Peter Ehrlich mit Visionen für ein besseres Berlin
1 March 2020

No fear of large numbers – just respect!

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My work at Gewobag:

Peter Ehrlich is technical project manager at Gewobag and is jointly responsible for what is currently the company’s largest construction site, WATERKANT Berlin. 2,500 homes will be built here by 2025, together with WBM.


Peter Ehrlich has spent most of his professional life working on new buildings. He describes his position as being a problem-solver, playing the role of an interface and control point, since projects of this scale are always about providing the countless external and internal project participants with information, effecting coordinated decisions and ensuring the project’s necessary security and continuity.

We joined Peter Ehrlich on his way to WATERKANT nach Spandau. The journey begins on Alt-Moabit with a white Renault Zoe from Gewobag’s electric car-sharing offer for employees. It is a stormy day, alternating between rain and sunshine. We make it through the city to Haselhorst on the eastern bank of the Havel. From his car, Peter Ehrlich already has an eye on the construction site’s progress and parks in front of the construction management’s containers. This is where the new district centre with utilities and the power facilities will be built. An aeroplane from Tegel soars above the cranes that rotate above the construction site. Starting in May, the first tenants of the 362 new homes of subproject 1 will move in here.

view from the Bridge over WATERKANT Berlin, a contruction Projekt of Gewobag nearby the Havel river.

Peter Ehrlich greets his construction management colleagues with a handshake, and a few jokes about the stormy weather are made before discussing binding arrangements, costs, deadlines and quality assurance. Samples of plaster surfaces, plumbing and staircase tiling are piled up by the walls, a large meeting table fills the room. Peter Ehrlich takes the time to show us around the construction site before heading off to his next appointment.

construction workers on the shell construction
Progress: the new urban district with 2,500 new homes is growing every day.

The builders are at work in the wind and rain. Base plates from subproject 2A are currently being concreted. Residents’ houses with terraces are reminiscent of a small town with front gardens. And WATERKANT’s four-storey point blocks with an area of 16 x 16 metres create a special riverside aesthetic on the Havel promenade. The colour concept is almost bland, with earthy and grey tone lines, white surfaces, dark window frames, creating a harmonious impression in combination with the position by the water.

Peter Ehrlich aspires to ensure that future residents of the new buildings feel comfortable and that their homes are always easy to use and furnish. WATERKANT has various layouts on offer: from maisonettes to garden apartments or homes with terraces on staggered levels. All homes have outdoor seating, balconies, terraces or loggias.

Peter Ehrlich is sure that “There’s something for everyone here”, and points to the roof of the 7-storey building on Pohleseestraße, on which a roof garden will be created.

The first show homes are already ready directly on the Havel promenade, between Spandau Lake Bridge and Wasserstadt Bridge at the new address Schwielowseestrasse 31.  The view of the water is unbelievable. Majority of the 362 homes have a direct view of the water. Seagulls circle over the Havel river, where young people sometimes swim in the summer and where dragon boats are occasionally seen.

Peter Ehrlich leads us through the two-room apartment with open kitchen and terrace view of the water; he sees the project as a great opportunity to implement social housing at a direct waterfront location. We took the opportunity to ask him a few more questions.

Peter Ehrlich on the terrace of a finished home
Social housing with ambition: Peter Ehrlich on the terrace of a finished home from subproject 1.

Can you tell us what is so special to you about WATERKANT in three sentences?

For me it is the sheer scale of the project. I have been allowed to implement some challenging new construction projects, but here it is the absolute scale of the project and the duration over several years that are noteworthy. Ultimately, it’s also about developing a functioning overall district.

Why is a project of this size such a challenge, even for a company like Gewobag?

With the transfer of the plots of land, Gewobag was also given the very big responsibility of developing the housing location and meeting the requirement of creating a sustainably functioning urban district. This requirement demands a large company with all its departments. New construction projects always mean a bit of extra work in addition to the usual business processes, such as renting, managing and maintaining homes. There are many in-house project participants who are involved and contribute at certain times. It is important to ask other departments for help at an early stage or to get them involved in such a way that the entire work corresponds to what the company has previously set as its goal. Goals are not defined by the new construction department; rather the strategy defines which goals must be achieved in the overall project. All basic project goals have been worked out, derived and recorded in a comprehensive feasibility study at the start of the project.

View form a home over the Havel river
A home with a view: new address at Schwielowseestraße 31.

How many of Gewobag’s departments are working together on this project?

Whether it’s a small or a large new building project, there are always the same levels of participation, involvement and information required from the various departments at the company. From strategy to financing, property and purchasing, accounting and corporate communications through to inventory management; almost everyone is involved and not afraid of large numbers.

Have you never been afraid of large numbers?

I’m not afraid of large numbers, but I do have respect for them. Ultimately, there are many responsible project participants and a coherent project structure is helpful to make a major project a success.

“I always say: Once the concrete is dry, the time to make changes is over. In other words, we have to stick with the planned layouts. If changes are made during construction, this can lead to disruptions, which, for example, often result in considerable additional costs.”

What does a project of this magnitude mean?

As a builder and client, there needs to be a certain reliability and continuity in the specifications and decisions over many years. Construction itself usually takes a relatively short period of time. But the project development period, from the feasibility study and planning phases through to the planning permission and the start of construction requires continuity, persistence and, very often, a deep breath. These requirements are not so apparent for smaller projects. With WATERKANT, it has been important to develop a clear position on certain topics over a long project period in order to make responsible decisions. I always say: Once the concrete is dry, the time to make changes is over. In other words, we have to stick with the planned layouts. If changes are made during construction, this can lead to disruptions, which, for example, often result in considerable additional costs. Splitting a large project into workable task packages, meaning into subprojects that are again manageable, creates security. Cities were not built at once with 100,000 homes.

There is always a construction site with seven, eight, ten cranes. This kind of construction task can be mastered and handled by effective, larger construction companies. We have found a good partner in Schrobsdorff, who meets and implements the requirements to our satisfaction.

facade of a finished building of subproject 1
Perfection in detail: Harmonious colour concept with lines in earthy and grey tones, white surfaces and dark window frames.

Have you ever worked on a project of this scale before?

Yes, on a building project with 900 homes in Berlin, but that was 20 years ago. That was also a large construction site with subsidised rental apartments at that time, and I was a rubber boot-wearing sectional construction manager for a well-known general contractor.

Do you miss the rubber boots?

I don’t miss them and I see it as further development in my professional life to have subsequently taken on other tasks. But it helps that I worked on the construction site. Because I always demonstrate the necessary respect for the people here on site, the builders, who carry out the physical work here everyday. For me, mutual respect is part of building.

How many trades and employees and what budget do you currently coordinate at WATERKANT?

362 homes at different structural stages in the 1st stage of construction, 482 homes in the 2nd stage and the power facilities are currently under construction. The monthly construction work that will be carried out over the next few months amounts to around 6 million euro. The overall investment for the first two phases of construction and power facilities amounts to approximately 190 million euro. This is an amazing feat, which is being carried out by about twenty trades here on site.

Peter Ehrlich in the construction management office
Peter Ehrlich in the construction management office: his daily responsibilities include the overview of costs, deadlines and quality assurance.

How significant will it be for you when the first families move in here in May?

It is very satisfying for me personally to be able to participate in this building project because there is a real need for housing. Completing a well-designed home in an interesting location and the overall environment being a new district means being part of building a new piece of the city and creating new, hopefully happy neighbourhoods. And for me, it means coming full circle after 20 years. The last time large-scale subsidized housing was built was in the 1990s, and now, albeit delayed, Berlin is experiencing growth that was already hoped for and predicted back then – a remarkable development with many opportunities.

Do you think that new construction and sustainability can be combined?

I think that high-quality new construction is sustainable per se. This is demonstrated by buildings that were built over 100 years ago, at the time of industrial expansion. Responsible building contractors build sustainably. We see residential properties that are easily 150 years old and are occupied by very satisfied users, tenants or owners. At that time, the concept of sustainability did not exist, but a region’s building tradition and local craftsmen were always taken into account. This aspect should be considered.

construction sign in front of recently finished building
The first tenants are about to move in. A new district is coming to life.

What challenges is the WATERKANT project currently facing?

At the moment, the first construction site is being completed and its use, meaning letting is imminent. This is an important and notable moment after the planning and construction phase. If the handover and commissioning is successful from a construction site perspective, then the commissioning process is also practised once by all project participants. Everyone can now touch the finished, built end product and learn how to deal with it. And findings from operation and/or possible optimisations can be taken into account in the on-going or following construction phases.

Peter Ehrlich on his tour on the construction site
Always at the forefront: Peter Ehrlich on the tour.

Was genau bedeutet es, wenn wiWhat exactly does it mean when we talk about a new urban district?

In addition to simply living, it also means things needed alongside this, from day care centres to supermarkets. The constraints of the existing infrastructure, such as transport connections or development (water/drainage/heat supply/electricity) must also be taken into account. The perspective is significantly bigger than a solitary construction project in a given urban structure. We are creating a new urban district here, which includes a supermarket. We can, therefore, cover the demand for local supplies – in my opinion this is an important and necessary component. Gewobag has not not been tasked with building a supermarket or day care centre in recent years. The final subproject 3 deals with constructing new social infrastructure; a day care centre and possibly a youth centre. The issue of mobility and traffic will also be solved by a future-orientated mobility hub in connection with a district garage.

What is a normal working day like for you?

I usually start in Moabit. I need time at the office to do organisational things and routine work, like checking invoices, reports, emails, etc. Then, once or twice a week, I go to construction sites and external appointments, regular meetings meetings with administrations and authorities or planning meetings. After the external appointments, I like to go back to the office and deal with my administrative to do list at the computer. I am rather old-fashioned in this respect. I like having a fixed office workplace and haven’t yet got around to having a home office.

Most of the time, I use public ones, also at administrative offices or authorities. WATERKANT is quite easy to reach – it’s two bus stops from the underground. As a new district, accessibility is no problem in my opinion.

“Project progress frequently means making progress in baby steps – and if even these steps fail to materialise over a longer period of time, only persistence, bite and passion will help.”

Are you able to switch off after a day at work?

I can switch off, but sometimes I obsess about things that still need to be done. I also find that clever ideas and solutions actually come to me in my dreams. Engineers always think in a solution-orientated way and there are always many ways to the goal. If we have to wait too long for permits or if project progress is dependent on third parties and their decisions over a long period of time, then I find it hard to let go. Project progress frequently means making progress in baby steps – and if even these steps fail to materialise over a longer period of time, only persistence, bite and passion will help. Visible project progress is motivating and allows you to get a good night’s sleep.

I can switch off, but sometimes I obsess about things that still need to be done. I also find that clever ideas and solutions actually come to me in my dreams. Engineers always think in a solution-orientated way and there are always many ways to the goal. If we have to wait too long for permits or if project progress is dependent on third parties and their decisions over a long period of time, then I find it hard to let go. Project progress frequently means making progress in baby steps – and if even these steps fail to materialise over a longer period of time, only persistence, bite and passion will help. Visible project progress is motivating and allows you to get a good night’s sleep.

Do you already think about the next project before finishing the current one?

I don’t think like that.

Does anything get you flustered?

Certainly.

What do you like about your work?

I am very pleased when I succeed in getting a construction site up and running. The planning phase is sometimes the long, often tough phase. It is then really satisfying when construction begins with lots of people involved. As a building contractor, you have to be at the construction site, especially with a new construction. Shaking the foreman’s hand is not insignificant for the result on the construction site.

Profession or calling?

Profession. A profession with purpose.

Do you personally prefer old or new buildings?

I myself have nothing against the exposed concrete buildings from the 70s. I can live with or in many styles but it has to have something special. If an home has several levels or nice details or views, it doesn’t matter if it’s a new or old building. I am a civil engineer, but I also admire the profession of an architect. I have respect for people who use architecture to give shape to things. When a credible, good story is created around it, this is something that everyone recognises and acknowledges.

Thank you for the interview and the day at WATERKANT!

Photos © Aurelio Schrey


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