Bringing tradition into modernity – a conversation with Artur Puszkarewicz about wooden construction
We invite you to an interview with Artur Puszkarewicz, who together with Anna Kotowicz-Puszkarewicz form the AZE Design Studio. His story will take us into the fascinating world of architecture, where tradition meets modernity, and a passion for craftsmanship leads the creation of unique works. The creator with a unique approach to design shared his fascination with wooden construction and the project “Podlaskie Cottage”.
The conversation inspires us to look at architecture from a completely new perspective and think about how our surroundings affect our health and everyday life. Read the interview to find out why wooden construction is returning to favour and what benefits it brings to residents and the natural environment. We talk about passion, designs, and why it is worth returning to simpler life, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Studying architecture, moving from Warsaw to Podlaskie, designing products and furnishings with old techniques, such as basketry, maintaining a balance between the old and the new... What else would you say about your activity? What is important for your work now?
The respect for the human work, work which resulted in the creation of objects and items which accompany people throughout their lives, still remains. However, my focus has shifted towards construction. This is due to the observation that the world of everyday objects that surround us frighteningly excessive. On the one hand, we are talking about the fact that we should look more closely at everything, be more sensitive and responsible… “Deadly” plastic straws disappear from the landscape of store shelves, but every small item, food or even piece of candy is packed in plastic, and that does not offend anyone. This mental collision, or rather situational paradox, makes people come to the point where it is necessary to ask oneself: Is what we are doing really necessary for others? Another chair, furniture set or kettle, which will become obsolete in 4 years by design, will eventually land in an overfilled dumpster, giving room for new garbage. In this way, as designers, consumers, and ultimately people, we use time without reflection, the only truly non-renewable resource in every person’s life. Time that leaks through our fingers without us knowing, wasted on designing objects whose only purpose is being in itself.
The principle that has always guided and continues to guide us in our professional work is this: If you do something, do it as well and honestly as possible. If you say you want to work with real craftsmen, using the local potential, its natural strengths, then authentic products from local raw materials must be created in cooperation with the local people. This way, local energy will be used properly and wisely.
My time today mainly filled with wooden construction. I do not intentionally say architecture, because architecture (I have an impression) has separated from construction. Until recently, both modest and richer households reflected human’s role in the world. This is evidenced by the remains of traditional wooden construction. Just 100 years ago, every carpenter, when erecting a building, was in a way a continuator of the local architectural pattern. A man who had a deep understanding of wooden raw material used as matter, who took care of structural, technical or visual logic. He did not miss the basic goal in his work – the living needs of future residents. The geographical location of Poland has meant that we now have access to the “crumbs” of this huge and important heritage. The vast majority of traditional wooden construction disappeared in the depths of military tourism, which repeatedly swept through this and other regions of Poland. Whether they were Swedes, Russians, Cossacks, Turks or Germans – everyone had similar aspirations and goals in their journey. One of the elements of the conquest was the annihilation of both simple construction and unique architecture that did not look like the creation of human hands. They were closer to Alfred Loos’s “divine workshop” – just like mountains and trees, clouds and sky. Where everything exudes beauty and tranquillity. In spite of these repeated destructions, man’s inner need led him back to surrounding himself with beauty akin to God’s creation.
The design of the wooden building evolved with the changes brought by civilization and its development. Nevertheless, the craftsman’s awareness and knowledge persisted. He chose the right trees in the forest, prepared them, turned them with simple tools into high-quality building material, which then turned into a beautiful shelter serving man as a place of encounter with another man. Of course, the whole building was conditioned by many factors, technical and construction solutions. All this meant that the archetype evolved and developed in a creative way, adequate to human needs and environmental conditions. The craftsman did not argue with snow, wind, rain, because he knew perfectly well that such discussions were pointless. His task was to do everything in such a way that this object was the best possible shelter. Unfortunately, observing the modern world, I get the impression that this original principle has disappeared.
Therefore, I believe that there has been a separation of architecture and construction. Looking at most of the buildings of today I can see that the main factor determining their creation is economics – the investor or the developer. But the real factor that determines a person’s decision to have a home is simply a good life. Living in a space that is conducive to this good life. Parameters of the object, such as space and its shape, sunlight, materials used, interior microclimate, heat accumulation, thermal insulation or diffusion of vapour – these are all material and physical components, which ultimately create protection for humans. I get the impression that this has been disconnected and that the craftsman-carpenter, together with certain legal conditions that appeared in Poland in the sixties, simply disappeared. There were fewer and fewer wooden buildings, just like the people who could make them. Perhaps we are now experiencing a renaissance of traditional construction. People, for various reasons, reach out to this pattern and it turns out that the performers are in a period. They don’t know what to do about it. Of course, they will do something, but the question arises whether they know what they are doing. Do they know how the new materials used in the modernization of a traditional facility correspond with each other? The range of materials used to be considerably smaller and boiled down wood and other organic materials that corresponded with each other. Today we have a whole arsenal of synthetic materials, polystyrene, foams, adhesives, foils…
Since a building does not have an impact on a person, and it is important what environment we live in, can we talk about the sick building syndrome and what it is?
Funny, or perhaps completely unfunny, American studies indicate that polluted cities are more polluted in terms of the air inside a building than outside. If we read labels, e.g. on fabrics, carpets, if we look at what the objects that surround us are made of – from floors and walls, windows, tables, beds, fabrics, etc. through furniture, toys, clothes, paints or varnishes – suddenly it turns out that they are mostly synthetic substances. And the characteristic of all matter is “aging”. This aging is a chemical reaction with oxygen, which as an element is highly reactive and reacts with whatever it can. Oxygen binds with other elements, aging the substances whose atoms it takes over, and finally causes the chemical bonds to break down, so that the substances contained in all these objects are released. Hence, suddenly buildings have high concentration of phenols, formaldehyde, phthalates or isocyanates, which are briefly referred to as VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
Suddenly, it turns out that in order to live healthy, you not only need to take care of physical health, but also the quality of the air in the space in which you are staying. Homans today live inside a building 80% of the time, that is, most of their life. In the building is what is. We pump most of the substances through ourselves by breathing, then by getting them inside the body through the skin, and finally through food. Medicine is actually at the very end of this process. In contrast, the bioaerosol we breathe is very important, because each of us during the day pumps through the lungs about 12 m3 of air, together with which we deliver all this “wealth” to the cells of the body through blood. As they say in the IT world – garbage in, garbage out. It is no wonder that our bodies are much weaker, much more exposed to diseases euphemistically referred to as civilizational. There is a whole lot of scientific research available on these issues, but do people bother? Not really.
A house made of wood, free of synthetic substances found in building materials, does not emit substances that are unfavourable to residents. The source of these substances entering the air we breathe are building materials that undergo aging.
When it comes to utility items, we should focus on natural, even if made of wood, furniture and natural fabrics, and when it comes to the building itself? How do we build to spend time in a building that is friendly to our body?
It is a very simple matter, although it would seem that the vast majority of us have forgotten about it. Each of us knows the difference between a chicken egg “from a farmer” and the one we find on the shelf in the store. They can impress us with messages – bio, eco, free range. We all know that it is impossible to create anything that is more perfect than natural. The situation with construction is similar. We have a simple building in its material “composition”, in which there are no solutions based on synthetic substances. There are no adhesives, acrylics, varnishes, foams, sponges, expansion strips and sealing films. The materials used are mechanically bonded together, coated with natural oils, lime paint, chalk paints, lime or clay mortar, insulated and sealed with organic fibres.
The difference between our relationship to the free-range egg and our approach to the house we live in is our unconscious. Do we want to live in an environment that is harmful to our health? Do we know that plastic is harmful and poisons the environment? Do you think water should be clean and available? These are all questions to which everyone will give the same answer. However, few people wonder why the plastic bag breaks down, why the rubber giving in and the foam crumbles. Why does paint come off wood and where does it go? Where do formaldehyde, Teflon, phthalates, bisphenol or isocyanates come from in the air?
And this is where this simple “composition” comes in. A house made of wood, free of synthetic substances found in building materials, does not emit substances that are unfavourable to residents. The source of these substances entering the air we breathe are building materials that undergo aging. Put very simply, synthetic materials, as they decompose when exposed to the elements and time, slowly deteriorate. The aging process continues throughout the life of the product, of course, it intensifies over time, until we see, for example, a plastic bottle crumbling into smaller elements in the forest. The small elements of this bottle in the form of “microplastic” have long been released from the structure of the bottle. It is from this bottle, construction foil or yoghurt packaging that microplastic has already entered the blood and tissues of the human body. It also found bisphenol A from polystyrene, formaldehyde commonly used in materials such as wood-based panels (chipboard, OSB) or mineral wool. This list can go on forever.
But let us assume an alternative scenario. We believe that wooden construction is healthy and beneficial, just like an egg from a farmer. What should be done to minimize the risk of adverse volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air of a building?
We should start with the awareness that we have all the necessary materials around us that can be successfully used in the construction process, meet technical and fire-fighting requirements and be beneficial to the residents. Therefore, it is necessary to pay attention to what substances will be built into the structure of the building and which of them do not harm us, and at the same time are beneficial from the perspective of the purposes that they are intended to serve as elements of the construction structure. Therefore, it is necessary to check at the design stage what is beneficial and what is not.
Opponents will probably say that it is possible to minimize the emission of bioaerosols emitted by building partitions by closing them with foils. The air to the building will reach the specially designed ducts, which will draw it from the outside and introduce it into the building. This is how air is supplied in, for example, passive buildings, which are airtight buildings. But in a moment, it turns out that there are problems of a microbiological nature. In the pipes and devices that transport air, there will always be conditions that will allow some bacteria to thrive. The polluted air finally goes to the building and its quality affects the health of the people living in it, as well as the safety of the entire building. And suddenly it turns out that we will not be able to change certain phenomena, e.g. affect the microbiology that surrounds us, so we can only accept it. However, there are laboratory studies confirming that terpenoid-based essential oils, which are contained in the resin found in the wood, are constantly emitted from the wall, of course, at different rates. They are microbiologically biocidal – resin is produced by a tree as a way to disinfect damaged trunk surfaces. Built into the baffles, the wood slowly releases the resin, which is inhaled. The substances contained in it are beneficial for us, as confirmed by scientific research. So, it can be assumed that this prosaic model of life practised in the past was perhaps not as primitive as we think. Yes, it was devoid of modernizations, but we may have misinterpreted many of them. I do not mean living in a historical way, dealing with difficulties and physical inconveniences resulting, for example, from the lack of technical and information solutions. I think we have the intellect precisely to use it – for purposes that will serve us. So that we can lead the whole process so that the building serves us. Thanks to this, the prosaic wall will be well constructed, will meet our expectations, will have a high thermal capacity, good thermal insulation, will be microbiologically friendly, will look nice… And finally, it turns out that the brain will be “satisfied”, it will regenerate faster and enter a state of relaxation faster than with the g-k plate or other matter that does not cause the stabilization of brain waves as wood can do.
So, if not mineral wool for partitions, then what?
There are a lot of alternatives based on organic substances, from the most trivial ones such as cellulose, or properly shredded newspaper or cardboard packaging, which have a high thermal capacity compared to mineral wool. Another example is sheep wool, which is unique. In not-so-distant times Poland was a sheep-breeding tycoon, so we also had a lot of wool. Now there is a problem with wool of a different nature – even if its available, breeders have trouble selling it. As you can see, we no longer need natural resources. To mention further: hemp, flax or wood fibres, straw of annual plants – these are the most trivial examples. In addition, there are Scandinavian solutions – system walls, where the beams are cut with a multi-saw, forming air pockets. In this way, immobilized air, which is the best insulator, fills a perforated wooden wall giving it great thermal and structural parameters, prepared for the assembly process. The intellect shows us that we have so many possibilities of using the raw material, which is renewable, which is next to us and which we have in such quantities, that if we wanted to make Poland wooden again, we would not have a problem with it. One only has to approach this process differently, which is already being realised by people in Western Europe or the United States.
We rejected it, as if we were ashamed of such simple solutions, which, perhaps after the war, were associated with poverty...
Yes, in a way. There are probably several reasons for this. The condition of forests in Poland as a source of raw material after the Second World War was difficult. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a piece of legislation emerged making it more difficult to build wooden houses. And of course, the associations you mention. It was a propaganda factor aimed at stimulating brick construction, which was synonymous with modernity and progress. If the opposite propaganda was built that the happiest and most prosperous people live in wooden construction, the vast majority would like to live in a wooden building. No one wants to be miserable or poor. It is a matter of creating a certain message. At the moment, I have the impression that it is a good time to restore wooden construction, bearing in mind, of course, that the environment and the model of human life have undergone a huge transformation.
What can we do to build more using wood than before?
Of course, we need to work on it so that people understand that wood as a building material is beneficial for them. The second factor is the financial capacity for investors to afford such a building. You have to develop these solutions in such a way that they are accessible to people – materially, spatially, structurally. After the war, wooden construction flourished in Sweden, Finland and Germany, when large numbers of houses had to be built quickly – one, that raw material was available, two, the required machinery was easy to manufacture, and the structures themselves light and simple to assemble. Before the Second World War, cement chipboard was produced, which then fell into disuse, but has really interesting technical and insulating qualities. I recently spoke with probably the last Polish producer of Suprema boards. He produces it because he believes in it, but 95% of production is sold to Germany and Sweden. Very few people buy this solution in Poland. And there are indeed many such wood-based composite solutions. It would be enough to look at all of this, but the most important thing is to spread the belief among people that a wooden building is something desirable, something one dreams of, a way to live a better life.
The problem of creating a trend.
Exactly. And this is a fashion that can be of benefit to all of us.
Tell us about the “Podlaskie Cottage”.
It’s a fun little project, just designed for the purposes of simple, non-bulk prefabrication. Its components can be made in a production hall without having an advanced machine park and transported to the construction site without the use of heavy transport. The basis of its creation was the thought of moving from Warsaw to Podlaskie and the awareness that this unique regional otherness that attracts people – among other things, it is simple, wooden rural construction. At the same time, breaches appear in this wooden landscape, houses disappear, the architectural landscape ceases to be unique. If it disappears completely and is replaced by suburban architecture, which is highly likely, then the question is why the come to Podlaskie? Hence, the idea arose that people who would see the potential for life in this place and want to live in the Podlaskie countryside should dedicate this project. The idea was that this project could be taken for free in the construction department of each municipality in Podlaskie. However, after discussions with the local administration, it became apparent that this is obviously not so easy, in fact it is impossible – so it has to be sold, even for one zloty…
The new opening appeared at the moment of the breach, which appeared in the regulations, i.e. Buildings up to 35 square meters based only on an application. There were plans to expand it to the surface area of 50 and 70 square metres. To make it a building that is inscribed as an element of the “seal” of the Podlaskie’s street-villages. Appearing in place of disappearing architecture in a way that is imperceptible. Of course, the building has the bathroom and kitchen that a modern person might expect. However, there can also be a kitchen with a tile stove. This is all a matter of the later solution of the living space. This project was mainly about openness and flexibility, but above all about accessibility. Its task was to facilitate the buyer of the execution process, so that the investor does not feel lost, has a ready and simple solution. The construction of the first buildings collided with the time of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which changed the decision of investors. However, the project itself still evokes good associations, so who knows what will come of it.
It would be worthwhile for Podlaskie to continue to be a region associated with wooden construction. Can it still be considered unexplored?
It seems to me that anything can surprise us, so Podlaskie can do that, too. A road that you drive very often, and you know, it would seem, through, can have moments that you missed or saw on a different background. This is completely re-creating the image of this place. I think so, of course. The advantage of Podlaskie is its civilizational “lag” resulting from geopolitical and historical conditions.
Beautiful oxymoron – the advantage of “lagging”.
This advantage gives you something that people miss. Interestingly, it is a physical longing, although people yearn for a certain romantic state that appears in every mind. It is a longing for Eden, which has a peculiar character in the Podlaskie. And to put it simply, the demand is always for unique goods, something that is little and will be less and less – a non-urbanized space, immersed in nature, in which people are integrated with nature and live by the rhythms set by it. I also think that people are captivated by this simple model of life, where it means yes and does not mean no. Where the home is a refuge, a place of prayer and a place of encounter with the family. This is something that is in everyone, although it can manifest in different ways. There are suppositions that this longing is for all of us a common record located somewhere on the cellular level – to which reason has no access. If this is the case, it will always be a premium commodity.
Thank you very much for the interview!
The portrait and the project: archives of Artura Puszkarewicza
Background image: Depositphotos