From classrooms to kitchens

The Prague Post

As Zižkov undergoes a face-lift, one project offers a blueprint for keeping the old while bringing in the new — Stará Škola, a school building being converted to apartments. The property, purchased in 2003 by foreign-owned Leonardo Investment s.r.o., will be ready for occupancy in August.

“Anyone can make a new building,” says the project’s architect, Jan Kupka, “but to refurbish an old building and keep its essence takes more care.”

“Old buildings have spirit,” agrees Eva Bohacová, one of the owners of Leonardo Investment. And that spirit is what drew 28-year-old student Barbora Sipošová to purchase one of the flats. “I like very much the old character of the building, very high windows and walls,” says Sipošová, who currently lives in Prague 2.

Key to the building’s appeal is an addition that gave Kupka the opportunity to design a more open layout. “We wanted something simple that still respected the original building,” he says.

The new addition is 743 square meters (7,998 square feet), grafted onto the original 1,307 square meters. Individual flat sizes range from 22 to 487 square meters.

The building is not a historic landmark, but it is in a preservation zone of a historic landmark area, meaning the project sought approval from the Culture Ministry’s Heritage Office. The Heritage Office has four requirements for buildings in this classification: The reconstruction mustn’t endanger or significantly alter the appearance or property values of the historic landmark area; it shouldn’t significantly alter the size of the ground plan or the size and height of the original building; it shouldn’t have a negative impact on the quality of life in the area; and the project shouldn’t significantly alter the skyline of the historic landmark area.

“The building is not classified as a historical monument, but it is a very characteristic example of a school building from [the second half of the 19th century],” says Petra Cibulová, a Heritage Office architect who worked on the Stará Škola project. “Unfortunately, not every valuable example of historical architecture can be classified as a cultural landmark.”

So how do you take an old school building and turn it into a residence? “”It was a positive challenge,”” says Kupka, who wanted to keep as much of the existing structure as possible. The centerpiece of the building is the original staircase, which is being refurbished. The rest of the building took shape around those stairs. “”We had to build a special walkway to connect the new addition with the original building, because the stairs were such an important part of the original building,”” says Kupka.

Taking out classrooms and offices and replacing them with bedrooms and kitchens was something new for Kupka. “We used the width of the building, as well as the back side, to our advantage,” he says. “We put the living spaces in the back, facing the green areas, and the bedrooms in the front, facing the street.” Parukarka Park is right behind Stará Škola; Kupka took care to keep a huge chestnut tree already on the property.

The quality of the interior was just as important to Kupka and Bohacová as preserving the exterior look of the building. “My client wanted high-quality and above-level standards for acoustics, so we used special floor insulation to keep the flats quiet,” says Kupka. “We also don’t know the tastes of the tenants, so we kept the interior design timeless.”

The Heritage Office was pleased with the quality of construction. “We are happy with the way the architect dealt with the interiors,” says Cibulová. “He used quality materials in a way that recalled the original style in which this school was built.”

Changing demands

For projects such as Stará Škola, which are in preservation zones but which do not involve historic landmarks, the developer has the option of presenting its plans to the Heritage Office. Approval is not required to begin reconstruction — though in a bit of a Catch-22, if one of the four requirements is violated, the project will be stopped.

After the developer presents its proposal to the Heritage Office, requirements are checked and recommendations made, usually with mixed results.

“About 90 percent of all developers ignore most of the recommendations we give them,” admits Cibulová. For the Stará Škola project, she says, “Our main concern was to retain the original slope of the roof and to keep the building the same height that it was originally. We were surprised when we saw the final stage of the project and realized that they had built one additional level.”

“They were quite open to the new addition but did not want to hear about the roof extension at all,” confirms Kupka.

Still, Kupka tried to keep the spirit of the old where he could, creating replicas of the original front door, interior doors and window frames. “With this project, a part of the original neighborhood still exists,” he says.

“The reconstruction all around will make the area nice and interesting,” adds Bohacová.

The Heritage Office agrees, but also has some advice. “Every neighborhood needs to evolve and to keep up with the changing demands,” says Milena Ernýgrová, director of the Heritage Office department that deals with properties outside historic landmark areas. “But this evolution should happen under the supervision of the Heritage Office.”

Stará Škola offers a total of 18 flats, about 10 of which have already been reserved. Mark Batt of Identity Reality, the firm marketing and selling the flats, says that as soon as Stará Škola’s Web site went live, he started getting inquiries.

Sipošová learned about her new home a different way. “I was walking down Jeseniova street and saw the publicity about selling flats in the building,” she says. Many other people showed interest in the reconstruction, according to Bohacová. “We had people walking by, asking what was going on and how they could get more information,” she says.

Underground parking is also available, a rarity in Zižkov. “Because it’s a blend of old and new, has a high quality of design and construction, and offers garden flats, it’s a unique project in Prague 3,” says Batt. “The area overall is undergoing general improvements.”

Sipošová likes the area as well. “The building, the location and the price are why I bought a flat here,” she says.