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.


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.



*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 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 (cue panning shot with Kevin’s voiceover) “what good architecture is really all about…”




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. And not least of course, all this makes it very exclusive, limiting the model to those with a lot of (economic) capital.

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. I can’t ignore the fact however 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!

Spreefeld 2

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

Spreefeld plan

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

Spreefeld 1

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.

Alwig 1