East Europe's drab prefab towers ripe for revamp

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Polish hip-hop stars sing about them, Hungarians paint them, Germans show them off in a museum, Russians try to ignore their lack of comfort. Millions still live in communist-designed prefabricated homes.

Laszlo Ling, a pensioner, looks out from the balcony of his home in a prefabricated concrete building in Miskolc, Hungary November 6, 2007. REUTERS/Karoly Arvai

Now Eastern Europeans crammed into drab, clumsily built tower blocks at the whim of former dictators are looking for imaginative ideas to brighten up life in their tiny flats, and architects and developers say the time is ripe for a revamp.

“You go to a place like Yasenevo, just outside of Moscow, with all those old Soviet constructions, and the only question that comes to mind is, ‘what were those architects smoking?”’ said Denis Sokolov, head of research at the Moscow office of Cushman & Wakefield, a global real estate consultancy.

In the space of a few “five-year plans” around the 1960s and 70s, factories churned out millions of blocks of reinforced concrete or panels, and entire villages were moved from clay houses into 10-storey concrete monoliths.

Roughly two decades after the collapse of communism they badly need renovation, which some argue presents an opportunity to make them likeable as well as livable.

“This is really the right point in time to do something significant to these buildings,” said Andreas Hermelink of the University of Kassel in Germany, who led a project funded by the European Union to renovate one of Hungary’s many such blocks.

“It (would) definitely (have) immense potential for big business, for banks and energy agencies,” Hermelink said.

Like many products of communist industry, panel buildings are sturdy structures, which can last between 80 and 100 years.

“The problem is that so many flats were built in such a short time: half a million (in Hungary alone) in one or two decades, so all half a million have the same problems now,” said Sara Horvath, an architect at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, who won acclaim for another project to renovate a building with a friendly, colorful design.


The project on which Hermelink worked -- together with Tamas Csoknyai of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics -- was a 2.2 million-euro ($3.23 million) undertaking to tackle problems typical of panel buildings and install the latest environmentally friendly technology in one model construction.

Called Solanova, it centered on a house in Dunaujvaros, a town called Stalin City during Hungary’s drive to build the “Country of Iron and Steel.” Built by prisoners, the building overlooks Hungary’s biggest steel works.

Instead of rusty pipes and wasted energy, the house now has solar thermal panels, low utility bills and plants growing on the roof.

The grey, monotonous look that residents had complained about was replaced by a yellow-orange pattern, while the draughty windows gave way to double and triple glazing and a heat-recovery ventilation system.

Caretaker Istvanne Kanik, an administrative worker, is proud to show off what she calls “my EU building,” and demonstrates her skill at reading the high-tech sensors monitoring energy flows on a screen in her kitchen.

The renovation could not give the 110 inhabitants all they wished for -- including bigger kitchens, bathrooms or balconies -- but they did get a communal green “recreational” roof which they use to sunbathe, party and watch fireworks.

Kanik said the project, which took three years to complete, achieved something beyond engineering.

“It united the whole community. Everyone helped each other, we shared meals on the stairs,” Kanik, who has lived in the house since the 1970s, recalled of the renovation work.


Refurbishing the millions of homes in the region remains a challenge, and few places will be able to afford such a radical transformation.

Most of Russia’s 140 million people live in Soviet-era housing and many affectionately refer to their homes as “Khrushchevki,” after the Soviet leader under whose reign they were built in the 1960s.

Khrushchevki have tiny kitchens -- but at least they have them -- unlike the so-called “Kommunalki” where kitchen, bathroom and often bedrooms were shared by several families until the 1980s, making privacy nearly impossible.

“From the point of view of a real estate consultant, the only thing that makes sense is to break these structures down and build new, modern ones in their place,” Sokolov said.

“But, from the perspective of a regular person in Moscow, this is not a possibility, since by far the majority of people live in these places.”

Germany, which inherited 2 million prefabricated concrete buildings in the once-communist East at reunification in 1990, is looking for “a way in-between demolishing the buildings and constructing more,” said Claus Asam, engineer at the German Institute for Building Care and Modernisation.

It even has a concrete buildings museum, in the southeastern city of Dresden, which also showcases new designs in modern materials.

“Fewer and fewer people live in these buildings now. The electrical systems are often out of date and their surrounding infrastructure needs improving,” Asam said.

The phenomenon is not confined to the former eastern block: there is a large prefabricated housing development in the Bavarian capital Munich and many in neighboring France.

However, the tower blocks resonate strongly with people in former communist countries. Poland’s concrete apartment complexes -- called bloks -- even gave their name to a type of musician -- blokersi -- as hip-hop music came to be associated with housing estates.

“Housing estate hardcore” is the subject of one song by Polish band Jaszczur, reflecting the mixed feelings the legacy of communism still evokes in people.

Some residents see advantages in the old-style housing estates, suggesting even central planning occasionally had the desired results.

“I like living here,” said Laszlo Ling, 55, who lives on a monthly disability pension of 50,000 forints ($287.1) in 37 sq meters in the poorest “Avas” estate in the Hungarian town of Miskolc, a former centre of heavy industry.

“There’s the post office, a row of shops, a school here, a school there, and the city centre is five minutes by bus,” Ling said on his balcony overlooking dozens of other panel houses.

Reporting by Sylvia Westall in Berlin, Amie Ferris-Rotman and Simon Shuster in Moscow, Marynia Kruk and Barbara Sladkowska in Warsaw; editing by Sara Ledwith and Andrew Dobbie