Sustainability, Facilities back

Off to the Silicon Woods!

Off to the Silicon Woods!
Photo: © Manuela Clemens

Build, build, build – that’s the motto for regulating the rental market. But do we want Berlin to become more and more densely built-up? Frederik Fischer, journalist and founder of the start-up Tame, has decided simply to set up a village in Brandenburg – the co-village. A conversation with a man who is sitting on packed suitcases.

INTERVIEW   Jens Thomas


CCB Magazine:Frederik, we already know each other from a number of meetups and projects. In 2012, you founded Tame, a Twitter alternative for re-sorting the flood of news on the web. Now you’re setting up a village in Brandenburg. Was Berlin too boring for you, or did you get homesick?

Frederik Fischer: A bit of both. I come from the tech scene. After university I went straight into business with my tech start-up. We grew quickly, had ten employees and made frequent trips to Silicon Valley. To get away from it all, I often cycled through Brandenburg with my wife on the weekends. That brought peace into my life. Berlin was also becoming more and more crowded and expensive. On the other hand, there were whole swaths of rural areas that seemed empty and abandoned. So I asked myself how I could combine the two, how I could put the rural space with its existing buildings to new use without having to give up old ways. That’s where the idea of the co-village came from, a synthesis of one-horse village and cooperative. Now we are close to achieving our goal. And we are injecting momentum into a debate that is long overdue

CCB Magazine:What debate?

Frederik Fischer: What will life in the city and in the country look like in the future? How can we live and work in a socially just and ecologically-friendly way? For years we’ve been seeing a growing separation between work and city. A lot of people don’t live in the city now because it’s where they absolutely want to live, but because their job ties them to the city. But more and more people are longing for peace and quiet and somewhere to get away from it all, while still wanting to be part of cultural life. Rents in Berlin have risen by 44 percent in the last five years alone, and real estate prices have risen by another 12 percent this year. On the other hand, there are entire villages and rural areas where the population feels left behind or actually has been left behind. The question is how we can strike a new balance here. The co-village can be a stimulus for this.

The question is: How can we live and work in a socially just and ecologically-friendly way in the future? The Co-Village is meant to show the way forward

The co-villige. Photo © agmm Architekten + Stadtplaner

CCB Magazine:How do you go about setting up a village like this?

Frederik Fischer: It’s a rocky road, and it’s not over yet. We have been dealing with building regulations for two years and are still waiting for the legally-binding development plan, but things are looking good. The village itself is based on a cooperative model. The idea came to me in the Netherlands. I was at a wedding where everyone was staying in a vacation village. These were cooperatively organized units, everyone had their own house, yet people were able to come together as a community. That was what convinced me. I then transferred this idea to a village construct. I didn’t know how to do that, though – I’m a journalist, not an architect. During my research phase, I then came across the vacation village in Meerleben on the Baltic Sea. I contacted the initiators, the architect Patric Meier and his partner Katrin Frische, and we quickly came to the conclusion that we were driven by a very similar vision. Patric also brought the necessary technical expertise. Now two projects are in the planning phase, one in Erndtebrück in North Rhine-Westphalia, the other in Wiesenburg in Brandenburg, a hundred kilometers from Berlin.

CCB Magazine:What does the co-village look like? What will be there? And who can move in and under what conditions?

Frederik Fischer: The village consists of four hectares of land and 40 households organized as a cooperative. The heart of the village is an old sawmill that covers about 40,000 square meters. The idea here was to repurpose the old. We will be setting up a coworking space here and organizing event opportunities, and there will also be a café, a bookstore and a co-village open-all-hours grocery store that will become the place to go for organic, sustainable products from the region. The goal is to work closely with local producers. Otherwise, we are using the infrastructure of the community. We are not building a new supermarket here. We are approaching the community. And vice versa, we also invite the people of Wiesenburg to join us. The co-village itself is made up of three freely selectable house types, houses of 30, 60 and 80 square meters. As a larger family, you can of course add smaller units – or give them back, for example, when the children have left home. But you don’t buy the houses. They remain the property of the cooperative. To do this, you become a member and buy shares in the amount of your contribution. If you want to move out again at some point, you sell your shares to the new members who are on the waiting list. Our approach is to make living conditions more flexible, because working and living patterns are always changing.

Photos © agmm Architekten + Stadtplaner

CCB Magazine:Who is the village open to and who actually gets to move into it? Plumbers, IT specialists, creative professionals?

Frederik Fischer: We aren’t setting any particular requirements, but we do have a definite focus on the digital and creative milieu which we ourselves come from. But there are also some people who have jobs at universities, research institutions or insurance companies. Even a few Wiesenburger locals will be living in the co-village. You have to apply to live there. Of course, we look closely at the applications, because we want to know who we’re living next door to. We selected the first ten households ourselves. Since then it is the group that decides who moves in or is put on the reserve list. For this purpose, there are profiles and rounds of interviews. Up to a hundred people in total can move in. The group always has the option of vetoing candidates if they have a bad gut feeling about them. That happens sometimes, too, but in most cases the right people are found.

CCB Magazine:Somehow this sounds like an exclusive club for life in the country. Isn’t that the next stage of gentrification? Now the educated capitalists are coming and conquering the Silicon Woods because they’re sick of the city?

Frederik Fischer:No, not at all. We are neither an exclusive club nor self-sufficient. The ages range from toddlers to retirees. Musicians rub shoulders with IT managers or local craftsmen. After all, we are looking for contact with the region. The procedure is atypical, it’s true, because you have to apply; you don’t have to do that in any other village or city. But in the city, it’s the landlord who decides who moves in, and in the end, it usually depends on their wallet. And more and more people are being forced to move because they can no longer afford to stay in their apartments. With us, it’s the other way around: people move in on favorable terms, and the places are limited. So it’s not supposed to stop an just one co-village – the idea is supposed to set a precedent.

CCB Magazine:How did the people of Wiesenburg react when you showed up with construction plans and open laptops? Do they even want you to come?

Frederik Fischer:They reacted very well. They were involved in the process right from the start. What’s important is that it’s not us who apply to the municipalities, the municipalities apply to us. That was one of the important preconditions for the project, to avoid conflicts in advance. After all, if the municipalities themselves apply, they are generally open to change. In return, of course, we pay attention to who comes: the co-village residents have to want to put down roots in the village. A prerequisite for living in the co-village is that you register it as your main place of residence – so we’re practically banning houses in the co-village being used as weekend or vacation homes. At the same time, everyone needs to be clear that they cannot commute to Berlin every day. Home office needs to be part of the deal. For ecological reasons, too.

CCB Magazine:What does it cost to live in the village? And what does the project as a whole cost?

Frederik Fischer:We can’t say for certain yet, because that depends on future planning procedures further down the road. What we can say, though, is that the houses will cost between 135,000 and 330,000 euros. But this includes all costs, including planning and development costs, the purchase price for the land and a cost estimate for the communal areas. We are planning on around two million for the sawmill, which will be divided among all the members of the cooperative. In total, it probably comes out to 20 million. Of course, the project involves a certain risk. That’s why we asked for an initial contribution of just under 6,000 euros from all cooperative members. This enabled us to finance the procurement of planning permission. In addition, we received subsidies from the state of Brandenburg, and as a co-village resident you only need 30 percent equity capital anyway. This is because there is the possibility of financing the mandatory share up to the amount of 50,000 euros via the KfW134 program. The cooperative takes over the remaining financing. This loan is paid off over many years in small amounts as part of the communal charge. This makes it much easier to get started. Just consider that a property in Berlin and its affluent suburbs now costs almost a million. And there is no commercial developer behind our project who is ultimately lining his pockets. We are creating something that is truly sustainable and available to the community

CCB Magazine:Keyword sustainability – are the houses also built sustainably?

Frederik Fischer:Yes, they are ecological houses. The facades are clad with visible real wood. Wood was important to us, because we find conventional new-build housing developments abhorrent. The small houses will also have green roofs so that rainwater can be collected and used for watering the garden. But we’re not so much concerned with fixed eco-DIN standards. We’re looking at sustainability across the board – ecologically and socially. It’s about energy efficiency and healthy living. The existing tree population will be integrated into the planning. The residential courtyards will be used communally. In addition, we aim to have our own heat and energy supply. In the next planning step, we are investigating the feasibility of a combined heat and power plant, woodchip heating and photovoltaic systems. And by revitalizing the sawmill, which has stood empty since reunification, we are giving the brick building a second life – that in itself is sustainable.

Photo © agmm Architekten + Stadtplaner

CCB Magazine:Frederik, in 1950 not even a third of the world’s population lived in cities. Since 2007, it’s been more than half. According to UN calculations, by 2050 it will be two-thirds, with urban areas accounting for 75 percent of energy consumption. If you were to make a prediction, how much can model projects like yours change the overall situation? Are we witnessing a change in society that will see a renaissance of the village?

Frederik Fischer:I’m not so sure that urbanization will continue forever. Berlin, for example, shrank again last year. But the question will be how we can rediscover rural areas and at the same time make cities more climate-friendly and livable. In the minds of many people, the village has long since become an idealized site of longing. This can be proven with surveys from before the pandemic, according to which more than half of the people in Germany would prefer to live in villages and small towns. Only about a third still see the center of large cities as an ideal place to live. The reason for the growth of large cities was simply that until now very few people have been able to just take their jobs with them. That has changed thanks to generous home office rules. This development makes new life models possible and opens up opportunities for rural areas. It is important to take advantage of these – in a way that is oriented toward the common good, both ecologically and socially. Because interest in rural areas could also turn out to be a poisoned chalice, namely if city dwellers merely buy vacation properties or build drawing board overflow estates on the outskirts of the cities. The places we are concerned with are an investment in quality of life and ecological compatibility. We are developing a new social coexistence as neighbors. I am sure that we will be seeing a lot more housing innovations like this in the coming years. 

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