​Baugruppen: It's a Cooperative Living Concept, and It's Perfect for Boomers

Here's an example of baugruppen in Berlin. (Photo: Andrew Alberts via Archdaily)

What's the best model for housing the boomer generation? This is a group that's mostly healthy, and many are pretty well off. We recently showed a house designed for boomers, and complained that it was not particularly good for aging gracefully. In fact, the point could be made that no single family house is going to be terrific in the long-term.

The real estate market has responded with retirement homes and condos targeted to boomers. But what if people took it upon themselves to build their own purpose-built communities? In Germany they do this; they are called baugruppen, or “building groups.” David Friedlander defined it, writing in LifeEdited:

Folks – often friends – get together to finance, purchase, design and construct the buildings they will eventually live in. They are the developers. The advantages over traditional development are many. Beside the obvious and significant savings, units can be designed around individual owner needs. And because the groups are often formed by friends and family, there’s an instant community formation, abetted by the building designs which often include common spaces.

This is not too different from co-housing, the Danish approach to cooperative building that has caught on in North America, including for specialized seniors co-housing projects. Architect Mike Eliason tries to figure out the difference:

My knowledge of co-housing stems from the Danish model – low-rise housing (e.g. rowhouses) densely organized around common areas and/or a Common House, where group dinners and events occur. For the most part, baugruppen are multi-story, multi-family buildings (think condos) rather than detached or semi-detached housing.... In the end, mostly semantics, though I tend to think of baugruppen as urban constructs and co-housing as suburban/rural constructs.

It probably is just semantics; in fact, the R50 building in Berlin that I've used to illustrate the concept here is called a baugruppen by Mike, but it was called co-housing by the architects and by me when I covered it earlier on TreeHugger.

Interior is raw concrete — get to work!. (Photo: Andrew Alberts via Archdaily)

It’s an unusual building in that most of it was left unfinished; there are two service cores with plumbing but everything else is left up to the occupants. The architects explain:

R50 – cohousing is a new model typology for low-cost and affordable housing offering a maximum capacity for adaptation and flexibility throughout its lifetime. Social, cultural, economic and ecological aspects have been considered equally to define a contemporary sustainable approach to urban living. This kind of structured yet open design process has not only allowed for extensive participation, self-directed design and self-building, but has also led to mutual agreement on the type, location, size and design of spaces shared by residents.
This is a detail of the exterior. (Photo: Andrew Alberts via Archdaily)

So it's all exposed concrete, open space, and very simple, cheap detailing like the expanded mesh balcony rails. Imagine being part of something like this: you can take the raw space (as much as you need) and finish it to your tastes and budget. You can move in as much or as little of your tchochkas and treasures as you want.

The co-housing or baugruppen model provides for independence, but also for co-operation, where resident/owners take care of each other and the building. Many people are thinking about this now. I know some architects in Toronto who are calling it a “vertical commune” where they can share resources as needed but still have their own space and privacy. They are thinking of car- and bike-sharing, rooftop gardening, shared bulk ordering of food, and even regular shared meals.

In cities like Toronto or Seattle, where so much of our lives and are equity are tied up in real estate, it makes a lot of sense to think about options like this. Call it what you will: Baugruppen, co-housing or commune, the basic principle is that you do it together and ultimately support each other. An intentional community put together by the users, not the real estate developers, in a walkable community full of resources. Baugruppen for boomers!