Berlin’s Spreefeld Building has a rooftop terrace, once of many amenities the residents share.
Berlin’s Spreefeld Building has a rooftop terrace, once of many amenities the residents share.

Inside Berlin’s collective housing

lifestyle December 24, 2017 01:00

By Jintana Panyaarvudh
The Sunday Nation

7,136 Viewed

Residents of the Spreefeld Buildings have their own flats, but share a kitchen, leisure facilities, work spaces – and all decisions

THE THREE seven-storey buildings alongside the River Spreefeld in Mitte, a district in the centre of Berlin, stand separately. But their residents share ownership, communal facilities and all the decision-making about how they will live together. 

The Spreefeld Buildings are an example of self-organised housing and a re-emerging “culture of collectivism” in Germany’s capital. 

Berlin’s Spreefeld Building has a rooftop terrace, once of many amenities the residents share.

Initiated by Spreefeld Cooperative, the co-housing project covers 6,000 square metres and is home to about 120 adults and 40 children and young people. There are enough working spaces for around 100 people. 

The three concrete buildings have the same structure, but the layouts differ from floor to floor. 

Besides 64 apartments and various offices, the residents share a kitchen, laundry and fitness facilities, guestrooms, rooftop terraces and areas dedicated to music and youth activities. 

The ground floor and broad outdoor area bordering the river offer diverse places and services for the public, but they collectively belong to the residents. These include communal gardens and cultural spaces, a daycare centre, a woodwork shop and a separate co-working space. 

The ground floor features a communal kitchen.

Spreefeld also affords access to the river for the general public, as well as places anyone can gather along the riverbank. 

Jorg Finkbeiner, the contractor who built the project and became a resident, says it began amid efforts by several investors to buy the property from the city more than a decade ago. Instead of competing over the price, though, they decided to jointly buy it. 

The purchasers formed a housing co-op and bid for the land in 2004, when property prices were still relatively low. Successful, they started planning what life would be like there. 

Initially, the only goal was to keep the construction cost low, says Finkbeiner, who’s also an architect.

Work began in 2012 and was completed in two years, all areas of the project meeting “Passive House” standards, by which energy consumption has to be a fraction of that found in typical Central European buildings – as little as 10 per cent. Energy savings of up to 90 per cent mean the owners have little to worry about when utility costs rise, Finkbeiner explains. 

A key decision in the planning was that the residents wouldn’t simply dwell on their own in private flats and never meet their neighbours. “They want to live together, have connections with other residents and be organised as a community,” he says. 

Jorg Finkbeiner built the place and now lives there.

Most importantly, it was decided that the co-op members/residents would manage the buildings collectively. 

“Every member here can express an opinion about anything the community wants. We’re proud that we can live by our own decisions.”

Everything is discussed, from whether a swimming pool should be installed to whether more greenery is needed and where it should go. “People here have a common relationship in their way of thinking,” Finkbeiner says. “This is more like a culture of collectivism.”

It’s not always easy reaching consensus, he acknowledges. “We need only 50 per cent of the people to say, ‘Let’s do it,’ but sometimes even that’s hard enough.” But the sense of community is strong.

The project’s kindergarten accepts pupils from outside. 

Like most European cities, Berlin is facing housing challenges, such as rising rents, changes in climate and demographics, privatisation and individualisation. 

In recent decades, co-housing has become popular, but high land prices pose an obstacle, Finkbeiner says. Nevertheless, the city has seen more than 1,000 co-housing projects started.

Even though he built the place, Finkbeiner had to undergo an interview to gain residency there. He says he was lucky, because lots of other people wanted in. 

“I love it here. For me, it’s like living in a village. People enjoy the quality of life,” says the architect, who was born in the Black Forest in southwest Germany. 

The project was set up so that people on low incomes could be involved. The rental fee depends on the size of the flat, but it starts on a par with that of government-subsidised housing. 

Rent revenues have paid off the land-purchase loans, so the co-op members are considering whether to rent to outsiders or sell the units to existing residents, Finkbeiner says. 

“And certainly, the decision will be made by all of the residents together.”