a new approach to affordable urban living?

Despite the fact that we love where we live and have ridiculously awesome landlords, we (Mike and Heather) have been debating the stay v. buy v. build bug for a while. And while we’d love to just jump right into it and build a Passivhaus, we’ve a few hesitations. For starters, a weak economy that led to a plethora of architectural layoffs. The thought of buying an old house and scraping it off to build a new PH doesn’t seem… overly sustainable – and renovating a house doesn’t appeal to me, as I’d prefer to be hanging w/ the fam. We consider ourselves urbanists and have entertained the idea of small scale multifamily. So I was exploring alternatives to the typical models (developer-driven or self-developed) and had an epiphany.

Actually, to claim it was an epiphany is only half correct – the idea of forming baugruppen (building groups) has been on my mind for quite some time. As BFC hails (kinda) from Berlin & Freiburg – we’re both familiar w/ the concept. Baugruppen are basically collectives formed w/ the intent of building housing – but eliminating the developer in order to keep costs down significantly. A project manager is often utilized. Essentially, this makes a lot of sense if it can be pulled off, though there can be financing hurdles. In Berlin, Baugruppen can save up to 25-30% of costs – for a variety of reasons (no developer risk/profit, little or no marketing). The stunning MFH Passivhaus featured in PHbdW 02 was built by a baugruppe.

One thing I really like about baugruppen is the instantaneous/intentional community. There is buy-in & consensus before a building takes shape. In a society that is increasingly insular and introverted – there’s a lot to be said for the connections and networks that baugruppen can foster. And in my mind, baugruppen aren’t co-housing developments (although I guess they could be). They vary from the small scale (duplex) to a massive undertaking with varied typologies like zanderroth architekten’s Zelterstrasse 5 in Prenzlauerberg (fotos). 

Another great aspect to baugruppen is that they’re known for pushing architectural innovation and efficiency boundaries. According to Winnie Chan, nearly ¾ of the built projects in Berlin meet Passivhaus or KfW40 (PH lite) levels of efficiency. Cross laminated timber or brettstapel? Yeah, they got ‘em as well. Also, let’s be honest – much of the developer-driven stuff is horribly mediocre and banal (though, thankfully, there are exceptions). Developers usually have to aim for something that will sell, so lifestyle/design risks are the exception. Taking that out of the equation allows for some fantastic explorations. A stunning baugruppen-led project is Kaden + Klingbeil’s highly innovative and lauded e_3  (also in Prenzlauerberg!), which is easily in my top 10 for multi-family projects. This seven floor wooden project would never have been realized by a developer.

That’s not to say these sorts of undertaking would be easy in a city like Seattle – Berlin has (and Vauban had) ample undeveloped land to construct these kinds of projects. Local governments have incentives or have given preferential treatment to foster and encourage these types of projects. Short of turning the Port of Seattle into a mini Scheepstimmermanstraat (ahh, one can dream, can’t they?) – I just don’t know if enough land exists to support both these kinds of projects and the developer-led stuff. And that’s not to say the developer-driven projects shouldn’t exist – there’s definitely a place for them in the city, I just think it would be great if there were more diversity on this front.

foto: flickr user stevecadman

Yet another aspect I really like about the baugruppen concept is that the owners can be brought into the design process – they can bring their ideas and needs to the table, which is not usually the case with developer-initiated projects. I really like the idea of setting up a framework that the owners/inhabitants can modify aspects/fenestration to suit their needs. Sort of a functional structuralism, perhaps.

Is this anything groundbreaking or unheard of for the U.S.? Actually, not really – I’ve heard of similar approaches in the past, and the PH gurus over at LoadingDock5 have formed a baugruppe to construct a multi unit project in Brooklyn, dubbed Haus. They claim,

All construction expenses will be open and transparent.  Our overall costs will be substantially lower than in a regular private development, especially considering that there is no developer to be paid and no premium for a guaranteed price.  We’re also investigating tax savings as a result of this unconventional model of owner/user.”

I’ll be catching up w/ LD5′s Sam Bargetz in the near future for a follow up to this, but it will be exciting to see how this develops because I think this sort of venture is a great opportunity for building affordable, efficient, durable (and modern!) housing for the middle & creative classes who wish to live an urban lifestyle.

Which brings me back around to our pursuit – we’re definitely interested in exploring this idea further. So if the thought of modern, sustainable, affordable urban living sounds enticing to you, and you’re yearning to form a baugruppe interest group in Seattle – shoot us an email. If interested in just learning about more baugruppen process and projects, check out these additional resources:


LUU blog documenting a multi-generational, multi family Passivhaus (uber meta!)

Winnie yuen pik Chan’s DIA thesis, ‘The Phenomenon of Building Groups (Baugruppe) in Berlin (incredibly well-done and a phenomenal read, by the way)

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