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28 of February '22

interview fromA&B 01/2022 issue

We talk about community with Dr. Agnieszka Labus, president of the Laboratory of Architecture 60+ (LAB 60+) - a foundation and also a studio that addresses the needs of an aging society. The organization carries out projects in the fields of urban policy, planning, as well as architecture, interiors and design. LAB 60+ assisted us [the BBGK Architects studio - editor's note] in the design process of the Warsaw Social District.

Barbara Grochal-Kiepuszewska, BBGK:How - as architects - could we incorporate the tools you use and your research on the aging population and community into our design process? What are the biggest challenges you face in participating in such design processes?

Agnieszka Labus: Our ambition is to participate in the process from the general to the detail in the implementation of a given project. As far as our activities in the foundation are concerned - for the time being this is not being achieved.

Turning to an example project. We created a report on the pre-project research we carried out for the purpose of identifying the preferences of potential users of the senior center. The purpose of this report was also to identify the needs of seniors themselves, the elderly who would inhabit this place, but also families and caregivers. This was the case when we were approached with such an inquiry by a developer who already had an architectural firm selected for this project. As part of this report, we conducted individual and group interviews, or so-called focus groups. The premise of the project was that we posed a hypothesis in qualitative research, and these were then verified, for example, by quantitative methods, through surveys, and vice versa. If we paid attention to any themes that appeared in the survey, we deepened them with individual and group interviews.

As far as methods and tools are concerned, workshops are also important, we conduct them repeatedly, and not only at the level of cooperation with municipalities, but also cooperation on a project, for example, a multi-generational house in Lodz. We co-designed in this project, with different methods, including design thinking, with different groups: the elderly, young people, families, people with disabilities. More than once we also show photos that demonstrate a certain character of the space, and future users can comment on this.

There is certainly a deficiency related to the fact that we often have to identify user profiles or groups in terms of lifestyle for future investment, and we can't work with the groups that will realistically live in the place. This malaise also stems from the fact that we were not able to participate in the process at the development stage. We were crammed into the process when we had to match profiles and user groups to apartments that had already been designed, but unfortunately, not quite according to the principles of universal design, not quite according to the design of these apartments for life.


For the convenience and integration of the community of residents, it is worth offering premises (community centers, clubs) and additional outdoor spaces (terraces, community gardens)

© BBGK Architects

: Does this mean that residents were matched with already existing apartments, so they did not participate in the design process? From one of your reports, it appeared that the community is created from the very beginning thanks to the participation of future residents. In such a situation, they participate in the entire process, starting with the concept, then site visits, ending with the programming of the space.

Agnes: The truth is that when we conducted the interviews, some of the people may have just applied to live there, so they were not sure if they would be residents of the house. This is a relatively small development, sixteen apartments.

My reflection on this project is this - I appreciate it very much and praise it very much, because first: the City decided to experiment, and second: this project really showed a process. We all learned from it that certain processes went a little too fast. Already at the stage of selecting the project there should have been consultation, if only with us, because we can assess the fit of a suitable building into the function of a multigenerational house. The location itself is already crucial. Not only because of spatial considerations related to access to transportation, location on a city scale or access to services.


number of apartments accessible from stairwells allows for the creation of neighborhood communities, and similarly, the appropriate scale and size of common spaces is important

© BBGK Architects

We developed amulti-generational house in Lodz using the German model, in which 450 such houses were built from a government program. Thanks to their function of being open to the community, they stabilize the neighborhood, but most importantly they are a place of residence, help and support, and meetings. They serve not only the residents of that house, but everyone in the neighborhood, in the area, who wants to integrate.

For such a form of residence to work you need an operator and someone to watch over the activation of a given community. And this is beyond the capabilities of an architect, although he can be a mediator, point out certain directions, for example, an operator.

Bartosz Swiniarski, BBGK
:For us, the problem with building a multigenerational community thought is that older people don't buy apartments because they already have them, especially in our system. Maybe some solution would be to get people to move to smaller apartments after their children move out?

Agnes: From my research experience, I know that older people mostly have large apartments and moving them to smaller ones seems like a bad idea. First of all, we shouldn't segment society by recognizing that the elderly have such and such needs and the young have such needs. We often categorize the elderly as statistically having more frequent psycho-physical dysfunctions, and this is certainly true, which is not to say that the young are devoid of these dysfunctions, whether temporarily or permanently. I would look at the lifestyles they lead. Some are homemakers, others are consumerists, others prefer a modern lifestyle, and it's not entirely age-related. Even earmarking buildings or apartments strictly for seniors as part of residential development is a shot in the foot.


An appropriate offer of activities proposed in common spaces allows to integrate the local community

© BBGK Architects

Of course, the idea of designing housing for life is as much as possible in line with what we as architects should be smuggling in and implementing. In answer to your question: I don't think the model solution is to recognize that all elderly people need to downsize and should move to micro-apartments. People are different and the offer of senior housing should be diversified. I also don't know whether this housing should be called senior housing or just housing towards old age. Housing for life, designed according to universal design standards, I think solves the problem.

: It is worth raising the problem of society's mentality here. For example, in cohousing in London, in High Barnet [cf. A&B 09/2021], ladies 60+ have sold their apartments and moved into a jointly designed development. From my point of view, there is simply a lack of an alternative and a sense that people are doing it, they are happy, they can be part of a community. We try in our projects to co-create such a community.

Agnieszka: Studies show that cohousing communities solve a lot of social and economic problems, because they guarantee a better quality of life, a better common space. We may have smaller apartments, but with shared space that provides what we need. Addressing loneliness and preserving independence for as long as possible, with pushing back the need to move to a nursing home is probably the ultimate goal from the individual's point of view, but also from the point of view of society as a whole because of the rising costs of social and medical care.


Leaving space for residents to carry out their own initiatives, to organize temporary events and various types of gatherings

© BBGK Architects

I had the opportunity to observe this investment process in London when I was an intern. Also that sense of community that these ladies developed. It was a very arduous process, it took seven years. The City of London also didn't really want to agree to give a plot of land on preferential terms, in a good location. The place is very charming, with close access to both the subway station and all basic services. Only by participating in every stage of the development, including the selection of the plot, working with the architect, are we able to design tailor-made solutions. The problem is how to design these spaces as flexibly as possible - with such customization.

Question from the floor
: What puzzles me is how to create a long-term social mix, we are aging, won't this diversity fade away? Are there solutions that can maintain this multi-generationality?

Agnieszka: Just programming an investment that will actually last for many years is very difficult. There are many methods. I don't know if you are familiar with the Sinus Milieu method. It comes from the commercial market, the product market, the media market from Germany. It defines the needs of society related to culture, life, daily life, products. In order to best design these spaces in terms of a forward-looking perspective, we need to stop thinking about segmenting society by age, and rather identify needs related to lifestyles, the spaces they require.

The very question of social mix, that is, how we can design this interface between outdoor and indoor spaces, understood as shared spaces, is inextricably linked to lifestyles. The mix will happen if we program the development well in terms of identifying needs. People need to feel comfortable in a place, to see that the architecture supports these relationships. It is necessary to combine these two worlds: the emotional and the rational, for this to be possible at all.


Appropriate landscaping gives a sense of security, without the need to put up fences and enclose neighborhoods

© BBGK Architects

I think that there is no clear answer to the question of how to tweak this social mix in the perspective of the future. Diagnosis and observation are important tools, and it is this that we lack: when investments are created, we forget to follow up and observe what happens to them. As a foundation, this is what we do accessibility audits for - on already built, completed investments - often even developer estates that were built a few years ago. It turns out that investments built in modern standards, however, do not meet these accessibility standards in many respects. We carry out such audits also as part of project documentation, when the facility has not yet been built.

Similar is the POE method, or post-occupancy evaluation, a study of a building or a given investment during use. These evaluations can show us what worked and what didn't, so that subsequent investments can be better forecast and planned.

Jan Sienkiewicz, BBGK
:In Poland, the housing stock built with public money is negligible. How to make a commercial developer start to see the elderly as customers, a target group, someone for whom it is worth designing housing estates, a building, or maybe part of a building? Is something like this likely to happen in Poland?

Agnieszka: First of all - buildings for the elderly in general is the wrong direction. I wouldn't urge developers to design 60+ estates. The best direction is a social, tenant mix - bringing together different groups that could coexist in such a housing estate, form a community.


Internal green areas and neighborhood paths, allow residents to comfortably use the space

© BBGK Architects

Most investors don't notice this topic at all, but there is a group of investors who see the potential and want to be first to market in a sense, because they see the potential from thethe fact that the elderly are by no means the poorest social group in Poland (we also have to realize this), and especially when we talk about the so-called young elderly, that is, the generation of 60-, 70-year-olds. It's just a certain stereotype and probably also newspaper headlines that provoke this way of thinking - that's first. Secondly, there is a cluster of older people who went to Germany in the 1980s, for example. Now investors want to attract them by creating luxury senior centers.

This is a niche topic for now. Awareness related to accessibility is growing, with the law that went into effect in 2019 on providing accessibility to people with special needs. Accessibility to public facilities has become a requirement. There will soon be a change in technical conditions and building laws related to adapting building spaces for people with special needs. Universal design will hopefully become a requirement and standard.

: Often in commercial projects we propose common spaces to promote integration, but we later encounter different reactions from investors. What makes such common spaces able to work? Are they just architectural aspects, or are they beyond, say, our capabilities as architects?

Agnieszka: As in the case of the Multigenerational House - the local operator is important. The person who will be in charge of organizing events in these spaces and co-determining with the residents what they really want. This is from the social side.

And on the architectural side - these spaces need to be designed as flexibly as possible, offering different ways of spending time. It could be cooking a meal together and meeting in a larger group, or another joint event and the need for a different arrangement of that space, and sometimes there is a need for a certain seclusion, an enclave where one wants to have a cup of coffee and talk with a neighbor or neighbors. This is the role of the architect - to create such a common space to feel good in it. Our research has shown that people don't like the designed common space as a dining room in the form of long tables. Rather, they prefer the café look, meaning separate tables and more clustered tables, which promotes relationships.


Clear division into public spaces, semi-public spaces for local residents and private spaces, creates a sense of security, belonging and responsibility for the space

© BBGK Architects

It seems to me that the most important thing is to profile and try as much as possible to adapt these investments to potential or future users. It's important to engage these groups in pre-design workshops. This element of programming is very much a bargaining chip that we can use to convince the investor, because we can draw useful conclusions about the needs of potential customers. We need to involve the investor to some degree at every stage, both programming and design guidelines. The worst thing we can do is to come up with something at the beginning and then, at the end, put it in front of the investor and ask him whether he is satisfied or not.

We all realize that design is the art of compromise. It is impossible to solve all needs and all spatial, social conflicts, but they can be reduced, eliminated.

Speaking of conflicts, one more important element came to my mind - the mediator (often present in cohousing groups). If some conflicts arise in a community and its members can't deal with it on their own, a mediator is needed, who will objectively look at solving the problem in question. We do not have such a model developed when it comes to communalism in Poland.

In the whole process, the mediator is also an architect, he can smuggle some ideas, show the investor what to do so that the investment works well. This goes beyond the strictly architectural dimension.

Barbara Grochal-Kiepuszewska

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