ArchitectureDesignSuccess stories

Windows for Ukraine


Zofia Jaworowska, Petro Vladimirov and Michał Sikorski are the creators of a unique project that won this year’s London Design Biennale. The OKNO Project (eng. Window) is aimed at inspiring second-hand windows circulation into the regions of Ukraine that are now being rebuilt. Marcin Szczelina talks to creatirs about activism in architecture.


Photo. Natalia Ruszczyk


Marcin Szczelina: How did it happen that you met and created the OKNO Project?

Zofia Jaworowska: Michał and I are partners in private life. Before we met, I didn’t have much to do with architecture. However, I saw that it had a social potential that was not being used to the fullest, and since housing topics have always interested me, things started to tense up. Previously, I worked in various social organizations with the idea that I would like to turn this experience into the creation of my own organization. It happened when the war started out in Ukraine, and we finished grassroots activities at the station. Then Petro came into our lives.

Michał Sikorski: I am an urban architect. In fact, my entire professional life took place in France, Belgium and Switzerland, until five years ago when I returned to Poland. Here I specialized in campus design, I was the chief architect of the University of Warsaw. Two years ago I opened my own studio named “BACKGROUND”. I have long been interested in the recycling of materials, in Belgium I was looking at the work of the Rotor group.

Petro Vladimirov: I have an artistic and research background, always had love affairs with architecture discipline, from which I keep leaving and coming back again. I always run away from typical design. I’ve always been attracted to the other side of architecture, and that’s where my interest in materials – what architecture is made of – arose.

ZJ: By the time war broke out, Michał and I moved in together, and Petro moved into Michał’s apartment. So we met privately, and then we started to think about what we can do together to get involved in helping in Ukraine, not necessarily in Warsaw.


The scale of assistance that Poles offered to people fleeing Ukraine was enormous, which was quite unusual compared to previous migration crises. Have you been surprised by this?

MS: In truth, there were no situations known even from the Belarusian border or other shameful events. The collective imagination kicked in: this is happening just a few hundred kilometers away from us and we might be next. It is a matter of empathy and solidarity with a healthy mix of self-interest and understanding of the situation. In our immediate surroundings, the first question was “what can we do?”. Zosia was one of the founders of the Resources Group, which found within a few months, emergency accommodation for 5,500 people in Warsaw. 

ZJ: The Pole’s attitude did not really surprise me, even though I have a difficult experience with helping refugees in Poland, because I initiated the first such project when the war broke out in Syria. Back then, the task of looking for housing was very unpleasant and difficult. As a group, we faced a lot of hate. Part of why this situation was different is that I have a feeling that Poles and Ukrainians have been close and familiar to each other for many years now. 


And how do you perceive the reaction of the architectural industry – both in Poland and around the world – to the war?

MS: The farther from Ukraine, the less it affected people, because it felt less dangerous. The exception is Great Britain. It involved a complete cultural and political misunderstanding of what was going on, which was a huge disappointment for me. I lost contact with some of my friends who wrote that this was winding up the war machine by the Americans and NATO. This dissonance was amazing for me – these voices resounded exactly at the same time when Zosia was spending her fortieth night at the West Railway Station in Warsaw helping people fleeing from their homes.

PV: I’m from eastern Ukraine, so for me it all started 8 years earlier. I came to Poland in 2015, and at that time, even in Kiev, what was happening in Lugansk was hardly felt. It was all far away. In February last year, Poland became a completely different country for me. In 2015, people from Ukraine came to Poland, but these worlds were not integrated. It seems to me that there has been a historical shift in social terms. We can see that Poles behave very well towards Ukrainians, but it must also be emphasized that Poles and Poland are greatly appreciated in Ukraine. The effects of this will be very long-term and that is a good change. When it comes to the architectural industry, at the beginning we all thought that we had to survive somehow, so immediately after the explosion as part of the Projektantki_ci dla Ukrainy (Designers for Ukraine) project organized by the National Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning, we were looking for small commissions for Ukrainians coming to Poland. Then the offices began to employ Ukrainian architects on a permanent basis. It is interesting that there is a desire to help in a more permanent way.

ZJ: It is important that all this help is done in the atmosphere of partnership. At least, I have not seen Ukraine viewed as merely a victim of the situation. There is an understanding that Ukraine is also fighting on our behalf.

MS: I left Warsaw after my final exams; I was absent for several years. I was positively surprised when it turned out that I came back to a completely different country. The main change, apart from the architecture, was that our country is no longer so ethnically and culturally monolithic. I think that the reaction of society in 2022 also resulted from the fact that the change had already begun a few years back.


The war caused you to start working together. What did that mean in practice?

ZJ: After two months of work at Grupa Zasoby, I was burned out, so I took a month off, but in general I wanted to keep being involved. The housing market in Warsaw was already saturated at that time. In addition, more systemic activities have begun, and some people have already started returning to Ukraine. I thought we could start working there. We began to consider what is the most pressing need and it turned out to be the reconstruction of housing and public buildings. We had a hypothesis that windows are the scarcest, the most expensive and the most difficult to obtain goods. We took advantage of Petro’s background, who put us in touch with various organizations and initiatives that deal with reconstruction. It turned out that they indeed need windows. We didn’t have any money, and the windows are very expensive, so we decided that, firstly, we would establish a foundation, and secondly, we would start to recycle windows, obtaining them second-hand.

PV: The important fact was that the Kiev and Chernihiv regions were then liberated, and many people began to return. There were a lot of photos of clearing rubble on the Internet and that’s where the idea to help people on the spot came from. We understood that there is a shortage of glass in Ukraine, because about 85% of this material was imported from Russia and Belarus.

MS: It’s hard to recreate exactly the chain of events, but around the same time I read about a window-collecting operation after an explosion in the port of Beirut.

ZJ: Initially, we wanted to collect various materials for reconstruction, but Michał suggested that we focus on windows and doors first. We found the windows to be such a complicated and separate microcosm that we figured we’d focus on them first and then maybe start doing other things. It is only after a year that we start to think about expanding our activities to include other building components.

MS: The activities of Grupa Zasoby gave us faith in the potential of people around us. We found that since thousands of people wanted to take in strangers, it was also possible to collect windows after renovations.

ZJ: Well, we made it.


However, collecting windows seems to be much more difficult than, for example, collecting clothes that everyone can bring by themselves. I also imagine that it is not so easy to arrange transport to Ukraine. What are the details of such an operation?

PV: At the beginning, we had two hypotheses regarding the sources of getting the windows. Firstly, we wanted to receive them from private individuals, because their disposal is difficult, so people keep them in garages or basements. Secondly, the idea was that we will receive windows after exhibitions of building materials or new windows but returned to the manufacturer due to minor defects. Both assumptions were confirmed. We started by promoting the idea of collecting windows among private individuals. We rented a trailer and drove around Poland on weekends, picking up 40-50 windows. We returned to Warsaw and unloaded them in our warehouse. Then the construction sector joined our efforts by finding out about us on its own and started contacting us on the occasion of demolitions.

ZJ: At the beginning, we were rushing everywhere so that the project could be heard as widely as possible. Everything met with a considerable response from the architectural community, which rarely has the opportunity to be so directly involved in activist movements. Now it is much more effective for us to obtain windows from large-format renovations, from architects or developers. Then we can load a truck that goes straight to a specific place in Ukraine, without a stop in Warsaw. This aspect is very important, because as we know, the third sector is always short of money, and transport accounts for 70% of the costs of our activities. However, we still collect windows from individuals, because the civic aspect of the campaign is also important.


Where do you get money from for your activities?

ZJ: We had a donation from BNP Paribas, but we’ve already used it up. Now we are going on the fumes of crowdfunding, and we are thinking about where to get money for further activity. Grants are difficult for us, because the OKNO Project fits into only a few programs. So, we are looking for alternative ways of financing: we want to organize an auction, a fundraising event, we are still counting on crowdfunding. We have a Patronite account, so anyone can support us in this way. We are also ramping up the acquisition of other recycled finishing materials and putting them back on sale in order to improve the budget in this way.

How many windows went to Ukraine thanks to you?

ZJ: On the day of our conversation, it is 1217.


How do you choose where they go?

PV: The project began very experimentally; we explored many things and cooperation with the Ukrainian side is also changing. In the beginning, we started point-to-point contact with several organizations. Then we started cooperation with the District #1 organization, which had a warehouse in Kiev. We transported the windows there, and then they went on, mainly to the Kiev Oblast. Over time, we decided that we had to move on. The project is about helping the least protected groups, and the more to the east, the more difficult it gets, so for us the priority is now Kharkiv and Kherson.

ZJ: We also have organizations there that have already collected windows from the District #1 warehouse. Now we will ship windows directly, e.g. to the Unity and Strength organization in Kharkov and the Svoi Ludy organization in Kherson.


Photo: Natalia Ruszczyk



In the project, you also develop an architectural thread related to the re-assembly of windows, which do not necessarily have to match the holes in the walls.

MS: This is largely my part of the project. The OKNO is run by Zosia and Petro, and I gravitate around. My involvement in the project on an advisory level stemmed from my own interest in designing with recycled materials. In the WINDOW Project, the first observation was that plastic windows work best because they are the lightest and even if something bends, the window remains functional. Ugly plastics, which everyone despises, turn out to be the best technology in this situation. The second thing we learned so far, quite obviously, was that the acquired windows never fit into the shape of an original window frame. So the question arose how to solve it by using design. Zosia and I were invited to take part as tutors in the Lower Silesian Architecture Festival. We loaded some windows into the car and went there with very simple questions: how do you fit a too big window into an too small frame, and how do you fit an too small window into an too large frame? The students drew such interesting proposals that after the debate at the end of the festival, the architects from PROLOG contacted us and offered to work the topic. In cooperation with the BRDA Foundation, an open-source catalog “Window DIY” was created. Ten young Polish studios voluntarily created designs of imperfect details, which were translated into Ukrainian and are provided when sending the windows. I am convinced that working with recycled materials is a big paradigm shift for architects and one of the few ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the construction industry. However, it is still a by-product of the whole OKNO Project.


Do you think that architecture is able to function in a closed circuit?

MS: The idea that we will not build anything new is utopian. However, we should strive to recycle as much as possible. Surely, we should only demolish buildings as a last resort. We have outstanding examples of renovation of old and relatively new buildings, such as blocks of flats – this is no longer avant-garde, but proven methods. Look at the designs of the Lacaton Vassal studio. And besides, even when creating new buildings, you can build with used materials and design them so that they can be easily recycled later. Here it is worth looking at the projects of Anders Lendager’s studio. I have the impression that this is what can change a lot, but we are at the total beginning of this path. Public procurement and the development business are way overdue in this regard, but above all, the legislation needs to adapt.

PV: In the whole process of creating architecture, designing is the next step. The entire construction industry must agree on certain things so that architecture can keep up.

MS: But I still have the impression that in this field the construction industry is more progressive than our architectural schools, which keep gazing at Switzerland in the 1990s. If the topics of ecology are present at technical universities, they are often old-school and not thrilling.


Do you have an idea how to change that?

ZJ: Our main focus as the BRDA Foundation is material reuse – both in the construction and social context. Windows remain the heart of our activities, but we decided that other recycled materials are our chance to raise money for the further implementation of the OKNO Project. In this matter, we want to establish cooperation with the city that lent us the warehouse. Seeing how much reusable materials there are in city warehouses, we would like to persuade officials to jointly create an inventory of dormant resources and open them for reuse, also for other cities. We will also train with Petro to launch professional advice practice for developers and investors on how to reuse materials, where to redirect demolition materials and how to strengthen ESG indicators in their projects.

MS: In a broader perspective, architectural schools and relevant official offices should find money to invite international experts and lecturers who will teach how to build in accordance with today’s needs.

ZJ: Legislative changes and coercion must take place, because without it we will continue to operate on a small scale of this issue.

MS: Well, you must experiment and then evaluate the outcomes. Don’t be afraid of failures and imperfections. The prize we won in London gives us comfort that we are doing well and motivates us to continue searching for new solutions.


There is a lot of talk about sustainable architecture in the context of Ukraine’s reconstruction. On the other hand, there are investors who are already sniffing business opportunities in this process and are building factories near the Ukrainian border. There are also people like Norman Foster who, from the position of a demiurge, have visions of what the process of rebuilding should look like. I’m curious what you think about all this, Petro, from the perspective of Ukraine.

PV: It’s a very complicated issue. I spoke yesterday with an architect friend who still lives in Ukraine. He was complaining that all the architects had left and there is a shortage of manpower. As in Poland, the profession of an architect was underestimated by developers for a long time. Suddenly, it turns out that architects are very much needed, and they don’t exist because they left for the West or changed industries. Norman Foster is doing a great job in promoting the reconstruction of Ukraine, it is good that he is raising the awareness of this topic. But no one knows what he is designing in Kharkiv – he has not shown even a single sketch for a year of work. As for business, there is no denying that materials will be needed, and you will have to buy them somewhere – Ukraine does not produce anything itself. Although I would like these businesses to enter Ukraine directly and approach the situation in a spirit of partnership rather than just selling. It is a paradox, however, that there is talk everywhere about the green and sustainable reconstruction of Ukraine, and the materials that will be purchased are unlikely to be so.


You presented your project at an exhibition during the London Design Biennale. And you won the grand prize. Were you surprised by what happened around the OKNO Project?

ZJ: We were a bit surprised. We had some ideas and, on the spot, it turned out that the exhibition was set up just like in the visualizations, there was not much left to do, so we thought that now we would just have a nice time in London. Suddenly it turned out that we got an award and of course, as with any award, a person is happy, even if he or she says earlier that it doesn’t matter. We had a lot of nice moments, then we hosted a panel that was intimate, but very energetic. This injected new energy into our activities. After a year of work at the foundation, we were already burned out, but the award gives us the feeling that despite the overwork it was worth it and the direction we are heading in is the right one.

PV: Indeed, we felt that we had done our job well, but it was only when I saw the other pavilions that I understood that we were talking about design in a completely different language and the topic was completely different, so we were actually surprised by the verdict.

MS: The six months from submitting the application to the realization of the exhibition were very methodical. It was a solid teamwork, and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which gave us a lot of support, did a great job. I treat this exhibition and the award as tools: it allowed us to do things for which there was no space before. The interviews included in the publication, for example, led to the discovery of this mysterious woman, Lara Moutin, who collected windows in Beirut. It was an opportunity to talk to architects who inspire us, such as Assemble from London, an opportunity to ask questions about the upcoming aesthetics with architect Barbara Buser. I am very happy with this award, but if someone had told me earlier that we would win the London Design Biennale with old plastic windows, I would not have bet a dime on it.

ZJ: We hope that this exhibition will travel a bit, because it is also an excuse to collect windows in other countries.