Housing & Urban Demographic Change: A German Case Study


We live in a time of rapidly changing urban demographics, and as a result, housing needs. In New York City, changes in the economic makeup have proven a major challenge as pressure on the housing market causes entire neighborhoods to gentrify; resulting in evolving land use needs.  In Boston, average household sizes have been decreasing for years as family households are replaced by students, young professionals, and the elderly.

Urban demographic change has international drivers as well. Today, global mobility is at an all-time high. In 2015, there were 244 million migrants worldwide—the highest number ever recorded (2015 Global Migration Trends Factsheet). As droughts, famines, wildfires, and other natural disasters are exacerbated by the warming climate, more displacement and mass migration will result. This trend presents a challenge for communities to adapt, since the physical form of cities, building, and zoning codes, as well as other regulations that govern the architectural and construction industries, are slow to change.

As a professional working at the intersection of housing and sustainability, I want to better understand how forward-thinking communities around the world are responding to these trends in innovative manners. Specifically, how is the housing industry (including architecture, planning, and real estate development) responding to the needs for more flexible forms of housing, and what can we learn from these examples?  Furthermore, how can we address the needs of lower-income renters who are more vulnerable to market changes than homeowners or higher income renters?

Case Study: Prefabrication & Expedited Construction

In 2015, Germany welcomed one million refugees into the country, resulting in acute housing needs in a number of German cities. In response, the State Office for Refugee Affairs in Berlin (LAF) has borrowed inspiration from the past and created a framework for the rapid planning and construction of refugee accommodations that has its roots in a mid-twentieth century prefabrication approach to housing development.

Called Modulare Unterkünfte für Flüchtlinge (Modular Accommodations for Refugees), or MUF for short, these buildings provide urgently needed new housing for up to 450 individuals per development and can be built in as little as 46 weeks, including planning.

A core element of these new developments is a focus on flexibility. While each new site is based on a common design, the modular nature of the construction means that the developments can be customized as needed for each location without major structural redesigns. The dorm-like format allows for future uses as student housing or affordable micro-units in areas where housing prices are rising. With up to 10 new developments being construction per year in Berlin alone to keep pace with immigration, lessons learned from each development are incorporated into each new iteration of developments. For instance, a need for a variety of unit sizes has caused LAF to design units that can be combined for families or separated for smaller households and single adults as needed. LAF achieved this by adding lockable doors between units—similar to what you see in connecting hotel rooms—allowing site staff to quickly and easily transform two or more smaller units into one larger unit. In addition, more handicapped accessible units are being incorporated into future developments to better accommodate elderly residents and residents with disabilities.

Each development consists of three buildings in a campus-like setting. Two buildings are primarily residential and consist of individual units with shared kitchens and bathrooms on each floor. Since the residential units are relatively compact, common areas and amenity spaces are included in each building. Considerable attention is paid to the use and programming of these spaces to meet a variety of community needs, including study spaces, language learning classes, healthcare for women, recreational areas, childcare, and more. The third and only non-residential building consists of administrative spaces for the on-site staff, as well as laundry facilities. In the center of the three buildings is a semi-private recreational area, which provides activities for youth of all ages and encourages interaction between residents and other community members from the neighborhood, who may also use the recreational facilities.

While the developments are limited to six stories by Berlin’s building code, they strike an effective balance between space efficiency and compact design while also prioritizing the need for social spaces, on-site services, recreational uses, and the ability to foster community.  Similar balances have been achieved by projects in New York like Via Verde, a 222-unit residential building in the Bronx developed by Jonathan Rose Companies and Phipps Houses that includes live/work spaces, a rooftop garden for residents, open air courtyards, a health education and wellness center, bicycle storage, and a fitness center.

Lessons Learned and Takeaways

A number of lessons can be learned from the MUFs in Berlin. First, the design and construction approach provides a number of valuable takeaways. Prefabrication and the use of a common design allow for the construction of a permanent residential development that meets both current needs and anticipated future uses in less than a year. This design and construction technique can be applied to different settings where flexibility and/or expediency is a priority. Modular construction techniques are already being used in the US in some applications, and the trend is growing as labor and material costs continue to increase. The MUF approach demonstrates how this approach can be used successfully in a supportive housing project.

The material choices allow for expedited construction timelines while not compromising on energy efficiency. Concrete construction, radiant floor heating, natural ventilation, and high-performance windows allow for occupant control of thermal comfort while minimizing energy consumption. The result is a comfortable, quiet residence that stays naturally cool in the summer, requires little artificial lighting, and is energy efficient – outcomes that are aligned with New York City’s commitment to providing sustainable, high-quality affordable housing.

The dormitory style of this development could inform future student housing, senior housing, micro-units, and/or SROs in New York City where space efficiency is a priority. This campus style setting with a semi-private outdoor space surrounded by mid-rise buildings is a useful land use approach for balancing human scale with density.

While the design and construction techniques utilized on this site allowed the project to meet core objectives around cost, space flexibility, and timelines, the social element of the project has proven to be the most challenging. While some neighborhood residents have contributed resources and stopped by to volunteer their time, others were wary of the additional pressure on local infrastructure that new residents would entail. At town hall meetings, neighborhood residents expressed concerns about sufficient school capacity, public parking, and the availability of local resources for the influx of new residents. Looking back, site staff suggest that a more proactive public outreach strategy—coupled with an effort to actively address and mitigate common concerns such as parking and school seats—could improve community support for new developments.

Stay tuned for my next blog post, where I explore innovative approaches to existing building energy efficiency retrofits!

Sascha Langenbach, Jamie Bemis, Susanne Bölte
L to R: Sascha Langenbach, Press Secretary for LAF; Jamie Bemis, Bright Power Account Manager; Susanne Böltes, Coordinator and Head of Accommodations at the Berlin MUF site