What use is an architect in a no-build zone? In the town of Wengen, the oncoming ban of second home construction in Switzerland is threatening architects main livelihood. Much of the construction industry may have to move elsewhere unless the role of the architect can encompass a broader scope of work to sustain itself in Swiss tourist towns.
In 2012 a federal law was passed that restricts the amount of holiday homes to no more than 20% of the total housing stock in any commune. This mainly affects about 500 alpine towns that rely on seasonal tourism, like Wengen, where second homes make up more than half of residences. The law began as a call to preserve the natural environment, due to the explosion of holiday homes over the past decade (approximately 4,000 second homes have been built in the region each year since 2000). The new legislation has been supported to reduce off-season ghost towns and overdevelopment, while supposedly providing more affordable housing for locals and leave the declining hotel industry to pick up the holiday visitors.
The law has yet to come into full effect as the latest developments are still under construction, such as the six chalet project of Panorama Park, pictured below, but property values are already climbing and once construction is completed many jobs will be lost, leaving the role of the architect to vanish from Wengen indefinitely.
That is, the traditional role of architects as the designer of new buildings is vanishing, but just like other cities that are experiencing spatial limitations or urban sprawl, architecture is extending into the realm of sustainable development, one structure at a time. Whether this is achieved through densification, renovation or implementation of new and better technologies, in Wengen architecture will also extend to making the best use of existing properties year round.
Architects and designers in Wengen will now have to stretch their expertise to a variety of smaller projects to sustain work within the confines of the second home ban. Residential projects will involve alterations to the existing aging swiss chalets and converting hotel rooms into residential units to be sold off. Holiday homes are being remodeled, renovated and chopped up into smaller apartments each time they change hands, yet with a finite supply of second homes, many homeowners are hanging on to their properties as investments. So even though architects and builders in Wengen protested the ban, they are shifting their role in the industry to respond to the new limitations in their work.
Could there be alternatives to preserving the natural landscape and support the local economy without banning new construction? Perhaps overdevelopment could be addressed by the zoning regulations of individual localities, but for now as the law is slowly being implemented in Wengen, architects will adapt to working within a finite number of homes.
Are architects only facing this situation in the seasonal towns of Switzerland or is banning construction becoming an acceptable response to limit development in the future?
Credit: Images by Tara Whelan. Data linked to sources.