Trends in the development of the contemporary residential building
Authors: Arch. Tihomir Kazakov, Regional Director, Arch. Stoimen Demerdzhiev, Director of Operations, SGI Bulgaria.
Like any other economic sector, the housing construction is subject to the market principles of supply and demand. Any architectural and engineering solution should be backed up by a good business plan and the investor’s interest.
When it comes to the modern dwelling and its sustainability, we should not talk only about the energy efficiency, shaping and building materials. We also need to discuss other topics such as the economic motivation, the lifestyle of modern urban citizen and the social and the idiosyncrasies and urban models that Bulgarian cities follow.
Over the past decade, it has become official that more than 50% of the world population lives in an urban environment and that by 2050 the rate will likely rise up to 75%. For a number of reasons mostly economic ones Bulgaria goes ahead of the global trend and the percentage of urban population is already over 70. Even more significant is the fact that the growth of urban centers and the demand for residential units which have to accommodate the newly settling urban residents are relatively constant every year.
Another factor justifying the growing demand for housing, especially in Sofia, is the relatively well-paid middle class which emerged during the past two decades. It is mainly generated by the IT sector, the outsourcing companies and the service sector that settled in Sofia after the European Union accession. We are talking about young, well-educated people looking for their own home, making up a large percentage of that urban influx, which is an indication for a mature domestic market with a small percentage of speculative demand.
There is also a demand from the already established population in the cities. To a large extent this is due to the logical and expected aging of a large part of the existing housing stock. If we just think of all prefab neighborhoods, we could easily imagine the urgency of the demand that the housing market should expect in case the average purchasing power of the population increases.
This search for housing units leads to an ever-increasing supply. But what is this supply? What are its implications for the urban environment and what norms for quality it meets? A positive phenomenon, partly due to the higher standard of living compared to the previous market boom, is that the investors are becoming more and more interested in the higher quality and luxury residential product. The days when the market was able to absorb any product at any location are gone. The buyer is now more informed about the quality of the product. The residential buildings holding certificates of sustainable design and construction meet the good construction practices and western standards in the industry are becoming more and more desirable. A recent example in the practice of architectural studio Stephen George International is Izgrev 132 building, which received the Green Building Award at the national competition Building of the Year 2017.
But what does “sustainable construction” actually mean? Many people confound the terms “sustainability” and “energy efficiency”, which is completely wrong. Energy efficiency is just a small part of the “sustainability” parameter in construction. When assessing the sustainability of a residential building regardless of the applied American (LEED), German (DGNB) or British (BREEAM) assessment standards, a number of factors are taken into account, such as carbon emissions footprint for the production and delivery of the construction materials, the building’s lifetime environmental footprint as well as the comfort and health of the living environment that the building provides, including but not limited to, noise pollution, light pollution and many more.
A good example of sustainable residential buildings designed by our architectural studio, which aim for a high BREEAM rating, are the residential buildings – part of the Garitage Park complex in Sofia.
Speaking of housing construction, we cannot ignore the urban environment. It is no secret that the rapid development of Sofia, if we can use a Western term in urban planning – “like an oil stain”, is yet to shape the urban image of the capital, and there are already some foreseeable growth problems. The residential areas are overbuilt and in many places the engineering and road infrastructure are not adequate. There is no general plan and control of the aesthetic and ensemble character of the urban development. There is a lack of common language and vision, which is mainly the designers’ fault.
The architect nowadays is no longer that instrument for shaping the social, cultural and artistic environment, so important for the society that he used to be until the middle of the last century, and he should take into account a number of factors, including economic ones, so he could be to a maximum extent fulfilled in his professional endeavor. This is partly due to the concession of professional spheres to a number of engineering professions, and partly due to the industrialization of the construction and design process. With the previous lines, we would not like to exonerate the architectural professionals in any way, but rather to provide an objective explanation of what is happening in the residential environment.
The other factor to blame is the normative system – very adequate for some private cases, but it seems to miss the global picture. A short walk in almost every relatively new residential neighborhood in Sofia would be enough to visualize some of the most pressing problems. The street silhouettes stand out with extreme color diversity, each building presents its own reading of the architectural composition, in most cases – literally dictated by the normative system. The work of the Bulgarian architect often comes down to a practical architectural interpretation of urban norms, but that does not mean the postulates and the theory of the architectural science should be neglected.
Another aspect is the neighborhood streets blocked by the parked cars. Our laws’ requirement for a provision of parking space for each newly designed unit, without guaranteeing the respective use of this space is completely understandable. Therefore, we logically witness the following phenomenon: the underground garages make the construction and housing more expensive, as these garages often remain empty, while the parked cars block the neighborhood streets.
We should say a few words about another recent phenomenon on the Bulgarian market – the closed complexes – small private city quarters trying to create small utopias showing how a residential neighborhood with a common vision, architectural language and rules would look like.
The fact that closed complexes are the new phenomenon on the market and that they are so successful shows that the middle and upper middle class residents are looking for an alternative to the existing housing reality in the city.
At SGI Bulgaria we are proud of our rich experience in urban planning, and we aim to implement our British partners’ expertise in this country. One of our most recent projects, Garitage Park Sofia, aims to be the first Eastern Europe project to hold the British BREEAM standard.
After the urban planning, the scale should be reduced and the attention should be focused on the dwelling itself. The rising real estate prices bring some logical consequences – reducing the average area and rationalizing the housing units. In fact the standard for design of residential projects in Bulgaria goes along a path well known in the Western markets. It reduces the percentage of partition walls in the dwelling by combining functionally similar spaces. The open space living room, the combined living, kitchen and dining areas are no longer exotic but a standard solution. The night zone is optimized but at the same time there are examples on the market going too far. The next step for optimizing the living space is to dispel the myth of the “unwanted en suite apartment” in order to eliminate the unnecessary corridors and to obtain a maximum percentage of usable areas.
Another interesting trend on the market concerns the level of completion of the apartments. More and more investors offer “package prices” with different levels of housing completion, which is very similar to the Western practices. The final customer loses flexibility on the ability to customize his home, but earns a much better final price.
The Future of Housing
The big challenge in the coming years will be to achieve an adequate reform of the legal framework by reviewing the urban development parameters which dictate the architectural shaping. It should be emphasized that this is not just an urban planning problem. A more modern and simplified legislation would lead to more rational housing construction with fewer common areas and more functional floor plans.
If the market trend continues, architects will inevitably have to design more and more innovative and rational homes without compromising the imperative of the utilitarian sufficiency of the different functional groups. We are hardly likely to be reduced to the living standards in France where the rooms dimension are on the brink of the nominal, we are not expected to follow the German models of Frankfurte Kueche and Existenzminimum, but if our economy seeks to catch up with the European economies, the market will lead to a natural selection based on functionality and rationality. Against the background of the possible global energy crisis, there is quite a logically widespread use of the popular new trend SMART HOME for implementation of intelligent energy consumption management technologies as well as the integration of system solutions for use of renewable energy and minimization of the carbon footprint of the dwelling and the building as a whole.