Their house was meant to be an unobtrusive building that would blend into the landscape of St. Dorothy’s Hill. However, when the Jojko+Nawrocki studio’s project won the Silesian 2018 Grand Prix of the Architecture of the Year, it suddenly sparked interest not only among other architects. We talk to Aleksandra and Mariusz Grabowski about creating one’s own place in the world from scratch.
Marcin Szczelina: When your house in Będzin won the Grand Prix of the Architecture of the Year competition, it sparked a fierce debate. Were you surprised by the buzz?
Mariusz Grabowski: We were extremely surprised. Of course, the architects told us they were going to enter the house in the competition, but we did not envisage the level of interest it would generate.
Aleksandra Grabowska: Our house was meant to be a quiet, unobtrusive building that would blend into the landscape of St. Dorothy’s Hill. When the media buzz began, we were joking with the architects that a house that was meant to be unnoticeable suddenly turned into something completely opposite.
MG: The house was meant to look as if it’s been there forever. It was meant to be unassuming. Even the garage door is grey so as not to stand out.
AG: We were surprised by the reactions of both the press and our friends who had also been thinking about building their own homes. Our house made them think outside the box. This is something that’s really important for me – that people are beginning to consciously think about how they live instead of going for ready-made solutions.
Weren’t you tempted by a catalogue design? All the houses in the vicinity were built based on catalogues, so yours really stands out against this background. From a certain angle, a catalogue design would blend into the surroundings more. And it would be cheaper.
AG: We first felt that urge some 15 years ago. That’s when we started thinking about our own house and browsing catalogues in search of inspiration. For a long time, we were also considering a large apartment in the city centre.
MG: Quite a lot of our friends started building their houses before us. There is a certain pattern that everyone adheres to. No catalogue home is ever 100% yours. We have our lifestyle, our values – we care about ecology and being mindful of the world. We try to stick to that, so ready-made designs would have to be modified, and redoing something that comes ready-made isn’t always a good idea. It was cool to be able to create a tailor-made design from scratch.
AG: We wanted the house to be designed well. One of the architects we approached accepted all our initial assumptions without a word of criticism. We decided that this wasn’t what we were after. We are not architects and we don’t pretend to know everything about anything. Mariusz is an engineer and he likes to say that you ought to delegate tasks to people who are experts in the given discipline. We didn’t want to commit the typically Polish error of thinking we were omniscient and would do everything on our own. This isn’t just the case of the house, but also the garden we’re planning to have here. We are not gardeners, so we thought it would be good to have a garden design that would suit the type of soil in place. We keep thinking about what’s locally available – this is the wealth we want to tap into.
How did you find your architects, Jojko and Nawrocki? Do you have any advice for people looking for someone to design their house?
AG: Now it’s easier to find architects, because more and more studios are willing to publish their realised designs online. A cursory look at the search engine is enough to say whether we identify with the proposal put forward by the architects or not. Jojko and Nawrocki were recommended to us by another architect, Krzysztof Gorgoń, who said architects and investors should be the same age. This was a brilliant piece of advice. We are slightly kooky, Bartek and Marcin are kooky too, so we really hit it off. At our first meeting, when they started asking us about the budget and size of the house, we already knew that we were in good hands. On the one hand, they listened to us, on the other, they offered positive criticism to what we had in mind. What is more, they didn’t impose their ideas on us. This was a really conscious collaboration between people who wanted to create something cool.
MG: The decisive factor was that Jojko and Nawrocki were both crazy and bold. We didn’t know what would come out of this collaboration, but we could tell that the fascination factor was there and they were definitely up for a challenge. They did ask us whether we wouldn’t mind crazy ideas. Another important thing was that we set the budget at the very beginning and stuck to it throughout. The architects guaranteed we wouldn’t drift too far off course. Our friends, based on their own experience, kept warning us that we’d end up paying more anyway, but with the design we had, it was clear that every line and every screw were carefully thought out. At first, we wanted to build a two-storey house, but the architects said it wouldn’t make sense to spend money on a staircase, etc. Since we had a large area at our disposal, a broader house would be a better solution.
How much did you eventually exceed the budget?
MG: We didn’t. We even ended up paying less than the assumed maximum. I told the site manager that his job was to adhere to the design. Whenever the team of builders wanted to do something differently, we’d freeze the work and consult the architects. At the construction stage, we only changed one aspect of the design – insulation.
AG: All our friends told us that exceeding budget projections by PLN 70,000-100,000 was the norm. I found that terrifying. This is not a huge investment project, but a small family home. We knew from the beginning that we didn’t want to splash out and end up all kippers and curtains. Our house was not a goal in itself, but a means to live. We didn’t just want to build it – we wanted to not have to worry our heads off about repaying loans.
MG: With catalogue designs, you pay architects for a specific design, after which they disappear and the construction process isn’t their problem anymore. In our case, the architects were responsible for the design up to the house-warming party. When something was wrong, they were able to come down and react. Of course, a dedicated design costs more, but it comes with peace of mind.
AG: We have friends who theoretically had architects individually design their homes, but they did it on a copy-paste basis and then disappeared. Whenever something unusual comes up is usually when the trouble begins. The money you spend on good architects pays off during the construction process.
What percentage of the entire budget are we talking about?
MG: In our case, it was around 7%, but the architects told us they charged us below their usual rate.
AG: But with projects such as this one, it’s worth to earmark even 10% or 12% of the budget on a good architect. It really does pay off – you don’t make stupid, rushed decisions at the construction stage that increase the cost of materials, and later on, the home is cheaper and more convenient to use.
How does one prepare properly to build a house? It’s not just about the design, but finding a team of builders and supervising everything – that sounds like a lot of stress. Wouldn’t it be better to just buy an apartment?
MG: My grandpa was an old-school bricklayer, and he would take me with him to construction sites when I was a kid. I remember that everyone had a list of things they were unhappy about that he had to struggle to solve. So, from the very beginning, the stress was there at the back of my mind. The first important aspect that made me feel at ease were the architects and being sure that there would be someone to consult throughout. The second aspect was that our design wasn’t a standard one, so there was nothing you could do in a standard way. Hence, we decided to opt for a single team of builders to do as much work as possible. Consequently, the first team pushed the shovel into the ground and worked until we closed the door, and then the second team installed all subfloor utility systems. At this stage, the architectural building process is already over, and the interior – tiles or any other fixtures – may already be divided between different contractors. We relied on recommendations when looking for builders. It took us some time to find them, because most of our friends advised us against the companies they had worked with, but we eventually succeeded.
AG: We waited for our team for a year. Although today you sometimes have to wait even longer for good specialists.
MG: And we started the construction process. At that stage, it’s important to have someone to supervise everything. Since we had already established that everything would have to be aligned with the design, I hired a site manager. It soon transpired that the design was unusual enough for the team to not be able to work without our supervision. According to the design, two walls were to have a 1 cm layer of mortar, and the two remaining ones – 1.5 cm. Everything was prepared in detail, so there was no way of doing it differently, because the elevation would not have been symmetrical. In the evenings, we would come and arrange each subsequent layer in the way it was to be assembled, and leave instructions. On the following day, the workers laid the prepared hollow bricks, we’d check them and prepare the next layer. Each subsequent element was a challenge: insulation, elevation, electrical fixtures… Our team soon came to the conclusion that they evidently misjudged what they had bargained for. We had two situations when our builders did not want to continue. But the head of the team was a very reliable man, so they stayed with us and gained the required expertise really quickly. Thanks to their reliability, the building shell was ready in the course of one season.
AG: The house seems very simple, but simplicity requires accuracy. We didn’t want to live in a sloppily built concrete structure. We wanted a solid, simple house, but with beautiful details. The same goes for the paving in front of the house. Our contractor proposed some squiggly patterns, and we wanted a simple herringbone. He said simplicity was the most difficult – squiggles always gave room to conceal something. The fact we can now live in a cool home is the result of having had a lot of time to design it, find architects and builders. We were not in a hurry. The whole preparation process was spread out over several years, which is why the construction process itself went smoothly. We keep saying that if you buy a car and don’t like it, you can always sell it. Music can be switched off and a painting can be covered. Architecture is the only art you cannot escape from. When building a house, you’re not just responsible for yourself and your space, but also of the surroundings. That’s why we didn’t want a sloppy job.
Where did you get the idea for hollow bricks and this type of elevation? They turn your house into what could be described as background architecture.
AG: The hollow bricks were proposed by our architects. We wanted the house to be integrated into the surroundings. We were inspired by the nearby Grodziec cement plant – the first one in Poland, and the fifth one in Europe. It’s a really important historical landmark for us, although it’s in a terrible state of repair.
MG: Grodziec has always been very industrial – with the cement plant, the mine… We wanted to blend in with that.
AG: When the architects proposed the cement blocks, we decided to go for it. We always say that we wouldn’t have built such a house in Masuria, but in Silesia and the Dąbrowa Basin, it is integrated into the context. I hope the cement plant doesn’t fall apart, but if that’s the case, our small house will serve as a point of reference to the history of this place. There used to be a sports club and brewery in the vicinity too – it’s an amazing place that, unfortunately, can’t find anyone who’d love it.
One of the features of your house is that it adapts itself to you rather than the other way round. What does this look like in practice?
AG: When we were starting out, I told Marcin Jojko that I’ll be able to tell him whether his design was good after twenty years. Having lived here for five years, I can already say that this is a brilliant house. The first change is already behind us – the space for kids, which was designed to be common at the beginning and then separated when the children needed it. We have three kids, and after three and a half years, our oldest son said he’d like to get a room of his own away from his sisters. We accounted for that at the design stage, so we knew just what we had to do. This was an amazing adventure for the kids too – not just a renovation, but a change of context. They got very emotional. In a while, when the girls no longer want to live together, one of them will take over our bedroom, and we’ll move to the garage. We have everything planned, including the lighting and the location of the bed or wardrobe.
MG: The wall between the kitchen and the garage is specially prepared and cut so that we’d only need to install the door.
AG: All of the above steps are planned out. Our kids are growing really fast and we wanted to plan what happens when they move out. The garage will turn into a garage again, and the part for kids will be cut off, because 97 square metres is an ideal surface area for a retired couple. We’re currently using 120 metres, then we’ll have 140, and finally we’ll shift to the smallest possible size of our house.
MG: One of our key assumptions was that we wanted to have a home that would last us a lifetime. This means that it has to keep changing, reflecting the changes affecting us and our needs. You can design a house just for the time of bringing up children, but we wanted it to fit us both right now and later on, when our living space is contained in the aforementioned 97 metres. Everything is at the same level and there is just one threshold. Easy to maintain, use and renovate.
AG: When we moved in, all our children attended nursery school. Now they’re all at school. When friends ask us what we’d change after these five years, we answer: “Nothing”. Everything fits, and these are not empty words. There is nothing here that would really rub us the wrong way. Instead of getting old, the house keeps growing with us. This is a constant adventure. I can’t wait for the moment when our bedroom moves out of the garage – and we’ll be able to install a large window instead of the gate. I will give up my current bedroom to our daughter, because we treat each change as something nice. This is the result of having thought about what exactly it is that we want during the design stage.
How do the neighbours view your home? They’ve probably got used to it by now, but how was it at the beginning?
MG: Back when there was no vegetation on the roof, they were asking when we were going to extend the house by one storey.
AG: One of the neighbours kept saying: “Such clever people. A small house, and when they have money, they’ll add the second floor”. A courier once told us: “You know, there are huge mansions without number plaques and you can’t find them, and here you have an unfinished house, but the numbers are on the walls already”. The opinions were very different.
MG: We tell our kids that our house doesn’t have to be to everyone’s liking, but most people are inspired anyway.
AG: The design process began more than eight years ago. Sustainable development, the environment’s impact on the climate, and our responsibility for the goods we buy and use were not so topical at the time. We want to live in a way that’s socially just – this has been the beacon guiding us throughout our travels around the world. The architects’ contribution to this subject was quite brilliant. The quantity of construction materials was measured and calculated in advance, the insulation and the building’s structure was planned so as not to either unnecessarily waste or accumulate heat, and the so-called “fifth elevation” – our green roof – is a biologically active surface. A broadleaf tree on the terrace is integrated into the architectural design, so that in the summer it doesn’t let the living room overheat, and in the winter, it lets natural sunlight in. All rooms apart from the laundry room have access to natural light. As an additional surprise, during one of our meetings with Bartek and Marcin, they even said that they had found a place to design a large reservoir for rainwater in the garden, in order to collect excessive water from the roof and terrace.
MG: It’s getting more and more fashionable now. At the time, it was just our idea that was brilliantly understood and developed by the architects.
AG: Our house has been standing here for five years now and the neighbours have had the chance to find out what it’s all about. At the beginning, this may have been controversial, but it’s changed. People come and tell us that they feel OK here. This is the added value of architecture – when it doesn’t only flatter our perception, but also all of our senses.
MG: In fact, we’ve managed to achieve what we had planned – a house overgrown with greenery that’s just inconspicuously standing there. Had it not been for the media buzz, perhaps no-one would have even noticed it.