In honor of the International Women in Engineering Day, REHVA wanted to share this interview of Torun Widström. In May 2024, Widström was awarded the REHVA Fellowship for her continuous work and support in REHVA activities.

Architect, researcher, teacher, with a PhD in building technology, Torun Widström also had her own architecture bureau for more than 20 years before getting back to the academia and being re-trained in the engineering field.

Personal Experience

When did you first become interested in the built environment?

When I was about 7 – 8 years old, my family wanted me to exercise reading English, and gave me some English books with fairy tales. They were boring. My dad’s issues of Scientific American were a lot more exciting! There I read about black holes, about how to estimate the distance to stars, about the movements of the tectonic plates and yes, also about the greenhouse effect. And with the naivety of the child I was, I set out to solve the problem of that last one. I designed railroads with trains on magnets to reduce friction, and sustainable villages with solar and wave power. That was my first encounter with sustainability of built environment.

From your perspective, how has the engineering practice evolved since you started in 1988?

When I started out as an architect, in 1988, sustainable building was something for kooks – it wasn’t anything for normal people, and the building business certainly wasn’t interested. Around 2002, when I started doing some energy counselling as well through my business, the customers were satisfied with 4 – 5% savings, and when I told them that there was so much more they could do and save, they couldn’t understand why. What did sustainability have to do with their building? Wasn’t that something others could bother about? In contrast, a couple of years ago when I led a sustainability workshop for one of the larger housing companies in Sweden, there were 50 participants and out of them only 4 did not work with sustainability in one way or another. All the others did. One can say it is about time, but at the same time, it is very promising that the focus on sustainability has shifted so much, it is now a task that we share, and only by doing that can we actually change things. So the development – though it is very late – is really moving in the right direction!

Do you perceive differences regarding women presence in STEM fields between the private and public sector?


You learn that you have to have something substantial to contribute with, something which can’t be ignored, if you want to be taken seriously in that kind of context.

I think it is a mistake that many younger women do today, though, when they try to be “good” or “better” than their male co-workers – the focus should be on the work and your contribution to it, not on yourself and how you are being perceived. Otherwise it is very easy to get into overdoing things – and often the wrong things – in order to look good, and exhausting yourself in the process. An unhealthy dose of prestige-fixation and looking-good is otherwise one of the less advantageous hallmarks of a male dominated environment – it doesn’t help if women get into that as well. But ok, like many women who choose a male-dominated field of work, I don’t have a very typically female way of thinking – I’m a lot more task-oriented than people-pleasing, and more focused on results than on people’s feelings, at least if those feelings are about pride and prestige…

The engineering business in the private sector today I think is a lot more open to women than it used to be, but let’s admit it, though it might be changing, the building business as such is still pretty much a male world, especially if you get out on the construction sites.

As a researcher you are very active in many fields, what line of research/work you enjoy the most? Why?

Well, as might have been obvious from the answers above, I’m an omnivore and appreciate being able to maintain an holistic view, since I believe that that is what is necessary to make an actual difference in real life. Hence I thrive when I can reach over many aspects at once. That being said, the ones I work with still all relate to the same thing: sustainability in the built environment. They are just different angles of it. Building simulation is an amazing tool to achieve desired indoor climates with maximum sustainability, and creating desired indoor climates – for people and their endeavours – is what building is about. So I don’t have any preferences as far as that goes. But I also enjoy teaching, sharing both my own knowledge and curiosity with my students, and their journey and development when they get new insights and skills, and start to shape their future lives. That is a privilege to be part of. And I think that I would lose my way and balance in life if I didn’t spend time in nature, do my art and sing as well – life needs balance, and nature, art and music has a good way of bringing out the non-intellectual values, as a complement to the intellectual work of doing science.


You recently received the Fellowship by REHVA on account of consistent contribution to REHVA. How do you fee this recognizes your work?

I’m seriously really, really honoured, and I hope to be able to contribute a lot more in the future! The work with REHVA has given me yet another angle to creating a future together – there are so many great minds and such a lot of knowledge and expertise gathered in REHVA, that the opportunities to make a contribution to the development of a sustainable future are mind-blowing.

From your perspective, what is the added value that international federations like REHVA bring to the building service engineering field?

In the beginning of my PhD-student time I was involved in an EU-project, Climate for Culture, and it was amazing to meet people from all over Europe who were all working towards the same goal, from their different vantage points. I see something of the same in REHVA, only more continuous, and even more able to make an actual difference. Exchanging ideas and experiences gives the possibility to find new, more efficient paths towards a better future, and the awareness of the work with these questions on EU-level is crucial. The gathering of people from all over the continent who can do this together is what a federation such as REHVA contributes with, and this makes REHVA really important for the development of the building service field towards a sustainable future. And after all, we do know that the future of sustainability – at least in the built environment – is mainly in the hands of the building service engineers, right?

Major topics in our field

The built environment is facing many challenges, being climate change among the most urgent ones. How do you see the building stock changing in the next decades?

As the EPBD has been pointing out for some time: We will never reach a level of climate impact that can mitigate the climate change issue by only building climate neutral new buildings – it is not sustainable to exchange the existing building stock to the extent that that would require. We are going to have to renovate and retrofit the existing building stock, and we are going to have to do it methodically and efficiently. I’d like to see a future where the cultural values and the lessons from the past can be preserved and accessible to us as community, while the built environment is also climate neutral and non-destructive, and allowing for healthy people, eco systems and biodiversity. Worth to mention in that context, I think that it is a bit presumptuous to build with respect for people only – I’d say we need to build, renovate and manage our built environment in such a way that not only future generations of humans can thrive, but also so that other species get to keep their natural habitats, and can thrive as well. I think that bioclimatic adaptation, increased flexibility and climate resilience and efficient, demand-controlled building services are going to be necessary and prevalent in the built environment of the future. I also hope that people in general are going to be more aware of their impact on the environment, and will take more interest in how the buildings the utilize are functioning. With a new, more environment-aware generation being the users of that future building stock, I think that it will be the case!

The EPBD recast was recently published. What do you think about it?

I think that the recasted EPBD is a good step in the right direction, especially the parts that are getting more concrete, and putting numbers on what should be achieved. There is of course always a risk that the different countries, when faced with the task of implementing this in their own contexts, are going to try to find ways around the demands – or at least make their effect have a minimized financial impact. After all, a prominent mitigation of the climate impact of the built environment does cost quite a lot of money, and that aspect of the work is rarely popular. Saving money in the operation of the buildings is, but investing a lot to get there not so much. I know that in Sweden the authorities are looking into revising the energy performance criteria, reducing the amount that ends up in low categories, thereby easing the requirements of their performance. The present definition already contains a geographic factor, which is decided on locally and hence makes the comparison over the country and in relation to other countries less transparent as far as the classification goes. It makes sense that the demands on energy performance take differences in ambient conditions into account, but a fluidity in the classification does make an overview more complicated, and thus also complicates how to measure general progress.

I’m not a fan of rules being forced upon the member states from above, and find the EU often being too meddlesome and bureaucratic in rules that are being enforced. But there are areas where there is a need for firm central governance – the climate issue, the impact of the built environment and the state of the forest management in parts of Europe (such as in Sweden) are such areas, in my mind. Personally I hence would have liked to see the EPBD being more direct and forceful, but don’t we all? The fact that the revision process always will be a result of intense negotiations, will make it take time and many revisions for the manifestation of more forceful expressions to be possible! It is still good that the work progresses, and that new and necessary steps are taken.

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