Building in the city, as a group

Since I’m a Londoner, I’m aware how difficult it is just to have somewhere to live. I got my first job (as an architect) in this city in the mid-90s. Naively, I thought you simply went out and rented a flat, on your own, and so I did. It was small, but decent: the place even had a tiny garden. Then I realised that I was shelling out 70% of my net income in rent: not sustainable. After moving back home for a bit to recover, I tried again, this time by sharing a flat: sensible. Not comfortable, or at all stylish, but sensible. Fifteen years on, I’m married, and now I can afford the rent, just about. And there’s a garden. But it’s still a stretch, and I suppose, when you think about it, it’s still a flat share.

Time to think about taking steps. If you’re not qualified to apply for social rented housing or other forms of subsidised housing, the obvious move is to buy. But buy what, exactly? New build housing everywhere in the UK is, to be honest, fairly terrible. The biggest problem is that new homes are very very small. Stuff like clothes, maybe some books, maybe a bicycle, become luxuries, simply because you can’t store them. And maybe you’re thinking of a family …

Older existing homes might be a bit bigger, but they can bring their own problems: they tend to have poor layouts (if they’re converted from something larger), poor insulation (both thermal and acoustic; you’ll be wasting energy and overhearing your neighbours), and maybe even poor air quality (damp and mould).

In summary – free market or no free market – British housing construction is just not good. Standards have been low for a long long time, and remain low. And for those low standards, prices seem staggeringly high. But there are still alternatives. The one that interests me most – and the reason for this blog – is group building. Or in Germany, where the idea is better established: the baugruppe. The concept is straightforward: a group of people, all with the intention to build their own homes, form a collective. There’s no developer, so no profit or marketing to be paid for. And construction standards, including space standards, can in principle be as high as the group can afford, and will agree to. Here’s an example (under construction) in Berlin:

Zelterstrasser_02

More here. The project is (reportedly) being built to the Passivhaus standard. And here, a group of architects in Seattle give their own overview of the baugruppen concept.

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