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



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.




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

Wedding day

I was in the Berlin district of Wedding the other day (of which I know little) and spotted some interesting buildings (of which I know nothing).

If you can tell me anything about these, I will by you a beer/drink of your choice (if you come along to the next Stammtisch – see previous post).

These are the kind of days I love in Berlin.  Just me, a bike, and some unfashionably arcane architecture.

The first one is on Kolberger Strasse, and appears to be a kind of curious cross between hardnosed brutalism and, er, fey postmodernism.  It’s just wrong.  But I love it.

Excuse the new photo size, by the way.  Flickr has just redesigned itself to be less flexible.  Which is not particularly interesting, sorry.

Also on the same side of the street (below).  You hate it, don’t you?

Immediately around the back of the buildings across the street, following the little river, is a classic Berlin abandoned-victorian-industrial affair which, unusually, was really securely fenced off.  So I failed to gain entry, sadly.  What’s the world coming to if you can’t break in to an abandoned building?  Looks like a pumping station, by the way.

Someone told me the other night that cool dance/event space Radial System V, converted from a pumping station, is in fact one of five (the ‘V’ is a clue here, I see) named ‘Radial System I’, ‘Radial SystemII’ etc.  Is this one perhaps?

Just up the road, at Brunnenplatz, is an extension (or rather rebuilding) of the rear wing of the crazy ‘Addams Family’ castle-cum-Amtsgericht.  I know that I’m now in a minority of one, if I say I like it.  Persuade me otherwise, over that beer:

Note, in the image above, the ‘hilarious’ neogothic window references, turned 90 degrees at the top of the main facade.  Is this charming-but-not-great, quite clever, or just awful?  My internal battle of taste continues…

The original building:

SLAB Magazine

Strange that having spent so much time idly wandering Berlin-related areas of the web, I hadn’t come across SLAB Magazine before now.  A shame, as it’s jolly good.

A thread running through many of its posts is Berlin’s increasing habit of filling up its gaps with ever blander buildings (something I was hoping only I perceived, and that elsewhere in the city people were spotting groundbreaking new contemporary architecture on a daily basis).

On days when I’m feeling a bit down, it seems that Berlin has lost its confidence at some fundamental level, and seems pathetically grateful for absolutely anything any developer chooses to throw up, in the mistaken hope that a big bland corporate style will lend the city more gravitas.  Which of course it doesn’t.

On days when I’m not feeling down, I give the whole subject no thought at all, in case you’re wondering.

PS – If, like me, you’ve looked at the site and wondered what the word ‘heuristic’ in SLAB’s byline might mean:

1. serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of furthering investigation

2. encouraging a person to learn, discover, understand, or solve problems on his or her own, as by experimenting, evaluating possible answers or solutions, or by trial and error: a heuristic teaching method

Die Temporäre Kunsthalle ist geöffnet!

A slightly ironic title, as the opening of this temporary building has been an extended affair: the ground breaking ceremony, the opening of the outside of the building (yes, the logic defeats me too) and finally, last night, the opening of the inside of the building, with the first part of Candice Breitz‘ video installations.

The mayor was there at the ground breaking and at last night’s bash – I don’t know if he was at the ‘opening of the outside’ as I didn’t go (I wasn’t sure how you could open just the outside of a building). Anyway, that’s my last mention of the mayor, as he hardly needs my single grain of publicity on his expansive media beach.

Well worth a trip though. You can’t miss it – it’s the enormous blue and white thing near the Berliner Dom, pictured below, the building itself designed by Adolf Krischanitz.

I’m a bit of a fan of Breitz as well.  Of her initial three pieces here, Working Class Hero is the best (in my view), featuring twenty-five larger-than-life-size faces singing along in unison to unheard (by us) John Lennon album.  There’s often a gap, presumably for an instrumental part of the song – the momentary silence and the wait for them to sing again is oddly unsettling.  The other ones follow the same idea; Queen (Madonna) and King (yep, Michael Jackson).

Worth a visit to that whole area in fact – the huge demolition site of the former Palast der Republik (across the road from the Berliner Dom on Unter den Linden). It’s maybe not a place you’d go regularly if you live in Berlin, as it’s something of a tourist ground zero. But the day-by-day disappearance of the Palast, with only a shrinking number of its vast concrete stair towers remaining (as at yesterday), is a fascinating site.

Image courtesy of IsarSteve – I love the way the shadow of the Fernseturm falls on the Park Inn hotel. (I say ‘courtesy’ – I haven’t actually asked him, but I’m hoping he won’t mind.)  A view that will eventually be obscured by the construction of the Humboldt Forum (I refuse to use the term ‘reconstruction of the Schloss).

The Temporäre Kunsthalle, by the way, has a surprisingly good architecture section in its bookshop. I pored over it for a while, until the assistant started glaring at me due to the way I was balancing a glass of wine precariously close to a weighty tome about O M Ungers.

See earlier post on the Kunsthalle, which includes my rant about the planned Humboldt Forum.

Mediaspree gesunken. Sort of.

Just a quick follow up to my ‘Spreeufer fur alle’ rant the other day, to mention that the result was a landslide against office development and in favour of retained and improved access to the river.

Lots about in the German language press, but a brief summary in english here.

Cynics will note that the vote has no legal standing, but hey, it’s a vote from the heart against the world of international business travellers checking into bland hotels, to a neverending soundtrack of Elton John/Celine Dion/Bon Jovi bellowing out across the river from the O2.

Off to the beach now to party like it’s 1989.