Kath Scanlon (LSE) and David Mullins (University of Birmingham)
23 March 2015
Cohousing is a nascent and still experimental housing choice in the UK, with fewer than 15 communities. In Germany, though, it has long been an established part of the housing system, and continues to grow in popularity. In Berlin alone there are more than 300 cohousing projects. What are they like, and how did they get built?
In the first week of March this year, a small group of academics spent a day and a half touring Berlin, looking at some of the city’s cohousing communities (known as Baugruppen) and meeting architects and developers. Led by German urban and housing expert Thomas Knorr-Siedow, we focused on five sites:
- Spreefeld, an development of 64 new flats (including some communal units for larger groups) in four blocks on the south bank of the river Spree.
- Stadtquartier Friesenstrasse, where several new blocks of flats, each designed by a different architect and containing its own cohousing group, face onto a sinuous communal garden;
- ‘Southwest Sun’, founded by members of the adjoining Buddhist temple and incorporating five hospice units;
- Ritterstrasse, a freestanding new block in trendy Kreuzberg, housing families; and finally
- Haus 4, where a concrete-panel building that was originally part of the Stasi’s forbidding headquarters complex is being transformed into a different kind of cohousing community, closer to self-help housing with some of the labour contributed by the future residents. 100 such projects enabling lower income groups to buy and own their homes collectively with an asset lock on resale are promoted by a national umbrella body known as Tenants Syndicate (Mietshäuser Syndikat)
Some of what we observed was unexpected, and there were some clear contrasts with the (relatively few) British examples to date. What were the most interesting findings?
Cohousing isn’t so ‘alternative.’
There are more than 300 cohousing communities in Berlin. They are now a standard (albeit minor) element of the local housing market, accounting for up to 5% of new dwellings constructed. Yet they still feel they are not recognised fully by the city’s planning system and are disadvantaged in obtaining access to sites, especially with rising land prices in the last five years.
Residents aren’t all part of the group before they move in.
Households moving into baugruppen consciously choose a community-oriented lifestyle, but residents haven’t always been involved in early phases of the project. There is commonly a core group of a few households (usually including an architect, who may or may not plan to live in the development). Other households are recruited later, and may not have any input into the design apart from choosing the finishes of their own flats. In the UK, by contrast, most of the (few) existing communities came together as a group first, deciding together how they wanted to organise their space and activities. Of course, in the long run this will be typical in all cohousing developments as the original residents leave through natural turnover.
In Berlin, recently completed cohousing generally costs less per m2 built than standard developments. For the projects we visited, the sites were bought between 2008 and 2010, when land prices were still low—but they were low for other developers as well. Build costs were reduced because the cohousing developers consciously chose basic construction techniques and finishes (e.g., plywood flooring on outdoor decks; wire mesh along internal stairs rather than banisters). And where the cohousing developers were separate companies, they often did not take a profit.
Part two coming soon!