RESTA 2002 kicks off Lithuanian construction season

  • 2002-04-04
  • Darius James Ross

Springtime in Lithuania heralds the return of lazy afternoons in street-side cafes, the weekend exodus of city dwellers to the Baltic coast and to their country garden plots, and of course the beginning of the noisy construction season.

The annual RESTA 2002 building construction trade show at Vilnius' LitExpo exhibition center kicked off this year's building season with yet another increase in the number of participating firms and space occupied by them.

Some 570 companies spread themselves across 31,250 square meters in all five of the exhibition center's pavilions and surrounding open-air grounds, an increase from the 539 companies which occupied 26,300 square meters in 2001.

The show's success reflects Lithuanians' passion for home improvement. Summer is synonymous with neighbors in all directions carrying out marathon do-it-yourself renovation projects, often from dawn until dusk, seven days a week.

The first day of the show, March 26 saw the inauguration of the exhibition center's new fifth pavilion, which adds 6,600 square meters to the facility, bringing the total indoor floor space to 16,600 square meters and making it the largest of its kind in the Baltics.

The new building cost 8.8 million litas ($2.22 million) and was financed entirely from LitExpo's own reserve funds.

There were 509 Lithuanian companies displaying their wares, along with 27 from Poland, 13 from Estonia and 21 from other European countries.

"One notable trend was the reduction in the number of foreign exhibitors this year," said Rasa Keliuotyte, a LiteExpo spokesperson, "For instance, there was only one German company this time."

A glance around the exhibit space indicated that established European equipment makers and materials suppliers have found local partners and distributors and therefore didn't need to be present themselves.

Given the buoyancy of the Lithuanian construction and renovation market in the past two years, it is no surprise that the number of visitors exceeded a record 60,000.

The construction industry has been one of Lithuania's main engine's of growth in the last two years. Last year 2.5 billion litas were spent on construction, a 3.2 percent increase on the previous year.

Privately-financed housing projects accounted for 473 million litas in investment, the remaining 2 billion litas being spent on commercial and industrial developments.

The construction and renovation of dwellings was once about giving the family apartment a make-over every generation or so, but all that is changing, said Elida Olsinkiene of the construction company Verkiu Statyba.

"Young people are now starting to take out large mortgages for newly built apartments. They're not content with hand-me-down apartments in the concrete housing districts where their parents live," said Olsinkiene.

Verkiu Statyba's 800-unit housing development in Vilnius's Jeruzale district offers a glimpse of things to come.

The two- and four-story buildings contain condominiums and town houses based on a French model and feature large balconies, mansard roofs and large garages.

"Just four years ago the idea of a mortgage was unthinkable for people in this country, but it is catching on quickly," said Olsinskiene.

Couples in their 20s and 30s, who are the company's main target, dislike the gray suburbs but also find Vilnius Old Town expensive, noisy and lacking in car parking space, she explained.

This was confirmed by the large numbers looking into 25-year mortgages at the Lietuvos Zemes Ukio Bankas stand.

"I'd rather pay interest to the bank and know that one day I'll own my own place - our apartment in a congested, old, concrete place is like an aviary." said Giedre, a potential client.

The caveat is that mortgage applicants must not be employed on fixed-term contracts, as many in Lithuania are, but must have full-time jobs.

While aspirations have risen, Lithuanians still love rolling up their sleeves and doing the work themselves.

"I'm still fit and have two hands - I'd never hire a contractor to do any renovation on my property," said Juozas, a 56-year-old pensioner, attending RESTA to price building materials.

"I get my relatives to help and pay them cash, and I buy my own materials as long as they're of good quality and fairly priced."

Hired building contractors are mostly used for large-scale commercial developments in Lithuania while home renovation is a word-of-mouth, cash-based business.

As a result building supply centers are sprouting up all over the country.

Two very popular items at RESTA were roofing materials and windows.

"Most Lithuanians can't afford real clay terra cotta tiles for their roofs," said Gintaras Slepikas of Dutch owned Eternit, which sold almost 500,000-square-meters of roof tiles in 2001.

"They pay half the price for the concrete substitutes we make. They last for 50 years and can be painted to look like clay ones. The paint lasts twenty years."

The largest stand at RESTA belonged to Megrama, a Lithuanian seller of quadruple glazed windows.

"Replacing old, Soviet-era, wooden frame windows is big business," said company spokeswoman, Asta Grineviciute.

"People are anxious to save money on heating as it keeps increasing in price."