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Does being eco pay off for developers?

27 of July '23

Interview fromA&B issue05|2023

An expert from the Polish Association of Real Estate Developers and A&B editor Marta Kulawik talk about the "Eco Avengers" guide, tenant changes and other ideas for reducing litter in newly built neighborhoods, and eco-friendly building materials. Also about best practices, developer pilots and inspiring buildings.

Paweł WołejszaPawel Wolejsza - Born in 1990. IARP architect and urban planner. He gained professional experience working at Centrala, BDM Architekci studios. Graduate of the Faculty of Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology (2016), held visiting scholarships at the University of Detroit Mercy SoA (2013) and Stanford University School of Engineering (2014). Supervisor and consultant of the multidisciplinary design group AEC Global Teamwork PBL LAB at Stanford University (2015). Leader of design workshops for children - Society in Space. Co-author of many projects in Warsaw space: Mokotow Gate and development plan for the historic campus of SGH - 1st prize (2014), Changing the face Rotunda Warsaw (2013) - honorable mention. Winner of the second ex-aequo prize in the competition for the School of Music in Poznań (2015) and winner of an honorable mention in a student competition for the design of a single-family house with character. Creator of the concept for the symbolic transformation of the Defilad Square into Warsaw's Agora, and winner of the special prize of the "Look at the Square" competition organized by Futuwawa. During his stay in Detroit (2012), he participated in the development of guidelines for the city's development strategy. He runs his own design studio and is a partner in a proptech start-up. Co-author of the ecological guide of the Eco Avengers group, which was established by the Polish Association of Developer Companies. Expert at the international conference Redefining Cities in View of Climate Changes (2019) organized by WAPW. Co-author of a guide on designing buildings with bird conservation in mind published by and PLGBC association. Author of articles for Rzeczpospolita Nieruchomości, Inmag, Lighthouse, Vademecum Deweloper, and others.

Marta Kulawik:Tobegin with, please explain what the Polish Association of Developer Companies, in which you contribute as an expert, does.

Paweł Wołejsza:PZFD is the largest and most influential organization of the development industry, which for twenty years has represented the interests of development companies in Poland and the European Union. We take action to create good laws, improve investment conditions in the real estate market, professional development of employees of member companies and improve the image of the industry.

Marta: As part of your activity in the PZFD, you cooperated in editing the guide "Eco Avengers" published in early 2020 under the slogan "From developer to eco-hero, or how to save the world and not go bankrupt". More than three years have passed. How is the saving of the world going? Are you seeing any tangible results from the publication or increased interest in the topic?

Paul: The guide was to show as many solutions as possible available on the real estate market. First of all, inexpensive solutions, so that development companies, communities and even private investors can implement them in their estates, investments. Often the criterion of price when choosing a residential unit is crucial, hence the attempt to find inexpensive solutions that could really change the world on a large scale.

Marta: The expert team of the "Eco Avengers," the group created to write the eco-guide, is multidisciplinary and consisted of nine people, including you. What field do you specialize in and what disciplines do the other team members represent?

Paul: To make the study as complementary as possible, the experts included a hydrologist, an urban sociologist, a biologist, a person familiar with urban transportation, a representative of the younger generation entering the real estate market, and an architect. I had the pleasure of acting in this role. In addition, Konrad Plochocki, vice president of the PZFD, took care of the team and the study.

przykładowe strony z przewodnika „Eco Avengers”

Sample pages from the guide "Eco Avengers" ©.

© Polski Związek Firm Deweloperskich

Marta: I design interiors professionally and often find simply ill-conceived functional layouts of developer apartments. An investor who pays several thousand zlotys per square meter obviously wants that square meter to be used as well as possible - and in order to do so, often the first thing I feel like doing and that clients ask me to do is to demolish existing partition walls and put new ones in a different place. I see a huge problem here with the waste of material. According to my understanding, it is currently impossible to hand over an apartment without all the walls (including partitions) included in the project built. But perhaps the solution would be to modify the regulations so that this could be decided by the property owner before receiving the keys?

Paul: But you can! The law does not prohibit the handing over of apartments without partitions. The toilet must be "separated", for example, with a curtain. But customers don't want such apartments. As they buy multi-room ones, they prefer brick walls to reduce the time and cost of renovation, as well as to imagine the target space. An additional aspect is to bring the required installations to the "separated bathroom" and the kitchenette. Fixing these installations only in the outer walls of the premises instead of partition walls would cause many problems also affecting the target interior design. And the partition walls are not only debris from demolishing the walls, but also hundreds of running meters of cables, boxes and other things. When demolishing wall sections, after all, no one recovers these items, the problem is widespread. That's why many PFD developers encourage tenant changes while still in the construction phase. This is beneficial for both parties - the developer with the contractor, as well as the client. I know that several companies have realized empty residential units and then added walls according to a separate Agreement, but this is really rare in Poland.

budynek XIX-wiecznej Cukrowni Żnin przekształconej w centrum konferencyjno-wypoczynkowe jako przykład udanego ponownego użycia istniejącej zabudowy

The building of the 19th-century Żnin Sugar Factory converted into a conference and leisure center as an example of successful reuse of existing buildings - proj.: Bulak Projekt, Less is Core, MML Architects, MIXD

© Arche Group

Marta: It is impossible to design a universal apartment that suits everyone. An elderly person and/or a person with a disability may have different needs on the same square meter, a couple with a child, and a single may have different needs. In addition to being able to customize the layout of an apartment before it is built, it's also the case that some floor plans look so unadorned that they are probably meaningless to everyone. I think this is blamed on the so-called squeezing of PUM (Residential Useable Area) and the drive to include the oddest nooks and crannies of the building in the apartment space, because after all, the corridor doesn't pay for itself in terms of investment. The scale of the problem of adjusting apartment layouts is easy to see, if only by walking through the new housing development. The containers set up are filled to the brim with rubble from the demolition of walls that don't even remember the previous spring. Is anything being done to curb this phenomenon?

Paul: Unfortunately not much, but this is due to the habit of customers. In fact, even a few months after the investment is put into use, containers full of crumbled walls are standing next to new blocks. Therefore, the best scenario is to make tenant changes already at the construction stage, before the walls are built. Most often it is the case that up to a certain stage of construction these changes are free, and then you have to pay for them. Indeed, the biggest loss for the environment, but also a problem for the contractor's schedule, is the demolition of existing walls.

Cukrownia Żnin

Znin Sugar Factory

© Arche Group

Marta: In my career, I have worked, among other things, in an office that designed (and even produced) multifamily housing projects for most of the well-known and large developers building in many of the country's largest cities. At times I got the impression that more importance was attached by the developers to the graphic design of the sales "apartment card" than to the preservation of ergonomics in the kitchenette. By this I mean, for example, that sometimes several people - from the apartment sales office employee to the deputy president - wondered whether the gray or black wall filling looked better on the projection, and did not see that the work triangle in the kitchen was not preserved. Not to mention the overscaled furniture on the floor plan. Does the PZFD conduct any inspections or campaigns to educate people on this issue?

Paul: One of the most recognizable initiatives of the PZFD are the Topic Groups, which are periodic meetings for employees of member companies. They are intended to provide a platform for specialists from different departments to exchange knowledge, experience and opinions, which is enriched by the authority of external experts. There is also a Technical Group dealing with such issues. Personally, in the course of design, I have not encountered developers giving design guidelines to architects as a standard, which would unfairly mislead clients. This is simply not fair. As a designer, I was familiar with the standards for design of several leading companies in the market, and indeed, sometimes there were furniture dimensions provided for sales materials, but they did not differ from the actual dimensions of the furniture. The PZFD has no authority to regulate the internal arrangements of member companies.

Cukrownia Żnin zmieniła swoją pierwotną funkcję, ale udało się zachować industrialny charakter budynku i najbliższego otoczenia

The Żnin Sugar Factory changed its original function, but managed to preserve the industrial character of the building and its immediate surroundings

© Arche Group

Marta: According to the principle "you want to change the world - start with yourself", I would like to ask how you practice pro-environmental solutions in your life, in arranging your place of residence?

Paul: When the pandemic started, I arranged a workspace in one of the rooms and it still works today. This saves me a lot of time and money that I would have had to spend on commuting. Only in the winter season do I give up my bicycle in favor of a car. Bicycle transportation and walking make us slow down, often building attentiveness to the world around us. Lately, we've also been trying not to print out construction projects, the digital form currently accepted by offices introduces considerable time and paper savings. We try to work on files from the server, not attaching drawings to each email. Remember that each email is data that has to be stored in huge server rooms that have to be cooled. These are huge amounts of energy and carbon dioxide emitted.

During the renovation of my apartment, I tried to implement the rule of reuse and circular economy as much as possible. I exposed the texture of the prefabricated reinforced concrete slab in the large slab block instead of using structural plaster or paint that pretended to be concrete. I managed to salvage a communist-era modular furniture cabinet by Drzewotechnik, which, with the right lighting, offers the kind of display possibilities that contemporary furniture does not. I refurbished an old door by inserting modern ornamental glass with my own hands. Of course, many of these things cost me a lot of work, it was not a matter of choosing without thinking elements new, available from the catalog. The result is the sum of trial and error, it is difficult to predict everything at the initial design stage. I think that's also why it's a rare practice.

For example, I made the headrest for the bed in the bedroom from leftover, unsold three square meters of high-quality floorboard. At the design stage, I didn't know what kind of plank would be available. Often, you just have to look at the materials you have available, or at the piece you want to create, and think creatively about what material it could be replaced with. Then the realizations surpass the wildest expectations.

Cukrownia Żnin zmieniła swoją pierwotną funkcję, ale udało się zachować industrialny charakter budynku i najbliższego otoczenia

Żnin Sugar Factory changed its original function, but managed to preserve the industrial character of the building and its immediate surroundings

© Arche Group

Marta: When it comes to ecology, whether it's the fashion industry or construction, for example, I make the assumption that the most ecological is what we already have. Well, because what good is it if someone succumbs to fashion or, in a wave of changing themselves and their environment for the better, buys a bamboo toothbrush, if the plastic one they have doesn't magically dematerialize at the same moment. It still exists and will fill the landfill piles sooner rather than later, yet it could still serve for a while. Isn't it the same with renovations? Maybe the example siding isn't eco, but is it necessary to tear it down en masse now and replace it with wooden planks because it's yellowed, unfashionable and not eco-friendly?

Paul: On the one hand, we could leave everything. Yellowed siding is not just a color, because it can be painted. It's leaks, chipping of low-quality plastic parts or changing standards in relation to thermal insulation. Lambda indices for the building envelope, which used to be a requirement, today are definitely more exorbitant. Then there is the aspect of the image of the investment, which, in order to sell, often has to look good.

It is worth noting that natural materials that have been used for years - stone, clay plaster, facade ceramics, bricks, wood - are materials that age well and do not look bad even after hundreds of years. Highly processed modern materials, often with approvals and various certificates, unfortunately age much worse and are difficult to recycle - they cannot be composted. That is why it is so important for architects to design beautiful buildings that no one will want to demolish, but recycle and adapt them to new functions, and for investors or contractors to build them with natural materials.

prywatne mieszkanie Pawła Wołejszy, a w nim między innymi odsłonięta prefabrykowana płyta żelbetowa i uratowana PRL-owska meblościanka modułowa Drzwotechnika

Paweł Wołejsza's private apartment, and in it, among other things, an exposed prefabricated reinforced concrete slab and a rescued communist-era Drzwotechnik modular furniture cabinet

© Pawel Wolejsza

Marta: Unfortunately, natural noble materials and, for example, their impregnation is often a more expensive option. Even for those who care about the environment, the financial aspect is sometimes ultimately decisive. What pleases me is a kind of fashion for furniture, trinkets or ceramic products produced in the communist era or before. I feel that as a society we have already worked through the topic of second lives of clothes and shopping in second hand stores. Now it's time for recycled home furnishings and increasingly popular furniture restoration workshops and eclectic interiors with soul. Do you think this is a fad or a long-term effect of education and generational change?

Paul: Fads are promoted by stores that want to influence consumer choices. The same piece of furniture or upholstery pattern for decades could become dated. Good design doesn't age, and I'm also happy to see this trend; I've refurbished several such pieces of furniture myself. I think this is often the result of trying to use what we happen to have, and being able to experiment will develop ourselves. Old objects inspire and have a soul that modern furnishings lack.

prywatne mieszkanie Pawła Wołejszy, a w nim między innymi odsłonięta prefabrykowana płyta żelbetowa i uratowana PRL-owska meblościanka modułowa Drzwotechnika

Paweł Wołejsza's private apartment, and in it, among other things, an exposed prefabricated reinforced concrete slab and a rescued communist-era Drzwotechnika modular furniture cabinet

© Pawel Wolejsza

Marta: It's similar with finishing materials, the idea of reuse is gaining popularity. Demolished boards from old barns, antique parquet staves or vintage authentic burnt brick used for construction or as wall cladding can nowadays cost much more than high-quality new materials. What material do you think is underrated and could be the next hit?

Paul: Old tile from demolition is indeed one of the most interesting trends. It involves a lot of work and meticulousness, but the effect of "postponement" is irreplaceable. The approach to any wood flooring is also important. At training sessions of some companies promoting floor panels, it is said today that the trend of renovation of existing floors is visible, for the reason that in the future there will be problems with access to good quality wood, such as oak. In the United States, there are start-ups that are replacing carpet floor modules only in worn areas, and laying the remaining ones after cleaning them anew in new interiors, and it's paying off!

 budynek „Europa” w Brukseli - obecna siedziba Unii Europejskiej

the "Europa" building in Brussels - the current headquarters of the European Union - 3750 demolished wooden window frames from various corners of Europe were used to create the facade, designed by Michel Polak (Residence Palace), Philippe Samyn and Partners (Europa)

© Philippe Samyn and Partners

Marta: The highly symbolic Europa building - the current headquarters of the European Union in Brussels - uses 3,750 wooden window frames from demolished buildings located in various locations across Europe. It used to be that each of these windows offered a different view, and now these different perspectives come together in one place. Do you have a favorite building or interior that is an equally beautiful testament that reuse makes sense?

Paul: I saw the building with my own eyes recently and it is indeed incredibly impressive. The windows are so nicely restored and consistent in their finish that at first glance from a distance it looks like a film print applied to glass. I also like the strong idea behind this project. I very much like the redevelopment of the Yellow House building designed by Valeria Olgiati, which has gained an almost sculptural character of the building through the small procedures of cupping the facade and painting it. In Poland, I really like the Arche Group's projects, which often use inexpensive solutions to nurture historic buildings. Particularly noteworthy are the gabion fences at Uphagen Manor in Gdansk, filled with demolition tile instead of stone - in this way it was left at the site of the project, affecting the genius loci of the place, rather than on the rubble or as road substructure.

Dwór Uphagena w Gdańsku - odnowiony obiekt w standardzie hotelu czterogwiazdkowego; najstarsza cześć budynku pochodzi z 1800 roku,

Uphagen Manor in Gdansk - a renovated building to the standard of a four-star hotel; the oldest part of the building dates back to 1800, - proj.: Less is Core

© Arche Group

Marta: I agree, a commendable course of action. But most often it looks just the opposite: the site for a new development is prepared literally in a week and no trace remains of the existing buildings. Wouldn't a slow demolition with waste segregation be better for the environment, of course, if adaptation and modernization or reconstruction of the building is not possible.

Paul: Unfortunately, there is a shortage of companies that would undertake to plan, price and carry out such demolition with care for the environment. Development companies that want to change the industry are trying to do something about it, and are succeeding piecemeal. However, I have not heard of comprehensive handling of a large demolition site. Such attempts are being made on two office buildings in downtown Warsaw, and abroad such practices have been in place for several years. An additional trend is to design a building right away with plans for its demolition.

wnętrze jednego z pokojów hotelowych w Dworze Uphagena w Gdańsku - historia miejsca i jego pierwotna tkanka w połączeniu ze współczesnymi rozwiązaniami

Interior of one of the hotel rooms in Uphagen Manor in Gdansk - the history of the place and its original fabric combined with contemporary solutions

© Arche Group

Marta: How is it that pro-environmental solutions are considered expensive, yet most often the idea of a circular economy is most effectively implemented by poor countries or areas haunted by natural disasters, although they do it more intuitively and without knowledge of the concept than with the intention of applying a circular economy (GOZ)?

Paul: It costs a lot of time and labor to refurbish an item or restore it to working order, and involves storage sites and logistics. Unfortunately, it turns out that removing, for example, a revolving door that is several years old and replacing it with a new one is cheaper than repairing it. We are dealing with exactly the same situation as in the market for household appliances or consumer electronics. In poor countries, a large part of things disappear "organically" from construction sites; in our country, everything has to be recorded and reported.

 budynek powstający z wykorzystaniem między innnymi takich materiałów jak słoma czy beton konopny; widoczny szkielet konstrukcyjny

a building under construction using, among others, such materials as straw or hemp concrete; a visible structural skeleton

Photo: © Pawel Wolejsza

Marta: What opportunities does GOZ development present for developers and target building users? What are the flagship developments in the spirit of this idea? Are there any competitions to encourage, evaluate GOZ?

Paul: GOZ can be divided into two streams. The first is the renovation of old building elements and their reuse on the same construction sites. The second is the use of the least processed building materials, so-called compostable, organic materials, so that after the life cycle of the building they do not form waste, do not linger in the landfill, but decompose naturally in the environment. The former option is more difficult to implement due to the lack of repetitive elements on a large scale and the need for architects to engage in an extremely time-consuming way. To neatly incorporate elements from demolition, for example, on the facade of a building, much more work needs to be put into it than in a project that we realize from the beginning virtually, on repetitive materials available off-the-shelf. The construction site does not have to adapt to what it gets, yet it is the construction site that orders the various elements. This phenomenon was brilliantly demonstrated by Zirkular's flagship project, Kopfbau Halle, in which the facade was changed at the end of construction, adapting it to the currently available facade material. With a free market and pre-prepared visuals, such solutions seem impossible. After all, no one is going to pay to live in a building that you don't know what it looks like. The point is to change the mentality and responsibility towards the environment, which is unfortunately poor, not only in Poland.

ten sam budynek; na zdjęciu widoczny stan surowy zamknięty

The same building; the photo shows a closed shell state

Photo: © Paweł Wołejsza

Marta: Can GOZ contribute to improving the accessibility of housing in our country? If yes - why? If not - then what can it do?

Pawel: In order for something to pay off, you need regulations and scale of production, and these two elements are lacking. For the time being, these types of green projects are unfortunately more expensive, and circular operations cannot be covered by developer guarantees, so they can only be implemented on private, small-scale investments.

Marta: Let's leave for a moment what has already been invented as well as used, and turn to technological innovations. What green building materials are promising, but are still being researched, refined or just, not knowing why, not very popular?

Pawel: Hemp concrete, which can even be printed, is being developed at the first construction sites in the States, or buildings made of mushroom mycelium, which will be compostable after a lifetime - these are the natural technologies of the future, and are certainly the ones to watch. They do not yet exist on the Polish market, we have straw and hemp concrete buildings, which we often write about as the National Association of Natural Building (OSBN). I have designed several such developments for very conscious clients.

Marta: The "Eco Avengers" guide mentioned above analyzed environmental solutions that have already been applied. It took into account such aspects as, among others, the ratio of the financial outlay incurred to the benefits gained, the problematicness or ease of implementation, or the real impact on climate change adaptation. Which solutions fared best in this comparison and why?

Paul: The simplest are low-cost solutions that can be used on both existing and planned buildings. These include ivy on facades, white roofs, and all solutions that reduce the impact of the urban heat island by reflecting sunlight through whiteness - albedo - and lowering the temperature by accumulating moisture in the city.

Marta: Were only already known and proven solutions taken into account or also pilot and hypothetical ones?

Paul: Pilot solutions were taken into account, of the hypothetical ones only boomerang bags appeared, i.e. reusable shopping bags that residents could share. The other aspects described in the guide are solutions implemented at least once by one of the companies affiliated with the Polish Association of Developers.

Marta: Does being eco pay off for developers?

Paweł: It pays off in terms of image and PR. It's also about caring for the environment, homes for future generations and creating a greener fabric of cities. Unfortunately, these solutions cost extra, so it affects the price per square meter of sales space.

Marta: Since we no longer have time to make mistakes in the face of a warming climate and decades of neglect, maybe it's time to spread the "Decalogue of the Last Chance" - ten commandments with ecological solutions cross-cutting every new development. Where can it be read in full?

Paul: The Decalogue was read once during the Developer's Forum in Wroclaw, even before the pandemic. I think it is worth returning to it, but it seems to have disappeared from the website.

Marta: It is absolutely necessary to return to it! Such a dose of knowledge cannot be left in a narrow circle of participants of one industry event, in addition not transmitted online. Thank you for the interview.

Paul: Thank you sincerely.

interviewed by Marta Kulawik

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