regulations to undertake a review and make recommendations on the building regulations and the regulatory framework. I met with members of the committee as part of my Fulbright Global Scholar research into performance-based building regulations to learn more about their efforts and to share with them some of my experiences in other countries, including the United States. It was fascinating to hear about the steps that the government was taking to promote increased competition and increased housing construction without compromising health, safety, design quality, a good living environment, and long-term sustainable construction.

Working with Swedish colleagues at Lund University and at Briab, a fire safety design and risk consultancy, we developed a sociotechnical systems (STS) assessment method that could be applied to buildings, building systems, and building regulatory systems. The assessment starts by defining core components of the STS, such as relevant institutions, actors, and technologies, then focusing on four areas: the extent to which policy objectives are clear, unambiguous, and not in conflict with respect to system constraints; adequate implementation or enforcement of constraints, such as regulations; adequate execution of control actions; and the adequacy and completeness of feedback through the system to pertinent actors. The approach adopts a lifecycle-of-the-building perspective, since building fire safety performance is a lifetime challenge for a building and not something that is resolved when a certificate of occupancy is issued.

The skyline of Stockholm, Sweden. The country is considering adopting systems-based principles that could be applied to a restructuring of its building regulatory system. Getty Images

We applied the assessment to the pre-Grenfell regulatory system in England and the Grenfell-era regulatory system in Sweden. In England, the assessment revealed a wide range of systems failures that had resulted in tragedies. These shortcomings were associated with lack of clarity in regulations and supporting documents; inadequate controls on building products, systems, operation, and maintenance; inadequate consideration of the safety of occupants; and limitations imposed on the fire service. Our assessment of the Swedish system indicated similar shortcomings. (I suspect an application of the assessment to the tragic Bronx apartment fire in January 2022 would highlight the types of challenges facing the building regulatory system in the US, especially for existing buildings that house disadvantaged persons.) Outcomes of these analyses were shared with the Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning, also known as Boverket.

The Committee on Modern Building Regulations issued its report in late 2019, and its findings were wide ranging. With respect to the building regulations, the committee included recommendations to focus on well-written functional requirements, reduce to the greatest degree possible the use of general recommendations (nonmandatory guidance), and specify what methods of verification are to be applied to check that the requirements are met—but only in those cases where the Boverket sees a need for authority control. The committee also recommended deleting references to standards in the regulations and bolstering the standardization process, the idea being to give those with technical expertise more of a say in the technical requirements for buildings.

I found all of this very intriguing. Standards play a critical role in the building regulatory system that exists in the US, and the fact that the committee thought standards should play a similar role in Sweden seemed like a good thing to me. The removal of references to standards made me think a bit—my first reaction was that this action might create challenges for verifying compliance. The committee indicated, though, that methods of verification should be specified where needed, and these of course could be through standards. It also occurred to me that not referencing standards in the regulations could actually boost the prominence of those standards that become widely accepted by all stakeholders within the regulatory system. It would also put more responsibility on designers, engineers, and developers to make better decisions about good design and the standards that should be applied.

In response to the committee’s report, Boverket proposed changes to the country's building regulations, incorporating several of the committee’s recommendations. I was subsequently engaged by Boverket to provide insights from other countries and to help facilitate discussions with stakeholders about the proposed changes. Not surprisingly, some stakeholders embraced the idea of fewer mandated requirements from government (and the additional flexibility provided by standards that they could help develop), while others were significantly opposed.

A number of questions exist at the core of this debate. How should minimum requirements be established and reflected in regulations? What are appropriate measures and means of verification? Who should be involved in the decision making regarding the establishment of these components? Who has responsibility for assuring that building designs are proper and safe? Who is accountable if something goes wrong? Discussions around all of these issues continue.

I applaud Sweden’s willingness to consider how adoption of STS principles could benefit a restructuring of its regulatory system. I believe that application of STS thinking would be helpful in reviews and updates to guidance in nearly every country in the world, including the US.