Co-op community marks 30 years of building a better life

Thirty years ago, eight German families formed a housing co-op, after finding themselves stuck in expensive flats with small children, and finding that apartment-dwelling didn’t fit with their ecological...

Thirty years ago, eight German families formed a housing co-op, after finding themselves stuck in expensive flats with small children, and finding that apartment-dwelling didn’t fit with their ecological principles.

Instead, they got together to build a community of houses to green standards, with shared space both outdoors and indoors.

The plan was to develop eight dwellings plus an additional “Gemeinschaftshaus”, or community house, that could be used by all co-operative members for guest accommodation, events or simply as an additional space.

Each family would own their own home, but the Gemeinschaftshaus would be jointly owned, along with all the outside space: the land around the houses, including front and rear gardens, would be communal space with no boundaries.

The project was set up from the start as a co-operative enterprise. This caused a complication in the architectural design. Under German law, a co-operative construction must be a single building, not separate houses.

So the families – one of whom was an architect – created a unified design; the eight dwellings together make up one building. There are clear divisions of space within the building: it is not possible to walk from one family’s space to another’s without going outside, just as would be the case in a conventional housing project.

But from outside, it can be hard to tell where one dwelling ends and the next begins.

The Gemeinschaftshaus is larger than the individual dwellings, and since it is itself a community construction, it is separate from them. There are also communal storage facilities, a workshop and a bicycle shed. The community also built shelters for cars, despite their green principles: public transport is limited, and the nearest major town, Aachen, is some 12km away.

Each family contributed an agreed amount to the financing of the project, and each participated in the construction. Bernhard Wiesemann, a (now retired) physics teacher who joined the co-operative with his wife Birgit, a doctor, when one of the original families left early in the construction, says that he worked on “roofs and electrics”.

The co-operative used external labour and skills when necessary, among other things calling in Scandinavian architects to help them with the “green” features of the design.

For external contributions the co-operative paid commercial rates. But it also paid its own workers a rate of 15 Deutschmarks per hour (today that would be 7.50 Euros), in recognition that the families were giving up their spare time to work on the project.

For its time, the community’s green design is impressive. The houses are made of sustainable wood (Douglas fir) that is durable and requires little in the way of maintenance. Some of the roofs are turf roofs: these require no maintenance and are self-insulating. Other roofs are fully insulated, as are all the walls. Herr Wiesemann comments that at the time the houses were built, the insulation was not really to green standards.

“It’s glass wool”, he says. “Now, we wish we could have used something more environmentally friendly.”

There have been remarkably few changes to the original group in the last 30 years: there have been a couple of divorces, and the children have mostly grown up and left, but the core families remain much the same. Over the years there have been changes to the building, of course: conservatories have appeared, extensions built and personal touches added to the dwellings. But the design remains coherent and the community cohesive.

Responsibility for maintaining the communal spaces and the fabric of the buildings is shared: this was originally on a rota basis, but nowadays each family is responsible for specific maintenance tasks. Herr Wiesemann is still doing “roofs and electrics”.

Alterations to dwellings require community agreement. So does the sale of a dwelling: prospective new families must attend a community meeting prior to the sale being completed, and if the community doesn’t like them it can refuse to allow the sale. Herr Wiesemann says they have never actually done this, and there is a limit to their control: “If we refuse a sale twice”, he says, “we would in theory have to buy the house ourselves”.

This month the community turns 30 – and the celebration is where the Gemeinschaftshaus comes into its own. It is easily big enough to host a sizeable gathering: the downstairs space can easily set 70, and there is a large outdoor space too. Members of the community frequently use it to hold meetings, rehearsals, concerts and parties. So the community can party together in their own space, drawing in their children, grandchildren and their many family and community friends. A great opportunity to celebrate a very successful co-operative enterprise.

And it doesn’t end there. Some of the children who grew up in this community, and their friends who came to sing and play in the rehearsals and concerts held in the Gemeinschafthaus, have decided to create a new co-operative community of their own. They have bought an enormous disused farm and are gradually converting it into dwellings. Again, German law is observed; the farm building is one construction, and its exterior is listed, along with some of the interior features. Once again, there will be individual dwellings for the co-operative members, plus a shared house similar to the Gemeinschaftshaus of the older co-operative. Joerg Bartz, who manages the conversion project, calls it the “party house”.

There is a slight difference from the older co-operative; the farm is actually too big for the members of the co-operative, so a couple of apartments will be rented out and the proceeds shared.

And the green theme continues, though this time with a very 21st century flavour. The new community will be very nearly self-sufficient in energy, using advanced energy conservation techniques to store and re-use energy. It is also using cutting-edge smart technology to control temperature, lighting and security – although if Herr Bartz ever loses his smartphone, he is in big trouble!

But while the dwellings will be state-of-the-art, the building itself is being carefully conserved to preserve as much of its original character as possible. The members of the co-operative are doing most of the work themselves: it has taken four years so far and may take as long again to finally complete the conversion. But the wait will be worth it, and as the families are already lifelong friends, this new community seems set to be as cohesive – and as co-operative – as the one on which it is modelled.

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