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Save Berlin: Wooden it be nice?

Several Berlin firms are turning to sustainable, plant-based materials.

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Markus Löelhardt – Agentur für Architektur + Kunst. Bauherr: WBG am Ostseeplatz eG / Generalplanerunternehmen: SCHÄFERWENNINGERPROJEKT GmbH / Ausführung: Holzunion.

Several Berlin firms are turning to sustainable, plant-based materials.

To keep up with the flood of newly-arrived Berliners, our city would have to build 190,000 new flats by 2030. But even that’s just a tiny fraction of the homes needed to house two billion new residents scheduled to arrive on Planet Earth by 2042. As Bill Gates likes to point out, earthlings will have to construct the equivalent of a whole new New York City every month – for the next 40 years! Any chance we could do that without trashing the environment? A big chunk of a building’s carbon footprint comes from construction alone – it can take a bite out of the planet equal to 20 to 30 years of the most gluttonous building’s energy consumption. Steel and concrete last a long time, but so do the tons of carbon dioxide generated by mining, melting, shaping and shipping.

Paint it black

Allison Dring and Daniel Schwaag have an alternative. In 2013, the Berlin-based ecoentrepreneurs installed a façade on a Mexico City hospital coated with a white paint that neutralises the pollution from 1000 cars per day. Now they’re touting a pitch-black building material made of carbon mined from the atmosphere. Called Made of Air, the product is actually made from plants which naturally suck up carbon dioxide as they grow. The dead green stuff is baked in an oxygen-free tank, leaving behind a black powder that’s moulded into carbon-polymer siding panels and sunscreens. Thus dressing one building in 1000sqm of the product captures 126 tons of CO2.

This is hard core

Made of Air can replace the planet-killing materials on the outside of a building, but so far it’s no match for the heavy-lifting stuff in its structural skeleton. Enter – or, re-enter – wood. Like Made of Air’s plant biomass, trees are renewable and absorb CO2 from the air. Today, high-tech factories can custom make timber buildings that arrive on-site and snap together like puzzle pieces. So why isn’t progressive Berlin full of wooden high-rises? The city’s building code forbade them, citing fire risks. The reality: large timber elements don’t burn – they char on the outside, creating a fireproof shell. After years of lobbying, the outdated Verbot was scrapped on March 22, 2018, paving the way for a new generation of planet-friendly apartment blocks. First out of the gate was Holzhaus Lynarstraße. The 98-unit project sits on a strip of land in Wedding considered unusable because it butts up against the S-Bahn. The nonprofit housing organisation Am Ostseeplatz was undaunted and had Berlin-based architects Schäferwenningerprojekt draw up plans for a six-storey apartment building – made of wood. It was built in record time, one floor per week, and opened last October as the tallest multi-storey timber building in Germany.

Stairway to heaven

While the Holzhaus can boast ecological credentials, it’s also a poster child for another kind of sustainability. As partners in the housing cooperative, residents aren’t just safe from fire, they’re sheltered from the ravages of the speculative real estate market by low, stabilized rents. The experimental group-housing project has been called Berlin’s biggest WG. Each floor was “cast” with a compatible cluster of residents who live like an extended family. They share a communal living room – a kitchen, sofa and sometimes a table soccer game all surrounded by exposed wood floors, ceiling and columns. Around that space are private apartments, each around 60sqm. The project got a big boost from Berlin’s government, a €2.5 million grant. In exchange, half the units are for people on financial assistance, with monthly rent around €6.50 per sqm (the city average is €10). There are flats set aside for refugees and persons with dementia. Rents climb to €13.50 on the penthouse level. Back at ground level, Holzhaus has a café, day-care centre, and rehearsal space for musicians. Its diverse mix of people, functions and income levels is a model for urban development that resists “ghettoisation”.

Naysayers will tell you a 100 percent sustainable building is a pipe dream. Unless you’re living in a solar-powered beavers’ dam, your home is a hungry beast sucking up an endless supply of water, electricity and new Ikea furniture. But if every new apartment block on Planet Earth followed our lead – with a timber-framed core, or a carbon-filled Made of Air facade – Berlin could literally save the world.