The collective economic might of baugruppen offers owner-builders an opportunity for significant savings over traditional developer-driven models, as well as single family houses. As mentioned in part 2 of this series, Tuebingen BGs have resulted in ~15% savings, Berlin BGs roughly 15-25%, with similar savings for Vauban and Hamburg BGs. As a comparison, average cost/sf price in Seattle is roughly $340/sf. Savings of 15% on an 800 sf unit would reduce the cost to ownership by $40k. These savings could allow for the working or creative classes to afford homeownership in urban centers, instead of being driven out by rising costs. For less cost than typical development, owners get a higher-quality product designed to meet their needs; and in Germany, this product is usually more energy efficient, thus ensuring operational cost savings as well. Winning!
There are a couple of ways a BG reduces costs over traditional models. First and foremost, bypassing a developer pulls out the profit they would take on a project, which is not insubstantial. Second, there is little to no marketing of the project – which means no staging/pursuit. Realtors are also generally not in the equation. In Germany, land transfer taxes are also assessed lower than through traditional developments. As previously posted, there are many sources that advertise existing BGs looking for owners, but a lot of groups form amongst existing networks. There are a few Berliner baugruppen in planning, run by the same project management firm, that utilize a web template, mostly just to get the relevant info out there in case they are seeking additional members.
Financing BGs in Germany is, of course, considerably easier. These types of projects have been on the map for nearly two decades now, and there are banks willing to finance them. Cities also assist with legal/financial aspects, and there are additional perks such as eligibility for affordable, city-owned lots. BG owners also have access to low-interest energy efficiency loans and mortgage rates commercial developers don’t.
However, baugruppen are not generally an upper class phenomenon. Homeownership rates in Germany are a third lower than the US, and BGs are seen more as a way for the middle class to afford a residence in the city. The cost to ownership in Germany has generally been much harder than here in the US, requiring down payments of 20% or more. The down payment for a BG can be in the realm of 30%, so upfront costs are higher. In the long run, the total costs are lower, and the monthly payment ends up being pretty affordable as well. The savings rates in Germany, France and Switzerland are roughly triple what they are in the US, so this also changes the equation.
For me, the big point on cost-effectiveness is that, generally, a member gets a unit tailored to their specific needs as well as desired communal spaces if space and budget allows. Developers don’t normally fine-tune projects like this, as it would add cost and time. Additionally, development projects tend to be directed towards the least common denominator user. There are, however, some notable exceptions to this, especially here in Seattle.
Before a BG even brings on an architect (assuming there isn’t one already in the group), they’ll have discussed the type of lifestyle they would like to live, the type of building they would like to dwell in, the type of community they want to be a part of. A bunch of musically-oriented families founding a BG? They might plan a rehearsal space as part of the common area. Older couples might want a co-owned guest unit they could let their friends or children stay in, thus keeping their unit smaller and more affordable. Want a say in what color your facade is? How about typical finishes in common areas? BGs can offer that level of communal authorship.
This affordability does come at a cost: time. It can take several years to form a group, make decisions, find land and then finalize construction. Though developer-driven models can be delayed, that process has little effect on future tenants/owners. This also means there is substantially more personal risk in a BG, as the owners are responsible for delays, cost overruns that they wouldn’t have to deal with in more traditional models. Additionally, if an owner leaves the group or dies mid-construction, the group would have to take up the balance, or as normally happens, find a new member. There have been some failures in the BG community (no system is perfect/risk-free) but with solid project management and a budget-conscience design, this is very rare.
Considering spatial quality, finishes and shared accoutrement, one of the most cost-effective projects I’m aware of is roedig.schop architekten’s 10-unit beauty dubbed A52, initiated in 2003. The project was built for around $200/sf, and here’s the kicker: this pricepoint isn’t for low-end finishes or fixtures. Along with a communal garden, the project incorporates a communal roof terrace, with a small guest apartment shared by all residents, rotated in weekly installments. In order to get buy-in from their other neighbors, the architects offered to accept the last unit (which ended up being the ground floor). This stunning building was featured in the New York Times back in 2011, and features some great quotes from the owners. The 2008:9 konzept: gemeinsam wohnen issue of detail also has a good deal of background, and drawings worth checking out. I’ll be highlighting a few more of their really incredible, urban constructs soon.
Another budget-friendly project that really enthralled me was baugruppe baufreunde in Koeln by office03 // waldmann & jungblut. The project features two ‘bars’ set at either end of a through lot. Between these bars is a common green space. Each of the 18 units has access to ample garden space (ground floor maisonettes) or semi-private roof terrace (upper units). Project costs came in around $155/sf (EUR 4M/3200m2). The site is near shops and cafes, and has access to a multitude of transit options. Check out plans/renderings/model, and fotos.
I could definitely see either of these models working in a place like Seattle, where land or existing units aren’t exactly affordable–and where traditional developer models leave a lot to be desired in terms of cost and how they work with the way one might desire to live. Or at least, how my family would like to live, and at a price point we could afford. Pretty… Pretty… Pretty… Awesome.
Mike Eliason is a certified passivhaus designer, energy geek, and design nerd with an almost fetishistic interest in prefab wood buildings, low-energy architecture, social housing, and all things German. He has lived in Fremont for nearly a decade, and wants Seattle to become a greater version of Freiburg so his wife doesn’t force him to return to live in Vauban. He’s also begun the process of forming a baugruppe.
Mike is the founder of Larch Lab, an architecture and urbanism think and do tank focusing on prefabricated, decarbonized, climate-adaptive, low-energy urban buildings; sustainable mobility; livable ecodistricts. He is also a dad, writer, and researcher with a passion for passivhaus buildings, baugruppen, social housing, livable cities, and car-free streets. After living in Freiburg, Mike spent 15 years raising his family - nearly car-free, in Fremont. After a brief sojourn to study mass timber buildings in Bayern, he has returned to jumpstart a baugruppe movement and help build a more sustainable, equitable, and livable Seattle. Ohne autos.