Sofia Office Construction: The Beat Goes On (For Now)

Written by Yasen Georgiev and Dragomir Belchev, EPI – EECFA Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s non-residential construction is set to grow in 2019 and 2020. The positive figures in the latest EECFA Bulgaria Construction Forecast Report are backed by, among others, the accelerated growth in office construction which is to witness the completion of many big projects in 2019-2021. The question is not on whether their delivery will impact the segment, but on how.

NV Tower, Balkan Business Center (left), Sky Fort (middle), Synergy Tower, Sofia Tech One,  Advance Business Center (right); Sources: www.markan.bg, www.advancecenter.bg, www.capital.bg, http://www.aaa.bg

As shown by the 2019 Summer EECFA Bulgaria Construction Forecast Report (which can be purchased here), non-residential construction in the country is to be on a growth path in 2019 and 2020, a major driver being office construction. After bouncing back in 2017, and keeping the momentum in 2018, it is relishing a real revival and is predicted to increase by over 10% on average in 2019-2021.

Office-related construction is mainly concentrated in Sofia where all major projects are located. The city is an attractive destination for companies that benefit from a favorable mix of skilled young population, competitive labor costs and rent levels to establish and expand in spheres linked to Information Technology, business process outsourcing and shared services. Companies in these sectors are active in relocations, often driven by their expansion plans and/or the rising preference of their employees for modern office premises.

Existing office space in Sofia totaled 2mln sqm at the end of 2018. In H1 2019 it witnessed the delivery of 100 000sqm and now looks forward to another 400 000sqm with an expected completion till 2021.

These dynamics are fueled by the peak in permitted office space registered in H2 2018 – an all-time high performance that by far exceeded the pre-crisis record of H1 2008 (265 065sqm).

In H1 2019 another 129 545sqm were permitted, which is still a rise of more than 90% y-o-y. It remains to be seen whether this data on permitted floor space will translate into the size of started office premises and, later on, in the number and volume of completed ones. H2 2015 recorded the peak in terms of started office floor space so far and if it is to be outperformed, H2 2019 and H1 2020 seem to be the perfect timing.

Against the backdrop of the latest development, the question is not on whether the delivery of all projects in the active pipeline will impact the segment, but on how. Demand is awaited to see logical limitations in the future because of skilled labor shortage being on the rise, the increased application of AI solutions and the changing behavior of office employees in favor of more flexible and remote work.

This altogether should keep the present rent levels in Sofia, or even put them under pressure. Rents did not considerably change over the last years and even now continue to be among the lowest in the CEE region. Thus, provided that all projects are delivered, office yields will be questioned. This scenario seems increasingly possible unless a new wave of major restructuring and cost-cutting takes place in countries with higher labor costs.