Gewobag plans to build over 10,000 apartments in the next few years. How much strategic planning is necessary to implement projects of this size?
The strategic guidelines for new construction projects come from other areas within the company. In our new construction department, we work closely with the strategic corporate development department and there mainly with our colleagues from portfolio management. We have to coordinate things closely so that we know what’s coming in new projects and also how can we implement these things and in what time frame, because capacities are not available indefinitely. When planning, we distinguish between our own new construction and new construction through purchasing project developments by our colleagues at Gewobag EB. 10,000 to 15,000 apartments is an ambitious goal and also a benchmark. I would say we’re on the right track. My team and I are currently working on around 4,000 apartments in 25 projects at various stages of development, from obtaining building rights through to completion. Our surroundings are important for our work. We maintain good relations with each other at Gewobag, which isn’t the case everywhere. Building requires teamwork and I can only work well as department head if the team is well-positioned. And I have a very good team.
Berlin’s city centre has hardly any free space; how can new construction be implemented?
There are several possibilities. But entirely new building areas on green land are thin on the ground. Berlin has been dealing with the issue of areas that can be developed immediately for years. This means that there are often areas that were not built on in the past, sometimes for good reasons, for example, because the ground is contaminated due to previous use, and this ground contamination has to be professionally removed before construction, which can be both time-consuming and expensive. We are currently often working with so-called “transformations”, meaning areas that were previously used for other purposes and are now being “transformed” into residential areas. A good example of this is the future use of Tegel Airport. What happens to the airport site when the airport is no longer in operation? This is a major project in which Gewobag is involved and, hopefully, where we will be allowed to build apartments in a few years.
The second component is the topic of redensification. Implemented on a small scale, where we say that apartments can be created in a building’s as yet undeveloped loft floor. This is then the job of our colleagues who work in portfolio investments, who usually supervise these kinds of projects as part of renovation or modernisation projects. And, of course, we always look for redensification possibilities through new construction in our larger existing districts.
How is redensification implemented?
An excellent example of sustainable district development is the Mariendorf residential park. There, colleagues have renovated our existing portfolio over the last three years and also built new apartments by adding more storeys. And now, we are actually adding three more new buildings. We will add them in suitable places and, most importantly, make them compatible with urban development. Of course, always in coordination with the responsible districts, especially the district office’s urban planning department.
Where do the areas for new development in existing quarters come from?
At Mariendorf residential park, we will actually tear down an existing car park and construct a new residential building on the same site, in which an underground car park is integrated to compensate for a part of the parking spaces. And in the other area, there is an overground car park where a new building is being built, also with an underground car park and parking spaces.
Half of the new apartments being built will cost less than € 7/m². How can components of family-friendly living and district development be addressed with this in mind?
This is, of course, always the question: what are the components of family-friendly living? And what is meant by neighbourhood development? There is a broad spectrum behind it, just like with the term sustainability. We at Gewobag are the portfolio managers. And with every measure, the intention is to build something functional, whether renovating existing buildings or constructing new ones. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a single building that is being built or a connected district development; the whole thing has to function. As the landlord and owner of the property, we can, of course, contribute by ensuring that the layouts are sustainable and that we offer a mix of apartments, meaning that our developments are never monotone. We always weigh up: what kind of location is this? How do we determine the future target group? What kind of product could be created there? Sometimes you have locations where you know that they cannot be considered for families. And these are the preliminary stages, that our portfolio management takes a very close look at in advance and then gives us the targets. In engineering, we work more or less according to targets that are set in advance from a strategic point of view. And whether a district will work afterwards always depends on how the district is designed and what kind of mix of apartments you have. But, in fact, afterwards it’s also about how tenants live there together. How they get on as neighbours. As landlords, we can only exert influence to a limited extent because it is always a matter of personal responsibility and the tenants’ own attitude. In other words, it’s the responsibility of each individual. And this is where we at Gewobag have implemented our neighbourhood development for the larger connected areas.
What’s the first thing you have to think about: how many new apartments can we build in one location? Or how can we develop a city district?
You can’t consider these as separate things. It is not for every new construction project that we talk about a neighbourhood. WATERKANT is our most prominent new building project at the moment because it is simply the largest in terms of the number of apartments. A completely new Gewobag neighbourhood is being built there with almost 2,000 apartments and around 4,000 new tenants and people. You have to think about this kind of district differently than a single small redensification in a gap in Prenzlauer Berg. In other words, if I build on a smaller scale and with existing structures, where there is already infrastructure, where there are neighbourhoods, where the social environment is already established, I don’t have to think as big as we do at WATERKANT. Then there’s the question of what kind of commercial space has to be located there so that it functions as a neighbourhood and ensures that there are local amenities? And how does that work with the traffic? How many new tenants do we think will move there with their own car? Unfortunately, the shift to sustainable transport has not yet happened. Many still think: I need my car and I want my car. And that car has to be parked somewhere. Either in public spaces or we will have to create parking spaces in our own buildings. This is, of course, a big brain teaser.
You like brain teasers though, right?
They’re part of our job. Of course, we don’t deal with them alone in the engineering department. Figuratively speaking, we’re the ones who put on our wellies and let the concrete flow. But it’s more a matter of cooperation with the other departments here at the company. And that’s where our strategic corporate development is again in great demand, as it is the pillar supporting neighbourhoods that work. And we’re on hand as a sparring partner, so to speak, with our knowledge and advice.
How is a layout actually created?
We don’t actually design the layouts ourselves. We always have planning offices and architects to do this for our new construction projects. I think everyone who is involved in building and planning knows that certain elements are part of a layout. The architect is then given the task of putting everything together. An important premise when it comes to a layout is that we at Gewobag have an obligation, which is to create housing for broad sections of the population. That means that an apartment that we create on the drawing board has to work. Work in the sense of where does the kitchen go? Where are the connections? And that’s something our architects have to think about along the way. They have to account for so-called “standard furnishings” for each layout. They have to draw in where the bed will be, where is space for the wardrobe, etc. And in the new construction department, we, primarily my project managers, then check the results of the planners and architects. A classic mistake that we notice again and again: some doors are so badly planned that a normal standard 60 cm wide wardrobe won’t fit behind them. So, we move the door a little bit more, and then we can put in a proper wardrobe. And that’s really our job and that of the project managers: to look at the layouts, especially with standard furnishings, and question: is it really a sustainable layout? Is it a layout that works today and will still work in thirty years’ time? When we look at layouts from the 60s and 70s, we find that they are still good time and again. The other component is that there are certain things that we have to take into account. We concentrate on the requirements of Berlin’s funding for building new apartments, which, among other things, also specifies apartment sizes. This means that an apartment must not be larger than certain specifications, otherwise it cannot be subsidised. And that is truly the real art: architects’ mental effort to create a layout based on these specifications and regulations that is really good and sustainable. If you have a property that is a little cramped, there really is an art to bringing all the different components together.
When you see a layout for the first time, do you keep in mind how an apartment could be furnished?
There have been times when we have looked at a layout for a long time and marked it as complete. Then after a year or more you come to the building site and walk through this apartment and then you notice something else. It’s always little things. That’s also the great thing about this job. Everything that starts off in digital form or on a piece of paper is actually there at some point. That’s the exciting thing about this job. And that it will usually be around for not just three or four years, but eighty years or more. But we are always self-critical enough to ask ourselves things like why didn’t we see it on the plan at that time? Maybe it could have been done differently.
There’s no such thing as the perfect layout. Any home builder will confirm that you spend months working on layouts, especially for your own home, and then later you notice things where you think: “We could have done it differently.” Also because living conditions sometimes change.
How significant is serial construction for Gewobag’s growth targets?
This is an element where we say it can help us to implement our new construction programme. Serial always means that you have something off the rack. But serial doesn’t have to mean that it affects the whole layout. Sometimes it’s individual components or systems. But it can also be designed so that there is a serial model layout. Of course, there are restrictions, because model designers have based their calculations on model statistics. Then you can only implement individual wishes to a limited extent or not at all. Like, for example, if you’re stuck with a modular grid and can’t just move the bathroom one meter further over. But serial can also mean that you agree on three window formats or only one flight of stairs because then you can have quantity effects. Serial can also refer to individual elements, such as baths. We always try to break new ground to test it. Serial construction is not a panacea. Because it always depends massively on the project.
The six municipal housing associations are currently preparing a model house tender and we are also acting on this topic. Of course, you’re then pinned down by layouts and building cubature and have to evaluate at which locations a serial product can be offered or if it would be better to plan individually to make better use of a gap.
How much new construction can a city actually take?
It always depends greatly on how a city develops. In recent years, we have seen lots of people moving to Berlin. The exciting question will be: will this influx continue beyond the next five to ten years or will it eventually stagnate? However, the topic of urban development must always be thought about as a whole. So not only building the right number of apartments, but also seeing that the corresponding infrastructure follows suit at the same time or in advance. On the other hand, that is not our job. Gewobag’s job is building apartments. Of course, we always try to give impulses to the relevant senate administrations and districts, for example, that includes social infrastructure, schools and nurseries. As Gewobag, we actually build nurseries ourselves in many of our new construction projects. But we at Gewobag cannot solve the issue of schools. Traffic structures and public transport are also a tricky subject in some locations in Berlin. This has been an issue for us with WATERKANT and still is now. WATERKANT itself has a wonderful location on the water. How many big cities still have locations like this? But “only” the bus goes there. At the moment, it works quite well and will surely continue to do so in the near future. But it, of course, becomes an issue if you assume that we are building there, our sister WBM is building there, as are others. The appropriate authorities already know – there is a need for an expansion of the public transport.
What are Gewobag’s current largest new construction projects and what challenges do they pose?
As I’ve already mentioned, our largest project at the moment is, of course, WATERKANT Berlin. In a nutshell, there was very little there before and now, in a relatively short space of time, lots of people will have a new apartment here. This is a challenge that has to be mastered and it includes things that cannot all be solved by Gewobag. There is sometimes a certain degree of disparity; we finish our apartments quickly but other issues, such as extending the public transport network, can take time. For this, preliminary work needs to be done, where you can probably expect a duration of ten to fifteen years.
Another major project at Gewobag is the Ringslebenstraße district, which we are already working on. It is divided into modernising existing buildings with the construction of new apartments by adding storeys and the construction of new buildings with around 160 apartments. The project location is really exciting; it’s in the Neukölln district at the border of Berlin. It will be fascinating to see here, too, how the issue of transport will develop.
And then the future use of Tegel is currently getting off the ground. There are big things planned here. It’s currently all about which plots of land we will actually get so that we can begin with more specific planning. The project development for the future use of Tegel Airport has been going on for quite some time now. The Senate Department for Urban Development and Housing has already adopted a charter, which must be taken into account when implementing the project. For example, rainwater has to seep into the area and be fed into the ground, which is, of course, not that simple. A second big issue at Tegel is that they want to make a lot with wood. Our job will be to coordinate this in the near future. The fact is: an urban district with bustling ground floor zones will be created. The mix of uses at Tegel is so exciting because it’s not just housing that will be built there. Jobs will be created and a large landscape park will be built. About half of the airport site will remain a park.
How long is the path from planning to implementing new construction projects?
A lawyer would say “it depends”. If we have a building site or a plot of land for which we already have the building rights, it usually takes about one-and-a-half-years from the start of planning through approvals from committees and supervisory boards until construction can really begin. This, of course, takes longer for projects where we first have to obtain building rights, e.g. through a development planning process. You can expect a development planning process to take three to five years. It always depends on: what kind of project is it? What kind of development plan is it? Or even: what overall interest does the project have?
A construction site entails immense costs every day. How did you cope with the corona situation?
Of course, some projects were delayed slightly. At the moment, we can say for new construction in our own department that the consequences are still currently within limits. Of course, we had to find ways to continue construction site meetings, so we partially switched to video conferencing. Sometimes, certain things cannot be completely converted to digital formats, which means that construction site meetings are also taking place on site. In these cases, every project manager and their protagonists make sure that the number of participants is reduced to the absolute minimum. But our main participants on site are our contractors and their teams on the construction sites. They are outside doing their job every day and they, of course, also have certain new regulations. And they stand their ground day after day. Many construction workers and companies are not from Germany. And we know from our contractual partners that there are workers who have decided not to go home for months, not to visit their families. This is real hardship, not visiting your family every two weeks. As the building owner, we cannot completely retreat from this. It has to do with appreciation. Everyone on the construction site, from steel fixers to painters, does their job, and it is important that we, as the building owner, show ourselves regularly. These are simple little signs, but they have a relatively large effect.
To what extent has the topic of new construction changed in recent years?
Our main task in new construction is to build apartments. Not much has changed in this respect in the last few years. Adjustments are always necessary, on the one hand due to changing or newly introduced legal regulations and, on the other hand, if additional uses are established by Gewobag. If the intention is to implement certain products in the planning, we need technical specifications. And the more specific the use is, the more likely it is that you need the counterpart, in other words, the person who will use it later. Otherwise, we might be planning without considering the requirements. This is the case when integrating a nursery, commercial space and accommodation for refugees in a new building.
When it comes to the topic of mobility, for example, we are in close contact with our colleagues in the company; those who will later implement the topic and those involved with strategic corporate development. In the case of district development, we ask ourselves: what number of parking spaces should we begin with? There are also other issues such as sustainability and future-orientated energy supply. How will Gewobag think sustainably in the future? What kind of standards does it set for itself and what are the legal requirements that we must comply with per se? And everything must ultimately have an economic basis.
Can a social housing association like Gewobag be a pioneer in the field of new construction?
Yes and no. Of course, there are always tasks that we have to fulfil as part of new construction. The issue of nurseries, for example: how can we integrate them into a new building? There are often controversial discussions on this: a separate nursery building versus integrating a nursery into a building with apartments above it. Of course, we can be a pioneer if you think about pilot projects. Nevertheless, we are a company that also has to think economically. Not everything can always be created at any price.
Thank you for talking with us!
Photos © Maren Schulz
Photo Infobox: Projekt Schöneberger Linse/ Südkreuz © thoma architekten