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High Rise Living

The towers of concrete high rise apartment blocks are a common feature of the urban landscape in every Bulgarian town and city. At first sight they conjure up images of ghettos of poverty and social disorder, however in Bulgaria these high rise apartments known as panel blocks are home to a diverse cross section of the population from doctors and lawyers to traffic cops. And, what is deceiving is that the exterior of these grey monoliths by no means portrays the true picture inside; many of the individual apartments making up each block are highly stylised. They also offer an affordable alternative to those young buyers who wish to get a foot on the property ladder as well as a new life abroad and the good news is that there are many renovation projects underway to transform the dowdy rows of flats into colourful chic city pads. 

Panel Block History

Panel blocks were first designed in the Twenties by the famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier. He believed that such communal living would improve the quality of everyday life for city workers, however this proved not to be the case in parts of Western Europe, where the high rise blocks later became havens for crime and hardship. In Bulgaria, rows of panel blocks each marked with a huge number to denote the address, were constructed during the Communist period as a fast and cheap solution to the housing crisis, which resulted after the Second World War. Prior to this Bulgaria was an agricultural region with very little industry, however Soviet aid policies like the Molotov Plan enabled Bulgaria to increase its industrial base thus creating more jobs and a stronger economy. Factories sprung up in every city as did the panel blocks, which were necessary to house the growing labour force. Life here for the new occupants was indeed as Le Corbusier had perceived; for those who left their tiny village houses constructed from limited materials like wood and stone with external staircases and toilets, the newly constructed apartments were luxurious providing easy access to work as well as close proximity to shops, schools and open spaces.

Constructing Panel Blocks

The key advantages to constructing panel based high rise buildings was the fact that the main ingredient was concrete, a cheap material that could quickly be pre-fabricated into identical pre-stressed panels and easily moved to the construction site on a truck.  Once each piece arrived on-site it was welded together using metal joints. Their construction was akin to building one on top of another. The design could be varied very easily according to the number of homes required in a given area.

Renewal and Rejuvenation

In the West most high rise apartment blocks faced demolition; however in Bulgaria they are experiencing a new lease of life. Most are privately owned and still house a wide cross section of the population including many white collar workers. Many owners are independently improving the outer structure of their homes by installing energy-efficient insulation, double glazing and multi-coloured render, which masks the drab, grey concrete. In addition to this there are now several projects in hand where the exterior of whole blocks are tastefully being renovated making them difficult to distinguish from those blocks built as part of the new wave of construction in Bulgaria. In Radomir money from the European Union PHARE fund was used to refurbish a six storey block built in the Eighties. The Bulgarian Committee of Energy oversaw the project, which took almost two years to complete. A consortium of companies from Bulgaria, Greece and Germany were responsible for the renovation and at each stage of the new design the residents of the block were consulted. The renewal of this block featured insulation to the exterior walls, roof and basement ceiling, plugging gaps in building joints, new energy efficient windows and doors, an overhaul of the heating system and a uniform colour makeover. The Municipality of Radomir estimate that the work will pay for itself within nine years thanks to the effort put into energy saving devices.

In the Rhodope mountain town of Smolyan, a four storey block was recently renovated under the Demonstration Project for Renovation of Multifamily Buildings. Again energy efficiency was the order of the day and the same improvements were made as those included in the Radomir project. The communal areas were also greatly improved. This project cost around 93,000 euro. Some of the improvements were grant funded and some was paid for by the individual owners who paid a maximum of 2,150 euro each.

Across Bulgaria more and more projects are being executed under various grant schemes including five blocks in Bourgas, two in each of Sofia, Dobrich, Blagoevgrad and Gabrovo and one in Sandanski to name but a few.

Affordable Housing

With such investment underway, panel blocks offer a perfect solution to anyone who wants to own their own city home at a low entry cost. Panel blocks in Sofia’s Mladost region in the city centre are currently selling for 50,000 euro, in Veliko Tarnovo they are priced around 40,000 euro and in Balchik on the Northern coast they cost as little as 20,000.
Interior picture of panel block courtesy of www.mirela.bg

Pictures 3 and 4 courtesy of www.skyscrapercity.com