Prefabulous once more

At the beginning of October, a press conference took place on the Karolew estate in Łódź to launch the latest stage of the ‘Przyjazne Osiedle’ [Friendly Estate] programme. But is this scheme necessary, beneficial or even feasible?

‘Przyjazne Osiedle’ is a programme introduced by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party aimed at the extensive refurbishment of older, prefabricated residential buildings, which would involve renovating the façades and interiors of the blocks as well as the grounds surrounding them. However, the results of the country’s recent parliamentary elections have raised a huge question mark over whether many of the schemes initiated by the outgoing administration will be continued; but there can be little doubt that many of those who live in this type of housing in Poland would have a lot to gain from such a transformation. This project adheres to a series of EU regulations, many of which are aimed at achieving greater sustainability along with improving the quality of life of those who live in residential buildings.

It is estimated that around 7 mln people live in prefab housing in Poland and that the country has around 60,000 of such buildings. ‘Przyjazne Osiedle’ is based on seven pillars that encompass the most important aspects of residential renovation. These include the addition of elevator shafts where they are absent, the installation of solar panels on roofs, increasing the number of parking spaces, improving the sound insulation of such buildings, additional green features, as well as reinstalling the gas, electricity, water and sewage systems. The cost of the programme, which should take ten years, is estimated at around PLN 10 bln.

Certified success?

The first prefabricated buildings were constructed in the Netherlands in the 1920s, but they didn’t appear in Poland until the 1960s – and it wasn’t until the next decade, the 1970s, that such construction really took off. “Those who constructed such buildings expected that they would be in use for no more than 50–70 years. But now they are expected to last for several decades more than that. However, their age, energy efficiency and their inability to meet the needs of residents, such as the lack of lifts, all mean that they require extensive refurbishment. So, it could simply be the case that the ‘Przyjazne Osiedle’ programme just addresses what has become unavoidable,” suggests Katarzyna Kuniewicz, the head of research at Otodom Analytics. The pressure for such improvements has been coming from the EU parliament and its recent building directive, which stipulates that all residential buildings by 2030 must have an energy class rating of ‘E’ and a rating of ‘D’ by 2033. “Every building in Poland will soon have an energy class rating from A+ to G to classify how energy-efficient it is. This rating will include the annual energy consumption and amount of pollution emitted by the building. Therefore, the designation will reveal how much energy a building uses to heat water and for its ventilation and cooling, as well as how much its upkeep costs,” explains Katarzyna Kuniewicz. “A rating of A+ should show that a building has a positive balance in terms of non-renewable primary energy – or that it even generates more energy than it consumes, for example, through the use of solar panels. Whereas ratings of F and G are intended for buildings with the worst parameters – those that are the most energy inefficient. Ten years after these laws come into effect, you will not be able to sell or lease out buildings with F and G ratings. For public buildings, this period will be just seven years, so we can expect a wave of renovation work,” she explains.

Above all, investing in insulation is the most effective way to reduce a prefabricated building’s energy usage. According to Przemysław Rejczak, the head of energy and building performance at JW+A: “A prefabricated building loses a lot of heat due to inadequately insulated walls. Additional investment in renewable energy, which has a quick return, will result in limiting energy usage. For buildings with poor energy usage figures, such returns could indeed be very quick,” he argues. Older buildings from different eras that are used to different degrees also present significant difficulties. “The biggest challenge is to modernise the ventilation systems, which have a huge impact on energy usage. Moreover, every time such work is planned, you have to use an energy model to calculate the savings or use a less accurate summary of the energy characteristics to make an estimate,” he adds.

The Instytut Techniki Budowlanej, in its 2018 ‘The Technical State of Prefabricated Buildings’ report, was already drawing attention to the excessive amount of heat lost through the inadequate insulation of partition walls in the buildings it examined. According to the ITB’s findings, a thorough assessment of their state of repair and the condition of all their installations is required for buildings to remain comfortable and habitable. The report not only insisted that renovation work would not only lengthen the lifespan of buildings, but that it could also correct mistakes made during their construction and replace some of the poor-quality construction materials that had been used.

Renovating for the planet

The obvious question that arises is: if older buildings suffer from an increasing number of problems related to their age, wouldn’t it be better to replace them with newer buildings that have been built from the ground up with solutions that meet all modern standards? But such an approach, as analysts point out, would be far less friendly for the planet.

“Modernising existing buildings is clearly less harmful to the environment than carrying out new developments,” points out Przemysław Rejczak of JW+A. “Renovation work results in a significantly smaller carbon footprint than constructing a new building, which requires the use of many tonnes of steel and concrete. While the systems and technologies that are used in modern buildings can also be installed during renovation work,” he adds. These include automated programmable thermostats, which can be installed in older buildings to bring the heating and hot water systems up to date. “This means that many old prefabricated buildings have the potential to be virtually the same as modern constructions in this regard,” he says. Katarzyna Kuniewicz agrees with such an approach in theory, but also points out that renovation is not always the greenest option. “The attractiveness of such solutions when it comes to ESG issues and carbon dioxide emissions cannot be gauged based on general principles,” she argues.

Who actually likes older buildings?

There is currently an imbalance between the supply and the demand on the Polish residential market, but the supply gap can be filled by renovating older buildings. According to Katarzyna Kuniewicz, apartments in prefabricated blocks are attractive to homebuyers. “For a number of years, the demand for purchasing apartments in buildings constructed between 1945 and 1990 has remained stable. In September 2023, 16 pct of searches on the Otodom apartment webpage were for apartments from this period, which is certainly due to their relatively low price. The average price per sqm of useable space came to around PLN 9,350 at the end of July 2023 for such a building in a Polish city, while for a building constructed after 1991 it came to over PLN 11,500. Renovation work should increase the value of older properties, but they will still be cheaper than new constructions,” she points out.

One feature of prefabricated estates is that they often have relatively low building densities, which means that there is good access to light and recreational areas, such as parks, squares, playgrounds, and sports areas. But the renovation programme also includes providing additional garages and parking spaces, which raises the question of where they should be located. “The original layout of prefabricated estates did not take parking spaces into account, so creating them can come at the expense of the estate’s green areas,” admits Katarzyna Kuniewicz. So it seems that the provision of convenient parking could come into conflict with another aim of the programme – improving the green areas and giving residents the opportunity to enjoy time spent outdoors. And the approach local authorities are taking to this particular conundrum varies from district to district.

Prefabricated with a purpose

Despite their longevity, prefabricated buildings cannot over the long term compete with modern developments, and so it is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of both individual buyers and investors will choose apartments in new estates. It should also be taken on board that Poland suffers from a critical lack of social housing. According to Statistics Poland, in 2021 the number of families waiting to be housed by local authorities came to almost 130,000, of which 30,500 were in local cities; however, just under 400 social housing projects were actually begun that year. Some local authorities are renovating empty buildings, but this approach can often be prohibitively expensive. Some progress has been made by community residential and building associations, but these cannot play a significant role in meeting the needs of those who cannot afford to buy apartments at current market prices. It is hard to make even tentative forecasts, particularly when the ‘Przyjazne Osiedle’ programme has not yet started and it’s unclear whether the new government will continue with it. What is not in doubt is that prefabricated housing is still in demand and an achievable plan to maintain such buildings would benefit many generations to come.