A new form of housing delivery in Germany and France – Part 1

Part 1: Cohousing the German context

During our field research into ecourban neighbourhoods in Northern Europe, we saw German and French examples of resident-led housing design and development as an alternative form of housing provision, known in North America as co-housing[1]. In the first part of this two-part blog post, I introduce  the principles behind cohousing and discuss the German context for this form of housing provision. And in Part 2, I report on criticisms of German cohousing and turn to a French attempt to make cohousing more accessible to lower income groups.

These new approaches to participative forms of housing delivery are known Baugruppen or joint-venture buildings in Germany, and l’habitat participatif or participatory housing in France. Although these ideas are commonly considered under the broader umbrella of ‘cohousing’, further research on their conceptualization, implementation and lived experiences across various social, political and cultural contexts may reveal significant differences within this model of housing provision[2]. For all their differences, we found that cohousing developments do share some ecourbanist tendencies[3] and sometimes constitute intentional communities who desire more communitarian lifestyles. Scholars of this housing phenomenon differ in their view of the foundational principles of cohousing. For some researchers, the key definitional characteristic of co-housing is the employment of strategies to address ecological impact reduction, while for others it is more focused on housing affordability and mutual social support, including neighbourliness and the ability to match housing to household needs (Tummers, 2015; Chatterton, 2013; Hamiduddin & Gallent, 2015). If ever all these characteristics co-exist, they would respectively target the three pillars of environment, economic and social sustainability. Whether all these dimensions ever do coexist, however, is an open question.

Such collective or participatory forms of housing are being advanced as alternatives to market-developed housing or “neo-liberalised forms of living” (Pickerell 2010, p. 179). Instead of the speculative nature of housing being developed by a professional development corporation and sold to residents on the open market for profit, cohousing is collectively built by citizen groups and self-managed, with varying levels of professional involvement. This model is thought to be more affordable than market housing; by one account baugruppen in Germany save up to 20% in construction costs when compared to developer-led housing (Hamiduddin & Daseking, 2014). And while many cohousing projects are privately financed and subsequent resales are done on the open market, some cohousing groups do make special arrangements to ensure perpetual affordability[4] for their members.

In France and Germany, we saw differences in implementation, as well as local governments taking fairly active roles in recognizing and promoting these alternative forms of housing.  This brings us to question the most effective role of government in advancing this type of housing innovation, and at the same time invites questions of equal access to this arguably more sustainable form of living.

Cohousing forms in Germany – Baugruppen

At HafenCity in Hamburg, Germany, the city’s development corporation negotiates land prices within this new brownfield redevelopment neighbourhood based on the design concepts being proposed by owner-occupier groups, or Baugruppen. For plots in HafenCity, 70% of the land price a group pays depends on the demonstrated public benefit promised by their proposed concept. One of the joint-venture type developments that has been successfully built thus far is a building for musicians, where individual residential units have sound-proofing to allow for practice and recording of music, and common spaces are equipped for musical collaboration. Another is a residential building for older single women who designed their building to accommodate mutual support while maintaining independent living, to facilitate care activities for occupants as they age. In German cities where this development model is already commonly used, some architecture firms have developed a specialization in bringing such groups together and accommodating their specific design vision. The City of Hamburg recognizes the value of having housing options that are more affordable, and because they require greater personal efforts from the owner-occupiers, such options lead to strengthened social ties between neighbours. According to our tour guide through HafenCity, the city’s development corporation is now favouring the baugruppen model for the development of the upcoming phases of HafenCity.

We also visited two internationally-recognized sustainable neighbourhoods in Freiburg, Germany, in which developments by baugruppen accounted for a significant amount of housing units – 25% in Vauban and 10% in Rieselfeld (Hamiduddin & Gallent, 2015).  In both neighbourhoods, we noted the diversity and greenness of the urban realm, as well as a focus on public spaces made to be conducive to social interaction.

Diversity in building forms at Vauban, Freiburg. The visual diversity of the neighbourhood is attributed to the small lot sizes which enabled baugruppen to design housing to match their functional needs and aesthetic preferences. (Photo credit: Charling Li)
Diversity in building forms at Vauban, Freiburg. The visual diversity of the neighbourhood is attributed to the small lot sizes which enabled baugruppen to design housing to match their functional needs and aesthetic preferences. (Photo credit: Charling Li)

In the early days of Vauban’s development in Freiburg, Germany during the mid- to late-1990s, citizen groups actively lobbied against developer-led housing, demanding more community engagement in shaping the new neighbourhood (Hamiduddin & Gallent, 2015). In response, the city took several key steps in the early development of Vauban which structurally embedded baugruppen as a viable housing option for the new neighbourhood. The City opted to create smaller lots which could more easily be financed directly by baugruppen, without needing access to financing through an intermediary developer (Fraker, 2013). Moreover, the City internalized the cost of servicing these smaller plots and controlled land prices to ensure land affordability (Hamiduddin & Gallent, 2015) for baugruppen. The city and federal government also provided financial support to a citizen’s association named Forum Vauban, and granted it legal status as the organization managing the participatory planning process for the entire neighbourhood. Forum Vauban became the medium through which baugruppen members were recruited and where technical and governance best-practices were shared between Vauban residents.

The result is that more than 40 baugruppen in Vauban were able to build housing that suited their needs while reducing the cost of homeownership by cutting out the role of the developer. From an energy consumption perspective, Fraker (2013) found that since baugruppen were free to improve on the mandated energy standards, at least 300 units, or 18% of baugruppen units, were designed to the stringent Passive House (low-energy) standards or to energy performance standards that were more stringent than the national standard. In a country where energy costs are a significant part of housing costs, this allowed residents greater control over their long-term costs of living. This also demonstrates the potential for the baugruppen movement to achieve significant reductions in ecological impact beyond industry standards and codes in the built environment.

In Part 2 of this blog post, I discuss some of the criticisms of cohousing and the French attempts at providing more equal access to this form of housing delivery.

This baugruppen housing project in Rieselfeld, in Freiburg, has the faces of its members featured on the façade of its balcony railings. In Rieselfeld, baugruppen projects accounted for 10% of homes built. (Photo credit: Charling Li)
This baugruppen housing project in Rieselfeld, in Freiburg, has the faces of its members featured on the façade of its balcony railings. In Rieselfeld, baugruppen projects accounted for 10% of homes built. (Photo credit: Charling Li)

[1] For a brief history of co-housing and its origins in Northern Europe, see McCamant & Durrett (2011); Tummers (2015).

[2] Tummers (2015) has a preliminary discussion on the typologies of cohousing as found within her international research on cohousing.

[3] See Holden et al., 2015 for a discussion of ecourban principles in neighbourhood development.

[4] For an example of perpetual affordability, see the LILAC project in the UK which has a clear focus on decommodifying housing tenure through a shared equity membership structure tied to income. See also Chatterton, P. (2013). Towards an Agenda for Post‐carbon Cities: Lessons from Lilac, the UK’s First Ecological, Affordable Cohousing Community. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37(5), 1654-1674.

Works cited:

Chatterton, P. (2013). Towards an agenda for post-carbon cities: lessons from LILAC, the UK’s first ecological, affordable cohousing community. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37(5), 1654-1674.

Droste, C. (2015). German co-housing: an opportunity for municipalities to foster socially inclusive urban development? Urban Research & Practice, 8(1), 79-92.

Fiedler, J. (2014). Urbanisation unlimted, a thematic journey. Springer. Vienna, Austria.

Fraker, H., (2013). The Hidden potential of sustainable neighbourhoods, lessons from low-carbon communities. Island press, Washington, USA.

Hamiddudin, I., Daseking, W. (2014). Community-based planning in Freiburg, Germany: the case of Vauban. In N. Gallent & D. Ciaffi. (Eds.) Community action and planning.  Policy press. Retrieved from <http://www.myilibrary.com?ID=670934>

Hamiduddin, I., Gallent, N. (2015). Self-build communities: the rationale and experiences of group-build (Baugruppen) housing development in Germany. Housing Studies, 1-19.

Holden, M., Li, C., Molina, A. (2015). The emergence and spread of ecourbanism around the world. Sustainability, 7(9), 11418-11437; doi:10.3390/su70911418

McCamant, K., Durrett, C. (2011). Creating cohousing: building sustainabile communities. New Society Publishers. Gabriola Island, Canada.

Pickerill, J. (2010). Building liveable cities – urban low impact development as low carbon solutions? In H. Bulkeley, V. Castán Broto, M. Hodson, & S. Marvin. (Eds.) Cities and Low Carbon Transitions. Routledge. Retrieved from http://www.myilibrary.com?ID=304341

Tummers, L. (2015). Understanding co-housing from a planning perspective: why and how? Urban Research & Practice, 8(1). 64-78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17535069.2015.1011427

Ruiu, M.L. (2014). Differences between Cohousing and Gated Communities. A literature review. Sociological Inquiry, 84(2). 316-335. DOI: 10.1111/soin.12031


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