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How to protect high-rises for an uncertain wartime winter

Published on Jun 13, 2024

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 33rd edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on June 13th, 2024. The article was written by Serhiy Barbu for LB.ua on May 31, 2024 and was translated for n-ost by Tetiana Evloeva. 

Photo credit: tgn.in.ua. Read the original article here.

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It’s unlikely that we will avoid rolling power cuts in the next cold season, so it’s time to prepare for yet another wartime winter. While our international partners are busy procuring small generating units to partially offset the shortages caused by Russian attacks on our thermo and hydro power plants, and the cities are busy remodelling their power grids, we, the consumers (especially those in high-rises) also have to do our bit.

As the upcoming heating season is bound to be challenging, residents of high-rise apartments are urged to start preparing to keep warm now.

Fitting out the bomb shelter

Having spent a month and a half living in their apartment building’s basement [due to active hostilities] in the spring of 2022, residents of a Kyiv high-rise turned to their condo board, which administers the building, to implement major changes. Rather than evacuate after the full-scale invasion, some residents chose to stay in the capital city, and turned their basement into a full-fledged shelter, to wait out the air raids with some degree of comfort.

Air raid shelter at one of Kyiv's high-rises. Photo credit: Ihor Lykhovodov

“We managed to insulate our bomb shelter and install carpeting,” says Ihor Lykhovodov, head of the condo board. “We also fitted it with a toilet. Before that, the basement lacked any outfitting, let alone the necessary services for a bomb shelter. But we DIY-ed it, and to me, that became a mission of sorts, to provide comfort and safety for the families our warriors had to leave behind to fight on the frontline.”

Flat owners at the complex took care of fire safety, and fitted the building with fire extinguishers. They had a scare when a building next to theirs was hit with a fragment of a HESA Shahed 136 kamikaze drone. Some of these extinguishers are kept on the ground floor, should more downed drones or missiles hit their yard.

“Ours is a nine-storey building with a flat roof,” says Lykhovodov. “Should a fragment of a missile contaminated with fuel fall on that roof, a fire can break out in no time, and the consequences will be very bad. That argument turned out to be quite solid, so our residents agreed to buy another industrial-scale extinguisher. The residents of the upper floors were especially enthusiastic about it.”

Ihor Lykhovodov, head of the condo board. Photo credit: provided by Ihor Lykhovodov

Residents of the lower floors also voted for this purchase. They also backed the decision to buy some fire protection gear, like fire-resistant overalls and gloves, as they are wary of whether the emergency responders, in a moment of disaster, can get to their building on time.

“A condo board procuring fire extinguishers is good,” adds Svitlana Vodolaha, a spokesperson for the State Emergency Service. “They have to be easily accessible and serviced on time. Why? Because war or no war, household fires still happen. Besides, if a building is hit with a missile or a kamikaze drone… Well, all residents have to be in the shelters during air raid warnings, so we can’t recommend them to react to an emergency like that. That’s a job for professionals who have to be called to the site.”

The condo board also purchased a power generator. While it won’t be able to provide enough energy for the entire building during an outage, it can be useful. If the heating system crashes for several days in winter, the water left in the system can freeze and burst the pipes, causing critical damage to the infrastructure. Therefore a generator can pump the water out of the system.

“We dug a pit in the lower level of the building, so we can drain the pipes into it,” explains Ihor Lykhovodov. “And that’s where our power generator comes in handy, to power that emergency system. Once this is done, the heating supply in the building can later be easily restored.”

Photo credit: Ihor Lykhovodov Residents insulating their building

Another important task is to upgrade the building’s insulation. The head of the condo board believes their building can withstand a week or so without a heating supply during sub-zero spells. While they have replaced the doors and windows, they still need to finish the insulation of the outer walls. They also plan on installing a wood-fired stove, for emergencies, and are carefully considering its future placement to adhere to safety procedures. Overall, the total cost of renovations was UAH 5 million [~115,050 euros], and half of that sum was raised by the residents, while the other half was covered by government grants.

“What advice do I have for residents?” asks Svyatoslav Pavlyuk, an executive director of the Association of Energy Efficient Cities of Ukraine. “It’s plain and simple. First of all, think of getting a power generator: it allows you to free someone who gets stuck in an elevator during a power outage. That’s the bare minimum. Secondly, install at least minimal insulation for the building, or at least the mechanical floor. Insulate the doors. Check the pipes in the entire building, especially the taps on the heating system. Think about the fire extinguishing system, for when the central heating goes out. People tend to look for other ways to stay warm [which can mean combustible fuel].”

Residents know what’s best for their homes

Tetiana Shyk is a head of another condo board, in the city of Pavlohrad, east of Dnipro. She resettled to the Dnipropetrovsk region after the full-scale invasion. Before, she used to reside in Bakhmut, where she was head of the condo board in her apartment building and supervised its full renovation. Later, residents of other neighbourhood high-rises approached her with an offer to take charge of their buildings as well. Tetiana shares their achievements over the past years. When the full-scale war broke out, they were in the process of choosing paint for the outer walls of their buildings. However, the full-scale invasion turned their lives upside down after Russia destroyed Bakhmut, and uprooted its citizens.

Tetiana Shyk. Photo credit: Facebook/Tetiana Shyk

“In the beginning of the full-scale war, I was head of nine condo boards,” says Tetiana. “Now, those buildings lay in ruins. In April 2022, my family and I moved to Pavlohrad. Sometime later, I was approached with a request to help organise a condo board. This was the first building in this city that I took into my care. Later, I became the head in the high-rise where I currently rent an apartment. I’m in the process of creating two other condo boards.”

The woman adds that bureaucracy isn’t the main obstacle in creating a condo board, but the fear of the building's residents in taking ownership of their building, for it can also mean an increase in monthly maintenance fees. That was the case in one of the buildings Tetiana manages, where the fee was doubled, to UAH 6 (0.14 euros) for every square metre per month.

“Some people are willing to pay more, but one has to find some middle ground,” explains Tetiana. “And we did find it. We have detailed financial reports so people can see what is being done, and that they are not taken advantage of. But the most important part is that a condo board is an effective tool for standing up for our rights because the board members of the initiative group are interested in the outcome. This is what I tell my clients.”

One of the residential buildings managed by Tetiana Shyk. Photo credit: provided by Tetiana Shyk

Such a board can have practical benefits in wartime. After another Russian shelling of Pavlohrad, two of the high-rises managed by Tetiana Shyk ended up with their windows shattered. So far, they have been patched with plastic film. Residents are counting on state compensation, so they applied for the Vidnovy Dim [Ukr. Restore (your) home] programme, and are awaiting for the funding to be approved. If a municipal management company managed the building, the compensation option would be out of their reach, so most likely, the residents would have to fund their new windows out of their own pockets.

Home restoration is not for all

Another condo board from the city of Korosten managed to save UAH 700,000 [~16,107 euros] when restoring their apartment building after it was damaged during the Russian attacks in 2022. It would be hard for residents to raise such funds on their own, says the head of the condo board Tetiana Bronkivska, so the board applied for financing under the Vidnovy Dim programme and received funds to replace the windows and the entrance doors.

Tetiana Bronkivska. Photo credit: provided by Tetiana Bronkivska

“People are wary of establishing a condo board, as they fear an increase in monthly maintenance fees,” says Bronkivska. “But now I hear more and more talk of creating more condo boards to get things going because that’s one way to save on a lot of things. You can commission some maintenance works once a year, such as patching a roof or fixing the sewage, get them funded, and forget about that issue. It’s definitely cheaper when you manage the process on your own. There are so many success stories in our city, and people take notice.”

Only condo boards can apply for state reconstruction funding. That is one fundamental condition for participation, as an Energy Efficiency Fund official explained to us. The cash is available from the Ukrainian government and from international donors who co-finance projects. This is seen as an investment. For example, the EU Delegation explains that buildings managed by residents themselves are much more energy efficient, which saves on both money and resources in the long term.A building in Korosten before and after the doors and windows were replaced

“As expected, the EU/German programmes supported by the Energy Efficiency Fund will save 309 million kWh annually, reducing the CO2 emissions by 83,640 tons,” reports the press centre for the EU Delegation in Ukraine. ‘Condo boards’ involvement in energy efficiency measures can help reduce the overall energy and gas consumption, nationwide and in every single building, reducing the pressure on the energy system.”

They believe that creating condo boards will reduce heat consumption by 30-40 percent, while gas consumption is expected to drop by at least a quarter. Besides, international donors value the transparency that condo boards provide, especially when commissioning services like repairs. That way, the residents have control over whether their money is spent efficiently and whether the quality of the work is sufficient.

Condo boards: is it hard to unite in wartime?

There are over 180,000 apartment buildings in Ukraine, and their residents have to make preparations for the upcoming winter while the sun still shines. The Government has issued repeated warnings that the next heating season will be extremely difficult. Rolling power cuts are to be expected. According to the National Commission for State Regulation of Energy and Public Utilities, the Russians have destroyed 7 to 9 GW of generating capacity, and rebuilding this will be impossible. Russia also shows no signs of ceasing its attacks on Ukrainian cities.

Only one fifth of apartment blocks have a board. Photo credit: bromedia.com.ua

“As of today, about 20 percent of buildings have condo boards, so for the rest I guess their residents somehow fail to care enough,” believes Sviatoslav Pavliuk. “In a high-rise with a condo board, the chances are that the head is a reasonable person who understands all the risks. Otherwise, as a rule, nobody is concerned about it. Those buildings are most likely managed by some management company or some appointed manager, and they rarely pay attention to such issues. I guess the City can step up and offer them some help, though.”

Uniting as a condo board can become even easier than is possible under current laws. However, for that to happen, the Verkhovna Rada has to vote for the special draft law offering the option for residents to participate through online voting.

“Over 3,000 condo boards were created since the beginning of the full-scale war,” says Yulia Sabotiuk, an expert in housing and utilities. “People need to understand that they [the residents] are the only ones who care about their property enough, and they better leave their kids some real estate that is well-cared for, rather than neighbourhoods falling apart due to age and neglect. I mean, is that the kind of the future we want?”