Berlin’s R50 Baugruppe is a Model of Living Affordably, Collectively

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Residents of R50 Baugruppe gather for a topping out ceremony in the community space in the basement of the building, designed collectively by Berlin architectural firms Heide & Von Beckerath and ifau with Jesko Fezer (photo: Andrew Alberts).

The world’s cultural and economic capitals are becoming more crowded and costly to live in at the same time as changes in the family structure mean a generation of singles, boomers and non-traditional families are thinking anew about how they want to live.

On KCRW’s recent trip to Berlin we found an intriguing solution to both challenges: Baugruppen (building groups).

These are collectively built residential complexes in which individuals own their own units but share common spaces.

It’s estimated there are several hundred of these Baugruppen, also known as Baugemeinschaften, that have been built over the last 15 years, dating from the time the city’s famed low rents began to soar as property in post-Wall Berlin exploded in popularity.

Baugruppen are a means to co-exist with “your peer group,” says art and architecture writer Andreas Toelke, adding that “one of the first movements of this was gay people coming together” and trying to build a home for retirement. Even though the process of co-creating a residence can be long and arduous, one of the benefits is the feeling that “it’s our project and we all feel responsible for it.”

They can range from a few households to hundreds; they are sometimes initiated by would-be homeowners who then bring in an architect, and sometimes by architects who see in Baugruppen an opportunity to develop their own projects.

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One of the goals behind R50, right of picture, was to connect, physically and socially, with the surrounding neighborhood, mostly lower-income renters.

One of the more recent and notable examples is R50, a six-story block located within tower blocks in the more working class, suburban end of Berlin’s now trendy Kreuzberg neighborhood.

R50, named for its address, Ritterstrasse 50, was developed and designed by architectural firms Heide & Von Beckerath and ifau, the “institute for applied urbanism,” and Jesko Fezer.

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Verena von Beckerath and Christoph Schmidt, co-principals of the design team, in Schmidt’s apartment in R50 (photo: Caroline Chamberlain.)

It has six floors with three units on each floor, as well as a shared roof terrace, large communal room in the basement and yard for all the families.

The designers spent 1 ½ years meeting with fellow buyers every two weeks (all crowding into their cramped office, recalls Christoph Schmidt, a principal at ifau) and arrived at an efficient and very elegant design that wound up costing, including shared space, around $250 per square foot.

Verena von Beckerath is co-principal of Heide & Von Beckerath, and we talked with her and Christoph Schmidt in his family’s unit on the 5th floor of R50. She explained, “we on one hand worked on how to do affordable housing and on the other hand – as a parallel development – how to do customized housing. . . not in order to raise the value of the house but to give people who want to stay in the city an idea to how to adapt the apartment to their own needs.”

They achieved all this through a combination of reinforced concrete skeleton structure, partly exposed infrastructure, and a modular timber facade with custom-designed fixed and flexible glass doors. On seeing the building, my companion Bennett Stein remarked that it resembled “a cross between Prouve and early Gehry” in the mix of rational and tech coupled with the raw spruce paneling and exposed concrete. The result is 19 spacious-feeling units that serve as tasteful blank slates for their inhabitants.

R50 was finished two years ago so it is still early days for the residents. But by all accounts everyone’s getting along well and discussions continue regarding many aspects of living there, including ideas for engaging further with their neighbors, the longtime, less affluent renters living in the surrounding towers.

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The “Domino House” inspired open plan coupled with low-cost materials allows for customized layouts for each unit. Outward opening glazed doors bring in light and allow access to the perimeter-long balcony (photo: Caroline Chamberlain.)

For the architects it has been a very rewarding process. “Now that people live here,” says Verena von Beckerath, “and we see the children grow up we see that the architecture project and the lives of its inhabitants really work in a very nice way. It’s not that the project is not finished but it has a certain character or ability to adapt to future lives, and that’s what I think is really interesting about it. We love it.”

Christoph Schmidt adds that he hopes to apply the experience to multifamily rental housing: “We learned from the users, we learned a lot from this negotiation process and we hope that we can introduce these ideas also into a more anonymous context of social housing.”

Now the team is working on a larger Baugruppe – with around 100 units — but von Beckerath says the cost won’t be as low as for R50 due to rising building costs and a pricier location. However, in both cases it’s been possible to keep costs relatively low because, she explains, the City of Berlin gives a helping hand.

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It offers the land to Baugruppen in a bidding process based not on price but on the quality of their residential concept. Then the city holds it for them at a stable price while the group seeks partners and raised funds.

Von Beckerath says “this part of the foundation of a Baugruppe is very critical” because usually Baugruppen have the problem that to form a group and to bid for a plot at the same time is almost impossible.”

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Balconies are continuous but residents make their own mark, as with these plants outside Christoph Schmidt’s apartment (photo: Caroline Chamberlain.)

But given the heat on the Berlin property market and the appeal of the R50 flats, what happens if an owner decides to sell? Is there a limit on how much they can sell it for? Does the collective have to approve the the new buyer?

She says that Baugruppen don’t set down resale price limits or right of collective approval — unlike coops. But she says the individual owners of R50 are currently working on a manifesto which is “based on trust.”

All of this gives an idealistic feeling to the movement, prompting the thought: are Baugruppen-type complexes possible anywhere or are they particular to Berlin’s particular history and culture?

Cooperative housing has its roots in the Berlin of a century ago, but it took off in the 1970s and 80s when counter-culture Berliners squatted houses and, says von Beckerath, “really wanted to live together and create their own collective lifestyle.”

But for those who wonder if such a concept is achievable here, she points out that California has its own tradition of utopian housing. The challenge is to apply it in this time of very tight competition over very high land prices.

Read more on that topic in this discussion with Rick Corsini about Gregory Ain’s Avenel Cooperative in Silver Lake and its impact on his own residential design. And read about Ric Abramson’s proposed “compact” homes that may be the County’s answer to the small lot division. For more on Cohousing in the US, start here. Read more about R50 in this Metropolis article. And listen to DnA’s discussion about R50 and Baugruppen, with Andreas Toelke, Verena von Beckerath, Christoph Schmidt, Rick Corsini and Ric Abramson.

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R50 residents own their units but come together in the communal basement room for various shared activities (photo: Andrew Alberts).