Cohousing in Berlin: what’s different? Part Two

Kath Scanlon (LSE) and David Mullins (University of Birmingham)

23 March 2015 – PART TWO

  1. Even in Berlin, access to land is now becoming a significant problem. In Berlin, as in London, getting land is one of the main challenges for cohousing groups. Some German city authorities have policies to assist socially sustainable developments like baugruppen. For example, we heard that Hamburg disposes of a proportion of city-owned land through competitions around the concept – not the price. Berlin has in some cases granted cohousing developers an extended time to assemble the down payment, meaning they could better compete against for-profit developers with ready finance. However, the last five years have seen a boom in the Berlin land market with international investors piling in with support from the municipality. Sites previously affordable for baugruppen are no longer so, and groups are looking at sites further from the city centre.
  2. The buildings are unapologetically urban. Berlin baugruppen are typically housed in the five-storey blocks of flats that are characteristic of the city. There’s usually a common social space—which may or may not be on the ground floor—and communal garden. But not all allow for shared cooking or meals, and the space isn’t necessarily arranged deliberately so to foster informal encounters between residents. The constraints of the built form and plot sizes mean sharing may come in unexpected and ingenious ways—at Ritterstrasse, for example, the balconies that surround the exterior of each storey are shared.   Each flat has an internal front door as well as doors onto the balconies, which are uninterrupted by fences or walls, and are used by the buildings’ children as play spaces.
  3. It’s not all housing. Most of the projects intentionally incorporated some nonresidential elements. These included a nursery for children, a hospice for the dying, as well as, spectacularly,an airy purpose-built cabinetmaking workshop at Friesenstrasse, where windows onto the communal garden give a view of an ultra-high tech woodworking ‘robot’ (like an enormous crane).
  4. There’s an infrastructure of specialist professionals. Co-housing groups are recognised and supported by specialist architects and finance institutions. These professionals who understand, and indeed promote the sector, help to account for the wider take-up of these options compared to England. In contrast there was less evidence of umbrella organisations for ordinary co-housing schemes; and just one example of an infrastructure body (Syndicate) which promotes cheap self-help renovations such as Haus 4, the project we visited in the empty former Stasi building. However, there is collaboration between projects to support an annual Experiment Day in which co-housing solutions are promoted to the wider public.
  5. Berliners have the skills. That’s doesn’t mean they are all architects, although we met plenty of them, and some of the buildings were saw were selfconsciously ‘architecty’. More than that, Germans are comfortable with the idea of building their own homes—it’s a perfectly normal part of a German ‘housing career’, in contrast to the UK. And the city has a strong tradition of neighbourhood-level activism, which has given many Berliners an understanding of urban renewal, negotiation processes and municipal politics, as well as strong local networks—in the largest cohousing project we saw (UTB), some 60% of the residents came from the immediate local area.
  6. Even in Berlin, it doesn’t always work. We heard about Mockernkiez, a cooperative initiative founded in 2009 with more than 1000 members ( Households contributed an initial payment of €30,000 each, which went towards buying a plot of land big enough for 400 flats. The balance of the development was to be funded by bank loans. But when construction costs increased the bank pulled out, and members face the prospect of losing not only their dream of a cohousing community but their investment as well.
  7. It’s not for everyone. As in England, co-housing participants are not drawn from across the social spectrum. Even though lead times are shorter, a degree of perseverance is still required as well as an interest in co-operation. Income also is a significant entry barrier since there is no external subsidy to underpin land purchase, construction and mortgage finance costs. We heard about various ways of addressing inclusion:
    • At Spreefeld we heard that participants had made it possible for two refugee households to access homes there through creative use of the flexible space and an element of internal cross-subsidy.
    • At Stadtquartier Friesenstrasse, which had managed to recruit 60% of original residents from the local area without advertising, we had an interesting discussion with an architect about the barriers to lower-income groups sharing the co-housing experience. One possible option had been to sell some plots to individual investors at a higher price per sq m and to use this to subsidise social housing. This was seen as a ‘nice idea’ but hard to make work, and it was felt to be impossible to build co-housing solely for lower income groups. Discussions with municipal housing companies around social-mix partnerships had made slow progress. We heard that co-housing involves giving as well as taking: ‘its about what we can do together and what we can do for the project’.
    • A different model was presented by the Mietschauser Syndikat Haus 4. Costs were kept low by co-operative members working on renovations themselves, and a collective ownership structure aims to protect the model from gentrification. This model, which has its roots in 1980s squatter movements, has enabled over 100 groups across Germany to buy and collectively manage their homes–see

For those interested in learning more about cohousing in Berlin, Thomas, David and others are working on organising a study tour in September 2015; details will be posted when available.


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