Baugruppen save money over conventional developer-driven housing projects

Excerpt from David Roberts on Grist, 2013

A fascinating series of posts by Michael Eliason of the Brute Force Collaborative, a Seattle design firm. They are all about baugruppen, or building groups, which appear to address exactly the kinds of concerns I mention above.

Baugruppe in Prenzlauerberg.
zanderroth architektenBaugruppe in Prenzlauerberg.

Eliason introduces baugruppen here. The basic idea is that a group of people comes together to work directly with architects and designers, bypassing developers, to build a shared dwelling that they own collectively (a co-op, basically). Taking developers out of the picture saves money — 25 to 30 percent in Berlin, where baugruppen are common — and opens up space for much more ambitious, innovative, and sustainable architecture. It also fosters cooperation and community among members of the collective.

In this post, Eliason notes that many jurisdictions (Freiburg, Tuebingen, Hamburg, and Berlin) recognize the benefits of baugruppen and structure public policy to encourage them. “There are a number of solid reasons why cities should be interested in stimulating and facilitating such undertakings,” he says. “Jobs, affordable housing within city limits, maintaining or expanding the tax base, and stimulating development of vacant/awkwardly shaped/smaller lots developers may see as too risky are just a few.”

This post covers why baugruppen tend to save money over conventional developer-driven projects. I like this in particular:

For me, the big point on cost-effectiveness is that a member gets a unit tailored to their specific needs — as well as desired communal spaces if space and budget allows. Developers don’t normally fine-tune projects like this, as it would add even more cost and time. Additionally, development projects tend to be directed towards the average user, whom they try to appeal to, however there are some notable exceptions to this, especially here in Seattle. But before a BG even brings on an architect (assuming there isn’t one already in the group) — they’ll have discussed the type of lifestyle they would like to live, the type of building they would like to dwell in. A bunch of musically-oriented families founding a BG? They might plan a rehearsal space as part of the common area. Older couples might want a co-owned guest unit they could let their friends or children stay in, thus keeping their unit smaller and more affordable. Want a say in what color your facade is? How about typical finishes in common areas? BGs can offer that level of communal authorship.


This post is about the innovative efficiency and sustainability measures popping up in baugruppenThis one is about the wide variety of sizes and styles among them. And this one is about the communities that form around them:

There are a number of ways baugruppen are formed — some are initiated by friends or acquaintances that already share a common bond or set of core values. Others need additional members, and declare a strong central concept (bikes only! DINKS ok! Intergenerational granola-loving families!), a rallying cry for those that may be interested in joining up. …

Once formed, a large amount of community buy-in must take place. To actually build a baugruppe is no small feat. Like co-housing, the design process of many baugruppen is driven by future tenants. Concepts, themes and ideas are developed, processes are formulated to move project planning forward. The land situation must be worked out. Architects work with the owners on the design — both groups bringing needs and constraints to the table. This is not usually the case with developer-initiated projects, but on the best projects, it is this close collaboration with clients that really drives success. There has to be consensus amongst the members to move forward, schedules have to be maintained. This is a process of give and take — actual democracy in action! Though the process may take more time (e.g. weekly meetings for up to and over a year) and definitely involves challenges (There should be bike storage! The stairs should be yellow!) — it seems like a great way to engage your future neighbors while formulating a building that meets your needs in a way other models can’t or won’t. Imagine having a say in whether or not your building would have a roof terrace, or how your building engages the public! Want to implement ecological and social requirements for a project? Then do it! How about prioritizing car-free living like in Vauban? Go for it! This process seems to induce a greater sense of pride, respect and sense of community than other models — perhaps owing to the greater degree of trust and respect garnered through the planning process.

zanderroth architekten

All the posts are filled with specific examples (and photos) of baugruppen. Check them out.

As Eliason says, this mostly seems to be happening in Germany (which is way ahead on community energy projects too). But it sounds like exactly the kind of thing I have in mind. And I know I can’t be the only one who dreams of sustainable urban living, with a community and a home that reflect my values.

What would it take to get these things going in the U.S.? Or at least, ahem, in Seattle? Do any of you readers have experience with them? Thoughts about the regulatory or financing barriers in the U.S.? Educate me.