ATTACK OF THE KILLER BUILDINGS

by Stanislava Ciurinskiene; photography by BTA

Aging structures, unscrupulous builders and irresponsible owners have created a homicidal skyline in many Bulgarian cities

39 Alabin St, Sofia

In 2006 a building at 39 Alabin St, in Sofia's centre, collapsed and killed two young women. Surprised such an appalling accident could occur in the 21st Century? That's only the beginning.

Recently, a large chunk of the ceiling fell onto a patient in intensive care at the University Hospital of Plovdiv. Miraculously, the victim survived, suffering "only" a severe concussion. In both cases the official investigations attributed the tragedies to the fact that "the buildings were too old." If a building's age were a legitimate excuse, most of Europe's famous architectural monuments should have crumbled to dust by now.

Over the last few years, accidents like these have been happening far too often in Bulgaria. To prevent more casualties, in 2007 the government began a campaign to identify "killer buildings" in most municipalities. The results were shocking. Altogether, Bulgaria has more than 15,000 high-risk buildings. In Pazardzhik, 50 houses are so obviously dangerous that they need to be demolished as soon as possible. This, however, is not possible because no action can be taken without the owners' written agreement, and at least half of them have left the country permanently.

The city mayor recently declared he was ready to hunt them down using Interpol. Cherven Bryag, a town of 15,000 people, is home to 61 potential concrete murderers. In the Varna region, churches and public bathhouses number among the 556 life-threatening structures. Veliko Tarnovo hosts a whole district of 63 houses which may collapse at any moment and whose owners are unknown.

Unfortunately, the campaign's purpose was more to show the public that the government was doing something after the 39 Alabin St tragedy rather than to prevent future casualties. It was carried out without any serious methodology or a scientific method. The main criteria for identifying a dangerous building were if "it squeaks, looks old and is falling apart." Some mayors simply reviewed old lists of hazardous buildings and republished them. Thousands of potentially treacherous structures remained unidentified.

Fewer than half of the problematic buildings were deemed "too old." Killer buildings are usually due to poor quality or violations of construction codes — very often the two go hand-in-hand.

Paradoxically, poor quality is a rampant childhood disease plaguing post-Soviet architecture rather than the infamous concrete blocks of flats from the 1960s–1980s. The property boom spurred developers to build too fast in order to sell and reinvest in new projects at the expense of quality. Developers, in turn, shift the responsibility onto the municipal bureaucracy and blame the authorities. They argue that if planning permissions were issued faster, they would not be forced to speed up construction. Another method of driving up profits is by minimising the expenses for construction materials.

Due to lack of space, more and more new blocks of flats are built practically glued next to older ones. This recent sandwich-building trend may lead not only to severe claustrophobia but also to far more serious consequences. In the worst-case scenario, the foundations dug for a new building undermine those of its older neighbours. The dangers may not be immediately apparent. An example is an apartment block from the 1980s, located in Sofia's top centre. One morning the inhabitants woke up to find their building cracked almost in half. Municipal authorities inspected the building site and discovered that the contractor had deliberately ignored the permitted parameters when digging the foundations. The private agency monitoring the construction was fined 10,000 leva for "forgetting" to report this serious violation.

Greedy developers are not always to blame. Careless owners have also contributed to the killer buildings issue by doing major renovation without consulting architects or getting municipal permission. They tear down support walls, "utilise" balconies by turning them into bathrooms and reorganise their living space in numerous imaginative if unsound ways. Mini-floods, collapsed ceilings or cracked walls are just a few of the consequences.

In the construction business, clients pay long before they see the final product. Investing in residential properties and holiday homes can be a risky business, especially if you're buying off plan or hiring a building company. Luckily, Bulgaria has recently achieved a significant level of transparency in the construction sector. Since the beginning of 2008, every construction company must enrol in the Professional List of Bulgarian Building Companies. Monitored by the Bulgarian Business and Construction Chamber, the list is a Who's Who of the construction world. It contains complete information about every registered construction company, including financial status, credentials, equipment, all projects completed in the last three years and employees. The list is not just an account of the existing companies but has restrictive powers as well. Only companies on the list are eligible to obtain planning permissions or release permits for new projects.

When buying property, especially in new buildings, or when starting a new project, it is essential that you make sure you have chosen a reputable and reliable building company. All the necessary data about legal Bulgarian builders is available to everyone free of charge on the Bulgarian Business and Construction Chamber's website. Such an investigation can spare you years of problems.

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