Earthquake Events in Bucharest and Their Effect on Historic Houses

The recent catastrophic earthquake in L’Aquila from Italy’s Abruzzo region that has also damaged many medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, brings back to many people in Romania the grim memories of the big 1977 Romanian earthquake (7.2 Richter scale magnitude), which destroyed in as little as 1 minute an important number of old and new buildings throughout the entire country and killed more than 1,500 people.

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Neo-Romanian style building damaged in the 1977 earthquake, Magheru Boulevard - Italian Church area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The nightmare was briefly reawakened by another short earthquake that struck Romania a few days ago on 25 April, which fortunately was very short and of moderate magnitude (5.3 Richter at the epicentre), without causing victims or damage.

I was a witness of the big 1977 earthquake and its terrible consequences, then also studied the phenomenon as part of my coursework and training as a geophysicist at the University of Bucharest in late 1980s and later worked as a seismics specialist for a big oil exploration contractor in Britain, facts which I believe qualify me to give you in this article an  informed view on the earthquake risk faced by the large stock of period buildings from Romania’s capital.

Most of the period houses of Bucharest and from the rest of Romania for that matter are vulnerable to earthquakes over 5.5 degree magnitude. Historical data spanning the last millennium, gathered from medieval chronicles, archive sources, etc. indicate a rate of 2 – 3 catastrophic events, defined as over 7.0 degree Richter magnitude, per century.

Unlike the Italian mainland earthquakes which are of shallow depth and thus highly localised, the Romanian ones occur at depths between 70 -180 km, their effect being felt over large distances from the epicentre, which is situated in the Vrancea region of central Romania. Their origin is the collision and friction in that area between three regional tectonic plates, a sector of the larger system formed by the collision in southern Europe between the major African, European and also Arabian tectonic plates, which in the course of geological times formed the mountainous chains that include the Alps, the Carpathians or the Caucasus.

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Vrancea seismic region (red colour)- located at the triple junction point of regional tectonic plates that converge in that area (map source: Romanian National Institute for Earth Physics; tectonic plate delineation: V. Mandache)

Explained in basic terms, that triple junction point of tectonic plates is a rare occurrence in geological terms, making the geological movements more numerous and dynamic compared with the ususal collision between just two plates, as can be seen on the map above that shows in red colour the high density of earthquakes in the Vrancea region. The seismic waves are also propagated and even intensified by the blanket of sediments (sandstone, gravel or clay washed up by the rivers and deposited in the plains that surround the Carpathian Mountains), acting like a huge resonance box for the earth tremors, in the same manner as sound waves are amplified in the resonance box of a string musical instrument.

Bucharest is located in the middle of one of those plains, being directly exposed to the seismic waves generated 150 km away in Vrancea. The damage caused by many intermediate-depth earthquakes is therefore extremely severe.

The property bubble of the last four years has made Bucharest period properties some of the most expensive in the entire European Union, even more expensive than superior examples in the United Kingdom or France. The euphoria induced by the bubble, coupled with the unrealistic expectations of both seller and estate agent, induced them to casually ignore or just wipe under the carpet obvious facts such as these properties’ bad state of repair or the fact that many went through three catastrophic earthquakes in the last century (1908, 1940 and 1977). The prospect of quick undeserved gains continues to make them considering trivial a multitude of other details, such as the fact that many period houses are built on the unstable old floodplain of the Dambovita river, on shallow inadequate foundations and put toghether from questionable quality materials, provided with low earthquake resistance structures.

Shallow foundations on a rubble filled groung of a 19th century building seen in a recent archaelogical dig in Lipscani area, Bucharest 2009 (Valentin Mandache)

The shallow foundations, on a rubble filled ground, of a 19th century Lipscani area building seen in a recent archaelogical dig. Bucharest 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

The majority of Bucharest period buildings were erected between mid-19th and mid-20th century (see my previous post on the history of the building booms of Bucharest with the largest proportion of them affected by at least two catastrophic earthquakes, those that took place in 1940 and 1977.

The 1940 event badly affected the Cotroceni Royal Palace, the official residence of the king, a beautiful edifice in French Second Empire and Neo-Romanian style. I have here two photographs that I found in the National Archives holdings, which properly convey the tremendous force of nature that impacted this prime Bucharest building and destroyed numerous less well built others.

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Cotroceni Royal Palace damaged in the 1940 earthquake (source: Romanian National Archives)

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Earthquake damaged interior of Cotroceni Royal Palace, 1940 (source: Romanian National Archives)

The 1977 event resulted in over 35,000 damaged buildings throughout the country, most of them period houses and listed public edifices located in Bucharest. The collapsed structures produced a heavy war-like death toll for the city.

Vrancea seismic activity obviously continues, permanently threatening Bucharest city and its metropolitan area. The city authorities undertook just cosmetic repair measures and over the last two decades did nothing serious regarding the compilation and implementation of a structural consolidation programme for the Bucharest listed buildings. The most obvious measure is just a palliative one, posting a large red dot sign on some of the earthquake risk buildings, shown in the image bellow that reads: “building examined through technical expertise that falls within Class I seismic risk”.

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Red dot sign applied by Bucharest city authorities on earthquake risk buildings in Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The red dot has started to appear on a number of period houses, as is shown in the following photographs of Little Paris style buildings (from the period between late 19th and first two decades of the 20th century):

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Little Paris style building from Batistei area with red dot earthquake risk sign applied (©Valentin Mandache)

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Red dot earthquake risk sign on a Little Paris style building in Kogalniceanu area (©Valentin Mandache)

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Little Paris style building with red dot earthquake risk sign in Popa Soare area of Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

During the property bubble in Bucharest these obvious warning signposts were in many instances ignored and property easily changed hands for large sums of money. The trend continues as I found recently in the case a period building located in the Unirii area, stamped with a red dot for earthquake risk, irresponsibly marketed by the international property consultant Colliers. It just beggars belief how brash and reckless these companies, even the so-called serious ones, have become in their quest for easy money in the unparalleled Romanian property bubble environment that is still lingering on even at this hour.

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Earthquake risk building (with red dot sign) marketed by the international property consultant Colliers, Unirii area, Bucharest 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

Since the bubble has timidly started to unravel, the red dot is now a factor that hugely diminishes the value of a property. Many owners are extremely unhappy to have it stamped on their building, often succeeding through interventions and collusion with corrupt elements from among the city authorities to have it removed and thus deceive careless buyers keen to buy property located in prestige areas.

The successive high magnitude earthquakes that affected Bucharest period buildings in the last century and a half have left unmistakable marks and scars on many of them. The high costs involved in the repair and restoration of these architectural gems has never been a priority for the city authorities. As a consequence, there are listed buildings in Bucharest that are still untouched, boarded up ever since the 1977 earthquake, such as in the house bellow, in a delicate Venetian Gothic style, which I found in the Cazzavillan area.

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Venetian Gothic style building, uninhabited and left unrepaired since the 1977 earthquake, Cazzavillan area, Bucharest 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

The sad reality is that many of these earthquake damaged period buildings, located in prime Bucharest areas such as Lipscani or Cismigiu (see the photographs bellow) are still inhabited. Their elderly owners or impoverished state tenants housed there since the communist times cannot afford even basic repairs. The authorities as a rule do nothing to at least conserve these historical buildings, exposing their occupants to untold danger in case of an even moderate earthquake.

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Inhabited earthquake damaged buildning, Lipscani 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

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Inhabited earthquake damaged building, Cismigiu 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

The owners’ lack of resources and indifference of authorities take their toll even on newer period buildings with more resistant steel reinforced structures, such as the Neo-Romanian style apartment block from the image bellow, built in early 1930s on the Dambovita embankment. The building is an architectural gem, but is falling apart, exposed to high risk in case of an earthquake. Despite that, the asking price for flats in this type of property is over Euro 3,000/ square metre, which is obviously way off the mark, speaking volumes about the bubble mentality of the Bucharest sellers and their agents.

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Neo-Romanian style appartment block dating from 1930s, in a neglected state, located in an earthquake risk area, Dambovita embankment, Bucharest 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

Bucharest has numerous cases of period buildings that have a sound structure and built on solid foundations that are left neglected because of more than a decade long legal ownership disputes between the descendants of former proprietors or other claimants. That is a common situation after the state grudgingly returned property confiscated during the communist takeover. One of the most usual damage in this case is water infiltration through leaking roofs that over time weakens the structure of a period house exposing it to potential irreparable damage in case of an earthquake. The example bellow shows a fine French Gothic villa in the Icoanei area with water infiltrations from a leaking roof.

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French Gothic style villa damged by water inflitration from a leaking roof, Icoanei area 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

The natural soil subsidence is another omnipresent factor that adversely affects many of Bucharest’s period houses built on shallow foundations, on unconsolidated former floodplains or as in the case of Lipscani quarter on top of rubble filled cellars of buildings that stood there in previous centuries. That situation can amplify manifold the damages and dangers faced by those buildings and their occupants in case of an earthquake. I have here a telling example in the photograph bellow, of an interesting Austrian baroque style house from Dorobanti area showing obvious signs of subsidence induced damage.

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Austrian baroque building from Dorobanti area damged by ground subsidence, Bucharest 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

 

Conclusion:

Bucharest’s period houses are highly exposed to the Vranceaearthquakes that can be devastating if the magnitude is over 7.0 degree Richter scale. Many of these properties are built from fragile materials, provided with inadequate shallow foundations, often located on unconsolidated former river floodplains and went through three major such events in the 20th century: the catastrophic earthquakes of 1908, 1940 and 1977. Despite the property bubble of the last four years and availability of large sums of money for building development, very little has been done for the old historical houses of this city. Articles on the occurrence of earthquakes in Romania and their dangers are regularly published in the Romanian press and also the geoscientists in Romania and abroad frequently draw attention on the dangers posed by Vrancea earthquakes. Those warnings are habitually ignored by the property market participants and authorities alike. For example the city regulations even for new building applications are inadequate in requiring planning investigation for foundation just up to a depth of 30 m underground; the requirement should be up to the bedrock in Bucharest region, which corresponds to a 100 – 150m depth investigation (the thickness of sedimentary ground strata that have the potential to amplify earthquakes).

My intention in this article was not to deter you in acquiring a period property in Bucharest or Romania in general due to their exposure to serious earthquakes. Far from it as I earn my living also from advising on this interesting market segment. Romania is certainly not the only country facing that issue: Italy, Portugal, Greece or Turkey with their huge stock of period buildings and lively period property markets are even more exposed to catastrophic earthquakes than Romania. I strongly believe that the true facts underpinning this market must be brought into light in an open and professional manner, steering away from the over-hype and unprofessionalism of the many local consultants that for so many years have plagued and eroded the attraction of the Romanian market for historical buildings. My purpose was to draw attention on the earthquake phenomenon as an important element often overlooked by those planning a period property purchase, renovation or restoration project in Bucharest or other parts of Romania. There is need to pay attention to two important aspects in this process: the necessity of a thorough due diligence process that must include a professional seismic risk assessment of the building and always during the negotiation with the seller, something like an “earthquake discount” must be factored in, as the subsequent structural consolidation costs are likely to be high. Also you must make sure to have a fully trusted local representative advising or acting on your behalf. To hire a big name international agent is often not enough as is the case highlighted above with the well known consultant Colliers, recklessly marketing earthquake risk buildings. All rights reserved ©Valentin Mandache (www.viapontica.wordpress.com, email: v_mandache@yahoo.co.uk).

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If you are interested in acquiring a period property in Romania or start a renovation project, I would be delighted to advice you in locating the property, specialist research, planning permissions, restoration project management, etc. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the Contact page of this weblog.

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8 comments on “Earthquake Events in Bucharest and Their Effect on Historic Houses

  1. The high price of a Bucharest historic building reflects the value of the land, not the value of the building, because, until recently, the owner could demolish, extend or radically modify the house, at will. This legal loophole made historic houses located in the old centre of Bucharest a favourite target for real estate developers. It will be interesting to see what will happen now to these houses as the Masterplan can no longer be modified by private investors(OUG 7/2011). Prices may begin to reflect the poor condition of these houses. On the other hand, some of them will always enjoy the benefit of their central location, and as the provision of building land in the centre of the city is limited, they will always enjoy a premium.
    We are still waiting for a state-funded strategy to regenerate the historic areas of Bucharest. Let’s hope that an integrated approach is not too long in the making. Let’s hope that the authorities do not wait for the next big earthquake.

    • Thank you for the interesting comment and details! Another big price pressure on the historic houses that are centrally located is represented by the fact that the authorities do not have the vision, will and expertise to expand Bucharest’s infrastructure (road, electricity, water, sewerage) to the north and west, and thus relieve the pressure on its historic core. As the things stand now, is just open season for the locals to destroy, cannibalise by every means possible the old urban fabric, from historic buildings, to green areas and public spaces.

  2. I am shocked to hear the planning regulations for foundations of new buildings… it means even new blocks of apartments are unsafe in the event of an earthquake…. because it is just a matter of time…. actually “overdue” when to take account of the previous history, as regards the red dot, reminds me of the warning on a cigarette packet, but again I am surprised that anybody managed to get that legislation “through” considering the lack of interest

    • Most of the period buildings present a seismic risk unfortunately. That is why they have to be thoroughly consolidated to get through the forthcoming big one. The problem is how to do that without altering too much the original architectural fabric of those historic edifices. That is both a matter advanced technology and also an art. The legislation is in place since the great earthquake of 1977, but now mostly ignored, especially because the property bubble mentality of getting rich quick by cutting corners is still lingering around. Valentin

      • Yes to consolidate the buildings at risk is a major problem which requires great expertise! as you say, an art, because each building has to have it`s own unique form of consolidation, but I think that the saddest thing is the vast number of people whose lives are at risk, because of where they live, be it architecturally significant or those awful concrete blocks of flats, many of which still have major external cracks left by the 77 quake.

  3. Pingback: Bucharest Life | The Bucharest earthquake of 1977 | Bucharest

  4. There’s another, more cycnical reason…. As you rightly say many “red dot” properties are listed, and, even in Romania, are quiute difficult to demolish and build a flashy apartment block on top of, generating a fair amount of profit. But if you leave a future earthquake to do the work for you, you might well end up with a bit of central land on the (relatively) cheap!

    Leaving that aside, the worrying thing is that when the next major earthquake DOES come (and, looing at the dates, it will be only a matter of time), Bucharest will be in a chronically bad position to deal with it. I can only imagine what will happen in the historic centre, or, worse, in the suburban blockhouses, especially those built before ’77…

    • At the next ‘big one’ is going to be mayhem, most probably with heavy human casualties… That is why anyone buying and renovating a historic house must consolidate its structure before anything else. The earthquake risk is a factor which should at least half the prices for historic property in Bucharest, but anyone blissfully ignores that aspect: the sellers of course, but also the buyers desperate to acquire centrally located property.

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