Interview with Jaroslav Vondřička: The transformation of a chateau into residential housing
“We have to bring a number of solutions so that the conservationists have a variety from which they can choose,” says Jaroslav Vondřička, head of V Invest, a company from the Creditas group that is transforming the Jinonice Chateau into residential housing. All this includes the medieval fortress, which was only found during exploration.
When buying the chateau, did you have any idea how much work it would need?
Of course. It is a registered cultural heritage site. But one cannot see what is underneath, and you never know what you can find. In the Czech Republic, the investor bears 100% of the risk. In our case, it was the medieval fortress. It was even considered a heritage site of European importance. Conservationists from all over the country came together just for a chance to see it. It drastically changed our plans. There was supposed to be an underground parking garage. We had to find a way to preserve the heritage site for future generations, and at the same time it had to make sense.
What is the process like?
You have to wait until the whole thing is done. That took at least half a year. We could only react to what they had found out. It is not a pleasant experience. We paid several million for the research, and the result grossly interfered with the concept we had in mind. However, we have found a solution, and I absolutely appreciate the approach of the authorities.
They could have forbidden us to build anything there, and we most likely wouldn’t have succeeded in disputing it. We came up with the idea of covering the heritage site up and building the garage over it. It was more expensive, but we have achieved the present parking capacity there. We were able to make it work.
Could it take even years?
Not really. There are certain rules, an official cannot do just anything. It’s not that if the foundations of the old walls are found, they have to be preserved and it has to be a public place where children come to look.
And the second option, that is, that you would not agree and the castle would continue to deteriorate?
This is a question of the approach for each investor and, dare I say, for each person. Some people take it seriously and others would prefer to let it burn down. We have always looked for a product that preserves the essence of the property and generates a profit at the same time. That is not easy. The archaeological exploration and the resulting measures are one part, then it’s still a protected monument and every beam is protected. We couldn’t alter the shape and volume of the building at all. We can’t raise the roof 20 centimetres to get thermal insulation in there. This is, of course, more complicated and costly than a new construction.
But at the end of the day you have high costs and the customer has to compromise on the space they get. Isn’t that a problem?
You don’t quite have the standard spaces that you have in new buildings, but you have a sense of the genius loci. And you know that the building has been used for hundreds of years and has historical value. Living in vaulted spaces is obviously limiting to a certain extent. There are different acoustics. There is a lowered ceiling in one part of the space. It is specific because of the furniture, when the walls are not straight and the rooms are not completely rectangular.
Does it make sense, economically?
One cannot expect to build cheaper housing there. The property is and will be expensive.
Can it be sold for that price?
We’re holding back the sale a bit. We have sold about 30 percent, and it seems too much. We would rather sell it when it’s almost finished because then people will experience the wow effect. It will be really beautiful. I think they will be willing to pay more than they do now when we are selling an unfinished work.
What helped you in your discussions with the conservationists?
We are not violating the essence of the building. We are only giving it a new purpose so that the building can live on. It’s about discussing everything with them. When they see our approach, that we are trying not to destroy the house but to make the most of it, that’s the key. I think it’s a win-win kind of thinking. It turned out great. We were not forced to make so many compromises.
Weren’t there any complications at all?
The original building had no dormers, but it was clear that without light there could be no living space. It has to undergo a construction, so that something that wasn't there before can be newly built. We have to bring a number of solutions so that the conservationists have a variety from which they can choose. We also have to compromise on the standards of how we imagine the perfect project. But we must not take the path that there is only one solution; everything has a number of solutions, and we need to look for them.
How did you deal with the light?
We built in dormers, but they are rather modern in their shape. They clearly reveal that they were built at a different time than the original building.
Is it faster to build new buildings than make renovations?
It varies from case to case. The U Milosrdných project, that’s a new building, and it took 20 years. The advantage of Jinonice chateau was that it was not surrounded by other owners who would have had a problem with something being built there. In the Czech Republic, we are great experts at purposefully and very sophisticatedly preventing something from being built and not taking any responsibility for it. When the authorities see that they are up against a sophisticated group that knows how to prevent construction, they are afraid to make a decision.
How is business, in general?
The rising real estate prices are certainly not reflected in higher profits; construction work is becoming more expensive, by tens of per cent. Steel has also become more expensive. Ukraine is the start of another crisis. Commodities will continue to get more expensive. The prices of plastics and sanitation components are rising as well. It’s going to be difficult.
Will the departure of Ukrainians who leave to fight have an impact on this situation?
Everyone keeps shouting about how we don’t want migrants, but without Ukrainians we wouldn’t be able to function at all. Not at all.