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A warm comforter is not enough

27 of July '23

Interview fromA&B issue05|2023

Styrofoam and photovoltaics are definitely not enough. What is needed are elevators, larger square meters, adaptation to the needs of people with disabilities, retention and energy efficiency, says architect Paulina Duch-Zebrowska. She tells how to systemically improve the usability and quality of modernist blocks from the communist era. She develops these methods as part of her academic work at the Faculty of Architecture at Gdansk University of Technology, using the experience of 15 years of professional work in London. When will we see the transformation of the first Polish block done in the spirit of the famous realization of Lacaton &Vassal office? Perhaps as soon as next year.

Jakub Glaz:We hear about new apartments incessantly. Too few, too expensive, too tight. Rarely, instead, do we talk about raising the level of communist-era apartments. Problems include: lack of elevators in low blocks, modest square meters, energy losses, poor ventilation, small or no balconies. Admittedly, there are famous, similar to Polish, blocks of flats from Bordeaux creatively extended by the Lacaton & Vassal studio, but somehow we do not see imitators in our country.

Paulina Duch-Zebrowska:And there are about 60,000 of these residential buildings in Poland - in sensibly designed estates, in good locations, among greenery. However, there is no serious conversation about systemic improvement of the standard of living in these houses. Such an action that will respond to the needs of seniors, people with disabilities, as well as families with young children. The cooperatives carry this legacy of the communist era in a wheelbarrow, make sure nothing falls off it for them, and that's it.

Jakub: Somehow they even manage to do it, because contrary to black prophecies the housing estates have not turned into slums or ghettos. After thorough appraisals, the fear that the big slab will crumble has also ceased. But indeed - there is a lack of forward-looking action. This could change thanks to your work. You are doing a doctoral dissertation on how to take prefabricated housing to the next level most efficiently and economically.

Osiedle Grand Parc w Bordeaux

Grand Parc estate in Bordeaux - transformation of residential blocks by adding an external prefabricated structure, proj.: Lacaton & Vassal

Photo: © Lacaton & Vassal

Paulina: I'm looking into the possibilities of using various modern design tools, such as BIM, to simulate possible change scenarios. Just as blocks of flats were built with a stampede, one after another, using the same building systems, it is now possible to systemically raise their standard. So that each cooperative doesn't look independently for its own solutions, but can use the optimal method I've prepared for the selected prefabricated building system used in the People's Republic.

Jakub: At what stage are you at?

Paulina: I have already worked out many aspects, although there are still some pieces of the puzzle that I am checking and testing. I'm stuck now, for example, with the issue of reinforcing the rims and, perhaps most difficult, with the issue of compliance with modern technical conditions.

James: The first problem - technical, the second - more formal. And so we will divide the topic. There will be a little later about regulations, finances and logistics. Now let's talk about what changes are technically possible in prefabricated houses.

Paulina: Certainly, you shouldn't stop at wrapping the house in Styrofoam and installing photovoltaics to meet the minimum EU energy-saving requirements in this way. This is not the way to go - especially in the case of five-story buildings without an elevator, which is the main focus of my work. In a block of flats clad in Styrofoam and with panels on the roof, the problems of so-called fourth-floor inmates will still remain unsolved, as well as - and this also applies to taller buildings - the issue of insufficient floor space. So: the first need is an elevator. So we are entering the area of remodeling and expansion. The issues of door widths, passageways and acoustics must then be brought into line with current technical conditions. Here it is no longer enough to put a warm quilt over the building - without interfering with the lives of the residents. The problem of temporary removal arises. The operation gets more serious and costs rise.

Osiedle Grand Parc, Bordeaux, aksonometria piętra powtarzalnego, widoczne rozszerzenie istniejącego bloku o nową przestrzeń mieszkalną; zasadniczo rozbudowa nie wymagała wyprowadzki mieszkańców,

Grand Parc estate, Bordeaux, axonometry of a repeating floor, visible extension of an existing block with new living space; in principle, the extension did not require residents to move out,

proj.: Lacaton & Vassal © Lacaton & Vassal

James: Let's first calculate what you will need to pay for. What is on your list of necessary and possible transformations?

Paulina: Thermo-modernization of facades and roofs is basic and rather obvious. Further on, it is not so simple. A very important problem to solve is the issue of gravity ventilation, which is inefficient, increases heat loss and amplifies acoustic discomfort. Therefore, instead, I suggest installing an independent mechanical ventilation unit with heat recovery in each apartment. I have successfully used such a solution in England. This will be more efficient, will have a positive effect on the temperature and humidity levels in the apartment, and will allow us to brick up the connections between floors in the ventilation shafts, which will improve acoustics. Well, and we won't smell our neighbor's yeasty baby. The game is worth the candle, but, of course, it creates problems. You need to install ventilation ducts under the ceiling and find a convenient place for an appliance the size of an average double-function oven.

winda dostawiona do bloku mieszkalnego

An elevator attached to an apartment block

Photo: © Shiro Lift

James: It's even more difficult with an elevator.

Paulina: For several reasons. First, an elevator added to an existing staircase will only reach the mezzanine floors. It doesn't make sense. Also, we won't sacrifice one room from the already small square footage of the apartments to be the one to prepare the passage to the elevator from it, through the redesigned exterior wall. So I propose a bigger change: we remove the staircase from the interior of the building, and put an elevator shaft next to the block, around which the staircase will wrap. Between such a communication riser and the house we create built-in narrower platforms of about two meters in length. From them we head to the extended landings leading to the apartments. Some of the free space left by the old staircase can be used for lighting the riser, ventilation or space for additional installations or meters. The entrance doors to the apartments are widened to meet today's conditions and allow, for example, wheelchair access. Of course, if someone has recently invested in a new door, they may be against it, but I will talk about how to solve such issues in a moment.

James: In the meantime, we'll address inadequate room size.

Paulina: This is where I reach for that famous Lacaton & Vassal project. To the facade on the other side of the block, the one where the living room with balcony is customarily located, I add a self-supporting prefabricated module that is a block wide and 3.6 meters deep, removing the curtain wall panels beforehand, which in most systems are non-structural. In this way I can enlarge the living room, balcony or loggia and the room next door. With the removal of the old elevations, the problem of balcony doors with high thresholds that are too narrow and unsuitable for people with disabilities also disappears.

Jacob: There is still the problem of cramped bathrooms and toilets with narrow doors.

Paulina: We can expand these rooms at the expense of the area of the former rooms now enlarged by our add-on module. But, for example, in the Szczecin system, which I have researched the best so far, there is a structural problem. The sanitary facilities were inserted in their entirety as prefabricated elements, and modifying them is complicated. So I started working with a designer to determine if and how it is possible to connect the bathroom to the toilet. I know that such a procedure is a disadvantage for residents to give up a separate toilet. So I propose to add a small toilet elsewhere, already without facilities for people with disabilities, serving an "emergency" function.

balkony dostawne

supply balconies

Photo: © Copal

James: Sanitation is also a matter of replacing plumbing. Some cooperatives and municipal managers have already carried it out, others have not.

Paulina: This is a broader problem. It will be a big hassle every time to determine what has been replaced in a particular block over the past decades and how. Replacing risers also means interfering with bathroom finishes, which can cause resistance from residents. Some problems, however, can be solved by the addition of a new outdoor unit, which I mentioned a moment ago. This, for example, is a good place for the aforementioned mechanical ventilation unit enclosed additionally so as to isolate it acoustically. Today, connecting apartments in blocks of apartments is very inefficient and difficult. Within the module, I also foresee space for a potential internal staircase. In this way, by enlarging the square footage, we open up the flexibility of future connections between apartments horizontally or vertically.

James: It's a good idea to also take care of the aesthetics and proportions of the block when redesigning.

Paulina: Of course! This is the main challenge for the architect. In the new staircases, one of the walls should be glazed. It's all about light and the greater visual appeal of the new riser. On the other walls I would see climbing plants (providing shelter for small birds) and wooden panels. I'm still thinking about the look of the built-in piers. I'd steer clear of translucent walls here to reduce the risk of peeking into the apartments. So maybe frosted glass panels with a sandblasted surface? I can't show the drawings yet, because on May 20 a decision will be made on my scientific publication, which must be previously unpublished. After that date, I may be able to reveal more.

James: So let's move on to financial, legal and systemic issues. Where does the money come from?

Paulina: It is possible to get public funding for many activities. This applies to almost 50 percent of the cost of adding elevators or thermal modernization with installation of photovoltaics. In the West, a great deal of money is already going into this from pocovid funds, or KPO. In our country, as we know, the matter is delayed, the money is flowing in a thin trickle. However, these subsidies are still not enough. And here it is time for a very important part of my plan. If a new floor with apartments is added on each block in light timber technology, the profit from their sale will cover the costs, without financially burdening the residents. More than that, I'd like to see a few thousand zlotys each of the money used to compensate for the difficulties of temporary relocation. I take my example from the UK, where I worked on this type of project. There, such a sum reached as much as 3 thousand pounds - also in the case of ownership apartments.

Jakub: And that's how we got to an important problem. The ownership structure in Polish blocks of flats is fragmented, which can hinder the comprehensive interventions you propose. One or more tenants will say they don't agree with any changes.

Paulina: That's why I put great emphasis on prior discussions, consultations and education. I take into account the introduction of some formal gateways. If, for example, inside the apartment a tenant does not want to modify the bathroom that has just been renovated, it is worth allowing him to do so, provided he declares to make changes in accordance with the project at the next renovation. The door to the apartment will be widened right away, and the bathroom will wait. I plan to create a website that will show in simple terms what the whole idea is and how to carry it out.

balkony dostawne

supply balconies

photo: © Copal

Jacob: Exactly. How long will it take? How will the remodeling go?

Paulina: Shortly and efficiently, provided it will be done by an experienced and specialized construction team, and prefabricated products will be used. A small family company will not cope with the logistical complexity of the intention. We will start next to the blocks. Two temporary container facilities with full sanitation services and kitchen modules need to be assembled there. The first, with the same number of units as in one staircase. The second - with storage for larger furniture and equipment. Experience in constructing such offices and construction facilities shows that such a temporary facility can be built in a weekend. The next step: for about three weeks we move the residents of one cage with the necessary things to the first module. Equipment and furniture - to the second.

Jacob: And the work in the block begins.

Paulina: In a strict order. The first is the elimination of stairs and the installation of longer platforms for the elevator riser with the new staircase, which was erected before the residents moved out. Finally, we are installing the bridge connectors. At the same time, on the other side of the house, the removal of curtain walls is taking place, with teams entering the apartments and modifying doorways, bathrooms and installing ventilation ducts. Next comes the delivery of the exterior prefabricated module and the superstructure. All in a very demanding logistical regime: eight teams of several people move from apartment to apartment and step by step, unit by unit, frame by frame, to do all the work. Residents return to one riser, starting with the apartments on the top floor, and release the container for the neighbors under the next number. We set up the containers to serve four neighboring blocks in one location, and then move them to another part of the estate.

James: It sounds too good. There are definitely some reefs.

Paulina: At least two. The first concerns the space of the estate. It's about parking lots. Underground ones, which are an asset of new developments, are out of the question, because we won't eliminate the lush greenery, which - along with abundant service facilities, good location and access to public transportation - is a great asset of modernist estates. So I'm thinking of multi-level parking lots built over the service first floor of a large store or shopping and service center. So far I don't have a good idea of who could finance this idea or how. And I don't think I'll settle this now, but to put it half-jokingly - what is habilitation for?

Jacob: The second reef?

Paulina: The formal nature. You have to get a lot of building permits. Meanwhile, in Gdansk, for example, modernist estates, as built-up in their entirety, are not covered by development plans. So: development conditions. The mass flooding of the office with applications for zoning decisions is a periodic paralysis of the magistrate. So I was thinking of approaching the problem from the lex developer side, with a clear hearing for and against the proposed solutions. But this is also a very long procedure and not everywhere to be repeated. The best solution would be an amendment to the zoning law. One that would automatically allow the superstructure of a one-story block of large slab buildings, but on the condition that the profit from the sale of the new apartments go only to comprehensive renovation, accessibility and climate neutrality.

Osiedle Grand Parc w Bordeaux -; transformacja bloków mieszkalnych poprzez dobudowę zewnętrznej prefabrykowanej konstrukcji, proj.: Lacaton & Vassal

Grand Parc estate in Bordeaux - ; transformation of residential blocks by adding an external prefabricated structure, proj.: Lacaton & Vassal

photo: © Lacaton & Vassal

James: You said "big plate". But postwar housing estates were also built from the so-called big block, in the H-frame system, in mixed technology, also in traditional technology. How do you write this into the law?

Paulina: It is a matter of clarification. I think it would be good to write it down based on the systematic of Prof. Ostanska of Lublin University of Technology, which I also use, which distinguishes the seven most widespread prefabrication systems in the People's Republic of Poland. The more strongly disseminated a given system is, the more effective is the operation of the method of modification I have developed. After the Szczecin system, which I'm focusing on now because it occurs very often in Gdansk and there is decent documentation of it, I'm taking a closer look at the W-70 and Wk-70 systems, then I'll examine OWT-67 and OWT-75, Domino, Warsaw and so on. Everything one step at a time. For now, I'm working on it alone, although in the future it's a task for a larger team.

James: On what terms do you want to offer your system solutions?

Paulina: I'm thinking of a non-profit foundation that will make this project available to those interested, but after they have been thoroughly trained and site-specific rules have been worked out. This is because in the whole process it is very important to properly inform the owners of the premises about the intentions, deadlines, effects. It is necessary to be able to listen to them and adequately present the advantages of the changes: both individual benefits, such as a better standard, increased square footage and value of the premises, lower energy bills, as well as more general ones - concerning shared space and climate issues. After all, a heat pump, photovoltaics on the roofs of blocks of flats, new elevator risers and south-facing facades, and rainwater retention have a positive impact on the environment. So, too, does the carbon-negative glulam technology that is to be used, among other things, to construct the superstructure floors. In the spirit of reuse, the dismantled cover boards can be used for the construction of temporary access roads or as a foundation for our container buildings for a temporary move out.

James: Who do you primarily want to attract with your ideas? Cooperatives? The municipal boards? Elected housing communities?

Paulina: I think you should start with cooperatives, and those whose management is open to change. Because things can be different. Sometimes in my research work I find it difficult to get a trivial document out of cooperatives, and sometimes there is a lot of help. In addition, cooperatives sometimes have a huge number of houses. So it is possible to act consistently on a large scale, block by block, systemically. This is also very important for aesthetics and spatial order. One investor, one project, fewer differences and individual solutions that could upset the rather consistent and often successful composition of modernist estates.

James: All the more so since individual, grassroots interventions are already arriving. Residents are adding balconies to their own, or - unable to wait for the cooperative to take comprehensive action - are throwing themselves into the elevator at one staircase.

Paulina: It is therefore necessary to hurry. I'm planning a pilot redevelopment of the block on a cooperative estate. I won't reveal yet where and by whose forces, but I think we will be able to see the results in the second half of next year. This first step is very important, because it has the potential to become an incentive for much broader action. Usually no one wants to be first, for that - in case of success - everyone will want to be second.

interviewed Jakub Głaz

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