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(Interview with Elena Ştefănescu, architect, co-founder of Studio Ae)
Reporter: How did the architecture market go through the crisis period?
Elena Ştefănescu: Due to the specifics of the activity, the fields of architecture and constructions did not stop their activity even in lockdown. We mobilized immediately and reorganized our work in the office and on the construction sites. Studio Ae has successfully overcome the crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have expanded our portfolio with new clients. We have developed a new department, focused on sustainable housing, dedicated to low energy, passive housing and construction. We have diversified both our client portfolio and the types of projects. We quickly adapted to the changing market demand and went to new projects, meeting the needs of customers. We approached with enthusiasm and dedication even larger, more complex projects, which included all specialties, from architecture, to structure, installations, to interior fit-outs and concepts at the urban level. We have completed over ten construction sites in different fields of activity, especially retail, which have accumulated over 10,000 square meters built. The 2020 performance helps us grow this year and in the future.
Elena Ştefănescu: Demand has increased in the residential segment, especially for single-family homes. There has also been an increase in demand in the segment of houses with wooden structures – either timerframe or CLT (Cross-Laminated Timber-glued wood panels), given the advantages of a faster and higher quality execution. In addition, there is an increasing emphasis on sustainability, which we are happy about. Constructions generate high consumption of materials and resources both in the initial investment and during the entire life of a building (heating, cooling, water management, waste, etc.). A good initial design significantly reduces long-term consumption and improves the quality of life. Also, in the design theme for the new homes we design, the existence of an office, or separate offices, is an express requirement. The demand for the reorganization of office spaces has increased due to the work-from-home phenomenon and for smart homes.
In the commercial sector, demand is now moving towards reorganizing flows and meeting health and safety conditions.
Reporter: Given the health crisis, what express requests have you had in the last year?
Elena Ştefănescu: The experience of the time spent forced inside during the lockdown periods has shown us how much the quality of the built environment influences the comfort and the quality of life. Therefore, quality criteria matter much more, and the positive characteristics of a built space weigh much harder in choosing a home, an office or even a relaxation area.
People are increasingly oriented towards nature and environmental protection, so that natural and recycled materials are increasingly used in the architecture of new buildings. The same trends are observed in decoration and construction.
Also, more and more new projects are specially designed to capitalize on the advantage of being located in the middle of nature, they are located in more isolated areas.
The architecture and design of the present reflect the trends in society, so that the use of recycled materials, alternative energy sources and greater care for the environment are increasingly common requirements since the concept phase of a project.
The use of new and emerging technologies, sustainable architectural elements and the reduction of energy consumption are other trends in the architecture of the present that will dictate other trends in the not too distant future.
Reporter: How do you appreciate the way it is built in our country, from an architectural point of view?
Elena Ştefănescu: Although we can speak of an increase in quality in construction, it is obvious that too few of the projects really take into account the needs of the local community and the need for sustainable development.
They remain broken by the life of the community, undervalued, defining elements of the cities. An example is that of Dâmboviţa, a river on the banks of which Bucharest was founded, but which is, practically, an isolated element of the city, ignored, not valued at all from an architectural and functional point of view.
Reporter: What do you think needs to change in this area and what solutions should be adopted?
Elena Ştefănescu: Architecture and construction generate some of the biggest investments, and economic factors influence decisions. We admire the old, historic buildings, but on the other hand not many are willing to invest in their restoration. Let’s not forget that many buildings in the built fund are public institutions and if the emphasis on investment would move from the lowest cost to quality, then the results will be visibly different. We can hope that as society becomes more oriented towards adopting a long-term vision, it will make more sustainable decisions. We must overcome, as a society, the culture of the immediate, of the quick gain, of “going like this”.
The future depends on the ability of society, of architects to imagine and create it. The more we “dare” to dream of a better future, the more we can define an important goal to pursue.
Reporter: How were the offices converted in the context of working from home?
Elena Ştefănescu: For architects, the reconversion of office space is a double opportunity. It is an impetus to take fast steps forward in a process of accentuated digitization, starting from the design, to the interaction during the project, to the maintenance in time of the buildings.
Office spaces are not disappearing, but are being reorganized or reconverted, and digitization will be part of their future.
It is worth noting the more intense use of integrated technology that adapts office spaces according to needs. For example, while a building is unoccupied, it can be controlled remotely. Thus, the consumption, temperature, ventilation, lighting are automatically regulated. The number of people in a space, the occupancy time of an office, etc. is also automatically tracked. The data collected from an office building are collected, sorted, analyzed by algorithms, in order to then, also automatically, to make decisions on concrete bases and to make the necessary adjustments. Thus, if an area is unused, then that space can be used for something else or it can be cleaned less often. And if a space is used intensively, then it is necessary to clean and sanitize more often. Automatically obtained data on the use of a building is used to improve the comfort and safety of those who use it, and the cost of space administration decreases.
Measures are taken to ensure safety and disease prevention, reduce congestion, reorganize flows between offices, integrate touchless technology.
On the other hand, the reconversion of office space is mainly directed towards the relationship with the outdoor space. For example, several office areas redevelop the pedestrian area in contact with public space. Basically, the first investments will come from the private sector, which will create quality public spaces.
Reporter: In which areas and sectors are most offices reconfigured?
Elena Ştefănescu: A tempting option for owners is the conversion of office space into housing. In fact, reconversion also makes sense in terms of sustainability and urban regeneration. Obviously, not all buildings are compatible for conversion into housing, there are several factors to consider. There are also risk factors such as planning legislation and regulations in an area, which allow or disable housing and related functions. In terms of accessibility and location, there are quite isolated buildings (such as those in industrial parks), without infrastructure specific to residential areas, such as public transport, schools, local trade, parks, etc. and which are not suitable for destinations / purposes other than offices.
A conformation of the building that can no longer meet the requirements for a new office space due to lack of flexibility, inefficient space, reduced accessibility or non-repositionable installations is an important factor to consider.
Another condition is that this reconversion process be economically feasible.
We also noticed a reconfiguration in smaller office spaces due to the hybrid working model. Some companies no longer need all the space they used to. Also, in the Pipera area, an office building will be transformed into a private hospital.
Reporter: What are the new, smart technologies and constructive solutions used in the field?
Elena Ştefănescu: Studio Ae has already implemented complex and complete projects using new technologies such as BIM (Building Information Modeling). BIM is the main element of digitalization in the construction industry.
3D scanning is also a non-invasive method of gathering information from the field, useful to architects, engineers, builders and the customer alike. Based on the information from the scan, the data can be processed and transformed into a BIM working mode. This way of working increases the quality of projects and reduces execution time.
Of course, innovative methods of building a building with augmented reality VR (virtual reality), information integration and collaboration using cloud infrastructure are increasingly used.
The use of AI (artificial intelligence) in architecture and design will be more common, as will 3D printers.
Reporter: What do you think the city of the future looks like from an architectural point of view?
Elena Ştefănescu: The city of the future is oriented towards sustainability and people. A multidisciplinary approach is needed, as there are many factors that contribute to achieving this goal: buildings, transport & mobility, nature – parks, water, waste collection, energy resources and reducing consumption, etc.
At the competitions in which we participated and in which we were also awarded, we proposed for Bucharest a concept of a city closer to people, nature and water. For example, Dâmboviţa can become an axis that connects university and cultural centers, adjacent parks, especially since it has a great potential in this regard. Ten years ago, I proposed this vision for the capital and it would be a dream to see steps being taken in this direction of sustainability. Our project was awarded in Paris.
Reporter: How do you like the legislation in the field?
Elena Ştefănescu: Legislation in the field has lagged behind the pace needed for a better future. There are changes that have been made recently regarding the alignment with European standards on reducing energy consumption in buildings and the Near Zero Energy Building law has been in force since the beginning of the year. For now, the methodology for its application is not very clear, but they will be clarified step by step.
Reporter: Where is our country from an architectural point of view, on the map of Europe?
Elena Ştefănescu: It is difficult to evaluate. If we analyze from the point of view of figures, for example, Romania’s turnover in the field of architecture is 182.2 million euros in 2020, according to the Mirza & Nacey research for the European Council of Architects (ACE). Romania ranks 14th out of 31. Denmark ranks 13th, but in terms of quality in the field, this is a milestone in implementing strategies for sustainable cities, public investment and innovation in architecture.
The most important construction markets are Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain. It is no coincidence that they are also associated with stronger savings. The top five countries account for more than half of the other countries’ figures. It is an exponential difference if we only analyze the statistics graphically.
The European average is one architect / 1,000 inhabitants, and in Romania it is half (according to ACE). Romania “leads”, having the lowest tariffs / hour of all European countries. So we still have until the company understands that there is a direct link between the fees in the field and the general quality of the built environment. “Beauty” means many hours of thinking, designing and developing a new building.
Reporter: What has been the evolution of the company in the last year and what are your prospects for 2021?
Elena Ştefănescu: We, in 2020, had an increase by diversifying the types of clients and projects, including by offering general design services that included structure design, installations. This approach allowed us to have a 40% increase in turnover. Because growth also meant investing in development, we put less emphasis on short-term profit and looked to the future. For 2021, we aim to stick to the 2020 figures, given the general macroeconomic context.
Reporter: What projects do you have underway this year?
Elena Ştefănescu: Currently, we are working on several residential projects oriented towards sustainability, with low energy consumption, low energy or passive houses. Also, in the retail area we continued to collaborate with important companies in the field such as Cora. This year, Cora Romania inaugurated a new concept, Cora Urban, a local store that also allows the delivery of products online. Our studio developed the concept of interior design and there are already two such stores open, one in Militari Residence and one on Ion Mihalache Blvd.
We are also working on several concepts in the area of Resort / retreat in the middle of nature. These are concepts we are working on enthusiastically.
Reporter: In which regions do you develop architectural projects?
Elena Ştefănescu: Most of the Studio Ae projects have been and are being developed in Bucharest and Ilfov, without being limited to these areas. We have also developed projects in Iasi, Timisoara, Targoviste, Ploiesti, Constanta. We currently have ongoing projects in Dolj County, Mehedinti, Bacau, Prahova, Brasov and a project in Luxembourg.
Reporter: What are the perspectives of the fields of architecture and construction?
Elena Ştefănescu: The construction and architecture sectors are repositioning themselves to meet the new requirements of commercial and residential customers. Each company was affected differently depending on the ongoing projects, those that were postponed or temporarily stopped. For example, there were many fewer construction sites in the office area.
The prospects in the two areas remain positive, due to the potential for infrastructure development, the implementation of European-funded programs and the maintenance of financing costs at an even lower level. The residential real estate market is also growing and I hope that the focus will shift from price to value for money and on solutions aimed at the long-term perspective and improving the quality of life.