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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unwanted Leipzig Flats Could Move to Russia

For MTApartments in blocks made of prefabricated panels of concrete and steel were highly sought-after in Communist-era Leipzig.
Germany has almost a million empty apartments, while Russia has long lines of people waiting for housing.

A German businessman wants to solve both nations' problems by rebuilding eastern Germany's vacated apartment blocks in Russia.

Gerhard Masuch, who hails from Leipzig and has a business in Perm, said many high-rises, made of prefabricated panels of concrete and steel, were abandoned after German reunification and are now slated for demolition.

The buildings need not be destroyed, he said in an interview in Moscow, but could be sent thousands of kilometers eastward to house homeless Russians.

"In Leipzig alone, 60,000 homes have to come down," he said. "We sent panels to Russia in Communist times. We can do it again." Masuch could not provide any details concerning such transports, and Russia's State Construction Committee said it had no records Soviet-era shipments took place at all.

The scale of Masuch's project is grand. Dismantling a 16-story, 54-meter-high, 132-apartment block would mean transporting almost 12,000 tons of panels, which are mostly 3 meters by 6 meters and weigh up to 6 tons each.

One tower in Leipzig has already been dismantled for reconstruction in the Czech Republic, but Russia is so much further. "But once the panels are loaded on a transporter, it doesn't make much difference to costs whether it goes 10 kilometers or 200," Masuch said.

Jurgen Frank, a spokesman for the German Transport, Building and Housing Ministry, said the German government has launched a $2 billion-plus program to transform the former East German dwellings.

The program, which is only just starting, did not necessarily mean the demolition of the homes, but could also mean enlargement of the Communist-era apartments, which are generally very small, he said.

The large neighborhoods of prefabricated housing surrounding many East German cities are considered an eyesore by Westerners. However, when they were built in the 1960s they were highly sought-after, Masuch said.

Older dwellings often had communal toilets, were heated by dirty lignite burners and had no bath, while the high-rises had bathrooms and central heating.

"After my plan was made public in Leipzig, my phone didn't stop ringing from people who had lived 30 years in these buildings. They said, 'We support you. We would much rather that these buildings be put to good use elsewhere than simply demolished,'" Masuch said.

Andreas Weiss, whose engineering firm is working on the disposal of Leipzig homes, sees the recycling of the homes as very positive. While 20 percent to 25 percent of the panels will be unsuitable for reuse, the remainder should be good for at least another 50 years, he said in a telephone interview.

"We shouldn't throw away materials that are useful," he said. "We should find a worthwhile use for them."

Destroying the buildings costs about $190 per square meter, and the same amount should be available to cover shipping costs, Masuch said.

"This material has been considered to have no further value in Germany and no customs duties should be charged," he said, adding that he himself does not seek to profit from the deal.

"That will need some political support in Germany," said Masuch, 64, who was a deputy in East Germany's last parliament -- elected in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Frank, the Transport, Building and Housing Ministry spokesman, said the ministry had approached embassies of East European countries to offer them panels last year.

"The Russian Embassy said that the transport costs were too high and would make the panels more expensive than ones made in Russia," he said.

Frank said Russians might also be concerned importing panels could unfairly compete with local panel-makers.

But Masuch said Russian politicians in St. Petersburg, Novgorod, Orenburg and Izhevsk are interested in receiving the panels in their towns and had estimated that reusing the panels could save 20 percent to 40 percent of the cost of materials for a building.

"With modern technology, the reconstructed houses in Russia could actually be made more comfortable than they were in Communist times," Masuch said. "They can be made to look as if they are brand-new."

"Russian workers can assemble them, but we would insist that a German manager oversees the process to ensure that everything is done properly," he added.

The new homes would not necessarily have to take the form of the original ones that they came from; any form is possible with the panels, even single homes, he said.

Tony Scholes, country manager for construction consultants Bovis Lend Lease, said he doubted that the plan could be economically viable.

"You'd have to run the figures and produce a business plan," he said in a telephone interview. "If there was an intergovernmental agreement between Germany and Russia, then I suppose maybe."