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Moscow News
March 13, 2008
Revamping Khrushchev's Legacy [re: apartment blocks]
By Nikita Aronov and Anton Razmakhnin

Moscow is knocking down its Communist era Krushchevky, the bland 5-storey apartment blocks named after Nikita Krushchev. However, some are asking whether remodeling the dilapidated buildings might be better than demolishing them.

"It makes no sense to renovate them: they will not become more modern," Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said, referring to residential blocks built in the 1960s-70s. The buildings were even nicknamed krushcheby, a play on Krushchev's name and the Russian word for slum.

This means that millions of Muscovites will move into new apartments, while the inhabitants of cramped non-privatized apartments will receive additional housing space. It will take at least a decade to implement this plan. Meanwhile, people continue to live in the old buildings.

Waiting for Demolition

The inhabitants of some khrushchevki slated for demolition have already been waiting for decades to move into new apartments.

No. 8 Timiryazevskaya Ul. in northern Moscow represents one of the experimental khrushchevki: built with stark stairwells and no balconies, the apartments are cramped even by khrushchevki standards. The wall insulation started crumbling in the 1980s, and the windows and window sills are decaying and cracking. The foundation, which was boldly erected right over a small piped underground stream, is said to be actually "floating." The kitchens, at 4.5 square meters, and the 7-square meter bedroom, give a new meaning to cozy.'

"When we moved here from a nearby barracks, we were happy, of course," first-wave residents say. But in these modern days, the almost half a century old buildings have outlived their purpose.

"Talk about the need to pull down our block and build a new one in its place has been going on since the mid-1980s," one tenant told these reporters. "On two occasions, resettlement orders were issued, but we are still here."

The last relocation attempt was made in 1997: at that time, a modern residential block began to be built in the place of the old dormitories of the Timiryazev Agriculture Academy.

A Moscow city government decree ordered that a portion of the new apartments be set aside for the inhabitants of 8 Timiryazevskaya Ul. However, when the new building was completed in 2003, the apartments were sold at market prices. After the 1998 financial crisis, the money invested in the project had been consumed by inflation and so the residents remained where they were.

The residential blocks built during the Khrushchev and early Brezhnev era are old, dilapidated structures with worn out fittings and fixtures. Yet their load bearing walls remain solid. In other words, they are fit for major renovation. Some experts believe that it would be logical not just to renovate them, but also to bring them in line with the current housing standards.

"Live-in Cells for the Workers"

There is extensive European experience in the field. After all, 40-50 years ago, a considerable part of the Old World (mainly socialist countries) was built up with panel apartment blocks. Thus, in eastern Germany, standard six-floor walkups, dubbed "live-in cells for the workers," are a dominant feature of local architecture. In 1990, the reunified Germany had about 2 million prefabricated concrete buildings in its formerly communist East.

Soon after the collapse of socialism, it became clear that panel buildings were a problem. Therefore, between 1990 and 2004, over 250,000 apartments were revamped in Berlin alone. As a result, the German capital even had a surplus of low-budget housing. The technology is well developed: the load bearing structures are reinforced, the balconies and window blocks are reconfigured, and the external walls are insulated

This does not require the long term resettlement of inhabitants. They are "resettled," but only for as long as it takes to remodel an apartment - often not more than four days. It takes three to four months to revamp an entire apartment building. At the final stage, utilities and service lines are replaced. This way, the life span of the buildings can be increased by many decades.

Germany has also successfully resolved the funding problem. Apartment owners, brought together in partnerships or cooperatives, were granted soft 25-year loans. Many banks and insurance companies were involved in the national housing renovation program with the state acting as the principal guarantor.

Moscow Superstructures

At one time, Moscow city authorities decided to renovate panel buildings using Western experience. The first was a 12-story block on Malaya Kalitnikovskaya Ul. Its roof was replaced, the faade was insulated, the old balconies were removed and new, glassed-in ones were installed - without relocating the inhabitants. The elevators and stairwells were repaired, the ventilation ducts cleaned and upgraded, and modern fire alarm systems installed. Plumbing, wiring, gas pipes and stoves, fittings and fixtures, windows, doors, and floors in each apartment were replaced. The revamp cost around $450 per square meter.

Thanks to a radical idea, the remodeling of two nine-story buildings on the Krasnokholmskaya embankment, completed in 2005, did not cost the city budget a single ruble: They added on an additional floor of luxury apartments, which paid for the entire renovation project.

"These penthouses' sold for about $11,000 per square meters," said Vladimir Kovalev, general director of a construction company that operated as general contractor in all three projects. "If they can be sold at this price, the cost of a remodeling program is completely recouped."

Similar projects were implemented in other parts of Moscow - Mnevniki (Northwest), Izmailovo (Northeast), and Perovo (East), where five-story walkups were remodeled, together with sixth-floor luxury apartments.

But revamping projects with the construction of additional levels is not as attractive to a developer as it might first appear. For example, clients looking for a new apartment are as a general rule not particularly thrilled by the idea of having to share the same building with "ordinary" khrushchevki inhabitants. This brings down the value of this type of property.

As for German-style remodeling, i.e., paid for by the tenants: even with sufficient funding, a general meeting of a housing cooperative or partnership will willingly vote for modern insulation and the replacement of utilities and service lines, but there is usually considerable opposition to the idea of building an additional floor.

That is hardly surprising: even with all rules and regulations strictly followed, new construction causes serious problems for those living below, while resettlement is too expensive. Thus far there has been only one successful project with the resettlement of inhabitants - a five-story building on Khimkinsky Boulevard in northwestern Moscow that "grew up" to nine floors.

After the revamp, the building's total area increased from 4,460 to 9,636 square meters, while the cost of each newly built square meter was 9 percent lower than if it had been built from scratch.

The superstructure sits on reinforced pylons, installed on the sides of the old concrete "box." The space between the pylons helped expand the useful area on the first five floors, thus improving the general layout.

Nevertheless, the city has set the course for demolition as a more radical, albeit labor-intensive, solution.

"We do not support the idea of building additional floors as it aggravates residents' problems. The population keeps growing, but no new schools, kindergartens or parking facilities are being built," says Alexander Kalinin, project director at the Advanced Development Programs Administration, which is a technical contracting authority for integrated remodeling projects.

"It will be difficult to replace all panel buildings, especially in the city center. Some... are so closely fitted into their surroundings that only a building of the same size could replace it."

Would revamping be a better option?