Portfolio Investment Gewobag employer
28 April 2021

Portfolio Investment at Gewobag:
How we live today and how we will be living tomorrow

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Berlin is growing – as are the demands being placed upon modern housing. The architect Ines Schenke and her department are responsible for portfolio investments at Gewobag. In this interview she speaks about the climate goal for 2050, about contemporary housing and why a bathroom from the Wilhelminian Era does not have many fans these days.


Ms. Schenke, where do you personally prefer to live: in a new building or a modernised old one?

Ines Schenke: I have no preferences in this matter. The residential environment is the important thing. I have lived all my life in a building dating from the Wilhelminian Era – with high ceilings, stucco, old hardwood flooring, a mini-balcony and freaky domestic technology. I always liked that. Whilst looking for an apartment three and a half years ago I came across a new building in Potsdam-Babelsberg between two older ones, the cinema and café around the corner. In the time that I have been living here I have come to value certain aspects of the new building very highly, particularly the sound insulation. This makes a great contribution towards housing satisfaction.

Why are investments in existing buildings so important?

Ines Schenke: At Gewobag our portfolio of 72,000 apartments is very large and is made up of buildings from all eras from the Wilhelminian to the present day. Investments in said portfolio are thus of immense significance, as this must be preserved, looked after and modernised. In doing so, one must also adapt the apartments to meet contemporary needs.

“Today there is a gigantic demand for one- and two-room apartments, as many people live alone in one apartment.”

To what extent are modernisation of domestic technology and contemporary modifications to the layouts of apartments connected?

Ines Schenke: When we take a look at the layouts of old buildings, then it is a question of how do we live today and how will we be living tomorrow? In a building of the Wilhelminian Era only the masters’ apartments in the front of said building boasted a bathroom, the tiny apartments in the side wings and rear buildings consisted of a living room and a kitchen, the toilets were to be found on the landing and there might possibly also have been a wash basin in the kitchen. Later on, there was sometimes a bath, 90 centimetres wide. In many buildings of the post-war era the baths were very small, the spaces for moving around in no long accord with today’s criteria. The modifications to the layouts simply serve to make a contemporary style of living possible. And furthermore, in this day and age we live together in different constellations. Today there is a gigantic demand for one- and two-room apartments, as many people live alone in one apartment. Family apartments also have a completely different appearance nowadays. We try to combine kitchen and living space into a single unit as the kitchen is often the focal point of family life and should be the most beautiful room with the best light: the showcase living room of former times has had its day. And: the city is becoming more and more compacted; it is a great luxury to have a balcony or a terrace.

New Building and Contemporary Housing

Is the tendency more towards family-friendly apartments or are the apartments, on the whole, getting smaller?

Ines Schenke: Both. Today, there are an ever-increasing number of single and couple households, but we also need large living spaces. We have a large number of patchwork families. It could be that father and mother only see their children every two weeks but nonetheless need to have enough room for them. It is also important that, in our portfolio, we also create easily accessible, age-appropriate apartments and supplement these with specific residential offers such as our Wohn!AktivHaus concept or with day-care facilities, so that our residents may remain in their traditional neighbourhoods in their old age.

“There are hardly any free open spaces left in Berlin and we endeavour, as far as possible, to build higher and extend: we create additional housing without consuming any further spaces.”

How many projects is the team “Portfolio Investment” currently in charge of?

Ines Schenke: There are two major fields in which we are active. The first is planned maintenance, which covers, for example, repairs to the roofs, façades or balconies. These are measures by way of which we carry out repairs but do not create anything new. In this field, we are currently working on more than one hundred projects. The second major task area is modernisation, in other words, complex restoration whereby we also create something new. Apartment layouts are modified, adjusted, domestic technology fully renewed, new balconies added on, extra storeys built and lofts extended. There are hardly any free open spaces left in Berlin and we endeavour, as far as possible, to build higher and extend: we create additional housing without consuming any further spaces.

Portfolio Investment Berlin house
Living with views, Seelower Straße 2 in Prenzlauer Berg: extensive modernisation and maintenance work as well as the creation of new loft apartments.

“We are not building luxury lofts, but ones that offer a good deal of residential comfort. You will not find any free-standing bathtubs or loft terraces of an area of 90 square metres in our properties.”

How do lofts and the creation of social housing go together?

Ines Schenke: Social does not only mean that the rents are affordable but also that there is a social mix. And even our lofts and extra storeys command lower rents than those demanded on the free market. We are not building luxury lofts, but ones that offer a good deal of residential comfort. You will not find any free-standing bathtubs or loft terraces of an area of 90 square metres in our properties.”

What planning, how much lead-time is necessary, before a building may be restored or modernised?

Ines Schenke: From the time we receive the planning order from our Asset Management, we calculate, in the case of planned maintenance, with one year of planning and, depending on just how comprehensive the measure is, with a further year for its realisation. In the case of modernisation, things are different again. For that we need permits and the investments are higher, and internally we also require more time to review its economic feasibility. Especially now, during the pandemic, access to the planning authorities is very difficult, approval periods are very long and often cannot be predicted beforehand, particularly when the protection of historical monuments also has to be taken into consideration.

The process can take several years in the case of large settlements. For large-scale modernisation projects, such as the Wohnpark Mariendorf or Quartier Ringslebenstraße, additional matters are also to be coordinated, which have to do with district management. When planning permission has finally been granted, tenders have been issued and approval for realisation at the calculated building costs been received, generally speaking, a construction time of between 18 and 24 months lies ahead us for our major projects.

“We are also considering whether to cover our flat roofs with greenery or whether we could install photovoltaic or solar installations upon them.”

Target: Climate Neutrality

Ines Schenke leitete die Abteilung Bestandsinvestitionen
Modernisation project Raumerstraße:
the stucco façade will remain intact.

It is planned that just about every building should be climate-neutral by the year 2050. How can this be achieved in the case of your portfolio?

Ines Schenke: In the year 2050 I will be eighty years old. Then I will ask myself how we managed to achieve that. Climate protection is extremely important and in the best of all our interests and those of our children. There are already a relatively large number of technologies with which one may further develop climate neutrality for existing buildings. But unless it is clear how refinancing is to be achieved, these are difficult to put into practice as our rents should remain affordable. Many properties in Berlin are still in part fitted with stove heating systems, so there is a need for action in that area, too. That is why, for example, in the case of the few remaining buildings in our own portfolio, we are intensively realising our central heating programme in cooperation with Gewobag ED. In the future we, depending on the particular circumstances of each of the buildings, will have to specifically concern ourselves with the possibilities and challenges of climate-neutral construction, also from the point of view of the preservation and reuse of building materials rather than the disposal thereof.

Climate neutrality is presumably simpler in the case of new buildings?

Ines Schenke: Definitely, yes. At Gewobag we apply the KfW-55-Standard “Efficiency House” to every new building. With regard to existing buildings, it is also clear that action will have to be taken regarding maybe the insulation, glazing, certain construction materials or domestic technology. At Gewobag we are well on our way. We are also considering whether to cover our flat roofs with greenery or whether we could install photovoltaic or solar installations on them. Technically, we would be able to realise that, but it must also be possible to operate economically.

Renovation expenditure will increase because of the climate target for 2050?

Ines Schenke: Of course. Expenditure increases, everything takes longer and costs more. One must always be on the look out for: what new technologies are available, what is fitting in our case, which partners do we need, which funding pools can we take advantage of.

Portfolio Investment Wohnpark Mariendorf
Wohnpark Mariendorf: Thanks to the modernisation of 734 apartments, Gewobag has reduced the CO2 emissions of this district by a good 3,000 tons every year.

“That is why, when considering the question of climate neutrality, it is important not only to look at how the building functions and at its CO2 emissions, but also to consider where the building components come from and the CO2 footprint of the new construction materials.”

Portfolio investment: Protection of Historical Monuments and Climate Targets

How can historical heritage be combined with modern demands – in particular with regard to climate protection?

Ines Schenke: That is possible. The old buildings from the Wilhelminian Era are particularly well equipped for climate protection. They have thick brick walls, double box windows and are made of building materials that last for a very long time: stone, wood, glass. They also, in the main, are well proportioned and have beautifully designed façades. That, too, is an essential sustainability factor, as a beautiful building stands for a longer time, is preserved, cared for, modernised, maybe even accorded protected status, and thus fulfils its purpose for a particularly long time. Less rubbish has to be disposed and less material consumed when preservation is practised instead of demolition and rebuilding. That is sustainability in practice.

Since the 1950s and 1960s many new building materials, for example asbestos, and later many synthetic materials containing harmful components had been used, in other words materials which today must be disposed of expensively as pollutants. That is why, when considering the question of climate neutrality, it is important not only to look at how the building functions and at its CO2 emissions, but also to consider where the building components come from and the CO2 footprint of the new construction materials. And one must consider, what will happen with such materials if, for example, plastic-framed windows, at some time in the future, should no longer conform to the demands made upon solar protection glazing. Is it possible to recycle them? A timber-framed window can at any time be sanded down, repaired, newly painted, and burnt without too much residue, should it be infested with dry rot. Independently of that, we must consider carefully by which method the emission of CO2 can indeed be conclusively calculated. Calculation instruments must be defined. And one must not forget the topic of comfort. After all, we are not building motor cars or machines, but homes for people who wish to feel comfortable and bring up their children in them.

“When I was a student, one had, in the case of prefabricated buildings in Marzahn or Hellersdorf, considered dismantling them, if anything decreased the number of storeys, and turned the prefabricated buildings into disguised urban villas.”

What has changed over the course of the last twenty years?

Ines Schenke: I studied architecture twenty years ago; climate change was not a topic of study at that time. Back then, the design was the most important thing. Beauty was thought to be everything. Climate change was dismissed as spleen to a certain extent, although many technologies had already been developed then and there were instructions as to how a building should be insulated. Today, climate change is truly a topic of which we have all become aware, and certain measures have been fixed by law. One has started to consider which building materials are climate-friendly and which are not. Furthermore, very little construction work was being done in Brandenburg und Berlin in the year 2000. That has change completely in the meantime. Berlin is growing – and thus also the need for housing. When I was a student, one had, in the case of prefabricated buildings in Marzahn or Hellersdorf considered dismantling them, if anything decreased the number of storeys, and turned the prefabricated buildings into disguised urban villas. Today we are moving in the opposite direction: we are building upwards, because we do not wish to consume so much space.

Thank you very much for this interview!

Photos © Nikolaus Brade, Johannes Schneeweiß, Gibbins Architekten GmbH BDA


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