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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Twilight time for ‘hytte’ building

After years of massive hytte construction in Norway that fed a craving for holiday homes, the market has tumbled and authorities are reining in building permits. It’s mostly a result of supply and demand, but also rising concern over how large developments have scarred the landscape and destroyed nature.

Norwegian hytter come in all shapes and sizes, like here at Mylla north of Oslo, but they’ve become much bigger in recent years as part of major developments that sprawl over mountainsides. A recent building boom now seems to be over. PHOTO: Møst

Hundreds of thousands of Norwegians are currently spending their Easter holidays at their holiday homes known (in plural form) as hytter. They’re no longer simple rustic cabins in the mountains without electricity or indoor plumbing. Development of modern hytte projects containing hundreds of cabins perched relatively close together on what once were forested mountainsides took off after the Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994. Today there are nearly half-a-million hytter in Norway, a country of just 5.5 million people.

“Norwegians love being at their hytter,” wrote analysts at state statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway) in conjunction with its latest study on what became a major industry but is now falling on harder times. SSB reported last week that total sales of newly built hytter were 38 percent lower last year than in 2022. Sales of existing hytter were down 13 percent during the same period.

Hytte sales and prices boomed during the pandemic, when it suddenly wasn’t possible to travel abroad. New hytter also offer all the comforts of home, sometimes even moreso, and that contributed to high prices. SSB reports that half of those sold last year in Øyer (home to popular mountain ski resorts including Hafjell) cost more than NOK 5.1 million (around USD 500,000 even with today’s weak krone). Hytter along the coast of Southern Norway at Tvedestrand had a median price of NOK 5.5 million.

Now a combination of relatively high interest rates, inflation that’s hit household budgets and the ability to travel abroad again has hurt the market. “Sales of new hytter haven’t been lower since 2015,” said Dagfinn Sve of SSB. “We have to go back to early in the 2000s to find fewer sales of hytter on the open market than in 2023.”

Another factor is finally playing a role, much to the delight of environmental advocates. Recent studies have shown just how severely hytte developments have ravaged forests, altered landscapes, disturbed nature and brought light pollution that can bother wildlife. “The nighttime skies over Ørterhøgda (in the mountains at Gol) will never be dark again,” wrote commentator Lars West Johnsen in newspaper Dagsavisen last week, lamenting how the area around the small hytte his family has owned for generations has changed dramatically despite local protests.

Many local governments were more interested in the jobs and tax revenues that massive hytte building could bring, than in preserving nature. Post-war shortages that limited the size of hytter to just 40 square meters (around 400 square feet) were removed long ago but average hytte size remained at around 60 square meters until well into the 1980s. That all changed when Norway’s oil wealth spilled over more and more Norwegians, and also when industrialist Kjell Inge Røkke built a huge “hytte” complex at Oppdal and sent standards and possibilities through the roof. Even though his sprawling project was bashed by traditionalists, it changed the industry. Hytte sizes became as large, if not larger, than their buyers’ homes in the city.

Many small communities have allowed large hytte developments like this one in Lunner, because of the jobs and tax revenues they can provide. PHOTO: Berglund

The hytte paradoxes have been lining up,” wrote Johnsen. “The mountains we love are being scarred. Sustainability of the nature is being undermined.” At the same time, he admitted, hytte owners “can’t deny the same privilege to others.” Others including author Marit Beate Kasin have written that “our hytte dream has become nature’s nightmare.”

The state government recently proposed allowing local building authorities more freedom to build without meeting the same strict regulations found in cities, but also urging denser hytte building within already established subdivisions, instead of opening up more nature to more projects. The state also proposes that no new developments be built around marshes or above timberline. Newspaper Aftenposten was among those editorializing that the proposal doesn’t go far enough, because more building would still create a need for more roads, more infrastructure and more destruction of nature.

Hytte at Kvitfjell
Wide open areas like here near Kvitfjell in popular Gudbrandsdalen have been disappearing. PHOTO: Møst

Local politicians in Hol, a region home to such popular skiing destinations as Geilo and Ustaoset, are among those responding to calls for more control over hytte building. Newspaper Hallingdølen reported that a majority wants to remove 1,300 planned hytte building sites to help stop destruction of more nature. There are already more than 6,000 hytter in the area, and developers would still be allowed to build 3,300 more by 2036, but in areas where there already are hytter.

Many new hytte buyers don’t mind having their hytter right next to one another, and like the idea of after-ski culture at local pubs or cafés. While some want peace and quiet, buyers in the new development called Turufjell at Flå in Hallingdal realize that nearly 400 lots have been sold over the past six years, more hytter are being build and that can mean, as Aftenposten reported this week, they’ll have as many as 2,000 hytte neighours.

“Everyone who’s buying here knows there will be expansion,” Stig Paulsen, who owns two hytter at Turufjell, told Aftenposten. “Those who criticize hytte building in Norway are often those who already have hytter. They want to draw the ladder up after themselves.”

Others hope economic factors will continue to lower demand for hytter, keep sales low and restrict new hytte building. They’re comforted by SSB’s numbers showing how even though 9,500 hytter were sold last year, that’s 7,000 less than in 2021 (when the pandemic was at its peak) and 1,900 fewer than in 2022.

Norway’s weak currency, the krone, however, is giving rise to a new market: Buyers from abroad who think Norway has more stable winter conditions and can offer more snow for skiing than destinations in the alps. The weak krone is also yielding a highly favourable exchange rate against the euro and much stronger Danish kroner, with more sales reported recently to Danes, Germans and investors from Finland. Berglund



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