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Greening the block

Green Architecture: How to build a better Berlin

Berlin needs green ideas to go carbon neutral by 2050. Here's how architecture can help.

O&O Baukunst / Schnepp Renou

Nothing sparks visions of a shiny, hopeful future like a new construction site. The possibilities seem endless. But then they unveil the finished product, and it’s almost always just another oversized slab of mediocrity.

Even worse, all those beige and grey monstrosities popping up around Berlin are gobbling up our collective future. Globally, buildings are estimated to be responsible for 39 percent of humanity’s annual carbon footprint, with 11 percent coming from construction alone. Berlin is expected to grow by up to 180,000 new residents by 2030.

As a result, our Hauptstadt is in the throes of a construction boom: 18,000 new apartments were built in 2019, up from 3700 built back in 2007.

How can we keep up with demand while hitting the city’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050? Here are eight projects that use smart new strategies to point the way towards a brighter, greener future – for Berlin and the world.

BRLO Brewery, Gleisdreieck Park (2017)

BRLO Brewery

Nomadic living is nothing new to Berlin – the city has long been dotted with those anarchist trailer parks known as Wagenburgen, clusters of circus-style wagons in vacant lots. A 21st-century incarnation of the Wagenburg concept is this craft brewery complex in Kreuzberg facing Gleisdreieck Park. Built from 38 ISO shipping containers, it’s designed for mobility: the whole complex can be easily relocated or even converted to a new use.

The creative repurposing of old shipping containers is nothing new for the architecture studio GRAFT – they also designed Platoon, an art space and ad agency housed in stacked metal boxes that was located on three different empty lots in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg between 2000 and 2017. The BRLO BRWHOUSE, opened in 2017, is a self-described “craft beer playground” that treats the salvaged containers as if they were a kid’s building blocks.

Here, they’re stacked up to support the roof over the brewery’s double-height dining hall while also housing kitchens and other functions. Containers flipped on their ends become a staircase and a campanile-style tower. Another, tilted upwards, acts as an entry ramp. Although BRLO hasn’t yet had to prove its mobility by moving on from its original park-side home, the brewery is an eye-catching model for adaptable, mobile architecture.

And for those 20 million or so shipping containers currently floating around the globe, it offers the promise of a higher calling.

Integratives Bauprojekt am ehemaligen Blumengroßmarkt

Twenty years ago, the real estate arm of Berlin’s Senate was auctioning off city-owned land based on one criteria: the highest price. By 2011, more enlightened minds were in charge, allowing the cooperative housing project IBeB to take root. What won the IBeB its prize location near the Jewish Museum was its wealth of big ideas.

The four-storey building, designed by ARGE ifau and Heide & von Beckerath, brings the outdoors in via generous windows, large south-facing balconies, double-height studios and an interior ‘street’ with green, sky-lit atriums allowing sunlight into the building’s core. The roof has gardens and kids’ play spaces, with more gardens at ground level.

The IBeB is also a poster child for socioeconomic sustainability. How can Berlin stop its inner city from morphing into a speculation- fuelled ‘rich ghetto’? While market-rate condominiums comprise 75 percent of the project, their rising value subsidises the remaining affordable co-op housing that is earmarked for cultural workers, young families and older people in addition to the offices of a foundation supporting deaf persons.

Shared spaces like the party room, roof gardens and workshop help turn this diverse mix of residents into a functioning community.

  • Integratives Bauprojekt am ehemaligen Blumengroßmarkt (IBeB), Lindenstraße 90/91 (2018)

Hochschule für Schauspielkunst Ernst Busch

Sometimes, truly sustainable building means not building at all. The huge amount of energy used to produce steel and concrete means that a significant proportion of a building’s lifelong carbon footprint comes from its construction alone.

With their design for the Hochschule für Schauspielkunst Ernst Busch in Mitte, architects Ortner und Ortner smartly up-cycled a derelict Cold War relic into a modern college of theatrical arts. The Ernst Busch school has taught performing arts – from acting to puppetry – since its 1951 founding in what was then East Berlin.

This new campus consolidates, for the first time, all of its departments under one roof. Appropriately, the school repurposes a bunker-like concrete box on Zinnowitzer Straße once used as a set-building workshop by the East German opera.

Two additions – a 24-metre high stage tower wrapped in eco-friendly wooden slats and a glass box housing the cafeteria – sharply contrast with the older building’s bulky mass.

The designers have made hay with this contrast of old and new. Interior walls are finished only up to a height of 2.3 metres – everything above is rough and exposed, revealing the building’s life story while cleverly saving on building costs.

  • Hochschule für Schauspielkunst Ernst Busch, Zinnowitzer Str. 11 (2018)

WOODEN IT BE NICE? Timber construction saves Berlin

Concrete is a strong, flexible building material, but its production leaves a huge carbon footprint, accounting for about eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The future of construction may lie in one of mankind’s oldest materials: wood.

Trees suck carbon from the air, making timber roughly 50 percent carbon by weight – a natural carbon sink. So why isn’t eco-friendly Berlin full of wooden high rises?

For decades, the city’s building laws effectively prohibited timber buildings due to their reputation as fire traps. In reality, heavy timber beams and columns don’t burn: they char on the outside, creating a protective fire-proof shell.

In March 2018, Berlin’s outdated wood-building Verbot was scrapped paving the way for a new generation of planet-friendly towers.

imago images/Jürgen Ritter

Holzhaus Lynarstraße

First out of the gate was Holzhaus Lynarstraße in Wedding. The 98-flat project sits on a strip of land that was long considered undesirable because it sat next to a noisy S-Bahn track.

Undaunted, the non-profit housing cooperative Am Ostseeplatz bought the plot and hired Berlin-based architects Schäferwenningerprojekt to create the city’s first heavy timber apartment block.

The Holzhaus showed off another big advantage of timber construction: speed. This six-storey building went up in record time, one floor per week. Computer-designed, factory-built wooden beams and columns were delivered to the site and fit together like puzzle pieces.

Altogether, the building used 3700 cubic metres of timber sourced mostly from Germany and Austria.

Thanks to a €2.5 million grant from Berlin’s government, Holzhaus is also a poster child for social sustainability.

Half of the building’s flats are for people on financial assistance, with monthly rent around €6.50 per square metre (the city average for new rental contracts is around €10/sqm). Some flats are occupied by refugees and people with dementia.

Rents for apartments on the penthouse level jump to market rate, about €13 per square metre.

  • Holzhaus Lynarstraße, Lynarstraße 38 (2018)

WoHo Berlin

When it opened in October 2018, six-storey Holzhaus was the tallest multi-storey timber building in Germany. What followed were wooden skyscrapers, such as the planned WoHo Berlin, a 29-floor apartment block in Kreuzberg set to tower over the nearby Tempodrom.

In January 2021, Oslo-based Mad Arkitekter won a design competition for the four-building complex. Aside from its concrete core including basement, stairs and elevator shafts, the tower will be all timber, meaning the 98-metre- high tower is expected to be Germany’s tallest wood building. Construction is set to begin in 2024.

When pitching their design, the architects described the 18,000 square-metre high-rise concept as a vertical interpretation of Kreuzberg’s diverse cultural mix. One third of the flats will be rent controlled, with another third earmarked for students and persons with special needs, such as the elderly.

Those features are to be subsidised by floors of office space and the remaining third of flats will be rented out at market rate.

WoHo is a pet project of Florian Schmidt, the local district councillor and Green Party member. With people-friendly amenities like roof gardens, a day-care centre, playground and after school club for kids, this wooden complex turns the policies of Berlin’s left-leaning government – both ecological and social – into concrete reality.

Model School Building Mahlsdorf

We don’t normally associate the GDR with cutting-edge technology, but their trademark Plattenbau apartment blocks were masterpieces of modular construction, pieced together from factory-built concrete slabs.

So it’s fitting that an innovative new public building – a prototype mixed-level school – made using 21st-century modular wood construction was erected in former East Berlin. To keep up with an influx of about 4000 new pupils per year, Berlin has plans for 60 new schools in the coming years. When the Integrated Secondary School (ISS) Mahlsdorf opened its doors in August 2019, it was just the first of a much-needed slew of timber-built schools now going up all over the city.

The Mahlsdorf school, which houses 550 students in grades 7-13, was a major success for Berlin’s administration – largely thanks to wood. As with the Holzhaus, the computer- designed timber components were fitted together in record time, meaning its doors opened exactly one year after construction began in August 2018.

Even better, it stuck to its original €34.8 million budget.

During a two-year design process, Frankfurt-based architects NKBAK coordinated with teachers and students to create a flexible design that fits 21st-century needs. The Mahlsdorf school has 43 classrooms equipped with moveable walls and fully digital ‘smart’ blackboards, meaning less need for books and paper.

As the first new secondary school building in this socially-disadvantaged Kiez in 25 years, it’s a much-needed educational shot in the arm.

The Mahlsdorf school’s modular system has already been cloned to add classrooms at the Bernhard-Grzimek-Schule in Lichtenberg and the Grundschule am Königsgraben primary school in Steglitz.

Experience breeds efficiency: both construction time and costs have inched downward with each new project.

  • Model School Building Mahlsdorf, An der Schule 41-59 (2019)

SCALING UP: Sustainable Urban Planning in Berlin

Tegel Projekt GmbH

The twin interconnected notions of sustainability represented by these individual buildings – eco-friendly construction and social diversity – are applied on a larger stage in two major urban-scale projects: the Dragonerareal/Rathausblock master plan updates a historic chunk of Kreuzberg, while the Schumacher Quartier will be an eco-friendly utopia rising on a blank-slate wasteland.

Dragonerareal / Rathausblock

The Dragonerareal is a stretch of land behind the Garde-Dragoner-Kaserne – that long, castle-like former military barracks along Mehringdamm. For decades, this motley collection of 19th-century buildings has housed semi-industrial businesses like auto repair and metal work.

In 2014, property developer Arne Piepgras announced plans to clear the property in order to make way for luxury condos. When Kreuzberg residents cried foul, Berlin’s Senate blocked Piepgras’s plans and took control.

The city’s planners united the property with adjacent city-owned plots to form one 13.6 hectare block (33 acres), now dubbed the Rathausblock, stretching from the LPG health food store in the north to the Kreuzberg city hall tower on Yorckstraße in the south. Then they launched an ambitious, years-long planning process.

The new plan, from a team headed by SMAQ Architektur & Stadt, was unveiled in January 2020.

It presents a model eco-friendly oasis, with 525 apartments inserted among landscaped squares and playgrounds that have been designed for natural cooling and ventilation.

In order to maximise open space, apartments will be concentrated in a 16-storey residential tower. In place of the high-income monoculture of the original developer’s condo plans, homes in the new complex will be 100 percent affordable, needs-based rental housing.

The historic stables buildings will be creatively upcycled. And those long-term semi-industrial businesses won’t be displaced – instead, they will get updated digs in new tailor-made buildings.

The largest industrial structure, dubbed the Fabrik, will have a rooftop greenhouse for urban gardening.

Schumacher Quartier

The beloved Tegel Airport’s sad demise was a jackpot for booming Berlin: 500 hectares (1235 acres) of empty land ripe for development.

The iconic terminal is set to house the Berliner Hochschule fürTechnik, a technology-focused university – but the Tegel Projekt’s real centrepiece will be a research and industrial park surrounding the terminal. Dubbed the Urban Tech Republic, it’s expected to attract 1000 businesses developing new ideas around everything green: energy, construction, mobility, recycling and water.

Then all those innovations will be put into practice in three brand-new residential neighbourhoods nearby. The first new Kiez will be the Schumacher Quartier, a 48-hectare (119 acres) community for 10,000 residents adjacent to the Kurt-Schumacher-Platz U-Bahn station.

Five thousand homes will be arranged along a network of bike paths and walkways, making it nearly car-free – there will be only two streets, dedicated to deliveries and public transportation.

The layout takes advantage of sunlight and prevailing winds for natural heating and cooling.

In wintertime, the buildings will be warmed with water from a central carbon-neutral plant employing solar panels and near-surface geothermal energy.