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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wherefore Art Thou, Renovated Balcony?

For ages, balconies have been places for making speeches, exhorting crowds and declaring love. Despite this proud legacy, in Moscow at least, balconies are more likely to be used for storing rubbish, smoking cigarettes and drying laundry.

Now, however, a number of Moscow firms are offering a myriad of better uses for balconies. With a good imagination, some ready cash and a willingness to deal with local bureaucrats, even the dinkiest of balconies can be transformed into an enclosed oasis of greenery and civility. The trick to achieving all this in a renovation is to pay close attention to maximizing light and space.

Not only will renovating your balcony make it a more pleasant place to be, it will also render your property more valuable, said two Moscow architects who offered their advice on how to proceed.

"Such small things as sliding windows -- like in a tram -- instead of ones that open, save space," said Olga Shcherbakova of Murry O'Laoire, a Moscow architectural firm.

Shcherbakova said she often appeals to customers' imaginations and urges them to choose a combination of different materials for the fenced-in portion of the balcony. She also suggested making the glassed-in part protrude over the balcony to create added space.

Over at the firm of Eurotec Italy, Olga Golovanova suggested turning a balcony on the upper-most floor of an apartment building into a "lantern-like winter garden."

"Get rid of the metal fence and make it all glass with a tower-shaped ramp roof, which can be as high as the building's roof itself," Golovanova said. "Have flowers hanging from the top or put a big palm tree in there, and install a light. It will look like the sun or the moon, depending on the time of the day."

Another option, especially good for the kind of tiny balconies found on buildings constructed in the 1970s, is to expand the size of the balcony by tearing down part of the wall separating the balcony from the rest of the apartment.

"Unfortunately, all that requires very complicated engineering solutions and it takes so long to arrange a permission," said Golovanova. "It's a whole odyssey."

According to Alexei Sakharov (tel. 249-9743), an architect who works for the city in three central Moscow districts, decisions on whether to permit balcony renovations are made on a case-by-case basis and often depend on what the neighborhood as a whole looks like.

On main streets in central Moscow neighborhoods even small changes like painting the balcony's exterior a different color require permission from the chief designer at the Architectural Planning Department (tel. 250-1682), Sakharov said.

"If you do it without permission, you'll have to pay a fee and then immediately dismantle the whole thing, because if this balcony falls down, who would assume responsibility for that?" he added.

When it comes to actually getting the work done, the firm Bamo-Stroimaterialy (tel. 202-8647) installs German-made vacuum-sealed doubled-pane windows at a cost of $210 per square meter. These windows open both vertically and horizontally.

Of course, it is the height of foolhardiness to glass in the upper part of a balcony only to leave the lower portion open to the elements. Holding-Stroi (tel. 366-5092) will cover this area with attractive heavy-duty plastic sheathing at a cost of $120 per square meter. This firm also installs two kinds of German-made vacuum-sealed windows -- non-opening ones for $140 a square meter and ones that open for an additional $40.

Claremont Group (tel. 291-9343) does any sort of a balcony reconstruction, including building a loggia on the first floor. As loggias are not typically part of a Soviet building's structure, supporting piles must be driven, creating a sort of a cellar under the loggia. Claremont's workers will then glass the loggia in and create a hole in the floor through which to enter the cellar.

"If you want it on the street side, there's no hope the local architect will let you do it," said a Claremont employee, who declined to give his name. "If it is in the courtyard, the neighbors will get envious. Most people cannot afford the luxury of a $6,000 or $7,000 construction project."

He went on to say that at least two-thirds of that total price goes to pay bribes to local officials.

Perhaps the cheapest option for a balcony renovation is to hire a construction brigade through a newspaper like Iz Ruk v Ruki and install single-pane windows at an average cost of 120,000 rubles ($22.15) per square meter. Double-paned windows cost three times as much. And construction of cabinets costs at least 150,000 rubles per square meter.

Once the difficult task of redesigning the balcony's layout and glassing it in is taken care of, only the more pleasant chore of interior design lies ahead. Some of the more lively options include the use of large planks to create a wooden deck above the cold, concrete floor. Or try ceramic tiles and bricks, also suitable material for the walls of a balcony, if it is structurally capable of bearing such a load.

One of the main attractions of having a freshly renovated balcony is the chance to grow plants and flowers, creating a romantic veranda atmosphere. Trellis, bindweed and other climbing plants, suspended on walls or railings, will isolate a balcony from the exterior world -- and the prying eyes of curious neighbors. Seasonal greenery is the most convenient for Moscow's climate and just means shuttling flower pots in and out as the seasons change.

Sady Podmoskovya (tel. 503-5101) offers some good deals for decorative plants. Or check out the open-air market near Volgogradsky Prospekt metro station, where 50-centimeter-long seedlings of at least four kinds of climbing plants, different conifers (pines, juniper), shrubs (honeysuckle) and flowers (tulips, roses, chrysanthemums) are sold for an average cost of 25,000 rubles each.

Kors Phytodesign Center (tel. 939-0024) will adorn your balcony with artificial and dry flowers, natural plants in pots, and permanent compositions with fresh-cut flowers, changed twice a week. Plants are supplied weekly from Holland and can be ordered by catalog. Prices range between $20 and $500 per floral composition.

When it comes to furniture, there is no way to put a lot in the tiny space of a Russian balcony, but some will fit. It may be sidewalk cafe-style plastic furniture, or a refined art nouveau wicker rocking chair, or tailored to the size of your balcony, rough hand-made wooden benches and a table. At a cost of between $3,000 and $4,000, the Kobyakovo wood-working factory (tel. 597-5919) makes beautiful -- and expensive -- wicker furniture.