Build Your Own Baugruppe – A Home For The Rest Of Us
By Johnny Magdaleno
Today more than half of the world’s seven billion people live in big cities and the United Nations estimates that by 2030 that will climb to 60 percent. If our urban planners don’t find a way to match supply with rising demand, the cultural and economic capitals that we revere risk becoming pressure cookers for unprecedented poverty, gentrification, high costs of living, and a larger gap between the rich and the poor. But in Germany, communities and architects have been working together for decades as part of a progressive urban housing and planning scheme that might provide an answer to these imminent problems.
Baugruppen— or “building groups”— are German co-housing projects that are entirely owned and designed by their residents, with the help of an architect. There are no commercial developers or real estate agents, considerably lowering construction costs and rates of absentee ownership. Imagine getting 12 friends together, buying a plot of land, and designing a building that emphasizes community as much as personal square footage through amenities like roof gardens, a library in the basement, and a bike garage annex. Then, once it’s finally built, you own one of the 12 lofts on this plot of land. That’s a simplified snapshot of how thousands of these homes came to life in Germany.
Baugruppen trace their origin to the Vauban district in Freiburg, a sustainable village of 5,000 residents built on an old French military base. Shortly after the French vacated the base in 1992, Freiburg’s city council purchased the space and slated it for residential development. Groups of students and other local activists then stepped in and demanded that they get a say in what came next. What emerged from Vauban were green residencies and a demographically diverse population that proved to to both Freiburg and other cities that if you give preference to citizens with a personal investment in the area over disinterested commercial developers, they’ll build effective community housing with people — not profits — in mind.
Absent real estate middlemen and the handsome profits they extract, putting down on a loft in a Baugruppe usually means paying 10 to 20 percent less per square foot than if you were to buy a condominium or apartment in the same market. Many Baugruppe developments go beyond Germany’s already stringent green building benchmarks. Take the 100-flat Newport Project Baugruppe in Berlin, which is being constructed with photovoltaic and thermal solar energy systems so state-of-the-art that the community will be producing more energy than it consumes once it’s running.
The development of the R50 Baugruppe complex in Berlin’s hip Kreuzberg area was spurred by the government in a manner unheard of in the United States. Plots of land were tendered to competing Baugruppen groups and the winners were chosen, not because of their investment size, but by the potential environmental and community-building impact of their design. Then the government cordoned off the land, waited a year for R50’s architects to tighten up their blueprint, and sold the land to them at a fixed price.
Christoph Heinemann, an architect at the Institute of Applied Urbanism (ifau), led the R50 project alongside firms Heide & Von Beckerath and Jesko Fezer. Heinemann says that this process signaled to him that Germany’s municipalities are going to keep making the Baugruppe process easier as its benefits become more apparent. “This program was unique in Berlin,” he said. Since the late 1990s, housing in Germany has not been subsidized and “plots are sold at the highest market price on the free market.” Today in Hamburg, which already boasts around 1,800 Baugruppen, the local government has marked off 20 percent of its unoccupied land for future Baugruppe projects.
But what if you wanted to start one in the United States? Here co-ops and co-housing projects aren’t unheard of, but none offer their participants a level of autonomy quite like that of the Baugruppe. “Unless you’re an accredited real estate investor, it’s going to be immensely difficult,” says Mike Eliason, Baugruppe enthusiast and passive house designer at Bjarko Serra Architects. In the U.S., an accredited investor is defined by the Securities and Exchange Commission as someone with at least $1 million in assets, or an annual income of $200,000 if single and $300,000 joint income if married — the type of income that places you in a bracket far above the urbanite, middle-income families that Baugruppen are designed for.
Eliason has been trying to get the ball rolling on his own Baugruppe in Seattle for the past two years. “The larger the group [of tenants] gets, the more complicated things become,” he says. “I imagine the first set of Baugruppen in the U.S. will likely be upper-income households because of how awful our financing is for housing in general.” Financial hurdles aside, he’s also realized that Baugruppe is a cultural phenomenon in Germany. Even though its low-cost and community-centric model is a win-win for property owners and the families they support, Eliason’s friends think of it as an on-paper ideal, something novel that has no parallel in the U.S..
Still, Eliason is not entirely skeptical that one day the United States will get it right. “My hope is that with enough education, exposure and promotion from governmental agencies, [Baugruppen] could become a viable alternative for those that aren’t just hanging out in the upper quintile.” Eliason points to one model that came close to what we’ve seen in Germany: the Durham Central Park Cohousing Community in Durham, North Carolina, built at the behest of a group of local couples and without a property developer.
Prepping the U.S. for Baugruppen would ultimately mean creating a culture in which middle-income investors can easily pool together their money and get the support of local government and financial institutions to compete for commercial land, which ultimately comes down to shifting to a people-over-profits real estate mentality in which qualifying communities get preference over big real estate developers.
Like Eliason said, it’s not impossible, but if it’s going to happen it needs to happen soon. The U.S. is in the middle of an affordable housing crisis where our $7.50 federal minimum wage is a mere fraction of the $15.50 hourly wage needed to meet the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment across the country. Currently, about a quarter of the renting population spends 50 percent or more of their salary on rent. Giving more ownership options to those with lower incomes willraise the quality of life in non-wealthy communities and could also serve as our collective first line of defense against the preventable challenges of urbanization gone wrong.
Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, editor, and photographer currently roaming the world. Past clients include The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, VICE, The Christian Science Monitor, the United Nations, and his reporting has been republished or sourced by dozens of websites and blogs, including NPR, Business Insider, and the International Business Times.
Photos taken by Noshe, by the architects (Heide & Von Beckerath, ifau and Jesko Fezer) and by Andrew Alberts.
This story was developed in collaboration with GOOD.