Access approved

Small talk
Agnieszka Karwala, a senior project manager at Skanska Residential, tells us how she helped to pioneer access certification for residential projects in Poland and details the various features an accessible building should have

How come you were the first person to insist on the need for resi-projects to be Buildings Without Barriers certified?

Agnieszka Karwala, senior project manager, Skanska residential: It was in 2016, when I was working on our Holm House project in Warsaw’s Mokotów district. At that time, the access to public and commercial space was already being discussed, but I made the point that after work we all go home to residential estates, where we shouldn’t have to navigate any barriers either. That’s when the idea was born to submit residential buildings for certification. Nowadays, this seems obvious, but eight years ago it was a pioneering approach. Working together with the Integracja foundation, we set out the required standards. We submitted our project for assessment, we identified what needed to be improved, and we implemented novel solutions. Holm House was delivered in 2018 and was the first residential building to obtain a Buildings Without Barriers (OBB) certificate.

Have you certified all your projects?

More or less, but there have been developments that we’re not going to certify while still trying to meet OBB standards. This is because estates are sometimes built on sites where the terms of the urban plan make certification impossible. There are also projects like this that we are building now, because these are multi-stage and we received the building permits for them before we began certifying our buildings. Nevertheless, all of the projects we now launch are based on these standards and we try to certify each one of them.

What does the term ‘access’ encompass?

This requires a complicated answer because we measure access in different ways. When it comes to people with physical disabilities, the first thing that comes to mind is someone in a wheelchair. However, physical impairment can take many different forms. When we first started consulting physically disabled people, they took us for a walk around the city so we could see how people with different disabilities see space, such as the visually impaired. This was an eye-opening experience. For the blind and the visually impaired, distances, contrast, textures and even the light intensity are important, all of which have an impact on the perception of space. We can therefore sum this up by stating that access means adapting a building to meet the needs of all users, including those with mobility issues or other impairments, along with children and the elderly.

By how much does ensuring such access add to the development costs?

Unfortunately, adapting an already existing building can be costly. But if we take such decisions early enough and our designs take into account certain values and goals, then it’s certainly much easier. The costs are then viewed in a totally different way. That’s why we don’t consider doing eventual modifications but instead design buildings that way from the outset to meet the certification requirements. I believe that we have already set a certain standard for our designers. We make some basic demands of our architects and they think about the building from the beginning with our guidelines in mind. The value of such a development is certainly higher than that of a standard building that isn’t designed in such a way. Those buying a new home think long-term about their parents growing old or their children growing up, and they will find it much easier to use the space of the estate thanks to our solutions. We don’t approach the issue of access strictly from a cost point of view. We construct buildings that will continue to exist and be used for many years, so it’s extremely important and responsible to build them with inclusiveness in mind.

Is developing an accessible estate more about pleasing investors than about any legal regulations?

The regulations only set certain guidelines. The basic requirements are laid out in construction law, which directly references the New York Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), while more specific regulations can be found in the technical requirements. Unfortunately, many of these regulations are only general in nature. For example, when it says that a building should contain apartments for the disabled, there are no concrete guidelines for this – not even when it comes to how many there should be.

What above-standard solutions feature in your developments?

We submit each of our buildings that we certify to an auditor at the design stage and certify them again just before they are handed over for use. They are then analysed according to different criteria. For instance, the regulations state that we should use doors with widths of 90 cm, while the entrances should not have steps but ramps with appropriate railings and grips. These are all obvious measures, but we try to do more. We place benches with armrests in the common space so that it’s easier for the elderly to stand up. We use door handles with grips that are easier for both children and the elderly to use. We also check how heavy the doors are so that they are easier for such people to open. We examine the visual contrasts in the common areas and also check that such fittings as the intercoms, switches and window handles are at a suitable height. It’s also very important that the entrances to terraces and balconies don’t have steps.

So, what’s the access like on your estate?

In my neighbourhood the situation is rather good. I live in an older building, but it has entrance ramps and an elevator platform. I moved to Warsaw from Kraków and I’d say that other cities need to do more to catch up with what’s happening here.

Interview: Anna Zamyłka