Last week we left Russia’s iconic K-7 housing blocks facing the abyss of extinction with the commencement of Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s plan to demolish and replace them, wholesale. This 2017 initiative is currently confined to Russia’s capital of course, a move that will see the rehousing of 1.6 million residents alone, but also the start of the inevitable.
This first tip of the domino could ultimately see the whole K-7 program replaced across Russia, although the rebirth is set to be protracted and ugly. There is a practical limit to the amount of times that cheap, utilitarian structures can be shored-up against time’s entropic tide and maintained for just a few years more. Sooner or later it becomes an exercise in conservation rather than mere reparation, but as with most things, the situation is more complicated than it first appears.
Although the initial standard of construction produced homes that were sturdy enough in their simplicity, the general lack of maintenance has become a liability over time and even the structural design itself has even contributed to the K-7/Khrushchyovka’s undoing. Whilst it may appear easy in principle to replace aging concrete panels in a modular block system, problems occur when dilapidated outer facades are also load-bearing structures. Yes, the panels that need replacing are often the ones that keep the whole assembly standing, which essentially makes them literally irreplaceable.
Well, this is in terms of practicality and financial viability of course. Not all K-7’s have external load-bearing outer walls, the ones that depend on internal members may lumber-on a while longer, but others with their inherent ‘bad genes’ are the first to fall. Aside from this major structural issue, there are other contributory problems too. Insulation, of both heat and sound, is generally bad and in all cases, the standard (and decline) of internal systems and facilities is also an accelerating factor.
Sewage/waste disposal, heating and water supply systems are reaching limits of practical repair. It often makes vastly more financial sense to scrap the entire block than to pour exponentially more money into these Soviet black holes, when the outcome will ultimately be the same. They are becoming cheaper to replace than maintain, and a final tipping-point will soon be reached (if it hasn’t already). Something will have to give.
A final concern is one of housing density. Khrushchyovkas largely follow a five story design, although there are exceptions. It’s no accident that this number of floors coincided with the legal limit for structures with no internal lift system. As soon as the height increased, the logistics and cost of installing/maintaining such a system would rapidly increase the budget, so many were built low and life-free. With similar floors areas, uniform height (largely) and designated block spacing; the limit of population size, for any given area, was decidedly marked.
However, modern construction standards and advances in technology have made the construction of massive multi-storey blocks feasible within a modest footprint area. Each new edifice comes packed and stacked with a multitude of vacant slots waiting to be sold as gleaming new homes. Yes, it’s cash. That’s ultimately what it’s all about.
Photos by James Emery
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