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Could This German Affordable Homebuilding Plan Be a Model for the U.S.?

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Located somewhere between a condo and a hippy commune, this collective building model could help with the urban affordability crisis

Baugruppe building in Vienna
Photo by Markus Kaiser for POS Architecture

As housing in America's urban centers seems to become more unaffordable by the minute, Germany continues to cultivate initiatives for fighting gentrification and making housing affordable for local residents. Over the past three decades, one of the country's most notable techniques is the encouragement of Baugruppenor "building groups"citizen collectives who come together to privately design and develop their own apartment complexes.

Curbed spoke with Mike Eliason, a Seattle-based passive house designer and Baugruppe groupie, to learn more about how this unique housing model works, and the challenges of replicating it in the United States.

A Baugruppe essentially develops their own self-financed condo building

Imagine getting your friends together, pooling your money, and building a rad apartment building tailored precisely to your needs. Units would come in different sizes and configurations, depending on what each family wants, and shared community spaces, such as a library or indoor garden, could also be added to the floorplan, depending on the group's interests.

"Here in Seattle, we want a bike-only, car-free, net-zero Baugruppe with a bike shop in the building," Eliason told Curbed. "You're not going to find a developer anywhere in the U.S. who will built that."

The process for creating a Baugruppe is pretty simple... in Germany

Eliason explained that in Germany, these group, often brought together by shared ideals or interests, first form an LLC. Then, each member pays an upfront fee that can go toward making a down payment on land. The money can also be used to find an architect, if there isn't one already in the group, and kick off the construction process.

In some German cities, government facilitators work directly with Baugruppen to help shepherd them through the process of selecting a site, hiring a designer, securing financing, nailing down architectural plans, and hiring construction companies. Over the past thirty years, an entire industry of specialized Baugruppe architects, financial institutions, and contractors has sprung up to meet the demand for these buildings.

Besides being led by a committee of citizen, the development and construction process for these structures is pretty similar to what we have in the United States. Once the building is finished and financed, each Baugruppe member owns their apartment outright.

Baugruppe in the Vauban district of Freiberg, Germany
Photo courtesy of Mike Eliasen

Baugruppe buildings can be more affordable than conventional development

Buying a Baugruppe unit typically cost 10 to 20 percent less per square foot than their commercially developed counterparts. That's because in Germany, Baugruppen pay lower taxes than developers, and the government will often sell land more cheaply to a Baugruppe than to a commercial buyer. Private groups can also build on cheaper, oddly shaped sites that professional developers would consider too risky.

But there are other ways that this housing model saves cash.

"When you're tailoring a unit for yourself, you can make it a little smaller without giving up functionality, and you can find unique ways to leverage costs," Eliason told Curbed, citing the use of passive house techniques and new building materials.

To bring Baugruppen to the United States, we'd need a few things:

Government support, such as offering city-owned land at a discount price, or providing facilitators to shephard groups through the process, would go a long way toward encouraging this model to develop in high-cost cities, Eliason believes.

Financial lending institutions would also need to alter their practices to become more friendly and accessible to private groups looking for development financing.

Eliason believes the Baugruppe can be adapted to fit the American dream, and that such a model could do a lot of good in expensive cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver.

"People who live in Baugruppen tend to be from the communities where they're being built but might not be able to afford staying there otherwise," Eliason explained. "It's an anti-gentrification measure, a way to open up housing opportunities for people in cities with rising housing costs."

Baugruppe in Vienna
Photo by Markus Kaiser for POS Architecture

Build Your Own Baugruppe — A Home For The Rest Of Us [Impact Design Hub]

Communal Living is Having a Moment in, Where Else, Brooklyn [Curbed]