Self-Build Homes

I’ve contributed a chapter to a collection of writing on self-build homes. It’s called Self-Build Homes. Helpfully, publisher UCL Press has a policy of including a free download version, so no excuse.

Even more excitingly, there’s a launch event, Friday 11th May 2018 at 17.30, do come along if you’re in London. Free drinks and nibbles? Yes.

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In fact, ‘self-build homes’ is a term that in this context encompasses a range of approaches and practices that are more than ‘just’ physically building your own home, or those annoying couples you see on Grand Designs*.

Rather, it examines – among other things – the creation of homes through various perspectives of co-production, community, neighbourhood, culture and politics, as well as case studies and commentaries on actual projects.

My chapter’s called Senior co-housing: restoring sociable community in later life, in which I followed two groups of older people (back in 2015) attempting to create newbuild co-housing projects, one in north London, the other near Colchester in Essex**.

Apologies to most of the readers of this blog, who I know from the stats are mainly not in the UK, and also are interested mainly in architecture, in Berlin, as this post is about none of these. So the references to Kevin McCloud and Grand Designs are a bit pointless.

 

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*How about a series special called Grand Designs: Bank of Mum & Dad, where Kevin-bloody-McCloud talks to the people who actually pay for the inevitable but mysteriously-uninvestigated £600k cost overrun incurred by the pair of dumb graphic designers from Highbury who’ve decided to leave the rat race (i.e. North London) and convert an iron age hill fort near Swindon into a vast pseudo-modern-timber-and-recycled-rusty-cladding project that is, at the end of the day apparently (cue panning shot with Kevin’s voiceover) “what good architecture is really all about…”

**So in truth, yes there is a bit of a Grand Designs whiff about it, but my enquiry goes much deeper than Kevin’s. I hope.

 

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Nicht allein, und nicht ins Heim!*

*Not alone, and not in a home!

It’s easy to lose yourself in your own academic bubble thinking when you’re doing a PhD. Hence a post to let a little daylight / other people into my world at the moment.

I spent from April till the end of last year doing fieldwork in the Berlin, essentially interviewing, observing and generally hanging out with some different groups of (mainly) older people who have formed intentional communities together, in these cases various models of Co-Housing (see earlier post). The background to this is that I’m interested in how community-based housing models might offer some responses to the challenges of an ageing, increasingly isolated population.

As noted in previous blogs, intentional communities, Co-Housing, building groups (Baugruppen), and other forms of living that have some community or shared element are pretty common in Berlin, and Germany. But what isn’t common is groups who are specifically older getting together to do this. I found three in total. Or I thought I had – it turned out to be a bit more complicated.

Of the three, the first one hadn’t quite played out as the groups founders had planned, in that members often had primary homes and lives elsewhere, making their shared Berlin project more of a pied-à-terre. The second one I’d come across – a group who live in a ‘cluster-apartment’ or WG that’s part of the larger and well-publicised co-operative development at Spreefeld – isn’t strictly a group of older people at all.  The age range is roughly 50-somethings to 70-somethings (plus a couple of younger folk) and they didn’t set out to be an age-based project. These may seem like fine distinctions, but when you’re picking this apart for a PhD, such distinctions become important.

 

So while the first two groups have certainly ‘informed my research’, I’ve focussed mainly on the third one. They’re called “Allein Wohnen in Gemeinschaft”. Or “AlWiG” for short. Or “Living alone in community”, for long again.

They’re interesting in all kinds of ways, but in the context of what I’m doing, especially  because:

  1. They’ve been together as a group for over a decade now, whereas the most established comparable group in the UK (OWCH – Older Women’s CoHousing) moved in together not much more than a year ago.
  2. They were explicit about being a group of older people, who would be there for each other as they grew older.
  3. Very unusually, for a co-living group of any age, they didn’t construct a bespoke housing project with individual apartments with a central, shared facility at its core (generally the model for Co-Housing), but instead, they rent a ‘cluster’ of apartments on an existing (social) housing estate in a less affluent area of south-east Berlin.

 

I feel like this third thing is especially current at the moment, as co-housing just isn’t going to scale up in any real way if it remains something that involves the huge palaver of in effect becoming a developer: finding a site, BUYING that site, building the housing, and all self-financed while still needing an existing home to live in. Many drop out along the way, and if you’re doing this as an older group, some members might not make it at all. Adapting existing buildings has got to be at least a part of the answer, a so-called ‘retrofit’ approach that I know the UK Co-Housing Network were talking about a while back.

As noted above, the group also rents, which in Germany is a far more secure tenure than it is in the UK. Although I can’t ignore the fact that some of those I interviewed in other groups did regard full ownership (or a tenure that amounts to it) as important, in terms of security as a retired person.

Anyhoo, some photos.

A couple of images of the Spreefeld co-operative. Architecture!

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Aerial view of the three blocks that form the whole Spreefeld development (Image: id22)

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Typical ‘cluster’ over two floors – shared space highlighted in yellow (Image: fatkoehl architekten)

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Shared external space (Image: id22)

I still have memories of the site before the project was built – Sunday afternoons spent dancing on top of (or inside) the boathouse at Kiki Blofeld, across the river from Bar 25 (which now of course the newly emergent Holzmarkt development, which I’ll write about another time, promise).

Here’s a picture of the Rollberg estate, where AlWiG live. Doesn’t look much from this view, but it’s (also) quite an interesting development in architectural terms, completed in 1982 and something of an exemplar of its day. A separate post on this, maybe.

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Experimentdays 17: CoHousing Inclusive

A slightly belated post about the recent Experimentdays event here in Berlin, an international conference on self-organised, community-led housing, drawn together under the (now) broad banner of CoHousing*, and which included the launch of id22’s book on the conference’s theme of inclusivity:

 

Inclusiveness is a wide and contested term (as they say in academia) – meaning many things to many people. The overall theme, for me, was about moving the concept of collaborative housing projects away from what is so often a model that is organised by and benefits an almost exclusively white, middle class and wealthy group of people. If this is a challenge in Berlin (it definitely is) then how much more so in the UK, where the challenges involved in acquiring and keeping land in use for purposes other than pure speculation seem ever greater.

The book is rather good, by the way, and includes a series of case studies of projects around the world which have indeed managed to combine genuinely innovative community-based housing projects, with a view to wider social cohesion.

And what, in this context, are the implications for my own subject, of older people and CoHousing? In the UK and elsewhere, society’s perception of older people is at best ambivalent. Are they a group who suffer prejudice, stereotyping and exclusion? Or are they the Baby Boomers – the generation who have taken – and kept – the nation’s housing wealth? (Clue: both. Neither. It’s complicated).

I was co-organiser of one of the sessions during the event, titled: Is Cohousing for Life?, a workshop in which academics, practitioners and others with an interest. We looked at various scenarios around groups of older people who might have come together to intentionally create a cohousing community that is for (and by) older people, as against other models and forms where intergenerational support might be the primary idea, or (my own provocation) a group comprising a whole range of ages and generations, but whose older members feel in some ways that the support they give is not fully reciprocated.

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But maybe this is getting into too much detail for what’s meant to be an architecture blog. I want to write more, but maybe appropriate to take it elsewhere. If I do, I’ll let you know, but this is meant to be an architecture blog, I guess. So here’s some images of the much-discussed-and-now-architecturally-disappointing Möckernkiez.

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*CoHousing? Cohousing? Co-housing? Everyone seems to use slight variations… I think I might go with CoHousing, as it looks the friendliest of these. I’ve previously discussed what I think is the definition, as something that includes a quite defined physical/architectural relationship of individual homes clustered around common facilities. Michael LaFonde, of id22, presents a broader (more inclusive, ha) definition in the CoHousing Inclusive book:

“The term CoHousing, closely related to community-led and collaborative housing, was coined in the 1980s by the American architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, who were influenced by a Danish model of community-led housing Bofaellesskab. CoHousing is now used as an umbrella term for a range of housing forms emphasizing self-organisation and a community orientation.”

 

EXPERIMENTDAYS 17, Berlin 6-8th October

Just a heads up that that EXPERIMENTDAYS 17 is coming around – a chance for those involved in cohousing and and other collaborative housing forms across Europe to meet up, share and discuss.

I’ll be involved with at least one of the sessions I believe, will post more details as they evolve. Info so far:

“Representatives of collaborative housing projects, umbrella organizations, professionals, researchers, and housing activists will gather in Berlin in October 6-8, 2017 to present and discuss current projects and strategies in the framework of EXPERIMENTDAYS 17. The European Collaborative Housing Hub invites to join the collaborative housing movement and exchange on what we can learn from the implemented projects and which ideas are emerging in different cities and regions.”

Coordinating Partners:
id22: Institute for Creative Sustainability, urbaMonde-France, Stiftung trias

Cooperating Partners:
Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung und Wohnen Berlin, Robert Bosch Stiftung,
Agora Rollberg, Vollgut, Stiftung Edith Maryon, Actors of Urban Change, Mitost e.V., urbanPlus, Deutsch-französisches Institut, Building and Social Housing Foundation

A sliver more info here.

 

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(couple of snaps from the first part of Experimentdays17, held earlier this year)

Wohnregal: not shelved.

Talking of ‘new-style co-operatives’, cohousing, and of course my (now decade old) pet subject of the IBA, I went to meet a guy recently who was one of the founding members of a self-build project on Admiralstrasse in Kreuzberg, completed in 1986, and who is still living there. The project is “Wohnregal” (“residential shelf”) – it comprises a simple frame structure with concrete floors, onto which the residents then “placed” different configurations of apartments, each to their own specification.

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Image by Gunnar Klack, linked from the extremely useful F-IBA site, and which credits the design to Kjell Nylund / Cristof Puttfarken / Peter Stuerzenbecher

Most of the twelve apartments were built as cohousing units, although in this case they are closer to shared flats than the cohousing movement’s definition, with up to five bedrooms which share bathroom, kitchen and a central living space. They still function this way today, and include a handful of the original residents. I have described this as a form of cohousing on the basis that they’re included on the Cohousing Berlin website, but also because in spirit the whole block does seem to function very much as an intentional community. On the day I was there, many of the residents were involved in a work-day digging out and rebuilding the rotted planter boxes on the roof, which involved a lot of earth being moved six storeys down to the garden, but with kind of a party atmosphere brewing (maybe that was just me).

The construction of the block was also the first building that formed the Selbstbaugenossenschaft Berlin eG (self-build co-operative Berlin) that’s also still going strong, and is the co-op that’s building IBeB, the new mixed development on the former Blumenmarkt site opposite the Jewish Museum. Thus it also represents an early example of the re-emergence of smaller-style co-operatives – in fact, I just learned from the Internationale BauAustellung site (which I’ve only just come across, looks excellent), it was “the first housing construction cooperative for a joint new building project since 1945”. Blimey. In the whole of Germany? Doesn’t say, will check…

And as noted, above, it was also a small but important part of West Berlin’s building exhibition of the 1980s, the IBA (International BauAustellung), and forms part of a much larger housing block that was reconstructed in the same period by various architects exploring a range of different ideas about how neglected parts of the urban fabric might be rescued and reintegrated. Parts of it covered here and here, and includes the much more recent addition of the Beginnenhof – a Baugruppe apartment block for women only (and which is frequently referred to as a kind of touchstone reference by many of the older people forming part of my PhD study).

Anyhoo, back at the Wohnregal… I had half an idea (more of a researcher fantasy really) that given the age of the block, it might be occupied by many of its original residents, who I reasoned might well have aged together and now comprise a kind of unintended cohousing group of older people, maybe in their 60s. There are indeed a handful of founder members still living there, although mainly younger than that, and the block seems to have maintained a good spread of ages and different kinds of people (including some refugees in the cohousing apartment that I visited) so unfortunately (for me) it didn’t quite fit the bill.

One interesting thing that came out of the chat I had with one of the founder residents was that over the years, the cost of servicing the loans that the co-operative required to build had been quite substantial, meaning that rents had been above market rents for many years, a situation that has only changed relatively recently with the massive increases in market rents fuelled by property speculation in Berlin (and especially this part of the city).

Having said that, they are fantastic, airy, flexible apartments, which hopefully will long remain in use for the mixed, sharing crowd that currently lives there. Out of courtesy, I didn’t take any interior photos, but I did take some snaps from the roof, which is quite a view.

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Back in Berlin, and collaborative housing

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Have been back in Berlin since May (here till end of October), for research purposes. No, really. I’m a recipient of ESRC funding to do a PhD looking at cohousing in Berlin, specifically what can be learned from groups of older people coming together and creating their own housing projects. I did a short study of two such groups in London in 2015, but both were in the development phase – I wanted to look at groups who were actually long-established and living together. And also spend my entire summer in Berlin*.

I first came across cohousing for/by older groups, when one was being built right across the canal from me when I last lived here. I quickly and incorrectly assumed that:

a) all cohousing was created for and by older people, and

b) that the one I’d seen was just one of loads that existed in Berlin

Cohousing turned out to be for people of all generations (although it’s not quite as simple as this, as I will be exploring at some later date). And the one example of a specifically older group turned out to be one of…  only two in Berlin. Thus these are the two Berlin examples that I have selected. To be fair, there do seem to be a large number of cohousing projects done by older groups that are in progress and likely to open within the next year or so, but that’s no use when you want to look at how it’s working out in practice.

Anyhoo, what is cohousing? Good question. It’s an intentional community (intentional neighbourhood is a term often used) where a group has come together to live in individual dwellings, but clustered around a common space. It’s not a commune. The ‘intentional’ bit comes from an agreement by all involved that they will work to actively maintain a community, with regular events, sharing a meal together weekly, and so on. It’s better described here.

My question of ‘what might the UK learn from examples in Berlin?’ is perhaps slightly undermined by the strong tradition of community-driven housing that already exists in Germany (and Berlin in particular). Here there’s a lot of different forms of housing – legal, financial social and architectural that make up a kind of ‘field’ of alternative community housing, and cohousing often overlaps with some of these. As one background element to my own research, I’m exploring some of these – the following is an attempt at describing a couple, just some thoughts rather than a full or accurate description:

  • A Baugruppe [‘Building Group’] – essentially where a group gets together and commissions or builds their own housing development, just how they want it. Self-funded private Cohousing often uses this model, and could in principle be done more in the UK, but but in Germany there’s more of an established legal model, specialist lawyers and other specialists etc, who make this a relatively common thing.
  • A Genossenschaft (= co-operative, sort of) – these have a long tradition in Germany / Berlin, and form the major part of what we in the UK would view as social housing, similar in some ways to housing associations, and which often receive(d) state funding.
  • A ‘new-generation’ Genossenschaft – often overlapping with Baugruppen, a group come together and sets up a housing co-operative, raising their own funds, with the co-op owns the land/buildings, and everyone rents. Each co-op member/renter has a right to their tenancy in perpetuity, and the rent is theoretically lower as no external owner is making a profit. Cohousing could use this model too – it’s arguably closer in practice to Community Land Trusts in the UK.

 

In the case of one of the groups I’m looking at, it’s none of the above – the group rents apartments in an existing housing estate (better than that sounds), along with an additional apartment that they rent jointly as a communal space. It therefore exists essentially as an idea more than a physical form, but socially seems to work very well.

You might be thinking this all sounds a bit Scandinavian (it is) and seems like a good-idea-in-principle-but-not-my-sort-of-thing-really. I can understand that. But the aspect that appeals to me personally is what it might offer as we get older – a group of friends, or at least amenable acquaintances – who are proximate, who you can do stuff with or drop in on without having to travel miles, and who can support each other when family are (increasingly) far away.

The questions I’m asking are rooted in sociology and gerontology (How does it work out in practice? How do we differently negotiate the exigencies of later life through such communities?) which was… something of a struggle for a while, as it’s not my background.

But I will do some posts about architecture too – have been doing a lot of exploring, especially as I’m staying in Prenzlauerberg, so kind of unfamiliar territory to me after many years in Kreuzberg.

Have long lost access to my Flickr account (Flickr insists my emails etc are linked only to an account that isn’t mine – if anyone can help on this, it’d be appreciated!) but I regularly pile up snaps on Google photos, albeit quite low quality (in both senses).

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*Ha ha, I said to friends in London, I’m off to spend an endless summer in Berlin, enjoying proper ice cream and al fresco electronic dance music, while you all remain in London moaning about the weather and going to work a lot. Not so. It has been raining in Berlin since late April**, and shows no sign of stopping as I write this in July.

**I’m exaggerating, but not a lot. The weather has been much better in London. But I have eaten some good ice cream, and also some clubbing, things no longer possible in the UK capital since all ice cream outlets, clubs, pubs, decent bars, markets, sports facilities, public swimming pools, parks and libraries have been redeveloped into thirty storeys of luxury apartments***

***By which we all now, of course, mean shit apartments. But with a concierge, gym, Cafe Nero and Sainsbury’s local cluttering the ground level in place of a decent public realm. Or an ice cream shop.