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Halfway through building our own Swedish summer house, here’s what I’ve learned

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It took me about four years to work out what was going on. My Swedish wife kept sending me links to housing auctions featuring enormous tumble-down renovation projects in Värmland, abandoned farmhouses in Småland, or cabins in the wilds of northern Skåne.

At first, I thought she was fantasizing about abandoning our life in Malmö to grow our own vegetables and keep goats. I’d humour her, say a few encouraging things about the houses, then immediately forget about it. 

It was only when the first of our friends started to buy getaways an hour or two outside Malmö that I clicked that this was something normal, even expected, for Swedish families. 

At home in the UK, you generally don’t start thinking about a holiday house in Cornwall or Devon unless you’re very wealthy. In Sweden, it’s something less well-paid professionals, such as teachers, journalists, and academics, aim for too. It’s typically the next milestone after your children are in school. 

For my wife, it was also a passion project. While I can’t wire a plug (at least not without recourse to YouTube), she, like many Swedes, is practical. When we bought our flat, she put in the kitchen, installed new taps, basins and toilets, plastered the walls, and put in a new wooden floor, more-or-less single-handed (I did help). 

When she was studying, she worked part-time at a big out-of-town DIY store, and had long wanted to put her extensive knowledge of building materials and power tools to use.

She is also addicted to Husdrömmar (House Dreams) the SVT renovation programme where presenter Anne Lundberg and architect Gert Wingårdh visit a succession of Swedes embarking on perilous renovation or self-build projects, only to go wildly over budget, but somehow come out OK in the end. 

Anne Lundberg and Gert Wingårdh were part of the inspiration behind Mia Orange’s house project.

Initially, Mia fixated on a two-up, two-down brick house near a friend of ours’ summerhouse in Österlen, Skåne’s desirable southeastern corner, which she called the ruckel, or ‘ruin’. 

It had a hole in the roof through which water had been leaking for decades, rotting right through the ceiling of the ground floor, and then down through the floor to the cellar below. This was terrifying, so when she instead found two small adjoining plots of land for sale at a nearby area reserved for holiday cottages, it was such a relief I quickly agreed.

We are now coming up to our third summer working on the house, and it still feels like we’re barely halfway. We have a roof, walls, and windows, and Mia’s done the insulation. The aim is to be finished by the autumn, but I’m betting on one more summer.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. 

Is it cheaper to build your own house? 

The plot we are building on cost 300,000 kronor, which is three times as much as cheaper plots in other parts of Skåne, but will hopefully pay off as we will end up with a house in an area otherwise outside our price range. 

The module house cost another 300,000 kronor, and I expect we will end up spending at least another 500,000 kronor on laying the concrete foundation, installing plumbing and electricity, and buying second-hand windows, stairs, doors, etc. 

So the cost quickly catches up with that of buying a house that’s already been built: for that amount of money, it is still just about possible to find a well-situated holiday house an hour from Malmö (although you might find you’d have to pay quite a bit for renovation and upkeep going forward). 

However, in the area where we’re building, holiday houses have in the last year been selling for two, even three, million kronor, so if the market holds up (a big if), our efforts will hopefully be worth something.  

Are there any other advantages to building your own house? 

If you’re got an interest in design and a big budget (or modest desires), you can of course build the house of your dreams.

Some of the more outlandish Husdrömmar episodes I can remember include a house with a tree growing through the middle, a house encased in a giant greenhouse, and a house constructed as a giant geodesic dome. 

You might be able to find a plot with a view over water, or down into a stunning valley which is better than any existing house you can find. 

Also, if you’re into that sort of thing, it’s the ultimate DIY project. 

Is it a good idea to buy a plot in a holiday house area? 

Our plot is in a fritidshusområde, or ‘holiday house area’, with I think around 80 other holiday houses and cabins laid out along a network of small roads. The negative side is that, even though we are in the popular Österlen area, it feels a bit suburban. You are watched over by your neighbours, many of whom are retirees from Lund and Malmö, and have to be careful to limit the noise and mess you make. 

The positive aspect is that electricity and water supplies run right up to the border of the plot, there are potential playmates for our children, and a little community.

It was surprising that what was delivered from Piteå was little more than a pile of planks and beams. Photo: Mia Orange

Is it a good idea to buy a modular house? 

We bought a modular house from Lundqvist Trävaru, based in Piteå in the far north of Sweden. The advantage of this is that once you’ve ordered the house, you get architecture plans sent to you which make it relatively easy to apply for planning permission. If you designed your own house, you might have issues over whether the structure is stable.  

Lundqvist also have a very good online system to help you choose what dimensions you want, as well as instruction videos showing you how to erect the walls, put on the roof etc. 

On the other hand, when the container lorry arrived to deliver the house, I was surprised to discover that what they unloaded was more or less just a pile of planks and beams. The planks for the walls had been nailed together into 1.2m modules in Lundqvist’s factory, but that was about it. 

If I’m honest, I expected it to be a bit more like IKEA. I was expecting to receive more detailed instructions about how to put the parts together, perhaps with colour-coded packages telling you which pieces of wood are supposed to be used in which order. My wife managed to work it out, but it wasn’t easy. 

Mia Orange risking life astride the roof of her build project. Photo: Richard Orange

Should you get a professional to build it? 

For 200,000 kronor, we could have got Lundqvist to erect the house, paint it, put in the windows, and do the roof and gutters, which would have taken them a week, saved us about six months’ work, and probably meant a slightly better structure.

For us though, saving 200,000 kronor was easily worth a summer of hard labour. And for my wife, building the house herself was part of the point anyway.  

What about getting help from your friends and neighbours? 

We’ve been lucky in that the two people living in the houses across the road are local rather than people from Malmö or Lund with a holiday house, and they have been enormously helpful. One is a retired carpenter, and he has given Mia useful advice at every stage.

They’ve also helped us contact local plumbers, concrete and stone suppliers, and given other advice on materials. 

On the day we lifted up the roof beams, we had help from a small crowd of friends who helped guide the various parts into place and screw them down.

During the lull in the pandemic in early September, Mia’s mother came down from Uppsala and helped mount the front door.

One of the things I’ve learned as a foreigner is how generous Swedes can be with their time and advice when it comes to something practical like building a house. While general chit-chat and small talk is relatively rare, when the discussion gets on to subjects like guttering, they can talk for hours. 

Mia’s mother came down to help mount a door in September.

Should you get help online? 

My wife has become an obsessive member of the Byggahus (‘house-build’) website and forum, which is a sort of virtual version of the sharing of advice mentioned above. If you can read and write Swedish, it’s an invaluable place to discuss every element of a building project from how to get your permission to start building from the local municipality, to tricks for putting in windows. 

How tough is the bureaucracy? 

Before you can start building you need to apply for bygglov, or ‘building permission’ from the municipality, and if you are planning on doing any major landscaping, you also need to apply for marklov. You also need to secure a startbesked, before you start work.

It took us two or three attempts before we had supplied all the correct documentation to receive our bygglov, so it can be quite complicated, but still far from impossible. 

Once you have laid out the area where you are going to build your house you also need to get that measurement approved by the municipality.

You also need to employ an independent ‘kontrollansvarig‘, KA, who monitors your work at all the essential stages to make sure you’re not taking any dangerous shortcuts. 

The municipality also has to come out at different stages to check that you’ve done everything according to the plans and building regulations. 

Finally, when you’ve finished you need to get the municipality to inspect your work and issue a slutbesked before you are allowed to live in the structure. 

So all in all, there’s quite a lot to do. 

How hard is it? 

If you’d asked me in September, I would have said ‘surprisingly doable’, particularly if you have a practical partner. But the cruel reality is that while it looks like your house is almost finished once you’ve erected the walls and roof, you are actually not even a quarter of the way there. 

Moreover, as each of the many, many time-consuming jobs you have left make little real difference to the outward picture of the house, it is easy to feel like you’re going nowhere. 

Perhaps the hardest thing is that while our richer (or perhaps just more indebted) friends have for the last two summers been enjoying flitting between their summer houses and the beach, we’ve been spending our time heaving wood about while living in a cramped 1970s caravan. 



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Six Great Russian-Language Films on YouTube

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Are you resisting the urge to set fire to historic structures in downtown Moscow? Are you still stinging from your foray into the world of self-mutilation as protest?

You may be suffering from Poser Rip-Off Artistic Tourette’s (also known as PRAT). Fortunately, for sufferers of PRAT, there is help for your frustrated artistic urges. I’ve compiled a list of some great Russian-Language films available for viewing on the interwebz (with English subs) in their entirety. All of these films are excellent listening practice for those who are learning Russian, or for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in Russian culture and art offerings sans the need for antibiotics.

<figcaption>This one time at band camp...</figcaption>
This one time at band camp…

Enjoy!

Admiral (Адмиралъ)

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Downton Abbey what?

For those who like their foreign films with a side of war footage and people sobbing in corsets, I highly recommend Admiral. Taking place during World War I and the October Revolution, and based on real events, Admiral details the tragic love story between the married Aleksandr Kolchak, and the lovely and equally married Russian poet Anna Timiryova. Comparisons to Dr. Zhivago are not without merit, so if you are looking for a romantic movie set against the backdrop of Russian history, and you need a good cry, put this in your YouTube queue. The film stars Konstantin Khabensky as Aleksandr (Night Watch, Day Watch) and Elizaveta Boyarkskaya as Anna. Andrey Kravchuk directs.

Brest Fortress (Брестская крепость)

I have seen Saving Private Ryan. I have seen Letters from Iwo Jima. I’ve seen Schindler’s List. I’m pretty solid on my Hollywood World War II epics. Hands down, Brest Fortress is one of the best World War II movies I have ever seen. This gem hails from Belarus, and details the early days of Operation Barbarossa, as told through the eyes of the orphaned Sasha Akimov.

Sasha and his brother are living at Brest Fortress in Belarus SSR, under the care of the 33rd Rifle Regiment of the Red Army. Sasha plays the euphonium in the regiment band, and nurses a crush on Anya Khizevatova, the daughter of the outpost leader Khizevatov. Sasha’s life centers around the fortress and its inhabitants, until one day in June of 1941, when the fortress comes under attack by the Wehrmacht and Lutfwaffe. The Nazi assault on the Soviet army and citizens is brutal and heart-wrenching, although the surviving Red Army forces manage to hold onto the fort for nine days. The resistance is led by Efim Moiseevich Fomin, who proudly declares to his German executioners that he is all the things they despise: a Red Army commissar, a Communist, and a Jew.

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“We are here to save you from the Bolsheviks and Jews. No, for real, you guys. You should totally surrender.&rdquo

Misfits/ Inadequate People (Неадекватные Люди)

Basically, this is a modern-day, less icky, comedic retelling of Lolita, and if anyone is entitled to do an update on Vladimir Nabokov’s cult classic, it is his compatriots.  Misfits is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve included it here for those who might have an outdated view of modern-day Russia.

Ilya Lyubimov stars as Vitaly, a thirtysomething who moves from a rural part of Russia to Moscow after his girlfriend is killed in a car accident. In Moscow, he develops a close, if odd, relationship with his sassy 17-year-old neighbor, Kristina, while having to stave off the advances of his vampy new boss.

Misfits was shot on a budget of about $100,000, raised by writer/director Roman Karimov. It’s a really great piece of independent Russian cinema (Wait! I thought there was no independent media in Russia! I’m confused!)

Olympus Inferno (Олимпиус Инферно)

Every time someone watches this movie, Victoria Nuland has to clap her hands really hard so that Mikhail Sakashvili doesn’t fall down dead.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty accused the film of “pushing the Kremlin’s line” on the Georgian conflict. By “pushing the Kremlin’s line,” they mean “what actually occurred.” Wired called it awesomely bad, but that’s only because Wired is used to made-for-TV movies that involve marine creature-themed weather events, or weird, inaccurate opi starring that one girl from Heroes.  

Of course, since Olympus Inferno aired on Russian television, it does take a sympathetic view of the Russian side of the conflict. However, if one does look into the actual facts behind the Georgian war, it is easy to see that, although there was tension mounting on both sides, Georgian forces were responsible for attacking South Ossetia.

The story follows Michael Orraya, an American entomologist who is studying butterflies, and a former classmate, a young Russian woman named Zhenya, who is working as a journalist. They develop a close relationship, but are caught up in the chaos of the Georgian war.

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“What can we do? The Georgian president only wants to live in gentrified neighborhoods, like Brooklyn.”

Russian Ark (Русский ковчег)

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I really like this movie. Granted, I am probably distracted by the fancy costumes.

A disembodied voice guides the viewer through the dream-like quality of Russian Ark. The narrator is in conversation with “the European,” symbolized by the Marquis de Custine, this super racist 18th century travel writer. His travelogue,  La Russie en 1839, decries the “backwardness” of the Russian Orthodox church, and the “Asian” overlay to the society and culture. (La Russie en 1839 was later published as an illustrated collection of bedtime stories for U.S. State Department employees.)

Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, we are taken on a tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the “ark” of Russian culture, with cameo appearances by Catherine II and Peter the Great. Gorgeous cinematography and high production values certainly helped this 2002 film win a nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Visions Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Russian Ark is also available on Netflix streaming, but for the poor unfortunates who do not have Netflix, and thus are also robbed of the Pussy Riot documentary, there is YouTube.

The Return (Возвращение)

Remember everyone in Hollywood falling all over themselves to praise Andrey Zvyagintsev for Leviathan because he bravely portrayed today’s Russia as a bleak and hopeless wasteland? Well, it actually turns out that bleak is sort of his oeuvre. Like Leviathan, The Return received widespread critical acclaim when it was released internationally in 2004. Although Hollywood acknowledged the film with a Golden Globe nomination, there was no obsequious praise for Zyvaginitsev’s earlier offering.

The plot centers on two boys, Andrei and Ivan, who are reunited with their father after his mysterious twelve-year absence. Their mother reluctantly allows the boys to go on a road trip with their father through the Russian wilderness, and the tension between Ivan and his father mounts to a tragic conclusion.

The Return is driven by the subtle, yet effective, performances by the film’s two young actors, Vladimir Garin (Andrei) and Ivan Dobronravov (Ivan). Desolately beautiful Russian landscapes add to Zyvangintsev’s gray-blue palette and the overall meditative quality of the piece.

Of course, there are many Russian films available on YouTube that I have not listed here. These are a few that I have seen and enjoyed, and I hope you enjoy them as well.

Remember, If you or a loved one is experiencing PRAT, don’t suffer in silence. There is help.

Unless you are a pyromaniac exhibitionist. In that case, there is probably a selfie with Hillary Clinton in your future.

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Irish Times poll lays bare pandemic’s impact on political landscape

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Sinn Féin is on top again, with its highest-ever rating in an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll of support for the parties. Our latest such poll shows Sinn Féin on 31 per cent (up three points), ahead of Fine Gael, which has slipped three points to 27 per cent.

Fianna Fáil remains some way adrift of Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, although it has closed the gap considerably in this June poll, jumping six points to 20 per cent. The Green Party (on 6 per cent) and Labour (on 3 per cent) are unchanged. Independents and smaller parties combined attract 13 per cent of the vote (down six points). Within this bloc are People Before Profit/Solidarity (on 2 per cent) and Social Democrats (on 2 per cent).

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Delta variant: Is Denmark heading for another Covid surge as seen in the UK?

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Cases involving the highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant are cropping up in Denmark with growing frequency, with at least five pupils testing positive at Grønnevang School in Hillerød near Copenhagen on Monday, and a nearby kindergarten also closed after one of the children’s parents tested positive. 

The Hillerød outbreak comes after a similar school cluster in Risskov near Aarhus, which saw one school class and one kindergarten temporarily sent home after two cases were identified. 

The variant, which was first identified in India, now makes up to 90 percent of cases in the UK, forcing the country to delay the so-called “England’s Freedom Day” on June 21st, keeping restrictions in place for another four weeks? 

So, is there a risk of a UK-style outbreak? 

Tyra Grove Krause, acting academic director at the Statens Serum Institute on Tuesday said it was crucial that Denmark health authorities and local municipalities put as much effort as possible into containing any outbreaks. 

“This is a variant that we are concerned about and that we really want to keep it down for as long as we can,” she said. “This is because, according to English authorities, it is up to 50 percent more contagious and possibly more serious than other variants.” 

In a statement last week, her agency said the delta variant was “worrying”. 

The Danish Patient Safety Authority on Tuesday called for all residents in the areas surrounding the schools and kindergarten in Hillerød to get tested, and said that the authorities were increasing test capacity in the area, and also putting out “test ambassadors” on the streets.  

So how is it going in Denmark right now? 

Pretty well.

Despite the lifting of most restrictions, the number of cases registered daily remains low, even if the 353 reported on Wednesday is above the recent trend of under 200 cases a day, the share of positive tests is also slightly up at 0.37 percent. 

Just 93 people are now being treated in hospital for coronavirus, the lowest since September 23rd last year.

And how’s it going in the UK? 

Not so good, but not terrible either. Overall case numberS remain low, but they are starting to climb again despite the UK’s impressive vaccination rate.

The worry is the Delta variant – first discovered in India – which now makes up 90 percent of new cases in the UK and which experts agree is around 40 percent more transmissible than other variants.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Witty told a press conference on Monday that cases are rising across the country.

It is concerns over this variant that has lead the British government to delay the latest phase of lockdown easing – initially scheduled for June 21st – for another four weeks.

So will Denmark follow the UK’s trend? 

Probably. Christian Wejse, an epidemiologist at Aarhus University, told The Local that he believes it is inevitable that the Delta variant will eventually become dominant in Denmark too. 

“If it’s true that delta variant is 50 percent or 70 percent more contagious than the B117 (Alpha or UK variant), then I think, in the long run, we’ll see that it takes over because that’s what more contagious viruses do.,” he said. “I think that’s also what the health authorities assume it’s going to happen.” 

How much of a problem would that be? 

Not necessarily too much of a problem, according to Wejse.

For a start, he predicts that the end of the school term and the good summer weather should stop the virus spreading too rapidly for the next two months or so, meaning it will take longer to take over than the British variant did. 

B117 came at a time where the epidemic was rolling in Denmark at a very high level, back in December and January. Now the epidemic is growing much, much slower. That means it’s probably going to take more time,” he said. 

And by the time it does take over, in September perhaps, vaccination levels should be high enough to blunt its impact. 

“I seriously think and hope that, that when we get to the next fall, we’ll be in a different situation. There will be small outbreaks, but not really any big time spread, like we had last fall.” 

“At least with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, there’s data indicating the difference in terms of protection [from the delta variant] is quite small. So, there will be very good protective effects of the vaccines, so I’m certainly confident that it will be much less of a problem when we have a high vaccination coverage, which I assume we will have when we get into September.” 



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