mike eliason
May 31, 2019 · 6 min read

A multi-generational, family-friendly Baugenossenschaft

About a week ago, I was contacted by Galen Herz, who is presently touring Central Europe on a fact-finding mission for baugruppen, social housing, cooperatives, and other forms of non-market housing. Galen is a housing and tenants’ rights activist based out of Bellingham — if you aren’t reading his work, you should be. Galen was stopping off in Nürnberg on his way to Tübingen, home to many, many baugruppen.

It was a federal holiday here in Germany, and so I jumped at the opportunity to go. I reached out to several baugruppen (building group) and baugenossenschaften (building cooperative), who are presently constructing, or recently completed, a project — to see if we could get a tour. I wasn’t expecting anything close to what we got.

Thursday morning, I woke up at 5.20 am, skyped with my kids, got ready, packed some snacks and water, and headed out the front door. My bike is parked at the front door, and I hopped on my bike, and was at the train station in less than 5 minutes. There is a ton of bike parking at the station, and some people even keep extra bikes there for when guests are visiting. I may steal this idea. The train whisked me away to Nürnberg, and we were able to get around the city of 500,000 people on foot, tram, subway, and bus. I wish all of my life, travel had been this easy.

We were greeted at the site by an architect and resident of the baugenossenschaft. The site is located next to a subway stop, situated at a traffic-calmed corner. It is close to a school. There are several restaurants, shops and stores required for daily living within a few blocks. The site is sort of on a transition between the denser part of the city (perimeter blocks of 5–7 stories), stepping down to mostly 2 to 4 story missing middle. On this morning, we saw loads of bikes and very few cars. The sun was shining, it was incredibly quiet and peaceful. The site is owned by a non-profit entity that had been leasing the land to a kindergarten in a single-story building. The group was able to lease the site for 100 years. This keeps their first costs down considerably, though they do pay more in the long term. However, the group is aligned with the mission of the non-profit, and so felt the terms were agreeable to both parties.

The project has taken quite a while, the core of the group started in around 2011. Construction work started in 2018, delayed because in 2017, it was determined a section of a wall built by the Swedes in the 30 years’ war may have been built on the site. The project is wrapping up construction in the coming months. The group is very interested in issues around living in community and has spent a lot of time learning how to have non-violent communication, and how to work together on issues. This is an issue going forward they are glad to have undertaken, as conflicts will come up, and there need to be methods of addressing them and communicating respectfully.

The layout of the building is fairly simple. The building is located on the corner of a block. The ground floor is a kindergarten with three classrooms, because the classrooms are different ages, there are different entries for them. A central stairwell and elevator off the corner, provides access to the 5 floors of housing above the kindergarten. All 31 of the units, which range from a 1BR, to 3 BRs, are barrier-free units. The top floor features a community room, sizeable terrace, and intensive green roof. Because of the open space requirements for the kindergarten, much of the courtyard behind the building is reserved for them, hence the need to green the roof. The units are accessed from a common exterior balcony from the street side of the building. The balcony is quite wide, and is intended to facilitate impromptu meetings, and small gatherings. The units have balconies that face the courtyard side of the building, generally south.

What was also interesting is that there are 5 ‘student rooms’ — roughly 300 sf studios that are connected to smaller units. What this allows is the flexibility for a family to temporarily use one of these units for their older kids, providing a level of independence. They could also be utilized for students studying at the university, guests, or a live-in caretaker.

The financing of the building is rather interesting. The bank required the group to come up with 30% of the cost of the building in order to obtain the loan. Internally, the group required a minimum entry on 10% of a unit, to ensure that they would be affordable to a broad range of incomes. In order to do this, some residents had to be willing to pay more than 30%, but this also allowed a pensioner in a 1BR to buy in for roughly $10–12k on a $120k unit. Because the building is meeting the KfW-55 program, individual residents were also eligible for a low-interest private loan to meet their share. The building is planned as a zero-equity cooperative with a cost-rent model, so when people leave, they can sell their shares. It also means that rents should be affordable in perpetuity — the planned rents will be about $1.50/sf for those that paid a lower equity share, with those paying a higher equity share having a lower rent. It should be noted this is the ‘warm miete’ — meaning rent, taxes, heating, and utilities are included. The largest unit is 1180 sf (110 m2) — so the max housing costs (minus electricity, and phone) for a 3 bedroom unit would be $1,770. You would be hard pressed to find a studio in a new building in Seattle for that cost, let alone a 3 bedroom unit. When the loans are paid off, the rents can be lowered accordingly, though maintenance funds will still be reserved.

The project is a low-energy building, meeting the requirements of the KfW-55 program. The building is not planning on meeting passivhaus, however the energy usage is expected to be very low, and heating is supplied via a connection to district heating. The residential units stack, which makes the structural system easier to accommodate. The finishes are the same in all the units. Anticipated construction costs are around $350/sf for a high level of finish, and there is also a fair amount of common space. It was also interesting to learn that they didn’t rate the cost of the units by floor, as I’ve discussed on other baugruppen projects (so the higher the floor, the higher the cost per unit). This was done to ensure equitable access to upper floors and more daylight to those that might not have been able to afford it. It also allows residents to move between units as life changes require.

About 2/3 of the courtyard is reserved for the kindergarten. The balance of the courtyard is reserved for the residents, and features a garden, green space, bike storage, composting area, and private car share. There is no underground parking, the residents decided that it was an expense they didn’t need due to the access to bikes, car share, and transit.

Now about that kindergarten… The federal state subsidized the construction of the kindergarten, which amounted to about 80% of the cost. The baugenossenschaft is picking up the balance. The kindergarten was a requirement from the owner, in order for the cooperative to lease the land. In Germany, even private kindergartens are required to be affordable — private schools, too. When I say affordable, I mean around $150 a month. The city of Munich has been debating dropping that to zero for families making less than 50,000 euros a year. On top of this, families are eligible for a federal subsidy called kindergeld, which effectively covers the cost of daycare. It is a really interesting model and having paid for several months of double daycare for an infant and a toddler in Seattle, one I wish the US had adopted ages ago.

Almost everything about this project is exactly what I would want in a baugruppe or a baugenossenschaft. It is amazing to see the things that are possible here in Germany, where innovative housing can still largely be accessible to more than just the wealthy. The process for founding, planning, and constructing this development took a lot longer than I could probably handle, but the result will be an amazing project. I ended my day with a long train ride home, thinking about this project, and how utterly depressing it is that there is virtually nothing like this anywhere in America.

mike eliason

Written by

dad | designer | writer | Noted shill for housing. interests: Baugruppen, architecture, passivhaus, mass timber, staedtebau, not for profit housing

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