Low-hanging fruit

Sometimes, when it comes to green issues, we like to make life too complicated

My father-in-law happens to be quite a well-known Warsaw-based architect and in the 1970s was part of a team working on a modest little project now known as Ursynów district. As one of the designers, one of the privileges he had was that he and his young family were allocated one of the apartments in the district – and, as someone with an artistic profession, this to be one with two floors. It’s a nice apartment, at the top of the building. I live in it today. One oft-repeated story in the family is that construction workers during the communist era were well-known for stealing the insulation from the roofs to sell on the black market, so my father-in-law made damned sure that this wouldn’t be the case in for his particular apartment. However, just before he was about to move in, the authorities – for reasons known only to themselves – decided to give my father-in-law an apartment in a completely different building that was identical to the first, apart from the fact that it most probably had no insulation in the roof. To this day we look out enviously from our balcony at the building opposite knowing that they have a much cosier apartment.

Before I come to the point of this little story, let me digress. Some years ago, a certain Romanian company invited me over for the opening of a project they had just developed, and as a result I spent the weekend in Bucharest. The final day was spent wandering around the city’s streets sight-seeing – and there were a lot of sights to see. One of the things that struck me – and it wasn’t the beauty of the city (although it is beautiful) – was the ugliness of the air-conditioning units. For each old building it was often the case that every single window had a big fat grey box with a fan protruding out of it.

I remember one article I once wrote, for which I had to get every developer in Warsaw to actually show me their green certificates. It was a nightmare – I’m sure I missed a lot of buildings – and it was an experience I wanted to forget. But later I went to interview some big shot at a major developer and the PR in that company said something like: “You wrote that article? Wow, it was amazing!”

Another point I would like to make is that attitudes towards the environment have changed drastically. When I was eighteen I was at a friend’s house (or rather his parents’ place) and he suddenly picked up a plastic bottle, scrunched it up and nonchalantly chucked it on the fireplace before setting it alight. He sheepishly turned to me and said: “Shit for the environment, but it makes a great firelighter.” Today, his actions almost seem to border on the criminal. When it comes to people’s attitudes I have to say I drive an old banger. My pay cheque at Eurobuild isn’t quite big enough for me to be able to drive the latest hybrid. I once came in for heavy criticism for having such an unecological car and yet a friend of mine, who runs a fairly popular motoring magazine, pointed out to me that car production has such a huge carbon footprint that the most environmental thing you can do is to drive your vehicle until it gives up the ghost. Sometimes it seems to me that green technology is over-engineered.

Anyway, to get back to the point. Another reason why I used to write a lot of green articles was because I grew quite friendly with Rafał Schurma, the former president of the Polish Green Building Council, and I knew that he would always be happy to give me the information I needed. One of the very last green articles I wrote was on EU mandated green targets and whether they had been achieved. (It turns out they had, but largely through redefining the targets.) Rafał Schurma pointed out to me that old building stock accounts for around 40 pct of emissions and that it is almost impossible to renovate it so that it would meet modern sustainability standards. As my late father used to say: “Never let the best be the enemy of the good,” – and what he meant by this is that if you insist on the best possible solution, sometimes you not only fail to implement it, but you also fail to make simple improvements. Now this brings me back to what I was writing about in the beginning. The pre-fab housing that many Varsovians live in is always going to leak heat, but any substantial improvement can probably only be made just by bringing it up to its original design specifications. And as for all those air-conditioners in Bucharest – I understand that during the summer it can be so swelteringly hot that it’s impossible to work without them, but still you’ve got to be kidding me if you’re telling me that there’s no simple way of removing at least half of them.