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When it comes to property development in Barcelona, the only way, quite literally, is up. Due to the city’s geographical location—squeezed between the Mediterranean and the Collserola mountainside, and constrained to the north and south by two rivers—it can’t spread outwards in the usual way.
When the Eixample was constructed in the mid-19th century, there was a surplus of available land, so many buildings dating from that period were lower-rise than their 20th-century counterparts. It was also more costly to construct upper storeys. As a result, many buildings in the Eixample do not maximise their potential volume and floor area as specified in the Normativa Urbanistica Metropolitana, the city’s urban design guide. This guide covers the whole city in detail and sets out planning restrictions and guidelines for development (e.g. how many floors can be built and where).
In the last couple of years, an architectural studio in Barcelona has picked up on this and transformed it into a viable property development opportunity—to construct brand new penthouse apartments on top of existing buildings. Joan Artés, architect and founder of La Casa por el Tejado (LCT), explained how it all came about: “The idea emerged from the need to find work,” said Artés. When the crisis hit, Artés’ practice, Tesgat Architects, looked overseas for work. However, what they really wanted was to find something closer to home. As part of his doctoral thesis, Artés undertook an ambitious study of how to extend the city and create more residential units that take advantage of the existing infrastructure, rather than relocating to a satellite commuter town. “It’s more sustainable to continue building a city that isn’t ‘finished’ than building on greenfield sites and replicating services 20 kilometres away.”
Thus, Artés’ studies led him to undertake a massive field investigation over the course of four years. Taking the Eixample as the area of investigation, he determined which buildings had potential for extension according to the planning guidelines and compiled a detailed study of each case, summarising the ownership situation, potential extendable area, technical constraints, etc.. The same study was then replicated for similar neighbourhoods in Madrid, San Sebastian and Pamplona. “In total, we have identified over 2,800 buildings,” he concluded. “That’s around 800,000 square metres of buildable area in some of the cities’ best neighbourhoods, and the most desirable location within each building.”
Will it stand up?
The proposed additional floors are constructed almost entirely off-site using steel, timber or a combination of both. This industrialised design technique offers precision, a lightweight structure, and above all, quick construction. “While the residential modules are being fabricated off-site, the team are simultaneously carrying out preparation work on the roof terrace and building renovations, so when the modules arrive, they are lifted into place and the project is completed very quickly,” explained Artés. “That’s the spectacle—the crane lifting the building into place. But there is a lot of preparation work behind it, and that is the interesting part.”
However, despite its lightweight properties, adding an extra couple of floors to a building naturally raises structural questions: will it be able to support this additional weight? LCT try to remove the same weight from the existing structure as they intend to add. The roofs of 19th-century Eixample buildings tend to carry various additional structures, such as storerooms and laundry outhouses, and the roof construction itself, known as the cubierta catalana, is a weighty brick construction. Before adding additional storeys to a building, LCT remove approximately 1000kg/m2, and add just 300kg/m2.
It is, of course, in nobody’s interest that these calculations are incorrect, so before the final agreement is made between the owners and developer, tests are carried out in order to confirm structural capacity. Often there is no need for reinforcement, but each situation is different and must be tested. “You can either do it or you can’t,” affirmed Artés. “And if it’s not feasible, we move onto the next one.”
Will it fit in?
But it’s not all about structure. Aesthetic considerations are also fundamental, although adding additional storeys is not a new idea. Glance upwards anywhere around the city and you’ll see a myriad of late additions. This was particularly encouraged by Josep Maria de Porcioles, mayor of Barcelona in the Sixties, to deal with rapid population growth. Development got out of hand in places, resulting in some monstrous additions that actually overhang the elegant buildings below. Such extensions came to be known as the ‘sombreros de Porcioles’ (Porcioles’ hats).
This time round, thankfully, LCT approaches design with more caution and the intention to safeguard the architectural integrity of this wonderful 19th-century barri. “You have to look for a good dialogue between 19th-century and 21st-century architecture. Adding to the Eixample is tricky,” said Artés. Understandably, the idea raised some eyebrows at the planning department to start with, but LCT has now established a good working relationship with the Ajuntament, working closely to ensure that everything complies with planning laws.
“No two buildings are the same,” said Artés, referring to both the physical characteristics and the social dynamics. “The objective is to optimise the area, rather than maximise it. We strive to create a quality space, architecturally speaking.”
The icing on the cake is the provision of a communal green roof area on top of the final storey, so all residents get to enjoy some outdoor space—a rarity in Barcelona. Considering the general lack of private outdoor space, rooftops across the city are surprisingly underutilised. In this climate, one might expect swimming pools and rooftop gardens. Instead, there is a rather underwhelming collection of mismatched terraces, many of them neglected. There was a time (before air conditioning and lifts) when the attic was the least desirable spot to occupy, and it was often where the porter’s accommodation was situated. Today, however, the upper floors are prime real estate.
“Fifty years ago, people used to celebrate fiestas on the rooftops. Now it’s difficult to even get to know your neighbours. Recapturing this space, even if it is just to hang out the clothes or sunbathe, provides a social space for residents to share and possibly get to know each other.”
From a planner’s perspective, Antoni Vives, Deputy Head of Urban Planning for the city, is very positive about the idea. “The rooftops of Barcelona are, effectively, a ‘hidden facade’, and the transformation of this into useable space, particularly if it is green, makes the city more liveable for its inhabitants.”
How does it work economically?
In exchange for the right to build additional storeys (el derecho de vuelo), LCT carry out renovation works on the building, such as renovating the facade, windows, entrance hall, etc., as well as installing a lift. A monetary offer is also made to homeowners in some cases, and maintenance of said works will continue for 10 years. “It has to be a win-win situation,” explained Artés.
The quick turnaround time makes it economically viable for LCT as investors and raises the profit margin. “We know that we have a fixed cost for the materials and construction. Then we must find the right balance between building improvements and monetary compensation.”
What will the neighbours say?
Understandably, the typical initial reaction from apartment and building owners is one of scepticism. Imagine a building with no lift, a dilapidated facade and a bunch of neighbours who can’t agree on carrying out essential maintenance. Along comes a company that offers to fix it all up at their own expense, and give each owner a financial payout too—there must be a con.
And how can a neighbour really judge whether they are receiving a fair share of the pie? For one owner who has been approached by LCT, Josep, this is the real issue. “Putting a value on the right to build is very difficult. Of course we cannot expect to receive a cut of the final value once the addition has been built, but I would like the numbers to be more transparent.”
Buildings over 45 years old are inspected by the Ajuntament every few years—known as the ITE (Inspección Técnica de Edificios)—the findings of which must be addressed by the building owners. Josep’s building is in need of some serious repairs, so LCT’s offer has come at a particularly good time. “I’m not expecting much in terms of monetary compensation, but I do expect high quality work to be carried out on the building.” Due to economies of scale it is likely that the cost of renovations will be lower for LCT than it would be if the building community commissioned it themselves, but to Josep, it is the quality that really matters: “We don’t want to have to carry out further renovation works in the coming years.”
This is a typical situation that the company targets—buildings in desperate need of repair with square metres to spare—and for building owners it can be a very attractive offer, both economically and in terms of living conditions.
Up, up and away
So far, LCT have completed five projects and the new penthouses are being snapped up upon completion, albeit for a high price (€700,000 for 106m2 on Enric Granados, for example), whilst some have been retained by LCT and rented via their real estate branch, Casaático. At €1200 per month and up, one wonders about LCT’s claim that the units are being sold and rented at market price. But then again, the product they are providing—a brand new apartment set in a renovated 19th-century building in the heart of Barcelona—is quite unique and not directly comparable with some of the existing housing stock.
For 2015, LCT aims to see 40 projects underway (by April they already had 21 moving) and hope to complete 20 (an approximate area of 10,000m2), so keep an eye out for the giant crane hoisting the hot property into position.
As Spain starts to emerge from the crisis, it is refreshing to see some development awakening the stagnant construction industry and even more so to find innovative and sustainable ideas for improving existing buildings. The company name is a play on the Spanish phrase ‘empezar la casa por el tejado’, which roughly translates as ‘put the cart before the horse’—an analogy for doing things the wrong way round. But perhaps ‘get your house in order’ would be a more appropriate idiom.