When shopping for an apartment in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, people think about price, not safety codes, according to real estate agent Nazim Mehdizada.
Mehdizada has been selling real estate in the capital for eight years, a period of time that has seen gross neglect and blatant construction violations by developers.
"People rarely ask questions about safety…We deal with customers all day and hear no questions about that. That is because they don’t think anything will happen. They think if the building was built, that means it is solid," he said.
While construction quality experts note that the situation is slowly improving, years of poor standards and a general lack of oversight means that hundreds of residential buildings in Baku do not meet the building codes.
That has led to deadly consequences on more than one occasion. The most famous case was the 2015 Binagadi apartment fire that resulted in the deaths of 15 people – including children – and over 50 injured.
Poor quality building materials – in this case low quality of plastic siding – caught on fire. The flames quickly engulfed the entire building.
Sevinj Fadai was renting an apartment in the Binagadi building at that time. When the fire broke out, she was at home with her infant son.
The fire spread so quickly she and her baby were trapped in the apartment. Fadai turned off the lights, opened the door and started to breast feed her son in the hopes he would not swallow too much smoke.
“He was an anxious child who cried a lot. But I was so happy to see him crying during the fire. I tried not to let him sleep,” she says.
Fadai and her family never returned to their Binagadi apartment after the fire.
“Of course, we didn’t go back. We moved into a home with a garden. I don't feel comfortable in a high-rise building because it is difficult to escape when something happens," she notes.
Construction expert Ramil Osmanli notes that frequently the fires are caused by construction mistakes and are preventable. The rash of fires at Baku residential buildings were "directly related to breaches in safety regulations by construction companies," he says.
“It is possible to prevent these events, but relevant executive authorities don’t interfere on time.” Osmanli said.
He notes that the government is starting to hold companies responsible. For instance, new sanctions and penalties are being imposed on construction companies. While they are still not fully complying with safety regulations, construction companies are doing a better job than in the past, Osmanli says.
“As a result of several actions that were taken, especially in multi-apartment buildings, the quality problems are no longer an issue, even though there have been some violations of the buildings standards," he notes.
The head of the two companies that produced the polyurethane façade and installed it on the Binagadi apartment where Sevinj Fadai lived in 2015 was arrested after the fire. Out of the eight people charged over the fire, three were released long before they had served their sentence.
Despite the arrests and jail sentences, Fadai still doesn't know exactly what caused the fire that put her and her baby in danger. The former residents have been told the fire started from the trash and then spread to the building.
But Fadai argues the trash cans were in the courtyard, nowhere near the facades. "We could not have known that our building was not safe or that there was some sort of danger," she says.
"Their claims are baseless. Of course they knew about the danger beforehand but they did nothing to prevent it."