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Let's praise the best! Joanna Erbel is interviewed by Katarzyna Mikulska

02 of May '22

interview from A&B issue 03 | 2022

Non-functional apartments, fenced-off neighborhoods or lack of infrastructure - these are problems of housing projects that we know well from everyday experience. But is this the whole truth about modern real estate development? Fortunately, no. Katarzyna Mikulska talks to Joanna Erbel about initiatives to improve the quality of life in settlements and about good examples of residential investments.

Katarzyna Mikulska: Do responsible developers exist, or is such a term an oxymoron?

Joanna Erbel:Of course they do exist. The developer market is very diverse. There are projects that can be said to take advantage of all legal possibilities to stuff as much usable residential space as possible, this is called pumization. There are also developers who are increasingly talking about social aspects. These changes can be seen in recent years. The Polish Association of Real Estate Developers, before the pandemic, on the initiative of Konrad Plochocki, launched a project called Eco Avengers. Outside experts on sustainable development, sustainable construction and social issues were invited. The resulting guidebook is "Eco Avengers. From developer to eco-hero - or how to save the world and not go bankrupt," which showed that with very small, simple solutions you can make housing developments more environmentally friendly. One of the proposed solutions was sowing white clover instead of regular lawns. The assumptions of the guide were presented at the PZFD congress in Wroclaw, and the clover became the subject of behind-the-scenes jokes by an older generation of "business sharks" as an idea that was frivolous and out of step with the stature of an elegant investment. Then came the pandemic and we began to appreciate biodiversity close to home. We saw that climate issues are very important. Now planting flower meadows and perennials is a matter of course. The next step was the creation of the largest insect house by the PZFD last May. Elements of the structure were then sent to housing estates across the country to increase their biodiversity. These are small gestures, but significant, because they stimulate our imagination and show that nature is an important part of the city.

Eco Avengers. From developer to eco-hero - or how to save the world and not go bankrupt.
An eco-guide for developers provides tips on how to prepare a greener development.

© Polski Związek Firm Deweloperskich

Catherine: Pandemic has definitely changed the perception of the places where we live.

Joanna: There was also another initiative during the pandemic. A "Green House" certificate was created by the Polish Green Building Association (PLGBC). It began to certify residential buildings for their environmental and pro-social solutions. This is an initiative, the need for which was voiced by the market, the Polish answer to LEED and BREAM certificates, which are very popular in office investments or public buildings. Except that instead of being about comfort in the workplace, "Green Home" talks about comfort in the home. I am very much rooting for this initiative. To me, it is interesting because it fits in with contemporary guidelines popular as Kate Raworth's "economics of the rim," which assumes that when thinking about development, we should find a compromise between social needs and environmental buoyancy. There is a long way to go, because there is a shortage of affordable housing, but fortunately the market is already beginning to notice ecology and issues such as mental well-being.

Katarzyna: These are important aspects. Have there been other projects of this type?

Joanna: Yes, for the City of Warsaw during the term of Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, we prepared a document in 2018 called the Warsaw Housing Standard. It was a set of guidelines that were to be obligatorily applied to the construction of new buildings and the renovation of existing ones - by city companies, such as TBS and Property Management Boards. The WSM for developers was to be optional. However, we wanted to encourage the market by creating clear guidelines. The concept was that the city says what kind of buildings it wants to have, that is, what pro-environmental and pro-social guidelines a newly designed building should meet, and the developer who meets them saves time on reconciliations. Our dream was to have two paths for processing applications at the office: one for projects that meet the guidelines of the Warsaw Housing Standard, and another, the standard one, when the official has to check all aspects of the project. We wanted investors who propose pro-social architecture to have the bonus of a fast track. Fast, that is, in line with official deadlines, but not exceeding them (as is often the case now, when the investor has to repeatedly bring in further expert reports or opinions).

Katarzyna: What was the market response regarding this initiative?

Joanna: We consulted the project with the development community, and at the beginning there were skeptical voices. We were accused that investments would be 30 percent more expensive, although no one had calculated this. However, there were those who said they needed clear guidelines, transparent rules for obtaining building permits or development conditions. They wanted the city to say straightforwardly what it expected, as this would make the investment process predictable. Unfortunately, the story of the Warsaw Housing Standard is a sad one, because President Trzaskowski did not address it. Even though one of the elements of our climate civic panel was to create city guidelines for sustainable building. However, the knowledge we began to accumulate in a cross-sectoral team about solutions related to biophilic design, to taking care of residents' mental health, accessibility for people with disabilities - was reflected just in the aforementioned "Green House" certification.

Catherine: More and more developments, including residential, have this type of certification. Often it is also part of the marketing strategy. What does this look like at the design stage?

Joanna: There is nothing wrong with investors boasting about progressive solutions. This sets new trends. After all, it's better if the quality of an investment is demonstrated by the presence of greenery, not by the number of available parking spaces and overpriced finishes. It also shows that while we would expect local governments to lead the way, in some areas the market will do it.

In Western countries, it is often the case that it is the city (or state) authorities that prototype certain solutions within state structures, and this is reflected in the market. In Poland, unfortunately, it looks different - offices follow what the market does. For me, a symptomatic example is the story of the Warsaw Social District, which was to be built on one of the city lots, owned by the municipal company MPRI. Together with Tom Andryszczyk and Wojtek Kotecki in 2016, we wanted to encourage the city to develop a sustainable housing development project there. We succeeded in not selling the plot. A concept commissioned by the Office of Architecture and Urban Planning was created. And the project fell through due to so-called objective external factors, i.e. problems with the land. But at the same time, I have a feeling that no one in the office wanted to look for some solution to implement this project. For example, in the form of a temporary modular prefabricated development, which can then be moved to another plot of land. This is how they are already building in the West.

Warsaw Social District - a concept for a neighborhood based on small neighborhoods, developed by BBGK Architekci

© BBGK Architekci

Katarzyna: What happened to this idea?

Joanna: The Warsaw Social District project, like the Warsaw Housing Standard, migrated to the market. The BBGK studio used the knowledge that resulted from the discussion in a wide group and prepared a project for Echo Investment. It is the Sluzewiec Project (current name "Modern Mokotow"). It will be built on the site of the former Empark office complex in Warsaw, opposite Galeria Mokotów. The project will include a linear park, a school and first floor services. It will be a comprehensive housing development, the kind we are more familiar with when we go abroad. The developer also plans to build an additional park on Woloska Street. Investors are often the authors of interesting ideas. I write about this in more detail in my new book "Leaning into the Future," which will be published in April. I met with a developer who wants to realize the so-called Miyawaki forest - that is, to create a forest ecosystem of several hundred species of plants and animals within the city. He is currently waiting for the green light from the authority.

Catherine: It is indeed an interesting idea!

Joanna: It is necessary to show that there are swallows of change in the housing market. I think we are far past the time when only the price per square meter of an apartment mattered. Customers expect more progressive solutions. When visualizations of Browary Warszawskie (designed by JEMS Architekci), an Echo Investment investment, appeared a few years ago, one could see a diversified program of the development: apartments for rent, apartments for the young, but also charging stations for scooters. The metropolitan glitz of an elegant downtown neighborhood was evident. In my opinion, now the ball is in the court of local governments, which should prepare clear guidelines, a transparent system of cooperation with developers. Because cities are not only residents and the authority, but also business. Tripartite consultations leading to clear guidelines are needed. Transparent criteria on the basis of which officials and bureaucrats at various levels will issue decisions without fear of their own position or political consequences. Currently, the investment process is opaque, so officials repeatedly scrutinize projects and call on investors for explanations.

Catherine: And the lex developer?

Joanna: Poland is a country of paradoxes. The housing specustawa, which some activists would love to call a deplaning tool, turned out to be precisely a planning tool. It was created to facilitate investments by BGK Nieruchomości (now PFR Nieruchomości) on railroad land. This has not been successful, as the land is still blocked by internal PKP politics. However, it is a tool to resolve the relationship between the developer and the city in the context of providing school places. A developer who wants to build, using the special law, must provide school places for children from newly designed buildings. This allows the developer to pay for the necessary infrastructure. It can expand an existing school or, as in the case of Sluzewiec, build a new one. In the case of the Sluzewiec Project, other interesting solutions are also emerging - I keep track of them, as it is one of the newest developments in Mokotow, where I live. Materials from the demolition of office buildings are being donated for reuse. This is due to ecology and the fact that it is now more difficult to access building materials. Questions about the life cycle of investments and how they are erected are very important. Five years ago, the news that an elegant prefabricated building had been constructed at 4 Sprzeczna Street, also by BBGK, resonated loudly. It turned out that the big slab was just fine! Now no one questions the wisdom of building with prefabricated elements anymore. The mental change is happening in our country faster than we would like to admit.

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