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Timber in the shower

01 of June '21

He found Poland made of brick, he will leave it made of wood - although today it is not easy to attribute this paraphrase to a specific person, it seems to describe better and better what is happening in contemporary architecture.

The fact that construction is a powerful burden on the environment is already known to almost everyone. As does the fact that the production of the cement that forms the basis of architecture contributes significantly to carbon dioxide emissions, and that paved streets, plazas and parking lots impede retention. That part of the public that understands the threat posed by climate change knows that to at least slow these changes, it is imperative to reform the way we build.

But you can count on the fingers of one hand those who say that the best way to save the planet is not to build differently, but to build less. Just as no one loudly says that in addition to looking for alternative sources of energy, one should try to reduce the demand for it. Not to mention the extremely politically incorrect thesis that our biggest and fundamental problem is that there are far too many people on the planet, and it is in this field that real action is needed.

So since few people can think of a way to stop the incessant erection of new structures, less environmentally disruptive ways of building and materials are being sought. And this is where wood entered the scene some time ago. It is it that appears as a salve for consciences: ecological, renewable, close to man, natural, traditional material should, according to some, supplant concrete and become the primary building material. This is rather unlikely, but it does not change the fact that architects are more and more willing to use wood, if only experimentally, and Internet portals devoted to new projects are increasingly filled with descriptions of wooden skyscrapers, office buildings and housing estates.

Admittedly, the scale of forest cutting is already hair-raising (in Poland forests are disappearing at an astonishing rate, in other parts of the globe it is no better, Siberia is being cut down at an enormous rate), there are no estimates of how many trees we would need if we wanted to replace current building materials even partially with wood. Wood is certainly incomparably more environmentally friendly than concrete, but if we replace forests with eco-friendly wooden houses, won't we throw the baby out with the bathwater?

In 2018, the company Polskie Domy Drewniane was established. The state-owned developer (a partnership of the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management and the Bank for Environmental Protection) was to build "energy-efficient residential, commercial and residential-service buildings, made with wooden technologies using the domestic potential of the wood and construction industry." By mid-2020 not a single building had been constructed, but in May 2021 the company announced an architectural competition for the design of "the best pro-environmental architectural and urban planning solution for a model urban fabric in the form of a residential estate of systemic multi-family housing with technical and social infrastructure." The housing estate is to be, of course, made of wood technology. The competition is to be decided in September, and the company wants to implement the winning project in Środa Slaska.

Biurowiec GetResponse,

GetResponse office building, Gdansk

© APA Wojciechowski Architekci

The APA Wojciechowski Architekci studio has already designed a wooden office building (the building is to be built in Gdansk), MAKAA office has recently designed a seven-story hotel made of wood, which is to grow at the intersection of Narutowicza and Sienkiewicza streets in Lodz. As recently as three years ago, ARUP engineers proclaimed that six-story buildings could be erected from wood without fear. Today, the tallest wooden building is in Norway at 85 meters; a 75 percent wood-built apartment building in Vienna has 24 floors. This example alone shows the rapid progress in the development of modern wooden construction.

Breath-In Hotel

Breath-In Hotel (visualization)


On the other side of the debate about wooden architecture is the one already built. And it is being talked about more and more - not only in the context of the historic wooden churches of Malopolska or Podlasie. Much of this is due to a unique project to modernize the former Abram Gurewicz boarding house in Otwock, near Warsaw. The dilapidated building, once considered a gem of the "Świdermajer" style, was miraculously restored to life by a private investor and the Grupa 5 Architekci studio team.

Pensjonat Abrama
Gurewicza w Otwocku

Abram Gurewicz's guesthouse in Otwock

Photo: MIRAI Clinic

This interesting and multifaceted project, already described quite extensively, is unusual for Polish architecture, which so far has tended to debate modernization, renovation or "reconstruction" of brick buildings. And yet, even in the case of a wooden building, conservation dilemmas come into play, the need for changes related to changes in function or contemporary regulations, for example, fire regulations. The project to extend the Gurevich boarding house (the building was actually demolished and built anew using as many original elements as could be salvaged) also aroused much controversy and is judged ambiguously. Thus, it brings many new threads to the contemporary discussion about the limits of interference, the value of the original substance, and the preservation of historical objects. These issues in relation to wooden buildings have so far been touched rather in expert circles - now they have entered the architectural "mainstream" mainly due to the designers of this reconstruction, a well-known and respected studio, the members of which themselves admit that when embarking on this work, they had virtually no knowledge of historic wooden construction - it is not a subject in architectural studies.

willa U Dziadka in Otwockwilla U Dziadka in Otwockwilla U Dziadka in Otwock

villa "U Dziadka" in Otwock

© National Heritage Institute

This educational niche is to be filled by the Center for Wooden Architecture (CAD), established in 2021 (set up as part of the National Program for the Protection and Care of Monuments for 2019-2022). It is a Specialized Field Studio belonging to the National Heritage Institute, whose goal is to carry out educational and popularization activities concerning wooden architecture, aimed at enthusiasts, experts, but also owners, caretakers or managers of wooden buildings. Above all, however, the CAD "intends to launch guidance points throughout the country for owners who renovate such buildings. Support people who buy an old, abandoned building and are faced with problems of how to renovate, preserve and restore it. The Center also intends to conduct traveling practical workshops in the regions, adapted to the diversity of local structures and the specifics of wooden architecture."

The seat of the Center for Wooden Architecture has become the historic (wooden, of course) villa "U Dziadka" in Otwock. The place is not accidental: the town near Warsaw in the first half of the twentieth century was a popular spa, a suburban resort, full of ornate wooden boarding houses and sanatoriums, whose characteristic style Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski referred to as "świdermajer". To this day, only a handful of them have been preserved in good condition (unfortunately, one still hears about more "accidental" fires consuming neglected villas), but Otwock is still associated with wooden construction and indeed seems the best place to locate an institution helping to preserve such monuments well.

willa U Dziadka in Otwockwilla U Dziadka in Otwockwilla U Dziadka in Otwock

villa "U Dziadka" in Otwock

© National Heritage Institute

Being in a terrible condition, the villa "U Dziadka" was bought by the National Heritage Institute in 2019; two years earlier the building was entered in the register of monuments. Before the Center for Wooden Architecture can operate in the building, it will need a major renovation. When it is finished - it will certainly be interesting to compare its results with the work of the Group 5 Architects office, carried out in Abram Gurewicz's guesthouse. And with the creation of the CAD program, one can't help but dream of a similar educational facility in the field of new wooden construction, which is taking the markets by storm and becoming increasingly popular. Because, unfortunately, the euphoric delight in new ideas for building with wood is not matched by a broader debate about it.

Anna Cymer

The vote has already been cast