Better Living Through Baugruppen:
a new approach to affordable urban living

Housing prices in the US are completely out of balance. Affordable housing is difficult to attain in entire metropolitan areas. There are few options for middle class households, and even fewer for working class residents.

We need a reset on the American dream.

From one that is sprawling, unaffordable, lonely, carbon intensive, and exclusive – to one that is community-oriented, multigenerational, family-friendly and sustainable. One that is inclusive and accessible. Perhaps most importantly, one that is climate-adaptive and resilient to events exacerbated by climate change: energy spikes, heat domes, cold snaps, and extended wildfire smoke events.

At Larch Lab, we believe that Baugruppen, (German, lit. building groups) or self-developed urban co-housing, offer an appealing and more affordable alternative for those wishing to live in cities – near friends, family, and jobs. They are intentional communities in multifamily buildings (condos, cooperatives, apartment buildings, rowhouses, townhouses) developed by the residents that will be living in them, rather than developers. The elimination of developer profit and marketing costs can result in significant savings – from ten to twenty percent – over market-rate housing. They also offer the chance for residents to select the amenities they want, the level of sustainability and climate adaptability they would like to prioritize – when government mandates are insufficient, and the market won’t. Baugruppen can offer accessible, family-friendly homes for a mix of household types and generations, contributing to a high quality of life and well-being.

'I want to live in a dense urban area where groceries, parks, schools, and restaurants are all within walking distance — where I can live comfortably without a car. I’d like for the district/neighborhood to be structured in such a way as to encourage casual encounters with neighbors. I’d like it to have a robust sense of community. The building (or buildings) I lived in would be a type of cohousing, which is to say, it would be shared by a group of families who co-owned it.'

Living Together

Baugruppen are about living in community with neighbors, friends and family. They are about shared resources and shared spaces. Need a cup of sugar? Just walk across the hall. Need last minute childcare while stepping out for errands? Perhaps the couple whose children are grown would love to help out. Think of Baugruppen as small, intentional neighborhoods. Opportunities for shared learning and living abound. While residents have their own homes – there is also the possibility to incorporate various common facilities that make compact urban living much more enjoyable. Residents collectively plan these common facilities, which can include:

  • Gardens & Greenhouse
  • Playground
  • Petanque Court
  • Bike Room & Shop space
  • Communal Roof Deck
  • Sauna
  • Workshop
  • Music Room
  • Community rooms for art, meetings

Housing Diversity

Household formation today is diverse and varied, and we should have housing options that match this diversity. More specifically, we should have more affordable housing choices to accommodate these shifting demographics, encourage community, and enhance solidarity. What if housing choices were not largely limited to increasingly unattainable single family homes (most of which do not meet modern codes, are not accessible, and are not climate resilient), or small apartments in massive buildings – but rather a broad mix of homes, covering everything in between? Baugruppen can be developed across a wide spectrum of housing typologies. Duplexes, rowhouses, multi-plexes, small apartment or condos, and even mid-rise buildings are a natural fit for Baugruppen. This allows for development that results in this needed, and presently missing, mix of housing and unit types – from studios to three- and four-bedroom homes. Not just flats or apartments – but also as maisonettes (two-story units), and live-work units.

Many European cities are going all-in on diverse housing types: not just Baugruppen – but social housing, multigenerational housing (for young and old, singles and families), clusterwohnungen (“cluster apartments” with large communal units for six to 15 people), elderly housing, housing for single parents, housing for couples, cooperatives, and rental syndicates (a la Mietshäuser Syndikat, a networked syndicate of affordable rental cooperatives), temporary worker housing, and more. Housing diversity is built around the idea of choosing one’s community, choosing how to live. Almost always, sustainability, walkability, and low-carbon living are paramount.

This diversity can foster a broader economic and social mix of residents than would typically be found. It can also result in buildings that enhance livability – through the incorporation of dual aspect units, barrier-free homes, daylight on multiple sides, the ability to cross ventilate, to position bedrooms on the quiet side of a building, and choose the amenities one feels they need to thrive in urban settings.

Family-Sized Housing

The income and living situations of family forms – and even the definitions of families – have been changing for decades, and yet housing choices have changed very little. The lack of affordable family-sized housing in contemporary buildings is also a function of zoning and building codes, as well as market-rate development itself. In the world of housing shortages and design by excel spreadsheet – it has become increasingly difficult for families, as they must also compete with roommates looking to share larger apartments.

Baugruppen allow for an environment to answer questions that market rate development cannot. What could housing specifically designed for single parents or co-parents look like? Is it possible to design homes for multiple generations living in one unit? What about housing for co-habitating families? I have never seen market rate development feature space that could be used as a teeanager’s suite – but I have seen dozens of Baugruppen that incorporate this. Projects with smaller bedrooms for children are also common– this has the advantage of reducing unit size and cost.

Family-friendly housing is also about child-friendly urban design: access to green space, schools, and childcare. It is about adequate building storage or a secure place for bikes and strollers. Neighborhoods with walking and cycling access to amenities, stores, and cafes facilitate a high quality of live and low carbon living. Baugruppen afford opportunities for experimentation, innovation and alternative housing solutions in the U.S. – at a time when they may be needed the most.

'The human act, in this case the act of dwelling, determines what a dwelling is.'

Multigenerational Living

Baugruppen allow singles, couples, single parents, families with young children, and seniors to find their place in the city, affordably, and without contributing greatly to climate change. They are intentional multigenerational communities, where young can learn from old, old can be enthused by young. Where residents can pick up groceries for a neighbor, elderly residents can help with childcare, households can teach each other how to garden, or repair and maintain bicycles. They offer a vision of community that is not often found in the massive, faceless apartment buildings that have proliferated in today’s urban landscapes.

They are a path toward bringing communities together, to interact daily, to remain in dialogue. By designing Baugruppen to be as accessible as possible, both young and old generations will be able to utilize the common areas, and the home will be functional across all stages of life. Well planned open space becomes a respite, a space to interact, commune, debate, and encourage.

Baugruppen can be designed to be adaptable or barrier-free, for aging-in-place and keeping residents connected to their communities. In larger projects, there is the opportunity to incorporate a ‘Joker Room’ – this is a small unit that can serve as a guest suite, a teenager’s suite, a part time or student rental, or a space that can be adapted for use as a caretaker’s unit.

Affordability

Baugruppen are effectively development without developers. Sizable savings can be realized through the elimination of developer profit and marketing costs. Pro Forma that we have been working from reflect a 10-20% reduction in total costs, for what is generally a higher quality, and more livable building. The group can also decide to incorporate climate-adaptive design and energy efficiency to reduce long term costs and risks from climate change impacts. Further affordability could be realized through the formation of the group as a zero-equity or limited equity cooperatives.

The question of land is the largest hurdle outside of financing, and is an issue that affects all development. It is an issue that is ripe for experimentation and innovation, including the utilization of public land for social and community-oriented housing. We are also exploring models that work with social impact investors, as well as owner equity and long term ground leases, to reduce the initial cost of development.

Sustainability

At Larch Lab, we know code minimum buildings are unable to deliver the housing we need for the 21st century. We design climate-adaptive buildings for a changing world, with a fabric-first approach. We are experts in active solar protection (a nearly non-existent industry in the U.S.). We specialize in decarbonized buildings, prefabrication, and mass timber (which pairs well with Passivhaus and Baugruppen). Our approach mitigates risks from heat waves, cold snaps, and wildfire smoke.

Inherent in Baugruppen is a values-driven approach that ensures many of those things that we value as architects and planners, are actually prioritized. The first multifamily passivhaus building in Germany is a Baugruppe in Freiburg. Mass Timber was making waves in Baugruppen years before anyone in the U.S. knew about it (well… outside of us!). Kaden Klingbeil’s 7-story mass timber building in Berlin is also a Baugruppe.

 

Passivhaus - Efficiency, Comfort, Quality

Passivhaus is an ultra-low energy standard defined by its rigorous planning to ensure occupant comfort, durability, and energy savings. It is a standard that far exceeds any energy code in the U.S. This approach ensures project durability, and provides an additional strategy to reduce operational and long term maintenance costs. Passivhaus certification verifies that the building’s efficiency works as planned, and is backed by decades of building science.

The following requirements must be met for certification:

  • Annual Heating: 15 kWh/m²/year (4.75kbtu/ft²/year) or less
  • Annual Cooling: 15 kWh/m²/year (4.75kbtu/ft²/year) or less
  • Primary Energy: 120 kWh/m²/year (38kbtu/ft²/year) or less (all electrical consumption multiplied by source factor).
  • Airtightness: achieve a blower door test of 0.6ACH (Air Changes/Hour) @ 50Pa.

The Passivhaus standard is achieved by addressing the following:

Thermal Bridge-Free Construction: Optimized structural connections, eliminating potential for mold growth and rot – while eliminating cold spots on surfaces.

Comfort Ventilation w/ Heat Recovery: Fresh, filtered, hygienic ventilation ensuring a high level of occupant comfort.

Airtight Construction: Measures to eliminate air leakage, reduce drafts, and ensure long term durability of the building.

Thermal Insulation: Optimized insulation to reduce heat loss and ensure high levels of occupant comfort.

High Performance Windows: Triple pane windows to reduce heat loss and air leakage, and condensation buildup.

Compact Form: Simple, efficient building form that reduces heat loss and long term maintenance issues.

Climate Adaptability

At Larch Lab, we believe sustainability requires decarbonized, fossil fuel-free buildings that are adaptable to a changing climate. This means the construction of buildings that meet the high-performance standards of Passivhaus, and built with local, low-carbon materials like cellulose and wood. Passivhaus Mass Timber Baugruppen are high-quality buildings, with comfortable living environments, better indoor environmental quality, and the stunning beauty that comes with wood finishes. They are also more durable, and less prone to mold and moisture problems of a code minimum structure.

But climate adaptability is about more than low-carbon buildings, it is also about buildings that can adapt to the effects of climate change that will continue to grow more pronounced. Designing to the Passivhaus standards ensures that operational energy costs are lower as well. The efficient building envelope requires minimal heating and cooling needs – and the high efficiency appliance and lighting result in a building that saves 40-60% of electrical costs compared to typical new construction. This results in a home that is not just comfortable, but resilient. The high-quality building envelope and fresh, filtered hygienic ventilation ensure a high-quality interior environment, that can be pre-filtered to prevent the infiltration of wildfire smoke during extended smoke events. Heating and cooling loads are minimal, ensuring that mechanical systems are smaller, more affordable, and less expensive to retrofit in the future.

Financing

The question of financing is the largest barrier to the widespread adoption of Baugruppen – but also other forms of collective housing. In Germany, there are development and cooperative banks that have been open to financing these types of projects for decades. Germany also has significant grants and subsidies for energy efficient construction that can be used to partially fund the project.

There are few options in the U.S. for financing innovative and community-oriented projects – including just one cooperative bank. We have been discussing the idea with local credit unions, and that may be a possible route for projects. The formation of development banks could provide another route towards financing more sustainable forms of community-oriented housing and intentional communities. We’re also exploring the utilization of social impact investing to help fund adoption.

Government’s Role

Several European cities have taken an active role in the development of community-oriented housing such as Baugruppen. The City of Amsterdam holds parcels aside in large developments for self-builds, called Collectief Particulier Opdrachtgeverschap (CPO). Freiburg, Hamburg, and Tuebingen have offered building parcels at or below market rates, using a selection process to drive innovation and foster community cohesiveness. Several also provide assistance with group formation or navigating the design and development process. The last few years have seen some really incredible projects: bike-friendly mass timber housing, multigenerational housingLGBTQIA-oriented, and even family-friendly housing incorporating housing for refugees.

There are several levers local governments have to accommodate community-oriented housing. Zoning is a significant one, and as we have seen play out in cities across the country – land use codes preventing small- and medium-scale multifamily housing from most urban areas has dramatic effects on decreasing affordability. Restrictions that limit multifamily housing to loud, polluted and dangerous streets could be repealed. Noise pollution is linked with an increase in dementia, and air pollution from cars exacerbates asthma and cardiovascular diseases. Cities could provide further incentives for community-oriented housing with zoning overlays. Expediting project approvals, similar to Seattle’s Priority Green Expedited program, so groups have lower holding costs, is another lever. Finally, utilizing public land for social and community-oriented housing can lower the barriers to many forms of housing.

Let's Build some Baugruppen!

At Larch Lab, we know the route towards more inclusive, affordable, and sustainable cities includes community-oriented housing. The construction of decarbonized Passivhaus Baugruppen could be a win for all involved: green jobs, high-quality climate-adaptive buildings; comfortable living environments; low-carbon living, and affordable homes. We believe, based on conversations we have had with groups and on project tours in Regensburg, Vienna, Berlin and Freiburg – that they also result in happier and healthier residents.

Baugruppen are a values-driven proposition to address the growing housing crisis in the U.S., rather than a profit-motivated one. Residents organize around a central theme, and are able to plan how they would like to live. If you would like to know more about this wonderful form of urban co-housing, please reach out to see how we can collaborate.

Additional Resources