The financial calculator shows what would be more advantageous: to demolish something or to build a new facility. But if investors were forced to carry out a carbon footprint analysis, perhaps we would not witness the devastation of the functions of the existing buildings. These are the challenges for the young architects who are just about to finish their education – says Agnieszka Kalinowska-Sołtys in conversation with Arletta Liro, and argues that responsible architecture, circular construction and sustainable city are the issues to become a standard soon.
Arletta Liro: The topic of sustainable architecture is not new to you. You have been dealing with it since your diploma thesis from 2004.
Agnieszka Kalinowska-Sołtys: The title was “Pro-ecological estate of single-family houses in Józefów near Warsaw”. I was interested in how to make architecture more energy-efficient and address water-saving issue. I focused on finding passive solutions that do not harm nature. I was looking for inspiration, good practices and examples from around the world. I found tips on how to position the building in relation to the geographical coordinates, how to design the foundations, roof and walls to accumulate heat and at the same time not to overheat the building, and how to design the landscape in such a way that it would interact with the building. All of this seemed so eye-opening at the time, because I did not learn about such a framework during my studies. I accessed this knowledge later on when I started working at APA Wojciechowski in 2010.
Today, public utility buildings generally have ecological certificates. In the case of housing construction, this is still rare. Therefore, the “pro-ecological housing” seems to be still a relevant subject.
The average home buyer is not educated enough to ask specific questions about the life cycle of a building, operating costs, water and energy consumption, or what the building is made of and how the materials will age over the years. The European Union’s policy is aimed at a specific goal – that by 2050 we will become the first climate neutral continent. In this context, the construction industry has a huge amount of work to do. In designing a cathedral that would last for several hundred years, we would responsibly use high-grade concrete as the carbon footprint would be reduced over the centuries of use. However, in the case of a residential building, which is to fulfill its function for several dozen years, the use of concrete should even be prohibited. Unless they are prefabricated elements that can be reused on the principle of “blocks”, which we take apart and use again. When the project is completed, there must also be an idea of what we can do with the building after its demolition. No matter if it will serve as a foundation for a road or anything else – the trick is to plan the second life of a building element today. We can also work on a flexible approach to functions, which I understand as structural flexibility: today it is an office building, and tomorrow we can arrange a residential building here. The qustion is: just how to do that exactly?! After all, these are different track depths, heights, installation solutions, in another word: a lot of differences to address. The challenge is to try to solve these problems today. The financial calculator shows that is more advantageous: to demolish or to build a new facility. But if investors were forced to carry out a carbon footprint analysis as a standard procedure, perhaps we would not witness the devastation of existing buildings. These are the challenges for the future architects who are just about to finish their education. They will have to take this into account and also face the life of the buildings that my generation have designed. Even if the buildings made today have stopped working, young architects will have to take action like: do not destroy, because it is not ecological. Instead of designing, they will inventory and figure out what to do with existing buildings.
Could you give an example?
In the European Union, it is estimated that around 30 percent of apartment buildings have Sick Building Syndrome. They are under-heated, poorly insulated, damp, and consequently energy-consuming. They generate a very large operational carbon footprint related to heating and electricity consumption, and at the same time have a negative impact on human health and well-being. Should we then tear them down? Maybe some of them yes, but some may suffice. There is no such thing as an “ecological calculator” yet, but a carbon footprint calculator can be used. At APA Wojciechowski, we try to estimate in this way how much greenhouse gasses were emitted into the atmosphere by the building at the time of its construction. We take into account the equivalent of carbon dioxide, we take into account various greenhouse gasses that are related to the production of building materials, their delivery to the construction site and the building process. Similarly, we begin to estimate the life cycle of the building, i.e. the period of operation related to the consumption of electricity and heat, and sometimes also the production of cold. I hope these procedures will become standard soon, the European Commission is working on it. We are talking about greenhouse gas emissions, i.e. air pollution, which includes the so-called ozone depletion potential, but we know that there are also pollutants penetrating into water or soil that can also be counted, e.g. acidification potential or eutrophication potential. For now, we are missing a lot of input data for detailed calculations. I assume, however, that this will be the ecological estimation, calculating the ecological costs of buildings, which is to become the standard in a few years. Many companies producing building materials are already working on obtaining the EPD declaration – which allows you to compare the environmental profile and assess and select products in terms of the verified environmental performance of a given product or service. It is a kind of bargaining card, because when choosing a material, we will justify it with the least harmfulness to the environment.
As a lead of the sustainable architecture team at the UN Global Compact Network Poland, what kind of precautions for sustainable construction do you take and implement?
UN Global Compact is the world’s largest sustainable business initiative, which was established 12 years ago by the UN Secretary General and serves to work together to achieve the goals of the United Nations. Currently, the priority is the work of the so-called hydrogen group, which is associated with modern technologies and is designed to facilitate their safe entry into the Polish market. When it comes to solutions directly related to construction, as a team manager for green buildings, I am now working on a report on good sustainable development practices in construction, which will include recommendations for local governments and business. This report, together with the text of the architectural and urban pact for the climate, will be published and discussed during the World City Forum in Katowice – WUF 11. The fundamental issue we now need to focus on is understanding the principles of the circular economy and its relationship with the materials we build. In Poland, there is a need for accelerated evolution if we want to meet the goals of the European Union and live in the future on a planet that is safe for people. Addressing the issues of the environment and climate change is necessary, both on the part of the Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland and the Association of Polish Architects SARP, because we are building technologically advanced facilities, providing high comfort of use, but significantly contributing to dangerous climate changes and degradation of the natural environment.
In June, you will take part in two most important events: the World City Forum in Katowice and the 2nd International Congress: Climate Regeneration of Cities in Łódź. It is estimated that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, and 60% of the infrastructure needed for this has yet to be built. If it is possible to regenerate cities – currently generating the highest carbon footprint – what will be the role of the architect in this process?
There is a lot of talk about urban issues now, but I have the impression that the discussion is held only among experts. I hope that such debates will start soon in the public media, for example at the occasion of the World City Forum. I dream about the emergence of educational programs making the general public aware of what an architect is for, an urban planner, and what he does. It seems to me that this would be the best path to reach the proverbial Kowalski (an every-day user), with our message. The idea is to sow the seeds of searching for answers to the questions: What is sustainable development? Why can the construction process be so harmful? How can we also adjust our daily lives and habits to contribute more to a positive change? At the Forum, we will talk about good practices from around the world and the solutions that are already working. I think that the right way is to show patterns, but at the same time to analyze local problems. Emphasis should be placed on education, awareness building. Show why certain solutions that may seem difficult and burdensome now not only make sense in the long run, but are downright necessary. I mean, for example, the elimination of cars from the city center. I am delighted with Copenhagen, where only 20% of the inhabitants have their own cars. The public transport infrastructure within the city is so well organized that they simply don’t need it. Without cars, exhaust fumes and smog, the city looks completely different. Filled with clean air and vegetation – biodiverse and biophilic. Inhabitants use the canals and swim in them because the water is clean. There are jetties and even water houses for bathers all year round. Copenhagen has so much to offer when it comes to being in touch with nature that they don’t have to go away for the weekend to regenerate, because they have a great rest while staying in their city.
This direction of the evolution of Polish cities requires not only systemic actions, but also a change in the mindset of the everyday users – so-called Kowalski. It means replacing the egoistic approach with a more altruistic one.
Regulations, such as limiting the number of cars in the city, can help trigger the desired changes. But limitations are not enough, you have to give something back. High parking fees in the city center solve the problem to some extent, but we have to offer an alternative – even if it means city scooters. For the car, we need a parking space at home, in the office and on the street, i.e. in three locations, which together generate a considerable number of useless square meters. If it were not for the cars parked on the street, we would have regained over two meters of the pavement, which can be covered with greenery. The street would be more beautiful, healthier for us and the environment, and friendlier. The use of carsharing applications facilitates the use of existing resources to a greater extent. We can live differently, and start thinking in terms of “our street” instead of “my car”. These trends are already becoming visible but the majority of Poles do not understand them yet and therefore rebell. The city of Warsaw is actively striving for changes, but the actions must go hand in hand with education so that the residents understand the advantages of these solutions and decide to change their optics from “me” to “we”. Then we will create better cities together, we will enjoy them and all of us will benefit from them. An increasingly popular way to use urban resources is co-living, within which we decide on a small apartment that we can afford. However, sometimes we need more space, so we have one floor or part of it in a common building that we can share. But for the remaining 360 days, someone else uses it. In Warsaw, for now, such solutions can be found in exclusive locations such as Złota 44 or Cosmopolitan. The importance of such projects, but more widely available, for the sustainable past of residential architecture is reflected in this year’s Miesa van der Rohe award for young architects. The 2022 winner is Lacol, a collective resposible for the building of the La Borda Housing Cooperative in Barcelona.
Agnieszka Kalinowska-Sołtys – President of the national board of SARP and a co-founder of the National Association of Supported Sustainable Building. Architect, working for APA Wojciechowski Architekci since 2010, where I take the position of architect, partner, and member of the management board.
The entire conversation is in the lastest issue of Architecture Snob Magazine.