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From a distance, the view is beautiful - with houses up to 70 square meters

24 of August '22

The text and interviews are from the 05/22 issue of Architecture & Business.

The year 2022 marks legislative changes within the framework of the Polish Order, which also includes the field of architecture. In connection with the Polish government's program in the field of construction, is the abbreviation for the adjective "nicely" adequate? In what categories would it be fairest to consider the new law on single-family houses up to 70 square meters and the accompanying competition for a model single-family house?

proj.: Szymon Pleszczak

proj.: Szymon Pleszczak

© Szymon Pleszczak

Improve the aesthetic quality of the Polish landscape, increase the harmony and order of space with individual buildings" - these are the objectives of the competition for the design of a model single-family house of up to 70 square meters, organized by the General Office of Construction Supervision, announced at the end of 2021. Using a sweeping generalization, it can be said that since the days of Filip Springer's first books on the condition of the Polish architectural landscape, all aesthetic sensitives, architects and historians have dreamed of the day when government decision-makers would place the plasticity of Polish reality in the orbit of their interests. In September 2021, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that the Polish Deal, the PiS government's flagship socio-economic program, would introduce the possibility of building small single-family houses without a building permit, without a construction manager and without a construction log - provided its area does not exceed 70 square meters. The amendments, like the entire Polish Order, were passed by the Sejm in a flash, and the new law took effect on January 3, 2022. On January 18, 2022, the results of the aforementioned competition were announced. The five-member jury included architect Adam Barylka (chairman), architect Piotr Wiss, Prof. Zbigniew Kledyński, Prof. Jerzy Obolewicz and Tomasz Saciłowski. The function of reserve judges was assigned to Radoslaw Sekunda, Wieslaw Leszek Baranowicz and architect Adam Popielewski. The winners received cash prizes in the amount of PLN 5,000 and were invited to negotiate a sole-source contract for construction projects. The projects developed on the basis of the competition works will be made available to investors free of charge in the second quarter of 2022 for use in meeting their own housing needs (there is a provision in the new law requiring construction for one's own needs under threat of criminal liability).

proj. KGA Konrad Garbowski

proj. KGA Konrad Garbowski

© KGA Konrad Garbowski

On paper and in theory, all these assumptions look nice and optimistic. But like in the film by Anka and Wilhelm Sasnal, the title of which is also the title of this article, a zoom in on the details of the new law and the results of the competition reveals the incompleteness and risks of the new construction reality. Among the most important issues, for example, is the awkwardness - from an environmental point of view - of the whole situation, in which architects are invited to the competition, knowing that their designs are later to be available for free, in a situation in which the market for commercial single-family houses is doing really well. Another issue is the lack of oversight of the effects of construction - there are no guarantees and no tools to inspect whether new single-family homes will be safe and durable, let alone environmentally friendly. In light of these two serious topics, aesthetic issues should be decided at the very end. Looking through the winning designs, one has the impression that they are clones of one and the same module: a block bearing a gabled roof. Of course, there are exceptions to this pattern, but it is difficult to look for candidates for a "new style" national. But maybe it's scaled-up expectations? Maybe correct proportions, harmonious masses and good-quality materials will suffice for sufficiently good aesthetics of the Polish architectural landscape? Unfortunately, there will also be a problem with the latter.... To better understand the context, nature and implications of the competition, we asked Dorota Cabanska, acting Chief Inspector of Construction Supervision, and Jerzy Grochulski of the Faculty of Architecture at Warsaw University of Technology, former acting president of SARP, for comment.

proj.: ARCH-STUDIO Pracownia Projektowa

proj.: ARCH-STUDIO Pracownia Projektowa

© ARCH-STUDIO Pracownia Projektowa


Interview with Dorota Cabanska, Acting Chief Inspector of Construction Supervision

Ania Diduch:Was one of the ambitions of the competition to identify a new, fresh typology of the Polish family home?

Dorota Cabanska:The primary goal of the competition was to select projects with high architectural and functional, ecological, economical and aesthetic qualities, which will be made available to all interested parties for use in meeting their own housing needs.

The competition provided an opportunity for the widespread appearance of the best, accessible and universal architectural solutions. In the long term, the selected projects have a chance to raise the aesthetic quality of the Polish landscape, increase the harmony and order of space with individual buildings.

Ania: Are there legal regulations that say that when building such a house, you have to choose from the competition catalog, or is it just a proposal, and ultimately the house can look any way you want, as long as it does not exceed the maximum area?

Dorota: The legislator did not link the new legislation to the necessity of using competition designs when building one's own four corners. This is an additional possibility, left to the investor's choice. The projects will be free, so they are an attractive alternative to market projects.

Dorota Cabanska

Dorota Cabanska

© Dorota Cabanska

Ania: Looking through the winning houses on the competition website, I found it hard to resist the impression that they are simply the same.... They are variations on a certain stereotype. How should this state of affairs be understood?

Dorota: The winning designs reflect the latest directions and trends in the market. This means simplicity, economy of form and solids. However, I think we have here solutions that are quite varied in style: modern and traditional, with flat and sloping roofs, large and smaller glazing. Of course, they reflect trends in the catalog home market, but this can be taken as an asset. These types of buildings have been very popular among investors in the construction market for a long time.

Ania: What was the biggest surprise about the submitted competition entries?

Dorota: The biggest surprise was the great variety of works submitted, as well as their high level. If there had been twice as many works, we would have had quite a problem choosing the best ones.

proj.: SLZ Pracownia Projektowa architect Slawomir Lazewski

proj.: SLZ Pracownia Projektowa architect Sławomir Łażewski

© SLZ Pracownia Projektowa architect Sławomir Łażewski

Ania: How many applications were received in the first stage?

Dorota: Forty-nine participants were selected in the first stage and invited to submit competition works.

Ania: Which eco-friendly solutions were the most common, and which turned out to be a pleasant, innovative surprise?

Dorota: The most obvious ideas, and thus the most high-tech and expensive, were solar panels and heat pumps. A pleasant surprise, on the other hand, were ideas that didn't require a lot of money, but showed some sensitivity on the part of the designers, such as rainwater tanks, composters and spaces designated in the site plan for vegetable gardens.

Interview with Jerzy Grochulski, Faculty of Architecture, Warsaw University of Technology and former acting president of SARP.

Ania Diduch:Will this competition be a caesura for the history of Polish architecture?

Jerzy Grochulski:Absolutely not. This competition is an event that, I have the impression, many architects have already forgotten that it took place at all. The significance of this competition for the architectural creative community was not great. It was certainly perceived differently from the point of view of the organizer, that is, government structures in general, which cared about a very populist treatment of the problem. For private investors it is noticeable on a national scale, the inefficiency of architectural and construction regulations and the related time-consuming procedures for issuing building permits cause these investors to be critical of administrative problems and the time it takes to carry out an investment.

Ania: In view of this, there could be no competition, and the procedure, in any case, should be simplified?

Jerzy Grochulski:The question posed in this way needs to be accompanied by a broader commentary on what the building permit procedure is and what single-family housing in Poland is. From the point of view of the quality of space, or the way it is developed, outside of cities, single-family housing essentially determines the quality of our landscape. Poland is beautiful in terms of terrain and nature, but this assessment does not necessarily apply to architectural creations set in such a context. The ugliness of architecture is often manifested in the search for new forms of single-family housing, which in my opinion is a reflection of our national trait, which can be reduced to the statement "I will be different from my neighbor." Usually there is not enough basis for this. In connection with the decision to build a house, searches take place among individual investors for such forms, which are unprecedented in the neighborhood. Because of this, the coherence of the space is greatly disturbed, as the ability of the average individual investor to conform to the rules of zoning is very limited. This is also compounded by the whole complex problem of property divisions. We have a very peculiar way of coming to land ownership in Poland: in the not-so-distant past, relatively narrow patches of farmland, including parts of those fields that were usually adjacent to street-designed rural developments, were subdivided, most often as a result of inheritances and other uncontrolled circumstances. This has resulted in narrow, long plots of land for individual developments. Sometimes this is charming, while the spatial problem is real and serious. For slightly larger developments, even those for individual construction, the building permit, which limited the actual possibility of starting the development, was not easy to obtain and involved the submission of a construction project. Let's remember that its acquisition represents, at the beginning of the investment process, the first cost, reluctantly and disapprovingly seen by investors. Many bidders in the market have catalogs of single-family houses and the designs drawn from them are generally not very expensive. This in relation to the fact that for an individual investor the first expense is the purchase of a project, and it is natural that he wants to avoid this expense or reduce it to a minimum, he often resigns from ordering the development of an individual project, opting instead to purchase a "house from a catalog" design. It also often turns out that the design is one thing and the implementation is another - many individual adaptations of repetitive, so-called typical designs are created, again with the idea of being different and original. Poland lacks a construction police that could effectively counter this kind of arbitrary action, so architectural oddities are created. These better catalog houses or individually commissioned designs usually just cost more.

Jerzy Grochulski

Jerzy Grochulski

© Jerzy Grochulski

Ania: And the competition for a model house that can be built without a building permit was supposed to be a good inspiration and antidote to this situation....

Jerzy Grochulski:It was addressed to - outside the architectural community - the individual, "out-of-town" investor. In the footnotes, it should be added that it was probably aimed at investors of that part of the electorate, who, receiving a gift of a cheap house, will feel motivated to certain electoral behavior. This populist gesture was, in my opinion, fraught with a problem that, from the perspective of a contemporary view of architectural or investment issues, is greater. Namely, a building that has a first floor plan of 70 square meters with exterior walls counting in outline, means that the building has a dimension of, for example, 7 by 10 meters. From the point of view of energy conservation and the modern view of conservation of natural resources in architecture, such a planned building volume simply consumes too much operational energy.

Ania: So maybe it's not the competition itself that is the problem, but - again - the poorly constructed law, which does not regulate precisely how to build without a building permit.

Jerzy Grochulski:I see another danger here. Admittedly, the animators of the competition declared that the buildings that will be built as a result of this competition will have to be subject to the provisions of local zoning plans, but here again one should look more broadly - how many such plans do we actually have functioning in the country, especially for non-urban areas. From this it follows that these houses, if any, should be built on the basis of a GM. The truth is, especially when the investment is not the most important for the municipality, that the official will be persuaded, for example, by his neighbor, that he should agree to the parameters of the building resulting from the winning design, even though they may not necessarily realize the principle of orderly spatial continuity of the location. On top of all this, there is still the acquiescence of the manner of implementation of such projects, which is the result of the right announced in the terms of the competition - the possibility of erecting this building by economic means. Confronted with a fairly common mentality of "because my brother-in-law and I can build it", it can result in the introduction of uncontrolled material solutions and unauthorized replacement solutions during implementation.

Ania: The new law regulates that houses up to 70 square meters without a building permit should be selected from a catalog of competition designs or other commercially available designs?

Jerzy Grochulski:No. In the case of these projects, it is no longer necessary to submit additional design documentation, and this, as I mentioned, is a big saving for individual investors, which will be felt all the more strongly in connection with today's inflation. Therefore, it is quite likely that these projects will be chosen as the cheapest on the market, because, after all, "with my brother-in-law we will implement them anyway." I'm not saying that the idea of cheap and repetitive construction is meaningless, similar initiatives have appeared before, in the interwar period, and were implemented successfully. Nowadays, such solutions are also being reached abroad. A condition for the success of such an action would also be to verify the legal system under which these buildings can be built. I have mentioned the image side of the new law, but there is a fundamental problem concerning the safety of use of such a facility. A project carried out economically, without the full supervision of professionals, may be associated with the fact that, firstly, these facilities will not be sustainable, and secondly, safe. In addition, we have significant climate change, which is already being felt in Poland. Every month in the media we hear news of broken roofs, toppled walls of single-family buildings. In view of this, what will happen to those new buildings that do not have the care of professionals during their erection?

proj.: MILO7 Design Studio Miłosz Paweł Stachera

proj.: MILO7 Design Studio Miłosz Paweł Stachera

© Pracownia Projektowa MILO7 Miłosz Paweł Stachera

Ania: In that case, in the sphere of pro-environmental solutions themselves within the projects that won the competition, have there been solutions worth noting?

Jerzy Grochulski:As I mentioned, unfortunately, the sheer size of the building does not augur well for pro-environmental solutions, especially seeing them from the perspective of the inevitable increased level of energy losses as a result of the building's "bulk". There were references to pro-environmental solutions in many of the competition designs, but let's remember that at the level of the competition there is no detailing that authorizes the statement that something radically good has been proposed. If we are talking about solutions that are already almost standard, such as photovoltaic panels, heat pumps or window and door joinery with improved energy performance, thenas long as there is no absolute control over whether the carpentry will actually be exactly as envisioned by the author of the project, or whether the parameters of the technological solutions will be in accordance with the design assumptions, there is no certainty of what will be in the building, so not much of the pro-environmental assumptions come out. Let's also juxtapose these assumptions with reality: suppose the project includes photovoltaic panels on the roof. If the local development plan, if there is one, says that the development should be parallel to the street line, and the street line does not give the exposure expected in the design - then there is nothing to talk about the effectiveness of environmental assumptions.

Ania: This is a very pessimistic vision and a real threat. Aesthetic issues - and looking through the winning designs one has the impression of seeing the same house over and over again in successive variants - should be considered in the third plan.

Jerzy Grochulski:I think that both the competition and the law behind it were conducted too quickly and hastily, without taking into account certain parameters of the formal and economic reality around us. We are in a reality where changes in formal regulations are made without due reflection. As to their idea, they may be right, but if there is no proper environmental discussion - in this case with the building and architectural community - the results may be... haphazard. I'm not saying that everyone will break the law and build dangerously, but the regulations introduced in connection with the competition create many opportunities for this and create uncertainty about the effectiveness of the whole project.

proj.: Pracownia ARCHITEKTURY - Dobry projekt, Kordian Koziel

proj.: Pracownia ARCHITEKTURY - Dobry projekt, Kordian Koziel

© Pracownia ARCHITEKTURY - Dobry projekt, Kordian Koziel

interviewed: Anna Diduch

Illustrations courtesy of the contest organizer.

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