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Developer is out to make money, not save the world

29 of March '22

Interview with Agata Twardoch - architect and professor at Silesian University of Technology - from issue 03/2022.

Living in a block of apartments is the result of a complex balance of forces, opportunities, responsibilities and policies. What is allowed and what is not allowed. Public and private interests. Needs, though variously understood. The provisions of the law. Good taste. Polish housing development is not doing well, although it seems to know what to do to heal it. Katarzyna Jagodzinska talks to Agata Twardoch about the challenges of housing construction through the prism of developer responsibility.

Katarzyna Jagodzinska: What should characterize a developer's responsible approach to housing construction?

Agata Twardoch: In the context of residential construction, responsibility consists of two issues: social and spatial. On the social issue, developers have less room for maneuver, and responsibility in this field requires a very high level of awareness and even sociality. This was the case with patronage development more than a century ago. Can we count on such social commitment in the 21st century? I doubt it. Therefore, I would rather put the responsibility for social issues such as affordability, inclusiveness and social mix on the shoulders of public entities. However, on the spatial issue of development quality, the developer is able to prioritize its investment in such a way that, on the one hand, it achieves its main goal of making money - because rememberthat the developer* is an entrepreneur first, he doesn't build to fix the world, he builds to make money - and on the other hand to do it elegantly. It is possible to find a golden mean, a point where the developer will make money and residents will get a good space. It's a question of responsibility, however, which comes from education - and of developers, and of society as a whole.

Do we have ways to demand social and spatial responsibility from developers that go beyond compliance with existing laws? This is a moral question. I, for one, believe that we should expect it from every person. Every activity, every job should be done decently, without harming others, with respect for natural resources and concern for workers. I mean corporate social responsibility in a paradigm where housing is a commodity like any other. In my view, however, housing is more than a mere commodity, and therefore the role of public entities, which should uphold the public interest and create such a legal framework that the quality of space and the quality of life of residents do not depend only on the propriety of the developer, must be considered crucial.

Catherine: Many developers I talk to, and I don't mean pat-developers, but developers who erect ordinary blocks of apartments or terraced housing, quite aesthetically pleasing, believe that the opinion of them is unfair, that they care about providing good quality housing, but they also have to - running a business - make money on these ventures. Here the question arises, does a developer automatically have bad intentions?

Agata: I'm not a fan of the term pat-developer, because everything is relative. An apartment that for one household will be pathologically inconvenient, making life difficult, for someone else may be very good. Maybe someone just happens to need twelve square meters, because that's his lifestyle, or an apartment with one window, because he works mostly at night. In the city, it is not possible for all space to be model. Sometimes compromises are needed. In contrast, such non-standard space becomes a problem when it ceases to be a choice. When we are forced to live in an apartment that is not tailored to our needs. As architects, we are fascinated by atypical apartments, built in water towers, shopping malls or in gaps between buildings, such as the 90 centimeter wide Keret House in Warsaw (designed by Jakub Szczęsny). The mere fact that such a space was able to be used is gratifying. So if the idea is to be able to catch up with the city and adapt the space in an alternative way, this is a super solution. However, if one were to force someone to live in such a place, it would be a nightmare and a classic example of patodevelopment. Path-developmentism is separated from a creative approach to space by the issue of choice, and that choice is related to accessibility. If we have a choice between an odd or small apartment and a traditional one, and if we choose the former, that's great - it means that we needed such a space. But we can't be forced into it.

Dom kereta wewnątrz (proj. Jakub Szczęsny).

Keret house

Photo: Bartek Warzecha, © Polish Modern Art Foundation

An undeniable plus is that the discussion around pat-development has brought to the public's attention things that people outside the architectural bubble used to pay no attention to. The term pat-development is very catchy, but at the same time it is a big oversimplification, and this is one of those cases where the main advantage is by the way the biggest disadvantage. The problem, for example, is that all spatial absurdities are lumped together, yet their cause and, at the same time, how they could be changed, are very different. Some of them, for example, are due to non-meritorious issues - stupid regulations, infrastructure conditions, bureaucratic complexities or the shape of the plot. These are things over which neither the architect nor the developer has any control.

These problems are related to the lack of strong urban planning and well established priorities. If investments are made, as in the West, in a model way, that is, first there is a study of housing needs and investment opportunities throughout the region, then, preferably through a competition, a master plan is developed, on the basis of it a local plan is created.its basis, a local plan is created, further land is consolidated and reparcelled, and only these lands together with specific guidelines are sold or leased to developers - all the elements fit together and together create a sustainable neighborhood. And the way it is with us at the moment is that we have earmarked all available land for development at once, where you can build in any layout and in any order. And now everyone builds where they happen to have managed to buy a plot from a farmer. Under these conditions, it is really difficult to get a good space: even the most beautiful houses in a patch of land will functionally always be pat-development. To prevent this from happening, the developer would have to buy up the land himself, consolidate it and reparcel it. This is doable only by big companies, with large investments. This is more or less what happened in the case of the construction of Miasteczko Wilanów. But here, too, there is doubt about whether we really want to put all the planning into private hands.

Etgar Keret w Domu Kereta

Etgar Keret at the Keret House

Photo: Bartek Warzecha, © Polish Modern Art Foundation

Katarzyna: You have outlined which way the change should go, now the question is how to do it? What can bring about the development of residential architecture? The tool for change - from the government's perspective - is supposed to be, for example, making it easier to build houses up to 70 square meters without a permit. Do you have a prescription?

continued conversation on next page

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