Skanska sent Project Engineer Brandon Quinlan to Sweden as part of Stretch, one of our global leadership development programs. Having left behind the soaring peaks of the Rocky Mountains for the islands and waterways of Stockholm, Brandon has joined Skanska’s Civil team in Sweden for one year to oversee the construction of the Landskapsbron “Landscape” Bridge. Here’s what Brandon had to say about his experience working and living in Skanska’s home city.
How is the Landscape Bridge similar or different to projects you worked on in the US? Are there any notable features that you find typically Swedish?
Even though this is not a typical project for me, working on the Landscape Bridge is not too dissimilar from the kinds of projects I may tackle when I go home. In Skanska’s Western operations, concrete work – especially bridges – are a big part of our business. So by coming to Sweden, I’m getting a chance to gain experience that will be directly applicable to my career in the U.S. Of course, bridges here have a very different design than what is commonly done in the U.S. In the U.S., government agencies have a specific set of designs and requirements that must be followed. In Sweden, all bridges are design-build. The Swedish government will have a rough plan and look in mind, but it is up to the contractor to design the actual aspects of the bridge. The government does regulate certain quality and design features, but on the whole the design is the contractor’s responsibility. This gives the contractor a lot more leeway– if they can come up with a more efficient design, a faster way to build, better resource allocation, or any other money-saving idea– they can do it! I’m excited to dig into this creative side of the construction process that wouldn’t be available in the States.
The Landscape Bridge project involves working on a contract with a Polish construction company, a first for Skanska in Sweden. This kind of contract is a product of the Eurozone. How is your work different in the Europe Union?
Obviously it is all new to me, but working with a Polish subcontractor is new for everyone involved with the project, so it is an opportunity we are all experiencing together. So far I have learned that the Polish work culture is more similar to American work culture than of Sweden’s. Poland, like the U.S., has a very busy work culture, whereas Sweden is very focused on the work-life balance. Here, when you need to work late for a day or during a certain week, the time is always made up later. You leave early or take a day off, so that you always achieve a 40-hour per week average.
All of Europe is getting increasingly competitive in the construction industry, and you see companies taking more risks and looking for other opportunities that wouldn’t have been pursued before. Some major prime contractors from other countries are starting to come into the Swedish market and can offer projects at a lower price. This is causing Skanska Sweden and other Swedish contractors to figure out new ways to lower their costs.
The Landscape Bridge
What are some of the Swedish construction methods you’ve learned and how do they differ from U.S. methods? Are there any methods you find especially cool or useful?
Many of the different Swedish construction methods are based off the government quality requirements and not as much on construction efficiency. One of the big differences is that instead of using plywood or large form panels as in the U.S., Sweden uses several thin planks. This causes the finish look of the concrete to have a very wood panel feel to it. It does look aesthetically nice, however there is much more wood that is needed in this technique. Not only does this cost a lot more, but produces a lot more waste and takes much longer to construct.
Let’s talk about life outside work. How are you finding Stockholm? What are some of the differences you’ve seen from Sweden to the U.S.?
The biggest difference between the U.S. and Sweden is the Swedish approach to life. There is a bigger push for work-life balance, apartments and houses are smaller, and there is a much better mass transit system. The grocery stores are much smaller, but there are a lot of them around. Instead of a large weekend shopping for your week, it is more common to pick up what you need for the next day or two. Restaurants and cafes have more relaxed seating, since you stop and sit for a long lunch or dinner rather than a quick stop or eating on the go. It is also common to get outside as much as possible, this was more apparent when I got here and the weather was gorgeous, not as common now that it’s cooled off. Sweden has more area of parks than most any other major city in the world; however, whenever I would visit a park, they would be jam packed with people enjoying the outdoors.
I don’t have a day-to-day car, only a project vehicle, and actually it would be more of a hassle to have a car in the city than using the mass transit. It takes me about 45 minutes to get to work using the train and bus and it would take me about 30 minutes to drive. However, the difficulty to find a parking space, paying every day, or trying to find a long-term garage spot, makes the 15 minutes seem like a breeze. I haven’t lived in a city with a really great mass transit system, so having the ability to get wherever you need, conveniently and quickly, is fantastic. It is one aspect I really love and will surely miss.
Are there any key Swedish phrases you’re learning that come in handy on the job or in life?
So far the most handy Swedish phrase I know is ‘Förlåt, Jag förstor inte svenska.’ which translates to ‘Sorry, I don’t understand Swedish.’ Everyone in Sweden is very good at English, especially in a social sense, so it makes it easy to get around and get what you need and meet people. The language barrier is a little more difficult to deal with at work. Since the English everyone learns is more conversational for social settings, the work topics aren’t as easily translated. Swedes are very open to talking English in a social environment, but it is much less common in the work place. Everyone is used to talking business in only Swedish. My current focus is to learn basic Swedish to try and help myself close this gap.
What have you been doing out of the office (other than learning Swedish)? Are there any typically Swedish activities you have tried?
I have been trying to get out and do many activities to keep busy. I have found groups of expats that meet up regularly to share experiences and meet new people. I love exploring all the different parts of the city during the day and night. They have their own unique feel! One nice trip I made was to the archipelago, which is the grouping of islands between Stockholm and the Baltic Sea. It was nice to walk around the islands enjoying the outdoors and watching all the boats on the water.
Any funny anecdotes to share as you adjust to Swedish life? Is there anything from the U.S. you particularly miss?
One thing that I miss and always took for granted in the U.S. was the ease and variety of material type items. In the U.S. it was so simple to just run to a store and have a huge selection of an item to choose from. Or even the simplicity of online shopping. In Sweden the options are more limited and it is not nearly as easy to get things shipped to you. I needed a new charger for my old laptop and I had to use Amazon UK or Amazon Germany and choose from shipping from UK, the U.S. or China. I checked and could have the charger including shipping for around $10 to my U.S. address, but was going to cost me $20 to my home in Sweden.
Brandon is assisting with Slammertorp bridge, pictured, with some of the big items such as the upcoming superstructure concrete pour.
What are you most looking forward to doing/seeing/learning over the course of your Stretch?
I am looking forward to learning more efficient processes. I would like to find new ideas that I can take back to my home district and implement on my future projects. I am starting off looking for big items, but will start focusing in on specifics that could really make a difference. Of course, I must be aware that something that works in Sweden won’t necessarily function in the U.S. This means I must not only take in everything I can in Sweden, but I have to keep thinking of the U.S. way of work as well.